American Horror Story
October 5, 2011
A small girl with Downs Syndrome stands outside a stately abandoned house that has seen better days, and presumably better garden decorating schemes, when two redheaded twin thugs shove past her on their way inside for some harmless vandalism. The girl calls out to them that they are going to die in there, and that they are going to regret going inside, but seeing as this is a horror show — it says so right there in the title — they pay her no mind, and head straight into the house.
Inside, they swing their baseball bats wildly at every light fixture they can find, and poke at some sort of dying rat-thing, and generally act like 12-year-old miscreants. And then the basement door swings open. Their curiosity gets the better of them — again, consult the title — and they head downstairs. There they find all sorts of horribleness: jars filled with what appear to be baby parts, speculums and other fun gynecological tools and some sort of creepy baby Gringotts goblin who attacks and murderizes them both with its horrible lamprey teeth.
Connie Britton, whom I am neither going to call Connie Britton nor Tammy but instead by her character’s name, Vivian, despite my strongest impulses, she is at the gynecologist’s office for some superhappy examination funtimes. The doctor encourages Vivian to try hormone therapy to help her feel younger: the body is like a house — you’ve got to make sure the entrances are weatherproofed, or something. Vivian, however, is not interested in hormones, on account of being a green freak who disapproves of artificial anything, and instead wants to focus on trying to get control over her body After What Happened. Yes, but what is Vivian so afraid of? asks the gynecologist, for no particular reason.
Vivian returns home in the middle of a snow storm, and hears what she thinks must be an intruder upstairs. Panicking, she calls 911, and grabs a knife to go outside and wait for the police. HA HA of course she doesn’t do that. She does what NO SANE PERSON WOULD DO, and heads upstairs, where she discovers her husband, Dylan McDermott, whom I’m not going to call Dylan McDermott nor Bobby, but instead by his character’s name: Ben, despite my strongest impulses, inflagrante with a studante. (Although, we learn that little tidbit much later.) Furious, Vivian slashes Ben’s arm with her knife. He should be happy that’s all she slashes.
And then, sometime later, Ben and Vivian, their little dog and their daughter, Younger Farmiga, whom I am neither going to call Younger Farmiga nor, um, Farmiga the Younger but instead by her character’s name, Violet, despite my strongest impulses, are driving into Los Angeles in their Volvo, far from the snow and the studante and the pesky gynecologist. Change!
The Harmon family arrive at the goblin murder house where they meet a very matter-of-fact realtor who shows them around the 1920s Arts and Crafts manse. According to our realtor friend, the house was built by The Doctor to the Stars. It has a study so Dr. Ben can work from home seeing his crazy patients, and a little salon that Vivian could practice her cello — if she still played. When Vivian is curious about some wallpaper that appears to be covering some sort of mural, Mrs. Matter-of-Fact explains that the home was lovingly restored by the previous owners, until they died in a murder-suicide in the basement. A murder-suicide in the creepy basement?! We’ll take it! Why not?! What could possibly go wrong with this plan?
And soon enough the furniture is all moved in and the Harmon family is all safely tucked inside, with only mild reservations about living in a goblin murder-suicide house. Also, Vivian doesn’t want to have sex with Ben, for painfully obvious reasons, BEN.
At her new school, Violet saunters through the halls, brazenly smoking a cigarette, which, NOPE. Some mean girl takes umbrage, and after threatening to make Violet eat the cigarette, and after Violet spits in her face in response, Mean Girl calls after Violet that she’s “dead!” FORESHADOWING. MAYBE.
Vivian worries at the wallpaper, trying to expose the mural beneath, when our prescient Downs Syndrome girl, all growed-up, is suddenly standing behind Vivian telling her she’s going to die in here. Because that’s her schtick. Suddenly Jessica Lange is in the scene, gnawing on all the lovely carved scenery with her Constance, a misplaced Virginian with big Hollywood dreams that were jarred up and shelved by a daughter with Downs Syndrome and a distaste for taking roles that required nudity. Constance flutters about the house, complimenting Vivian on her diamond earrings — she used to have a pair for every day of the week, husbands always give such gifts when you’re young and pretty — and yammering about the kennel business she runs next door. She gets Vivian’s name, but she doesn’t really care. It doesn’t matter. Before she leaves, she gives Vivian a housewarming present: some sage, to cleanse the house of its bad memories. And with one final nibble from the baseboard, she flits away.
(STANDING OVATION FOR JESSICA LANGE HERE.)
Vivian waves the burning sage around the hallways for a while and happens upon the attic pull-down ladder. She heads upstairs alone, because this is a horror show, and discovers the gimp suit. Vivian screams, as one would, bringing Ben and Violet upstairs to see what all the fuss is about. OH, JUST A GIMP SUIT. Ben jokes about trying it on, but Vivian orders him to throw it away because GROSS.
Dr. Ben’s first psychiatric patient is Tate, a twitchy young man harboring some Columbine fantasies. Blah blah blah world is a filthy place, blah blah blood holds bad spirits, blah. Meanwhile, Violet is bust cutting herself in the bathroom — which explains all the long sleeves in Southern California. On his way out, Tate interrupts her with some Pro Tips, and she visibly swoons.
That night (?), Ben sleepwalks into the living room, and lights a fire for some naked s’mores. I suppose we all need to brace ourselves for a lot of Dylan McDermott, you guys.
Some time later, Vivian hangs a bunch of laundry because she’s that tedious, which is where Frances Conroy, whom I am neither going to call Frances Conroy nor Ruth, but instead by her character’s name:, Moira, despite my strongest impulses, finds her. Moira instructs Vivian that she’s the housekeeper and she will be working Mondays through Thursdays beginning immediately. Vivian tries to NOTHANKYOU OKGOODBYE but Moira warns that with a house this old, if you mistreat it, you’ll regret it, and by the way can I come inside to call a cab, thanks.
Inside, Vivian offers Moira a cup of tea while she waits, and Moira explains that she’s been the housekeeper for years: they come and go, but she stays. She then conspiratorially whispers to Vivian that she found the bodies and cleaned up the mess. Sometimes people, they just go mad. Vivian asks Moira if she ever gets tired of cleaning up other people’s messes, and Moira explains that they are women, that’s what they do, she just gets paid for it.
And then Ben wanders into the kitchen, and instead of seeing the milky-eyed Frances Conroy, he sees this. RROWRR. As Hot Moira gathers her things to leave, flashing Ben a glimpse of some garter belt on the way out the door, Vivian tells her husband that she intends to hire Moira, and Ben is pleasantly surprised because he’s a jerk.
At Tate’s next session, Ben confronts him about not taking his meds, and explains that he needs Tate to be honest with him so he can assess whether or not Tate is truly a danger whom Ben needs to report. For the record, Ben thinks Tate is salvageable, he just has some rejection issues. With that, Tate offers a charming excuse as to why he stopped taking the meds: he was concerned that the drugs would curb his libido … and he’s met someone. YOUR DAUGHTER, UH DUH.
And sure enough, Tate and Violet are in her room and she’s just blurting everything out about her father’s affair and her mother’s miscarriage and you know what would go well with this? Some Morrissey! Indeed. Dr. Ben finds Tate in his daughter’s room, and orders him out. Tate reminds Ben about his fear of rejection, Dr. Jerkface, before raging all the way down the stairs. Super.
Sometime later, Dr. Ben comes out of the bathroom, naked, again, looking for razors. HINT: CHECK YOUR DAUGHTER’S ROOM. He catches a glimpse of movement in the next room, and discovers Hot Moira busy, um, getting to know herself better. Dr. Ben hurries away and acquaints himself with himself in another room. So much Dylan McDermott, you guys. SO MUCH. Too much? Maybe!
Vivian returns home from the grocery store with some organic noms, only to have all the cabinets and refrigerator fly open a la Sixth Sense. A la Poltergeist. A la my kitchen thanks to this stupid drought. She’s alarmed, but then Adelaide, our Downs Syndrome friend, giggles behind her, and so Vivian blames the differently abled kid, obviously. When, in fact, Addy is just seeing the Thug Twins standing on either side of Vivian.
And so Constance flutters in and Vivian insists, grabbing Addy’s face to get her attention, insists that Addy stay out of their house and to quit telling Vivian that she’s going to die. OH HA HA HA, she says that to everybody, dismisses Constance. As the mother and daughter go to leave, Addy reaches for the dog who snips at her hand, and Constance threatens to break Vivian’s arm if she touches her daughter ever again. These are the people in your neighborhood … in your neighborhood …
Dr. Ben tries to call the authorities on his daughter’s new creepy boyfriend, but funny, he doesn’t have a social security number on the kid, and the authorities, they are unimpressed. Ben has a frustrated. Which is when Hot Moira enters and waggles her chest in his face. Violet sees all this — but she sees Milk Eye Moira and is understandably grossed out.
And so at school she gets herself beaten up by Mean Girl because self-hatred.
Vivian is exposing more and more of the mural, which is turning out to be more and more horrific and more filled with pig faces than any home mural should be, really. Dr. Ben notes that the mural is clearly the product of someone with deep psychological issues (O RLY) and blathers on something about fear and storytelling and myth and YAWN, AMIRITE? He tries to come on to his wife, AGAIN, and Vivian ain’t having it AGAIN because ZOMG MISCARRIAGE AND INFIDELITY MUCH? He has a tantrum about her punishing him, and having a sad over the miscarriage and why wasn’t she there for him, WAH. Dr. Ben notes it’s been almost a year since they last had sex, and it was lovely and sexy and kinky and he loves her and is only truly scared of losing her. This is their second chance! Dr. Ben just needs to know she wants it too! And so she shoves him and then they have sex, because EMOTION.
Violet comes home, fortunately sometime after her parents’ deed was did, with a giant scrape on her face. And Vivian is completely underwhelmed, noting that Violet is fearless. Well, that’s great, Vivian, but THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT’S COOL FOR YOUR DAUGHTER TO BE BEATEN UP IN SCHOOL. HOW’S ABOUT YOU SPEND LESS TIME TALKING ABOUT KINDERGARTEN SLUMBER PARTIES AND MORE TIME CALLING THE PRINCIPAL AND NIPPING THIS NONSENSE IN THE BUD. Violet takes the opportunity to bring up her parents’ relationship, wondering why her mother has stayed with her clearly very very horrible father. Vivian explains that they’ve been through a lot together, and that she’s scared of everything lately. Which is what life will do to ya.
And then Vivian has sex with the gimp. She thinks it’s Dr. Ben, but who can say, really.
Ben, for the record, is downstairs for naked stove s’mores. Constance appears and tells the sleepwalker that it is not his time, and that he needs to go to bed. He does as he’s commanded, and slips into the bed with a stunned Vivian.
MEANWHILE, Tate has come up with a plan to get back at Mean Girl: terrify her!
Step one: Violet tells Mean Girl that she’s a drug dealer and lures her to the house.
Step two: Violet leads Mean Girl into the basement for her “drugs.” Tate lies in wait.
Step three: Turn on the strobe light and unleash goblin baby!
It’s all very confusing thanks to the strobe lights, but Tate who might be goblin baby except that he’s not except that maybe he is? Tate and goblin baby roll around on the floor with the shrieking Mean Girl and the goblin lunges at Violet and Mean Girl gets banged up and runs screaming out of the basement, because Mission Accomplished! Violet, however, is also freaked out for obvious reasons, and orders Tate out of the house. I THOUGHT YOU WEREN’T AFRAID OF ANYTHING, Tate yells. THAT’S BEFORE MY BOYFRIEND TURNED INTO A BABY GRINGOTTS GOBLIN, Violet (doesn’t) yell back.
Sometime later — it’s impossible, really, to discern how much time passes on this show, so you know, later — Dr. Ben goes for a job, and soon realizes he’s being followed by burnt King Russell. Eventually, Burnt King Russell catches up with Dr. Ben who is all WHAT? WHAT DO YOU WANT, WEIRD PEEPING TOM? DR. BEN WILL HAVE YOU ARRESTED. Burnt King Russell, whom I am neither going to call Burnt King Russell nor Denis O’Hare, but instead by his character’s name, Larry, despite my strongest impulses, he’s not worried: they won’t send him back to jail, now that he has this terminal brain tumor. BUT THAT’S NOT WHAT HE’S THERE FOR: Larry urges Dr. Ben to get out of the house — he used to live there, until he set his wife and two daughters on fire, killing them all. He can’t remember putting himself out — it was like a dream. Has Dr. Ben been sleepwalking? And with that, Dr. Ben excuses himself because, creepy.
Back the house, Constance is busying herself with Vivian’s things, poking around her jewelry box, and helping herself to some earrings. Milk Eye Moira interrupts her, snipping at Constance that those are MADAM’S things. Constance reminds Milk Eye Moira that when things go missing, it’s always the housekeeper who gets blamed, before departing with a threat: don’t make her kill Milk Eye Moira again.
And in the kitchen, Vivian comes home with a hankering for Indian food for dinner. But! Dr. Ben protests, you haven’t wanted Indian since you were pregnant … wait, WUUHHH? Looks like Gimpy is gonna be a poppa!
ALRIGHT. SO THIS SHOW? WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THIS SHOW? I don’t intend to take this show too seriously, BECAUSE COME ON. THERE’S A GIMP SUIT. That said, there’s a lot of stuff (too much stuff in one episode, even?) going on that we should talk about, I suppose.
So why don’t they just move, right? For very literal obvious reasons, they can not move — or we wouldn’t have a story. With any haunted house story, the audience and the storytellers have to enter into a tacit agreement that despite the house being haunted, its inhabitants will nonetheless stick around. That said, the implication is that the Harmons are each being seduced — quite literally — by the house, and possibly driven mad by it. Yes, they’re scared , but they’re also strangely drawn to the weirdness, they are enjoying being freaked out by it. Ryan Murphy and Brad Fulchuk are drawing the connections between sex and fear, these very primal, urgent, powerful feelings and impulses, in a very literal way.
It’s all very psychological — a point they drive home by making Dr. Ben a psychiatrist. In fact, in symbolism 101 class, you learn that houses represent the self, the individual’s psyche. The different levels of the house represent the different levels of the conscious mind. The lower floors are self that you present publicly, your ego; the attic or higher levels represent the superego, one’s spirituality or repressed memories; and the basement is, of course, the subconscious, the id. Now, when the house in question is haunted, symbolically that represents unfinished emotional business and unaddressed feelings. Which is what we have going on here with this family who has suffered from miscarriage and infidelity and decided to change their lives rather than face their fears. As such, they are being haunted by the past at every turn. Literally and figuratively it would seem.
The word of this episode is “regret.” It’s repeated several times, specifically in relation to the house, not characters. The Harmons, particularly, Dr. Ben, are dealing with a great deal of regret. What I find curious is that Addy and Moira both warn people that if they mistreat the house, they will regret it — and I wonder about this personality, this self that would lash out at those who would hurt it, and to whom it is connected. Obviously, the house is alive with ghosts, so to speak, filled with those whose lives were taken before they could complete some important emotional business and brimming with deep regret. But is the house drawn to all of the Harmons, or one in particular?
Some other symbolic stuff we have to talk about: purification. Ben has recurring sleepwalking episodes where he finds himself (or rather, others find him) setting fires in a daze. We learn later that Larry set a fire that killed his wife and children (and himself?) in the home, and in some sort of Shining-esque twist, this act seems to be haunting Ben. Fire represents destruction, creation and purification. It also represents sexual energy. It’s a masculine symbol that when contained can be a comforting, domestic energy. However, when fire is out of control, it is all-consuming and threatening. This tension between the two sides of the flame is not unlike Ben himself: he is both provider and protector of his family, but within the house and burdened under the weight of his own emotional issues, he might also be their biggest threat. There is also fire as a purification symbol: fire cleanses, it destroys to allow for new growth, fresh starts, second chances. Which is what Ben of course is looking for his family in this home.
Another purification symbol is blood-letting: not unlike Violet’s cutting habit. As Tate notes, blood-letting was long considered a way of releasing bad spirits, of cleansing the soul of impurities. Of course, blood, and blood-letting is also a sacrificial symbol. Blood was thought to contain the animal or person’s power and spirit — to spill the blood of a sacrificial victim was to give that power and spirit as an offering to a higher being to demonstrate devotion. Clearly, Violet is dark and miserable, and her parents seem perfectly willing to make her their sacrifice to saving their marriage.
As for that basement and that goblin baby, yeah, I don’t know. Children represent innocence and potential and life, and Goblin Baby seems to be the exact opposite of all those things — which I suppose is the point. The realtor offered that The Doctor to the Stars built the house, and judging by the collection of fetal specimens in the basement, I’m guessing he made his fortune as an abortionist back at a time when such procedures were illegal. Perhaps Goblin Baby was the child of one of his patients, rejected for its deformities? This issue of pregnancies and babies and parenthood seems to be a significant theme, between Vivian’s miscarriage and new pregnancy, and Constance’s fierce mothering of Addy even as she regrets having her, Larry’s horrible murdering of his children and all those mysterious jars filled with baby parts … it seems the writers are exploring this issue of parental love and the monstrosities that lie within us, and again, the issue of regret. It’s interesting, Constance describes her decision to end her Hollywood career as putting that particular dream in a jar — an image that recalls the horrible basement in the prelude. Again, potential and possibilities are set aside, leaving only regret.
As for the gimp? Yeah, I don’t know. Give me a few episodes to wrap my head around that one, k?
So, my question to you: who are the ghosts? I have my own suspicions (ALL OF THEM), but I’m curious as to what you think?
American Horror Story airs on FX Wednesdays at 9 p.m. It is very naughty.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Chron.com.