For all the mystery that's shrouded the theme of Season 6 of American Horror Story (or My Roanoke Nightmare), Wednesday's premiere (which I guess is called My Roanoke Nightmare: Chapter One) felt like a red herring all the way through: why hide this season's subject and setting in the marketing if the revealed story's just going to be about a city couple on a paranormal TV show telling the audience about how their fresh start in a creepy country house turned ghostly? So Ryan Murphy could host a car sweepstakes?
Whether a set of bizarre children or a messed-up doll or bugs show up remains to be seen, but we at least know that Matt (Andre Holland) and Shelby (Lily Rabe) are a married couple who at one point miscarried following an act of senseless city violence, then experienced various hauntings while trying to make the aforementioned fresh start in a creepy country Roanoke home. We know this because it was explained to us via talking head testimonials for My Roanoke Nightmare - a cheesy show about ghostly encounters. As the pharmaceutical salesman and delightfully ridiculous yoga teacher narrated the night's events, we the viewers were simultaneously treated to an extended dramatization with a second Shelby and Matt (played by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr., respectively). Only, the dramatic "actors" felt like the more real of the two versions somehow?
The American Horror Story premiere just turned the entire series on its head
At least in the AHS-iverse, they seemed more real. They were the ones dealing with all the bells and whistles of the FX show we've come to know and be terrified of: from floating cameras to creepy twig doll vandalism. Fake Matt and mainly Fake Shelby were the ones we watched successfully bid on a decrepit old manor and piss off some defiant hillbilly locals. They were the ones we saw go through the familiar steps of countless horror movie couples hellbent on fixing up an ominous homestead when there's plenty of nice cul-de-sac homes in suburbia. Basically Fake Matt and Fake Shelby were our surrogates experiencing the bread and butter of this show (i.e. inventive terror). So why create a distance by telling it all in past tense through a fake TV show?
What's so scary about something we know these people have already survived? It feels too safe, too controlled. That's not this show's style at all, which makes me think it's up to something. Like, remember when Wes Bentley's character from Hotel was a straight-laced cop toward the beginning, and then by the end he was a complicated serial killer? I feel like My Roanoke Nightmare is only here to build a false sense of security. The familiar, and pretty funny television show device here is like being in the not-scary-yet part of a haunted house just knowing something's going to jump out and grab you, but you don't know when.
Like masterminds teasing, taunting and tantalizing our curious brains, Ryan Murphy & Co. know they've got us guessing and aren't about to reveal their hand. Not when there's more cars to giveaway! Heck, we don't even have a proper credit sequence yet or even know who Evan Peters is going to be. *Shakes fists to the heavens* "Who's Evan Peters going to be?!"
The American Horror Story Season 6 theme is...
Plot-wise, last night was fairly normal storytelling. It stuck to some pretty common horror tropes: troubled spouse Shelby, who was less keen on moving out to the sticks, experienced increasing phenomenona while her husband Matt comforted/doubted her. He went away for business, and like clockwork Shelby saw some raining teeth (ew!) got drowned in a hot tub and even ran into adult twins (natch). The skeptic of the two, Matt chalked up all the dead pigs on his property or unseemly noises to nosey neighbors disapproving of interracial marriage. So yeah, Rosemary's Baby meets The Amityville Horror.
But before the hour could get too "normal" in terms of being a fairly low-key premise, Matt's sister Lee (played by Angela Bassett in the reenactment and Adina Porter in real life) came pre-packaged with a pretty cool backstory and a healthy attitude to counteract Shelby's flaky L.A. persona. Essentially she was an ex-cop who lost her family because of an addiction problem. As we all know, every character in a horror story has their personal demons brought to life in one way or another so I'm guessing if children do come around in this series she and Shelby will have the chance to bond over mother stuff. Last night even helped the pair see things the same way by pitting both Shelby and Lee against the same supernatural tomfoolery. Whatever personal differences the sisters-in-law had, they could at least both agree that Blair Witch figures in the house and mob stampedes were cause for alarm. Funny how a little "Piggy Man" can make people see eye to eye.
As we alternated between the testimonials and the dramatization, I was reminded how many ghost stories are about two points of view coming together; about the unknown world bleeding into the known. They're about reconciling the unbelievable with the logical. They're about two truths colliding in a violent, inexplicable way. By presenting this current adventure as a ghost story told through the safety of hokey narration, the show is teasing the eventual collapse of these two separate worlds into one. Either that, My Roanoke Nightmare is simply there for fun.
By the time Shelby tore off onto the road leaving her husband and sister-in-law in the lurch, then crashed into a true ghoul from another time (Kathy Bates), then scrambled into a misty forest full of colonialists and a scalped man and Wes Bentley, the paranormal element had overshadowed the structured environment of the fake TV show enough to become the realer world. Mark my words, if this fake TV show device keeps up (and the promo suggests as much), there will come a moment where the terror reaches through the camera and finds its way back to Shelby and Matt in real time.
For now we're like Shelby and Lee after they found that television set playing a videotape of a wild-eyed Denis O'Hare encounter with the "Piggy Man": not face-to-face with this season's monster, but getting whiffs of the terror through layers of perception like breadcrumbs.
-Do you trust Shelby and Matt?
-What's the deal with the ghosts, really?
-Is it possible to be scared of a story when you know the main characters are alive and well?
-Why was the earth roiling beneath Fake Shelby?
What did you think of the fake television show device on American Horror Story?