I have a complicated relationship with American Horror Story. The FX series is one of my few truly guilty pleasures, one of the few things I’m genuinely embarrassed to admit enjoying. I’ll proudly shout my love of High School Musical from the rooftops and I’ll even admit to eating at Arby’s, but when American Horror Story comes up in conversation, I shrink into the shadows, pretending not to know what people are talking about.

A-what-ican What-er Story? Not me! I never watch such trash!

Except… when I do.

I actually can’t stop watching. I’ll hit the couch as soon as each new season hits Netflix and binge-watch it in a few days, even though it’s a terrible show in many ways. Despite a gorgeous visual palette (which borrows freely from every era of horror cinema) and an inexplicably top-notch cast (anchored by Jessica Lange and featuring Zachary Quinto, Kathy Bates, and Gabourey Sidibe), it’s riddled with problems. The plots play like something a high school freshman would write, the characters are almost exclusively unlikable, and despite the word “horror” in the title, it’s almost never genuinely scary (though frequently stomach-turning). So why do I keep coming back?

There’s certainly a degree of voyeurism involved (i.e., the fascination with watching horrible people be horrible to each other). But even so, why is this voyeurism so enjoyable to begin with? Some might accuse me of trying too hard to justify my prurient interests, but I think it’s because this voyeurism answers a deep theological question: What would the world look like without common grace?

For the uninitiated, American Horror Story is a marriage of two genres: the horror anthology and the soap opera. (Think Dark Shadows cranked up to 11.) Each 13-episode season tells a distinct story, but makes use of roughly the same cast.

It walks a delicate line between self-seriousness and high camp. It keeps a perfectly straight face while striving to incorporate as many horror clichés as it can — particularly the second season (Asylum), which featured a psychiatric asylum, a serial killer, a mad scientist, demon possession, alien abduction, and mutant monsters. Other seasons (which have featured a haunted house, a witches’ coven, and a carnival freak show) have shown more restraint — barely.

The marriage of horror and melodrama works as often as not. Both genres are essentially voyeuristic in nature, asking the audience to enjoy the characters’ suffering (bodily suffering in the former and emotional anguish in the latter). But therein lies the problem: while horror is a genre about death (How will we survive the night?), soap opera is a genre about life (How will I go on?). This conflict is where the campiness begins to leak through the cracks in American Horror Story‘s straight-faced façade. Even with the brief length of each story arc, the writers clearly struggle to keep the characters both in a state of fear and alive. Every 20 minutes or so have to be punctuated by an act of violence — horror fans demand it, after all — and yet, the audience still needs a reason to tune in next week.

This is where American Horror Story begins to butt up against the Calvinist doctrine of common grace.

Every system of Christian doctrine understands the metaphysics of God’s justice and mercy a bit differently, but Protestant Reformer John Calvin expressed the contrast in a way that’s both theocentric and succinct. On the one hand, says Calvin, mankind is totally depraved: the human heart is wholly corrupted by sin and incapable of doing anything truly good.

On the other hand, common grace is offered to all. (As opposed to saving grace, which is offered — says Calvin — only to the elect who are baptized into Christ.) Common grace is why total depravity doesn’t lead to its inevitable conclusion: a world where evil leads to evil until all descends into chaos. In the here and now, there is still mercy. Evil is restrained. People are still capable of doing “good,” albeit in a flawed way. In a world with common grace, unspeakable acts of evil are possible, but they are far from the norm.

The central conceit, though, of American Horror Story is a universe in which acts of unspeakable evil are commonplace. (What other conclusion is the viewer supposed to draw, given that these stories take place across America, throughout history, and apparently all in the same universe?) To say this strains believability is a vast understatement. American Horror Story isn’t even in the same galaxy as believability. This is a series where an ex-Nazi scientist self-immolates out of mourning for a demon-possessed nun and a black girl saves the life of an immortal(?) ex-slave owner by seducing a minotaur.

But despite its high-camp approach to storytelling, American Horror Story frequently (if unintentionally) offers profound insights into the nature of sin: why it occurs, who is affected by it, and — most interestingly — how it is amplified and perpetuated by institutions.

These insights range from the silly to the serious. At the shallow end of the pool is how quickly, with murder (and worse) perpetually on the table as a plot device, the program’s storylines go completely off the rails. This was most evident in the third season, where every character was more than willing to kill to gain control of the titular coven. Combined with the requirement of one violent act every 20 minutes, this meant that every character died at least once in the season’s 13 episodes, and in order to keep anyone onscreen past episode three, the writers were forced to resort to resurrection as a plot device. It’s sobering how quickly no one is left standing in a world without mercy, despite (or even because of) the plot’s silly contrivances.

And yet, there’s more to American Horror Story than excess, and frequently, the excess itself allows the series to make points about sin that may be uncomfortable for many contemporary viewers. Most powerful is the series’ ability to address the possibility of collective guilt — particularly in Asylum, where the decaying Briarcliff Sanitarium becomes an echo chamber for the characters’ “good” intentions and misguided ambitions — whispers which, in Briarcliff’s dark, underfunded halls, build into a screaming hellhole for the voiceless patients trapped there. Echoes of this theme appear in later seasons as well. In Coven, the ancient establishments of a coven and a voodoo cult perpetuate a race war that should have been (literally) dead and buried long ago. In the most recent season, Freak Show, we see how the family-like bond between sideshow outcasts leads, not to redemption, but to an ingrown environment of coercion and murder.

Given that American Horror Story‘s events take place in a universe drenched in sin and devoid of grace, it’s not a huge surprise that none of its seasons so far have built to a very satisfying end. There are only two possible endings to any story, after all: tragedy, where justice is done, and comedy, where grace triumphs and life is allowed to go on. American Horror Story has never felt comfortable with either ending, since tragedy already waits behind every one of its plot twists and comedy inevitably reveals the cracks in its poker face.

For the seasons that ended with vast swaths of their casts lying dead — Asylum and Freak Show — the emotional effect was little more than a shrug, a cold indifference toward the inevitable wages of sin we all knew were coming. The seasons that delved into immortality — Murder House, in the form of ghosts, and Coven, in the form of resurrection — have allowed their characters a bit more of a future, perhaps due to the necessity rendered by the subject matter, but that future is even less satisfying than the tragic end would be. Are we supposed to take solace in the possibility that the house’s newly minted ghosts might be slightly nicer than its existing ghosts? Are we supposed to be glad that the vessel of racism and murder that the coven has been is allowed to continue? If it’s a grace, it’s a damning one.

This is the main strength of the horror genre, after all: it allows us to safely gaze upon the deepest depravity of human nature, and ponder the utter meaninglessness of a life where said depravity runs rampant. American Horror Story simply extends this to its logical conclusion, letting depravity loose for months at a time. To a mind accustomed to a universe awash in common grace, the result is often silly, frequently numbing, and — in flashes — brilliantly insightful.


4 Comments

  1. To me, it seems that your “can’t stop watching” statement belies the idea that the horror genre “allows us to safely gaze upon the deep depravity of human nature.” There’s also probably a safe amount of strychnine you can add to your ice cream come, but it’s a whole lot smarter to skip it entirely rather than experiment.

  2. I don’t think there’s any value in “American Horror Story” or the overwhelming majority of the genre. My own selfishness acquaints me all too readily with the nature of sin.

  3. I do agree with you, Brett, but I agree that it is important to know sin as other’s see it (even if it is a way we are not familiar way). It’s a reason we read literature and watch movies and talk to people. One may even say that the reason this website exists is to do just that: examine the nature of a broken world and how God uses his common grace to invite us to Him.
    Plus, and I know I’m sounding long winded and precocious, our own intuitions of sin and mercy can be wrong when we part ourselves from God’s call. We often do unintentionally. I don’t like AHS either, but as a well- understood story, it has merits.

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