‘American Horror Story’: Reality bites

American Horror Story
“Chapter 1”
September 14, 2016

After months of waiting and enduring countless teasers, a few hoaxes and a fog of manufactured mystery, we finally — FINALLY! — have learned what Ryan Murphy and team have in store for us this season:

American Horror Story: Reality Show.

The hell?


Our show-within-a-show that apparently forms the frame for this season, My Roanoke Nightmare, follows the story of Shelby and Matt, an interracial couple who are portrayed in the show-within-the-show by Marcia Clark and OJ Simpson, which is just weird. They explain that they met in Los Angeles in one of her yoga classes, fell in love, got married and became pregnant. But after OJ “Matt” was violently assaulted in a random knockout game attack, and Marcia “Shelby” lost the baby, “Matt” and “Shelby” decided to start over and move to North Carolina where “Matt” had grown up.

This, as it will turn out, is just the first in “Matt” and “Shelby’s” Collection of Terrible Real Estate Choices:

  1. They stumble across an isolated 18th century home that is way too large for just the two of them out in the woods;
  2. decide buy it;
  3. outbid a group of surly rednecks who seem emotionally invested in the place;
  4. using all of their savings;
  5. and never even once bother to ask anyone if the place is haunted, which is now my number one question when shopping for houses — particularly houses older than 30 years — having lived in a haunted house this one time and not wanting to repeat the experience, thanks.

And soon enough, city girl “Shelby” finds that living out in the country, completely removed from other human beings and surrounded by what are described on my closed captioning as “inhuman howls” at night isn’t really her cup of wine tea.

One night soon after they move in, “Matt” and “Shelby” hear a racket outside. When “Matt” goes to investigates, he finds a terrible mess that he decides was probably left by the Surly Rednecks he presumes are still upset that their dream home was bought out from under them by an interracial couple from the big city.

However, such a relatively innocent explanation is quickly dismissed when “Shelby,” home alone, witnesses a hail storm — but instead of frozen ice, human teeth fall from the sky. Instead of taking a picture of the thousands of human teeth all over her back porch and posting it on Facebook with the caption, “DA FUQ?” like a normal person, “Shelby” calls her husband in a panic. But by the time he comes home, hey, guess what, no teeth. “Matt” unhelpfully quips that the weather in the South takes getting used to; a little mansplaining which partially explains why “Shelby” seems to like her wine so much.


Other reasons “Shelby” likes her wine so much: her husband moved her out to an isolated 18th century house in the middle of the woods that is subject to tooth showers where he leaves her alone for long stretches at a time while he travels for work. Now, this is a problem that could easily be solved by “Shelby” going along with “Matt” on his work trips — they don’t have any kids, she doesn’t have a job, they don’t seem to have any internet, what is there keeping her at home?

But instead, she stays there alone with her wine and for reasons that are unclear doesn’t completely freak out when two strange women just wander past her in the hallway all, “heeeey….” Instead, she goes and cooks herself dinner and pours herself some more wine AS IF TWO GHOST WOMEN HADN’T SAUNTERED RIGHT PAST HER, and then takes a dip in the hot tub that apparently came with the 18th century house out in the middle of the woods filled with inhuman howls and tooth storms.

So “Shelby” shouldn’t be entirely surprised when a group of torch-bearing men sneak up on her and hold her under the water long enough to freak her out, but not drown her.

By the time “Matt” and the police arrive, like the teeth, all evidence of the torch guys is gone, and the cop shrugs and suggests they get a gun.


After Officer Useless leaves, “Matt” questions “Shelby” on her story: some things just don’t add up, like how the torches were all gone and there were no fingerprints anywhere, and maybe “Shelby” has had a little too much Shelby juice? “Shelby” insists she’s not making any of this up, but Shelby admits in her interview that she was feeling guilty because the actual truth was she didn’t want to live alone out in the middle of the teeth woods.

Sometime later, “Matt” is woken up in the middle of the night again to more “inhuman howls” only to find that someone has left them a housewarming gift on their doorstep: a skinned pig. But instead of being all, “Hey! Free pig!” “Matt” freaks out and buries the pig out in the woods so that “Shelby” won’t see it. He then installs a motion-activated security system to monitor the property while he’s away, and asks his sister, Tara’s Mom from True Blood/”Angela Bassett,” to move in with them.

Turns out Sister is a former cop, removed from the force after developing an addiction to opiates. She also was removed from her daughter when her husband divorced her, leaving her with only 3 days of custody for every 14. And that’s why “Sister” had enough free time to babysit Shelby. However, Sister is no fan of Shelby, what with her yoga and her two years of college and her gluten obsession and — unspoken — her blond hair. And she is immediately suspicious that Shelby is just making stories up to try to manipulate her brother into moving back to Los Angeles.

One night as “Shelby” is cooking dinner and drinking her wine, she hears a noise from the other room. After investigating and finding nothing, she returns to the kitchen to see that the knife that she left by the cutting board has been placed, by someone, in the roast on the stove. “Shelby” screams at “Sister” for trying to scare her, and “Sister” does nothing to dissuade her of the notion.

“Sister” notices that “Shelby” is enjoying her glass of wine and promptly demands that her sister-in-law not drink — IN HER OWN HOME — as “Sister” is barely hanging on to her own sobriety.

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Later that night, as “Sister” is trying to go to sleep, the now-empty wine bottle rolls into her bedroom, PISSING. HER. OFF. “Sister” goes downstairs and starts screaming at “Shelby” for messing with her, which “Shelby” vehemently denies.

Meanwhile, two hours away, “Matt”‘s phone sends him an alert from the security system, revealing torch-bearing men marching up to the house. However, when he tries to call “Shelby” and “Sister” he receives no answer because they are too busy with their dumb argument.


Eventually, “Sister” hears someone in the house and she and “Shelby” pause their fight long enough to investigate the basement. There, they discover that someone has set up a whole TV/VCR combo to play a video of a man being chased in the woods by some sort of ManBearPig. However, when they try to go back upstairs, the door above slams shut and they are locked inside for a good 20 to 30 minutes.

Once they free themselves, they discover they are being terrorized by the marketing department for the new Blair Witch film, and the house is just covered in those little twig dolls.

Matt explains that by the time he came home, the cops had come and gone, dismissing it as “vandalism.” “Shelby” mentions the video in the basement, and after watching it, “Matt” becomes more convinced that the angry rednecks are trying to scare them out of the house so they can buy it out from under them at a discount. “WELL MISSION ACCOMPLISHED,” “Shelby” replies, “BECAUSE I’M READY TO LEAVE. LET’S GO.”

But “Matt” is uninterested in leaving their home, so “Shelby” gets in the car and leaves by herself because, seriously, fuck that place. Fuck that manbearpig video, fuck those dolls, fuck those teeth, fuck that whole place. Fuck it.

As she’s driving away, “Matt” calls and she answers, taking her eyes off the road just long enough to hit Kathy Bates who had no business standing in the middle of the street in the first place. “Shelby” gets out of the car to investigate, and catching a glimpse of Kathy Bates stagger into the woods, decides to follow her.


And what does “Shelby” find in those woods, but more of those Blair Witch dolls. In a panic, “Shelby” runs for it but trips and falls, which is when she notices the ground is moving? breathing? Basically not behaving the way ground should behave. “Shelby” gets up again and begins running, only to find herself in the center of a circle of people bearing torches, her flashlight landing on some poor schmo who has just recently been scalped.

Welcome to the neighborhood!

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So on the most basic level, our theme this season appears to be based on the Lost Colony of Roanoke, which itself is a fantastic idea for AHS: it’s 1. wholly American (or “New World” if you want to get all technical about it) 2. super spooky and weird 3. and ties into the first season of AHS.

A quick American history refresher: The Roanoke Colony was a British settlement founded in 1587 by Sir Walter Raleigh in what would eventually become North Carolina. Although, it should be noted Raleigh himself never set foot in the colony. Instead, Raleigh sent 115 English settlers led by his buddy John White to establish a colony in Chesapeake Bay near where some earlier colonists had scouted locations with help from the friendly Croatoan and Secotan tribes. Once John White and the colonists arrived, however, they found nothing but a skeleton belonging to a guy they assumed was one of the English garrison. However, their fleet’s commander, Simon Fernandez, refused to let them back on the boats, insisting that they establish the colony there on Roanoke Island. “SO LONG, SUCKERS!” he said, but in Portuguese.

And as it turns out, things weren’t great on the island: the settlers didn’t have much in the way of food, they had arrived in the middle of a terrible drought, and the earlier English colonists had futzed up relations with the Natives so badly that some of the Natives refused to meet with John White at all. Freaking out, the colonists sent White back to England to beg for help.

But thanks to the Anglo-Spanish War, White wasn’t able to return to Roanoke until 1590, three long years later. And when he did finally return, he found the colony not merely deserted, but all of the houses and buildings were dismantled, and the only clue left behind was the word “CROATOAN” carved into a fence post. The colonists themselves were never found.

The hell?

There are a few theories as to what happened to the colonists including but not limited to: Natives killed them (the chief of the Powhatan tribe actually told John Smith that he personally saw to their slaughter); they integrated with Native tribes, specifically the Croatoans; the Spanish killed them; aliens.


American Horror Story, of course, has given us their own version of what happened to the lost colony and the meaning of “CROATOAN” in the first season. Psychic Billie Dean explains:

It’s difficult to banish a spirit, but not impossible. The most successful attempt I know of happened when America was known as the new world.

In 1590, on the coast of what we now know as North Carolina, the entire colony of Roanoke—all 117 men, women, and children—died inexplicably. It became known as the ghost colony because the spirits remained. They haunted the native tribes living in the surrounding areas. Killing indiscriminately. The elder knew he had to act. He cast a banishment curse. First he collected the personal belongings of all the dead colonists. Then they burned them. The ghosts appeared, summoned by their talismans. But before the spirits could cause them any more harm, the elder completed the curse that would banish the ghosts forever. By uttering a single word. The same word found carved on a post at the abandoned colony. “Croatoan.”

However, the curse doesn’t actually work, as Violet discovers when she tries to use it on Ghost Zachary Quinto, probably because it’s the actual name of the tribe and not some nonsense curse.

So this is the mythos which will shape our story this season if angry colonial Kathy Bates in the previews is any indication. But despite how interesting the Roanoke story is, I am less interested in it than in the way Murphy, et al, have decided to tell this story this season.

What you should know about me: I love a good paranormal reality show, and I have strong feelings about the many out there and their different varieties: ghost hunting series versus recreation series versus paranormal adventure series versus your paranormal encyclopedia series, etc. etc. etc. For a long time, I found that the recreation series were the most disappointing of the bunch, often distractingly cheap and hokey, and thanks to the distance created by the act recreation itself, the scares never felt genuine. I’ve never cared much for shows like A Haunting or My Ghost Story or The Haunted because they always felt so far removed from truth, despite purportedly being all about the truth. That, and the hokey. I can not over state the hokiness factor of most of these shows.*

What is fascinating is that even though AHS is referencing this inherently campy format, it’s not being played as camp. In fact if anything, they are playing this season straighter than any previous season. So let’s peel this back a bit: we have actors who are supposedly playing real people but who are actually being played by other actors who are telling a story that is supposedly true but which we all know going into it is completely fictional. The layers are dizzying, and the result is creepier and scarier than any “true” story on a reality horror series, and possibly scarier than anything that has ever been on AHS before.

And I’m intrigued. I am curious to see how far they can go with this format because the thing is, it is inherently limiting. For starters, we know going into the story that all of our main characters make it out in one piece. Otherwise they literally wouldn’t be there telling the tale. This automatically diminishes a certain amount of narrative tension. Also, these reality shows generally are able to tell their story in an hour, two if it’s a particularly complicated narrative. So is AHS going to stretch out this one story over the course of thirteen episodes?

Or! Or are we going to meet new reality characters telling their own “Roanoke nightmares”? Or is AHS going to break the fourth wall entirely and have the paranormal seep into the lives of the actors portraying Shelby and Matt? Or maybe the paranormal events will cross back into the “real” Shelby and Matt’s lives? Or maybe somehow the “real” Matt and Shelby will interact with the actors portraying them?

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I just feel like they are using this unique format for a reason — it’s so completely different from the traditional narratives of previous seasons that they must be doing something with it — and that will be where the actual story goes. Ultimately the story will be less about Roanoke and more about where reality and fiction merge.

But with Ryan Murphy, it’s impossible to predict what he is going to do. It’s entirely possible that he just became enamored with the recreation model while making People vs. O.J. Simpson and threw it onto this AHS season on a whim. Who can say.

*There are two current recreation series that I can recommend: Paranormal Witness on Syfy does a genuinely good job with crafting their stories and making them scary, even if they all seem to follow a fairly similar pattern of “we moved into a new house and then creepy shit started happening and then we moved out for some other suckers to deal with it”; and Celebrity Ghost Stories, because how can you not love watching Bill Bellamy tell a story about seeing a little girl jump roping in his yard in the middle of the night, or that one guy who played Ando on Heroes tell a story about this one time when he had a really bad dream? There is LITERALLY nothing campier on television than Celebrity Ghost Stories, not even AHS in full Freak Show mode.

American Horror Story airs on FX Wednesdays at 9/10 p.m.

3 thoughts on “‘American Horror Story’: Reality bites

  1. Great recap T – I love how we can just say fuck fuck fuck it now! So freeing!

    Interesting call on the Blair Witch with the “little twig dolls”; I myself was reminded of the first season of True Detective (but that may because I haven’t watched the original BWP in a dog’s age.

    Its going to be a fun season of creepy shit! Buckle Up and grab your musket!

  2. I am watching in Poland and at the beginning, a few seconds in, was a very short, maybe 5 seconds, commercial for the new Blair Witch. We had to rewind because it seemed tied in with the beginning of the show, which we are still not sure of. There was another one, at the end before the credits. Also hard to tell if it was part of the show. The logo in the commercial was exactly the hanging dolls. As a side note I have never seen anything here about that movie until this.

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