The first season of American Horror Story, which returns to FX tonight at 10 p.m. with new episodes, was abrasive, silly, lurid, shameless, and in retrospect, surprisingly coherent: vivid proof of my friend Alan Sepinwall’s maxim that a great show teaches you how to watch it. The story of a clueless yuppie couple moving into a haunted house and getting mixed up with vengeful, sex-crazed ghosts felt truly unhinged. Its effectiveness depended on surprise — not just scene-to-scene, “What will happen next?” surprise, but the extra-textural surprise of watching a program that you assumed was a series start out at a near-hysterical pitch, then keep cranking up the intensity, the silliness, and the super-sick imagery to the point where you marveled at what seemed like its self-destructive tendencies.
Around episode six, I marveled at the frothing-at-the-mouth nuttiness onscreen — Jessica Lange purring and slinking around; past and present story lines mirroring and intertwining; major characters getting raped and killed by ghosts — and thought of that imploding house at the end of Poltergeist. The show seemed to be collapsing before our eyes, and series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk were in the basement, tearing at the foundation with pickaxes and cackling maniacally. Turns out we weren’t watching a series, but a miniseries, and that it was planned more intricately than we could have known, with each new twist detonating like a demolition charge.
Can American Horror Story: Asylum recapture that sense of surprise? I doubt it, because now we’re onto the show: We’re accustomed to its rhythms and its sense of humor, and we know that it’s an anthology/miniseries rather than a series and that it doesn’t have to sustain a mythology over X number of years; it just has to tell a self-contained, surprising, agreeably horrible tale and wrap it up in a satisfying way.
Early signs are promising. This tale is set in 1964, in a Catholic-run mental hospital overseen by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), a sexually repressed nun (there is no other kind in horror) and James Cromwell as Dr. Arthur Arden, who’s performing mysterious and surely illegal experiments on inmates. The story begins with a prologue wherein a couple explores the present-day ruins of the asylum and one of them sticks his hand through a slot in a cell door (as you do!) and gets a ghastly surprise. What attacked him? A ghost? A monster? A deranged stalker? We know that whatever it is, it’s an aspect of the asylum’s past and that the place is figurative as well as literal, a soapy house of metaphor. Season two’s vision seems derived from Shutter Island, Suspiria, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Russell’s The Devils, and Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor.
The last might be the biggest influence. Released in 1963, the year before Asylum is set, the movie took place in a mental institution whose residents all represented particular political and social manias: racism, anti-Communist hysteria, fear of nuclear annihilation. And as in Shock Corridor, Asylum’s main character, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), is a reporter, one who wheedles her way into Sister Jude’s office demanding information on a serial killer known as BloodyFace, a murderer of women who supposedly was committed there. The young inmate believed to be the killer, Kit Walker (Evan Peters), is there for supposedly killing his wife, an African-American woman he lived with in secret for fear that racists would make their lives hell. We think he’s telling the truth because we saw how his loved one actually disappeared: in a conflagration of light and sound that looked like an alien abduction.
There are other patients and doctors, too, all somewhat buggy-seeming, especially the ones that present as normal. Chloë Sevigny plays a sexually avid young woman committed by her boyfriend for, basically, liking sex too much. Joseph Fiennes is on hand as Monsignor Timothy Howard, who tells Sister Jude he wants to turn the hospital into a groundbreaking facility, one that acknowledges that science is a gift from God and that strives to make people’s lives better instead of driving them crazier. Sister Jude is so turned on by him that while he’s talking, she zones out and imagines seducing him. She wears a red negligee underneath her habit, as you do.
The word refinement seems a strange adjective to apply to American Horror Story, but it fits. This is still a cheeky, trashy, nasty series, one that’ll do or show pretty much anything if it thinks it’ll get a rise out of you. But its sense of itself has become more refined; Murphy and Falchuk seem to have figured out not just what the show is formally but also thematically: a campy soap that turns societal taboos and changing mores into fodder for horrific nightmare images. In that sense, it really is Glee’s evil cousin. Where the latter treats high school as a microcosm of society and treats the fears of the marginalized and oppressed as a pretext for inspirational messages and huggy reassurance, American Horror Story takes some of those same fears and makes them both frightening and ridiculous. Which is all fine and fair, because that’s the entire point of horror, a genre in which whatever you fear the most is what happens to you. Thus the interracial couple’s love is violently destroyed, and the free-spirited woman who loves sex as much as any man gets locked away in a mental hospital.
This is the stuff of horror; that Murphy and Falchuk play so much of it for horror-flavored camp comedy, switching between unironic melodrama and raised-eyebrow mockery to the point where you aren’t sure how to take it, just makes the whole thing more tantalizing. This is not just a haunted-house story but a story constructed like an actual haunted house — a transparently theatrical structure where all the spooks and beasts and gory tableaux are gathered under one roof, there’s a new outrage around every corner, and you’re supposed to giggle after every shock.