“Only the First of Many”
- Author: Kim Yaeri
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 22, Issue3, p59~83, Dec 2014
The centrality of the family and of the house as the space of domesticity in the Anglo-American bourgeois patriarchy has led to the proliferation of the haunted house narrative in various media.
American Horror Story: The Murder House, a highly popular horror television series broadcast on FX in 2011, is one of the most successful examples among contemporary texts. Its success is partly due to the narrative specificity of the television series, which is characterized by the excess and repetition. This article argues that American Horror Storyfully utilizes these characteristics to subvert the conventions of the traditional haunted house narratives, where a family experiences the transformation of their ideal home to a place of nightmare. Through the narrative where a significant number of characters in different generations are repeatedly destroyed by their own or others’ desires to establish or maintain an ideal home and family, American Horror Storycritiques the destructiveness of the patriarchal family ideology and dismantles the culturally assumed belief in the heteronormative family as the foundation of safety and individual happiness.
American Horror Story , gothic television , horror , television studies , popular culture , family , haunted house
American Horror Story, a highly successful horror television series broadcast on FX in 2011, follows the ordeals of the Harmon family in their new residence. After the wife Vivien suffers a miscarriage and her husband Ben is discovered to be having an affair with his student, the couple moves from New York to a Los Angeles suburb, bringing with them their reluctant teenage daughter Violet. Unbeknownst to them, their newly purchased house—aptly nicknamed “the Murder House,” as is revealed later —is the setting of not one or two atrocities but multiple murders. Through the course of twelve episodes, American Horror Storygradually reveals numerous unnatural deaths that occurred in the Murder House, including:
As hardly a decade passes without someone being murdered in the house, it is almost impossible for a casual viewer to remember the details of every murder by the time the series reaches its end. Since those who die in the Murder House become ghosts and remain there, the house has become a shared residence of numerous ghosts from different generations, along with the Infantata, by the time the series begins. Moreover, shortly after the Harmons move in, they add another ghost to the list: Ben’s former mistress Hayden, who obsessively follows him to the new house and as a result is murdered by Larry.
What makes the narrative of
American Horror Storyeven more confusing is the dizzyingly repetitive patterns of these deaths. Charles and Nora have their son murdered and resurrect him as a hideous monster that haunts the basement, while Constance has a grotesquely deformed son whom she has killed and who consequently haunts the attic. Larry’s adulterous affair with Constance leads Lorraine to set fire to herself and their daughters and later motivates Tate to set fire to Larry. Again and again, the husband’s infidelity results in death: Hugo’s attempted rape of Moira results in the deaths of both, Larry’s infidelity his wife and their children’s deaths, and Ben’s extramarital affair Hayden’s death. There is also the recurrent theme of murder-suicide associated with childbirth: Nora commits a murder-suicide with Charles when her infant becomes a Frankensteinian monster, Chad and Patrick are murdered because they cannot produce a child, yet are mistakenly thought to have committed a murder-suicide, and later Ben is also murdered in such a way that his death is believed to be a suicide. In the end, the Harmon family’s story turns out to be much the same as that of the former residents: they enter the Murder House, dreaming of building an ideal home in a new place where they can leave the past mistakes and tragedies behind and make a fresh start, only to suffer a further disintegration of the family and the eventual deaths of its members, just like the Montgomerys, the Langdons, Larry and Constance, Chad and Patrick, and probably the Harveys. The similar aspects of these stories are emphasized by the almost identical narrative structures through which they are told. Each episode begins with a flashback concerning the past residents of the Murder House, showing either the moment of death itself or a snippet from their lives that eventually leads to a crime or tragedy. After the title sequence, this past event is elaborated further within the main plot centering the present lives of the Harmons as the past interweaves itself into the present in the form of ghosts, storytelling, investigation, or copycat crimes.
Repeated within a single overarching narrative, this familiar pattern of the haunted house story reveals a troubling connection between violence and domesticity. The attractive appearance and location of the Murder House makes it perceived as an ideal home: indeed, it is a house built by then-successful surgeon Charles for his newly-wed wife “exactly [as she] wanted.” As such, the house repeatedly draws new families, linking their domestic desire for home and family inseparably to the horrors and deaths that their lives will be eventually reduced to. In this sense, the Murder House is not simply a house where many murders have happened but a place where a house-as-home is synonymous with murder and violence.
As noted earlier,
American Horror Storyboasts a significant number of monsters thanks to its serialized and excessive narrative. While the majority of the cast may be categorized as monsters in a wide sense for their status as ghosts, malicious narrative functions, or both, the Infantata, Beau, Addy, and Larry are immediately marked as monsters by their visual appearances. If the Infanatata, a blood-craving, sharp-fanged, undying creature brought into existence by a mad scientist’s effort to revive his infant son by means of reassembling his dead body, is a monster in the most classical sense, Beau, Addy, and Larry can be perceived as monsters in light of their appalling physical characteristics.
Beau’s heavily deformed appearance instills immediate fear and disgust in the viewer, and the effect is doubled by his incapability of speech, which limits his utterance to animalistic grunts, and by the place he haunts, the dark attic where he had been imprisoned in all his life and where he was killed. Addy, whose features are marked by Down Syndrome, arouses a less visceral yet more realistic feeling of dread. Dawn Keetley accurately points out that Addy embodies “recognizably real early twenty-first century anxieties about homes and families,” such as the increasing number of older mothers, the growing rate of birth defects, and the worrying decline in the birth rate (91, 94). Her penchant of sneaking into the Murder House without being noticed and telling the resident or visitor “you’re going to die in here” makes her seem even more sinister, a quality already implied by the long-standing cultural association of physical deformity and moral corruption. For a similar reason, Larry’s severe and extensive burn scars provoke fear and suspicion not only because they are visually unpleasant but also because a long cultural tradition invites the viewer to see the scars as a representation of a violent and possibly criminal past.
However, Beau’s and Addy’s monstrosities are revealed to be strictly superficial. In life, Beau was an innocent victim who expressed childish love and trust for his mother and her lover, who, however, kept him chained and imprisoned and later murdered him. As a ghost, he only inadvertently frightens living people by his grotesque appearances. Addy is another victim of a genetic condition for which she is not responsible. Despite her mother’s constant psychological abuse, she remains pure-hearted and capable of caring for others; her ominous words are well-meaning warnings, and her intrusions are a result of her incapability to understand social norms. In terms of narrative, neither of them fulfills the function of the monster, as they cause no harm other than momentary terror or uneasiness. The discrepancy between the monstrous exterior and the benign interior shared by Beau and Addy challenges the horror genre convention of embodying social or moral deviation in the form of physical deformity. This convention is further dismantled by the fact that both siblings are legitimate children of a white, upper-class married couple, born of sanctified marital reproductive activities. The abnormalities in their bodies, in other words, are products of the epitome of heteronormative sexuality and the patriarchal order. Indeed, rather than signifying aberration, their bodily deformities visualize sinister qualities that lies in the norms and values of patriarchal culture, which are represented by Hugo’s excessive virility that manifests itself in forms of infidelity and rape and Constance’s obsession with feminine ideals of desirability and normative motherhood.
The Infantata and Larry, on the other hand, do function as monsters. However, the role of the Infantata is strangely marginal: despite having the most frightening appearance and origin story, he never becomes a threat to the Harmon family, but instead mainly remains a mysterious source of fear in the basement. The only characters that the Infantata harms throughout the series are the twins, who are killed before the Harmon family moves in, and Violet’s classmate who bullies her and whom, in response, Violet and Tate lure into the basement and so frighten her with the help of the Infantata that she becomes mentally unstable. Larry functions more prominently as a monster, stalking Ben, murdering Hayden, using her death to blackmail Ben, threatening Vivien and Violet, and eventually resorting to violence in order to make the Harmon family move out of the Murder House. Still, the fact that his actions are solely motivated by his love for Constance and his belief that she will return his love if he reclaims the house for her implies that the true monstrous force behind him is Constance, who has been manipulating him for years according to various flashbacks. In a similar vein, it can be argued that the monstrosity of Infantata does not lie in itself but in Charles and Nora, whose illegal abortion practice caused their son’s death and whose gruesome scientific project revived him as the Infantata.
Constance as the motivation behind Larry’s actions and Charles and Nora as the origin of the Infantanta’s existence reveal an interesting aspect of the four aforementioned monsters: that each of them is closely connected to a heteronormative family, desire, or both. The double birth of the Infanatata, first as the human child Thaddeus and second as his Frankensteinian resurrection, takes place within the respectable, upper-class Montgomery family. Thaddeus is a son of a renowned scientist and his beautiful wife; the Infantata is a progeny of the same father. The same mother of Thaddeus can be also held responsible for the Infantata’s birth in that she is partially responsible for Thaddeus’s death, having urged her husband to start the abortion practice that led to their son’s demise. Furthermore, what drives Charles and Nora to choices and actions that ultimately lead to the creation of the Infantata is their desire to maintain their heteronormative bourgeois family life as it is and their inability to accept its disintegration. Nora demands that Charles perform illegal abortions so that they may continue their upper-class lifestyle, and Charles insists on reviving their murdered son, refusing to accept the loss that has rendered his family incomplete and his home violated. Their determination to maintain or to restore their family as they believe it should be seems to be motivated by less emotion than ideology, since flashbacks portray them as deeply dissatisfied with their married life and neither as very involved in childrearing. Likewise, Beau acquires a doubly monstrous status as a deformed ghost due to Constance’s and Larry’s desires for the same familial values that produced him. Constance, who has kept him hidden and imprisoned, decides to kill him when she faces the risk of having him discovered by the Child Protective Services and institutionalized. Whether her decision is mainly motivated by the fear of losing her child to the merciless system, as she claims, or a selfish desire to keep hidden a humiliating family secret, Beau is eliminated in order to maintain the façade of a normative family. Larry, who is in love with Constance and has been living with her as her de facto husband, murders Beau despite his initial reluctance.
It must be noted that Larry’s desire is not only to fulfill his lust for Constance but to form a family with her in the house where they previously resided. Flashbacks portray him as living with Constance and her children and eagerly trying to play the role of the father. Although Tate rejects and resents him, Addy and Beau seem to like him. Larry expresses genuine happiness to be included in the dinner table and responds to Tate’s insulting prayer with restrained pain. When Constance insists on mercy-killing Beau, Larry first hesitates and then carries it out with regret and reluctance. The scene where Larry briefly plays with and speaks to Beau before murdering him shows that such friendly interaction has not been uncommon between them and that they have had familial affection for each other. Not only are Larry’s violent actions motivated by a desire for heterosexual monogamous family, but his disfigured appearance also has its origin in a similar desire. A flashback explains his scars as inflicted by Tate, who unexpectedly assaulted him at his office and set fire to him. Although the reason for this action is not explicitly revealed, Tate’s ongoing resentment toward his mother’s sexual relationships and his idolization of Nora’s ghost as an ideal mother suggests that he saw Larry as a threat to the patriarchal order of his family, as Larry tried to usurp the father’s role as well as his mother. Both Larry’s monstrous actions and monstrous appearance, then, are the product of the desire for the ideal family romanticized in Western culture, which consists of a loving heterosexual monogamous couple and their children and premises an economically secure home.
The repeated portrayal of the heteronormative family and desire for it as the source of monstrosity deviates from the common conception of the monster as the “repressed” or the “other” that threatens the dominant values of the society and therefore must be banished or annihilated (Wood; Halberstam). In
American Horror Story, the ideal home is the birthplace of monsters.
Truly dangerous monsters in
American Horror Storyare those who are socially respectable and often physically attractive. An eminent scientist Charles and his beautiful wife Nora are responsible for the creation of Infantata. Young and handsome Tate, to whom Violet is attracted, is revealed to be a psychopath who mass-murdered his schoolmates. After becoming a ghost, Tate continues to commit murders and as well as other atrocities. Constance, who is alive and still attractive, is one of the most sinister characters: she murders not only her husband but also Moira, who is a mere victim of his rape; she seduces the already married Larry in order to reclaim the Murder House even though she does not love him, resulting in the murder-suicide of his wife and daughters; she locks her son Beau in the attic and later urges Larry to kill him; meanwhile, she abuses her daughter Addy psychologically; and she manipulates the people and ghosts around her with a total disregard for others’ pain. Equally frightening is Hayden, Ben’s young and beautiful former mistress, who starts as a threateningly obsessive lover and evolves into a murderous ghost. When alive, she selfishly and single-mindedly pursues her desire to be with Ben, using lies and threats; after death, she becomes an unrestrained murderer, attempting to kill Vivien and murdering multiple characters, including Ben and Constance’s current lover Travis.
Interestingly, their atrocities are often motivated by the desire to conform to the norms, especially those of the patriarchic value system. It is ultimately Nora’s desire to become a mother again and Tate’s idealization of her as a mother figure that causes Chad and Patrick’s death and the rape of Vivien, which leads to her death. In order to have a heterosexual couple in the house who can give birth to a baby for Nora, Tate murders Chad and Patrick, who are gay and therefore unable to produce a child. When the Harmon family moves in, Tate rapes Vivien to impregnate her. Here, the desire for a model patriarchic family literally results in murder and rape.
Tate’s affection for Nora is prompted by his resentment toward his mother, Constance. He sees Constance as a
badmother because of her extramarital relationship with Larry and her part in the murder of her own son Beau. Ironically, Constance seduces Larry and makes him kill Beau because ofher obsessive desire for a perfect patriarchal family. Indeed, Constance’s most atrocious actions may be seen as perverted manifestations of female virtues encouraged in a patriarchal society: she is a woman who finds her value in men’s desire for her and her position as a wife and mother. It is because she has internalized patriarchal values so completely that she finds life without a man unimaginable and an identity as the mother to an abnormalchild unbearable. Her excessive investment in domestic ideals manifests itself in the form of unscrupulous, violent, and even criminal actions in pursuit of the dream of the perfect family, which continues to elude her: she murders her unfaithful husband, punishes her children for their abnormalities, and endeavors to reclaim the house she believes to be the rightful home for her family by means of seducing and manipulating a married man whom she does not love. What she continues to pursue, using all means available, including murder, manipulation, adultery, and abduction, to name a few, destroying many lives around her, is none other than the ideal family glorified by the patriarchal value system.
Hayden is driven by a similar desire. Being a married man’s mistress, she may appear to be a threat to the patriarchic family values at first glance, but what she wants more than anything is to be a part of a normative family as a wife and mother. This desire seems to be the sole motivation behind her every action. Despite initially being introduced as a college student, she does not show slightest interest in her academic life or future career. Nor does she ever consider the option of becoming a single mother or continuing an extramarital relationship. For her, there is no acceptable future other than to be Ben’s wife and the mother of his child: she is literally willing to commit murders for this dream, and she does, more than once. It is also noteworthy that Hayden’s anger is directed neither to Ben, who caused her death by impregnating and then rejecting her, nor to Larry, who murdered her, but to Vivien, whom she considers to have usurped her rightful position as Ben’s wife. It is only when men’s rejection become obvious that she violently expresses her anger at them: she kills Travis as soon as he clarifies his intention to return to Constance, and she murders Ben when he tries to leave the Murder House with his newborn son, thereby leaving her behind.
However, it is not only female desires to conform that are vilified. Male chivalry is depicted as no less destructive. Just as Tate murders and rapes for the sake of Nora, Larry inadvertently causes the death of his own family and deliberately kills Hayden, as well as repeatedly harassing the Harmons, in his endeavor to return the Murder House to Constance. Even characters who are not vilified are obsessed with maintaining or achieving the normative family and commit murders and suicides for it, as demonstrated by Lorraine’s decision to destroy herself, her daughters, and the house rather than to lose her home and husband to his mistress. In
American Horror Story, horrors do not come from without to threaten the family; it is the patriarchal ideal of the family itself that hurts, murders, and rapes.
The conventional desire to establish or maintain an ideal patriarchal family is revealed absurd as well as damaging in the later part of the narrative centering Vivien’s pregnancy and multiple characters’ struggle to have her yet-to-be-born children for themselves. The family in a patriarchal society, of course, is incomplete without the promise of posterity—a healthy child. Accordingly, a significant number of the cast, whether dead or alive, are obsessed with children. Indeed, the very event that signals the beginning of the gruesome history of the Murder House is none other than the death of the young Thaddeus Montgomery and his resurrection as Infantata. Chad and Patrick are murdered because they cannot bear children; Hayden is killed partly because both she and Larry believed that her pregnancy might convince Ben to leave his wife. When Vivien is revealed to be pregnant with twins, it starts a bizarre multi-sided battle among the ghosts and the living for her yet-to-be-born children. Nora wants a baby in place of her lost son; Chad wants to steal the children and raise them with Patrick, which he believes will restore their broken relationship; Constance, who resents her three non-normal children, envies Vivien’s pregnancy and later eagerly adopts her surviving son; and Hayden, who was killed while she was pregnant with Ben’s child, wants to take Vivien’s baby as a form of revenge. All of them—even Chad, who is a gay—are inflicted by the belief that having a child and thereby forming a normative family will grant the form of happiness they dream of. The underlying implication is that failing to achieve that model image of
thefamily, complete with healthy children, directly leads to a failed relationship and unhappiness.
This expectation, of course, is groundless and revealed as such. When Nora actually holds the baby in her arms, she cannot stand its incessant cries; Chad eventually has to accept that Patrick does not love him anymore; and a child cannot change the fact that Ben now hates and fears Hayden, whether she acknowledges it or not. Furthermore, Vivien’s pregnancy, which both she and Ben initially expected to open a new, happier, and more intimate phase of their lives, results in aggravating conflicts and eventually destroying their lives. Due to the ghosts’ conspiracy to steal her babies, Vivien is suspected of mental instability and confined in a psychiatric institution. Meanwhile, Ben learns that one of the twins in Vivien’s womb is not his child and accuses her of adultery. In the end, Vivien’s childbirth ensures neither domestic happiness nor the continuation of the bloodline but the elimination of both lineage and family. Vivian dies giving birth to twin sons, one of whom dies immediately after birth, Ben is murdered by Hayden when he is about to leave the house with the surviving infant, and Violet is revealed to have been dead for some time. Only one of the newborn twins among the whole family succeeds in leaving the house alive, but he is soon revealed to be an agent of further destruction and violence.
Despite its radical potentials, the horror genre in cinematic medium has often been criticized for its conservative stance, especially when the text directly engages with the theme of gender, sexuality, and family (Breifel; England; Sharrett; Sobchack). However, the indefinite, multi-layered, and excessive narrative structure of the serial television may add a subversive dimension to a story that might have been conforming to the hegemonic ideologies in a more structured and closed format. Jane Feuer, John Fiske, and Tania Modleski argue that such characteristics of the television serial narrative expands the room for diverse interpretations by the audience, enabling them to read conformative texts in progressive ways and vice versa. However,
American Horror Storydoes not stop at allowing for subversive readings but engages in the reinterpretation of the genre within its text by combining the narrative formula of the horror genre with the structure unique to television series. By repeating similar stories of people who adamantly pursue their normative desires and consequently causes their won or others’ demises, the show reveals the destructiveness of the patriarchal value system that is often seen advocated in individual horror films.
In continuation with this strategy, the last episode of
American Horror Storyoffers a double ending, one that presents a film-like closure and the other that points to the continuity and expansion of actions beyond the narrative. The story of the Harmon family ends with a parody of the conventional happy ending of the popular haunted house film. Through the dangers and horrors they have experienced, the members of the Harmon family realize their love for one another, outgrow their flaws, and achieve better understanding of others. However, none of them, except for a single newborn baby, survives this experience: their reunion and reconciliation is achieved in death. Nonetheless, the ghost family appears far happier than they ever have been throughout the series. The story of the Harmon family ends with the image of the family celebrating Christmas in the Murder House, which finally has become their true home. Moira, who has been released from servitude and become an equal friend to the family and the baby’s godmother, is accompanying them. While Violet and Moira decorate the Christmas tree, Ben watches them contentedly, and Vivien comes to his side with the baby in her arms. “I didn’t think it was possible for me,” Ben says to his wife, “but I’m happy.” Everyone is smiling. Two unredeemed enemies, Tate and Hayden, watch from outside, no longer dangers to domestic happiness. This is what the Murder House has always promised: a conventional family, constituted of the heterosexual couple and their biological children, safe in their own big, beautiful, well-furnished house, all of them dead. It is an enviously pretty portrait but also a deadly illusion, which will continue to attract people by arousing their longings for the ideal home and the perfect family.
However, this ending is followed by the far more sinister epilogue, which is set three years after the Harmons’ deaths. It shows Constance, who has finally realized her maternal dream by replacing her abnormal children with the Harmons’ surviving child whom she abducted and has adopted as her own son. In almost religious exaltation, Constance confesses to her hairdresser that she is “meant to be” the boy’s mother and that all her past sufferings and disappointments has been “preparing” her to be an adequate parent for him:
In this speech, she interprets her past experiences as a painful yet worthwhile process of becoming an ideal mother. Here she reiterates the popular dictum of patriarchy that to be a good mother to her child is the noblest goal that a woman can achieve and therefore is worth life-long suffering, and that the child’s happiness and successful future guaranteed by her proper mothering is in itself sufficient compensation for her pain. The next scene, however, reveals that the said boy is already a psychopathic murderer and probably the Antichrist as prophesied earlier in the series. Upon returning home, Constance discovers that he has murdered his babysitter and is smiling happily with her blood on his face and hands. True to her role of “a remarkable mother,” Constance only murmurs with an indulgent smile, “Now what am I gonna do with you?” The last image that the audience sees on the screen is Constance’s face, looking at the boy with a loving smile, ensuring that her motherly devotion to her “son” will spread violence and tragedies far beyond the Murder House.