The Recessionary Charms of American Horror Story
The problem with haunted-house stories are that the solution seems so obvious: just leave the house. Put it on Craigslist and find a good real estate agent sometime between after the faucet starts leaking blood and before you ever explore the screams coming from the basement. Sell your car and move into a beige condo with one bathroom. Leave while you have your life, and figure the rest out later.
American Horror Story, however — the everything bagel of haunted-house sagas — seems a more relevant and less impossible scenario now than it ever would have before: it is more difficult to leave a house, if you’re lucky enough to be in the shrinking group of people who have the money and confidence to buy one in the first place, than it was before the housing crisis began. Selling your home, especially one with jars of babies in the basement and constant solicitations from a disfigured man who needs money for his acting head shots, is difficult; finding another place while your haunted mansion sits on the market makes the reluctance to leave even more forceful. The Harmons, the family around which AHS revolves, are struggling financially, and of course, like many supernaturally staged homes with kitchen islands of horror, the house has an additional psychological pull on them that makes them stay. Dylan McDermott’s character Ben runs his psychiatric practice from the house, no longer able to afford an office, and it would be understandably difficult to see patients in a tiny corporate apartment. They’re stuck — stuck in a modern way.
American Horror Story, besides being a sometimes over-the-top buffet of gore, is one of the most chilling television shows I’ve seen. The Harmon family — Ben, his wife Vivien (Connie Britton) and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) — move into their new digs after a cross-country relocation, an attempt to outrun the effects of Vivien’s miscarriage and Ben’s adultery. It doesn’t work, of course. His mistress knocks on the door of their new house, and Vivien becomes pregnant again under questionable circumstances, yielding ultrasounds that must look something like an uncut Aphex Twin video. The link between a new home and a new start is as unrealistic as it is comfortingly familiar, especially since the mortgage crisis proved that not as many of us owned our homes as we thought we did. Instead of being afforded a chance at reinventing themselves, the house reveals the Harmons’ secrets to a network of gossipy neighbors, former occupants of the Tiffany-lamp Victorian, even more so than it divulges its own ghostly past. Those secrets tend to push the envelope further than television usually dares: Last week’s installment featured a high school massacre scene, and each week’s episode is an unpredictable event. Subjects like miscarriage — rarely touched on as frankly as it is in American Horror Story — infidelity, and psychotic maniacs dating your teenage daughter are threaded throughout each episode, less afterthoughts to the blood-and-guts violence than the real source of fear.
One thing you never do, if you live in a haunted house, is open the door. In the episode “Home Invasion,” American Horror Story proved why: Not opening the door doesn’t ensure you won’t be murdered, but it drastically reduces your chances. Since 2007, many homeowners in arrears have found the same advice to hold true when it comes to answering a knock: a woman named Nancy Jacobini told Business Insider in 2010 that she called 911 when she thought she heard someone breaking into her house. It was a man sent from her bank to change her locks after three months’ delinquency in mortgage payments. Banks and ghosts exert the same kind of force on the occupants of their property. If they really want to, they can get you out. The Chicago Tribune claimed in July that people feared foreclosure almost as much as they feared death, and since American Horror Story has been picked up for a second season, we must assume that in at least some cases, they fear it even more.
It is, in many ways, scarier to think about the idea of death of the nuclear family than of the home-ownership wing of the American Dream. I prefer to think that the American Dream has more to do with choice and equality than having your own carport and being able to paint the walls without asking permission, and that people can enjoy this dream even if they have to have a landlord. But though nuclear-family formats aren’t appealing to everybody, its fans are getting a little frightened, finding themselves unable to afford housing and moving back in with their parents or other relatives. Besides the feeling that this lands us back in a mopey adolescent state, lazily throwing laundry onto the floor out of habit and sleeping in rooms that still carry the fug of angst and slammed doors, reclaiming your cubicle in your childhood home as an adult can feel like being stripped of your privacy and independence. The time needed to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet is rarely afforded a person who shares walls and a roof with four other people; whether under duress or in a moment of carelessness, you may forget to conceal the evidentiary clues that spell out your private problems to your parents, grandparents, or children. The more guarded you are, or the more you have to hide, the more this can make you feel like a hermit crab robbed of its shell, looking very small and easy to squish.
The superstition of keeping a pregnancy secret for the first twelve weeks is rooted in medical fact: That’s when a woman is most likely to experience a miscarriage. You are advised not to go public, even to close family or friends, because in the event of a miscarriage, they would know. And it’s so intimate: It involves blood details too personal and biological to share. We don’t often see it on television, perhaps, because we don’t often discuss it in our lives; moving home, accepting its occupants as part of your everyday family, means that some of the gore of human life is intruded upon and requires explanation. The dark things that live within your relationships — the cheating, your teen’s self-abuse, the loud arguments — creep into the shadows of the kitchen as your retired dad stands in front of the refrigerator looking for cold cuts. Sometimes it’s just a shadow, other times you see the face.
The Harmons’ neighbors — especially Jessica Lange as nosy and diabolical Constance from down the block — are so well-acquainted with the spookiness of the house that they become instrumental in its bummer trips on the Harmon clan. There’s a reason for this: At some point, they’ve all lived in the house, which we now know has the power to sublet itself to past owners vacationing in Los Angeles on a break from the afterlife (if this perk were included in the MLS page, I think a lot of Los Angelenos would go for it. Most of us would be happy to put up with some carnage in order to come back from beyond to get some In-N-Out).
There are no secrets in this haunted house: The histories of past domestic shames are graffitied all over it, like the creepy pentagrams and missing toilets in vandalized foreclosed properties. The crimes (locking your kid in a closet, shooting your husband, blackmail) and arguments about the wallpaper (Zachary Quinto appears as half of a bickersome undead couple to mumble, zombie-like, “I feel like I’m doomed for all of eternity to be trapped in an unhappy, adulterous relationship, working on this goddamn house. Which will never be just the way I want it”), accumulated over the course of a century of hopeful residents, are made worse when they are discovered by the strangers linked by having shared an address. It’s the addition of shame and guilt to these actions that happens when they meet the air, after the house has stopped magnetically attracting your finger to the trigger. Keeping secrets in a house that contains more souls than you expected is impossible. There are bloodstains, and someone’s always lingering in a doorway offering his or her opinion or catching you in the act. Even in an unhaunted home, grandma is not olfactorily impaired enough that she can’t smell the cigarette you blew out the bathroom window. It is generally not as catastrophic as, say, being impregnated by an evil apparition, but it involves an acceptance of the fact that your least flattering dimensions may become public to the strangers who make up your extended family, your genetic roommates.
Last week, pregnant Vivien was cajoled into eating plate after plate of raw offal by her shape-shifting housekeeper (Frances Conroy). She sat at the table and cautiously but politely dug into some pancreas and a glistening brain while listening to her maid explain its prenatal benefits. It is hard not to relate this to the oft-repeated legendary parental tale of having to eat everything on the plate to avoid embarrassing the martyr-like family cook, usually your grandpa or grandma. The housekeeper appears to Vivien as a motherly, somewhat stern figure, doing more than is required of her with a steely old-fashioned work ethic; to Ben, she looks like a vacant-eyed sexual panther who’s always scrubbing the floor in lacy underpants, which is a complicated psychological horror story in itself (Boardwalk Empire’s Jimmy Darmody knows this, as does Stacy, immortalized by Fountains of Wayne). The tension created by this maid dual-personality is not unlike the tension that arises when a grown married couple moves back in with one set of parents: the redefinition of roles, the assertions of adultness, the misinterpretations of intent. Exposing your parents’ inherent weirdness, which you always accepted as normal, to people who might not find it so but who are equally important to you. The natural passive-aggression of multiple cohabitation: I made you this brain. Eat, eat.
The Harmons’ teenage daughter, Violet, is an interesting foil to Constance’s daughter Addy (Jamie Brewer), a grown woman with Down syndrome who lives with Constance and often escapes to the Harmons’ house, usually appearing to giggle in the basement and deliver cryptic news. While tormented Violet is staying out past curfew and exploring her sexuality with an evil floppy-haired suitor, Addy is stuck in the grip of her controlling mother, who locks her in closets and tells her she’ll never be pretty. Constance stops short of wire hangers, but that’s presumably due to the fact that Addy becomes indisposed a few episodes in. She’s in a place where wire hangers can’t hurt her anymore. Being a teenager is equal parts vulnerability (acne, not being able to make a decent grilled cheese sandwich, submitting to being grounded) and rebellion (sad experiments in self-mutilation, screaming at people to leave your room so loudly that they do so, accepting in advance the consequences of staying out late in order to continue to make out with a senior on the beach), and emerging as an adult on the other end requires learning to balance your responsibility to other people with gratifying yourself as an individual. What frightens us the most about being labeled as “extended adolescents”: the vulnerability or the renewed need to clothe our vices and private indulgences in whispery secrecy? Even if the door on your old bedroom has a lock, you’re likely to remember how your parents urged you, three feet tall, to never, never lock it.
Why is it so gratifying to see these characters sucked up in a cyclone of misery? Maybe because for the first time in a long time it doesn’t seem so improbable. It hints at newly recognizable anxieties, not just the stranger knocking on the door after dark but the stranger knocking on the door and demanding a thousand dollars that don’t exist (whether for head shots or the cable company); Vivien and Ben are as frightened, as desperate in the meeting with a Realtor about putting their house on the market, as they are when a recently bludgeoned corpse shows up in the bathtub. People are almost as afraid of foreclosure as they are of death. Maybe it’s because sometimes it’s the house that haunts you, but more often it’s you who haunts the house.