American Horror Story Recap: Burning Man

Angela Bassett as "Lee." FX
American Horror Story
Episode Title
Chapter Two
Editor’s Rating

You know what? I want to watch American Horror Story, not My Roanoke Nightmare, so I was incredibly disappointed to learn that this second episode was just a continuation of the first one.

"Chapter Two" gives us the same setup: We’re supposed to be watching a true-crime show where Matt and Shelby tell us their story and we watch actors playing "Matt" and "Shelby" reenact it in real time. The idea was cute for an episode, but to have the whole season be like this will get annoying really fast.

My biggest problem with this structure is that it takes the subtext and makes it text. When we see Matt, Shelby, or the increasingly erratic Lee do something in the flashback, the character from the present tells us exactly what they were feeling when that happened. Part of the fun of any drama is trying to decipher why people act in certain ways, but when they spell it out for you, it dumbs down the action. This happens all the time in reality shows, partly because the audience is dumb and partly because you need more context than the actors can give. But this is American Horror Story, and these reenactments star Sarah Paulson and Angela Bassett. Following a crappy format will just end up making this show crappy.  

When the episode begins, Shelby is in the woods at what appears to be some sort of human sacrifice. Kathy Bates, who appears to be playing the head of the Roanoke people, says that a man was caught stealing and his punishment is to be “purified” — that is, by nailing a pig’s tail to his body and putting a pig’s head over his face like it’s David Cameron’s junk. She then puts him on a spit and gives him a turn like a giant pig-man.

Well, that explains the origin of the creepy pig-man who haunts the woods. But I’m sorry: All of those bloody pig tails, whether wagging on a wall or nailed to the trunk of a tree, are not scary at all. I see more frightening things every time I walk past a supermarket in Chinatown. Do you think pig’s tails are going to scare me? I’m more petrified of Wendy’s pigtails in the drive-through window than I am of these.

It seems like Kathy Bates and her fellow pilgrims comprised the original Roanoke colony and their spirits are trapped in the woods because they died a mysterious, horrible death. This brings us back to season one, when Billie Dean Howard (the psychic played by Sarah Paulson) explained that the spirits of all 117 settlers were trapped there, haunting and killing the native tribes in the surrounding areas. We don’t know their story yet, but I assume that as they drive Matt and Shelby insane, we’ll learn more about why they got there and what they’re after.

The curious thing is that these spirits have a physical presence. After the human sacrifice, they return the next night. Matt and Shelby find a structure the ghosts built in the woods, complete with the dead pig’s head and some meat smoking over a fire. Is that fresh bacon or is that the dead guy they barbecued? Are they cannibals? Is that why they’re trapped? Anyway, the police can also see the structure, so these aren’t visions. It seems these ghosts are capable of creating things in the physical world. That makes them much more powerful than the ghosts in either Murder House or the Hotel Cortez.

There are other terrifying threats, too. No, I’m not talking about those nurses; I’m talking about Lee. This woman has her visitation with her daughter Flora at this crazy-ass house. What kind of woman would do that? I’ll tell you, the same kind of woman who responds to creepy noises in the house by going into the damn basement like a fool. What is wrong with Lee? And then she kidnaps Flora and brings her back to the house so that Flora can talk to her friend Priscilla and wind up getting kidnapped to the spirit world. I’m sorry, but Lee is one horrible mother.

We learn about some other baddies. While staring out the window, Matt and Shelby see the figure of a girl and race out to the yard to find her. Instead, they find a hatch to a cellar. No. No. Nononononononono. NO. Just no. Girl, tell me you are not going to go down that creepy-ass hole. Girl, tell me you are not going to go down that creepy-ass hole. Yup, she’s going down that creepy-ass hole. Has she never seen a horror movie before?

In the basement, they find a tape from Dr. Elias Cunningham. Watching the tape was like the scary parts of Myst when you got the video messages from the insane brothers who lived inside of books. That shit always scared the hell out of me. Anyway, Cunningham is an academic who was at the house researching two killer nurse sisters, Miranda and Jane. These two nurses started an assisted-living home in the farmhouse and were killing off their patients one by one, each with a letter in their first name that would spell out MURDER on the dining-room wall. They would paint each letter with the patient’s blood and it was so potent no paint can cover it up. Oh, that explains the ugly wallpaper in the dining room. Maybe they can have Chip and Joanna Gaines from Fixer Upper over to just board some shiplap over that nasty wall.

So, no: The nurses that we glimpsed last week are not the nurses who died in Murder House. These are some totally different creepy nurse ghosts, because apparently this is a whole subgenre of horror films I was never aware of until now. I’m sorry, but spelling out MURDER with the names of your victims is really dumb. Couldn’t we get a little bit more inventive and exciting? And they don't even finish spelling out MURDER because they disappear without the final R. So it’s just MURDE like one of those neon signs with a couple of the letters out when you're trying to order fries at a McD nal 's.

Dr. Cunningham thinks that the reason they didn’t finish their macabre spelling bee is because something in the house stopped them before they could complete it. Does that mean they died on the premises? Is that why they’re still haunting the house today? Now that we know about the nurses, can we banish their spirits? Is American Horror Story ever going to quit this My Roanoke Nightmare thing and move onto the show that we all wanted to watch in the first place? The answer is probably no, so I guess we have to stick with it.