Dan Birlew

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American Horror Story on FX

American Horror Story: Rules

Posted December 7th, 2011 at 3:24pm by Dan Birlew in Television. 3 Comments on American Horror Story: Rules

Been quite a while since my last post, but not without reason(s): illness, travel, injury, writer’s block and, turns out, obsession. Although I’ve played Arkham City twice now, completed MGS4 and the entire God of War series, and should have probably blogged about that, I’ve been far more fascinated by a new phenomenon: FX Network’s American Horror Story.

AHS is the story of troubled Harmon family, Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga), as they flee from their troubles in Boston (including a miscarriage and resultant infidelity) to Los Angeles, where they move into a residence known locally as “Murder House” due to the high number of people who’ve met their untimely deaths there. Over the last nine episodes, the Harmons have gradually learned that Murder House is inhabited by the spirits of all who have died there, trapped on the property. And not all of them are happy about it: some plot to break up and/or murder the Harmons, while others have far more nefarious designs (including trying to bring the Antichrist into being and ushering in the Biblical Apocalypse).

I’m not even going to try to summarize all the story tangents and character motivations going on here. AHS is a densely plotted show, presented as a Dynasty-like soap opera, a la the show Dark Shadows from the 70s (a property about to be revived by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, no less). Each episode features so many intense conversations, murders, sex scenes, flashbacks and revelations that the viewer becomes an instant addict of this intriguing series. For the last nine weeks I’ve been literally aching to sit down in front of the TV every Wednesday night.

And here I thought television would suck after Lost.

Tonight’s episode “Smoldering Children” bears the following description, via Cox Communications digital cable guide: “Violet learns the rules of the house; Larry’s condition is explained; Constance is interrogated.” So let’s focus on these facets of the story only.

Larry: Let’s start with the poor deranged bastard everyone referred to as “The Burned Man” prior to the series’ premiere. Larry (expertly portrayed by True Blood’s favorite insane vampire, Dennis O’Hare) is a previous owner of Murder House. In 1994 he bought the property from Constance Langdon (Academy Award winner Jessica Lange), who then moved into the house next door. Larry became obsessed with Constance, to the point where he allowed her deformed and mentally handicapped son Beauregard to remain chained in the upstairs attic. When Constance was facing charges of criminal child neglect, she convinced Larry to murder Beau by smothering him with a pillow. Larry then revealed his love for Constance to his wife Lorraine, who went and immediately set their twin daughters’ room on fire. What happened after that has not been shown. The other thing about this version of the story is that it’s the second or third version, and has changed every time (previously, Larry told Ben that he set the fire himself, killing his own children and receiving his wounds in the process). But if what Larry says is true, then why haven’t his burned and “Smoldering Children” appeared in the house? And obviously his wife didn’t die in the fire either, since she hasn’t appeared as a ghost. But according to the description and the previews for tonight’s ep (which shows Constance confronting Larry about what he did) we’ll finally get the truth about Larry.

Constance: Constance Langdon is the former owner of Murder House. Having moved to LA with aspirations of acting, she gave up her dreams out of disgust with film nudity (though I suspect either pregnancy or obsession with Murder House played a bigger part) and lived in Murder House from the early 1980s (when she murdered her philandering husband Hugo and their housemaid, Moira) until 1994, when her son Tate (Evan Peters) went on a murder spree and gunned down fifteen of his classmates in what is known as “The Westfield High Massacre” (yes, intentionally modeled on Columbine). In a previous episode (“Halloween: Part 1”) she attempted to drag her dying daughter Addy onto the Murder House grounds before she died, so that she would be trapped in the house as a ghost; this way she would still be able to talk to Addy as she does Tate, from time to time. Constance has also been seen conspiring with Tate and Moira to dismember and hide the bodies of two home invaders that threatened Vivien and Violet, and she also took part in the murder of a prospective home buyer who planned to tear down Murder House and build condos. So whatever Constance is going to be interrogated about, by whomever, she has a lot to answer for! However, I suspect her questioning will have more to do with the recent disappearance of her boy-toy, Travis, who was murdered by the ghost of Ben’s psychopathic lover, Hayden, making him the most recent victim to join Murder House’s crowd of undead souls.

Violet: Several episodes ago (“Piggy, Piggy”), morose and depressed teenager Violet stepped into the basement and, within a few seconds, encountered all of the currently-known ghosts at one time. Terrified and overwhelmed, she retreated to her room only to find that someone had turned on her stereo and written the words “I LOVE YOU” on a chalkboard  hanging decoratively on her wall; a message from her Lasher-like ghost boyfriend, Tate. Reaching her overload point, Violet swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. We then saw Tate dragging her to the bathroom (cuz ghosts can do that in Murder House; more on that in a minute), running a cold shower for her and gagging her to make her throw up. And though Violet revived and Tate seemed to have saved her, we didn’t actually see her throw up anything (she just kinda wretched a little).

Not only that, but Violet hasn’t left Murder House since. Her father recently tried to scold her for missing two weeks of school. At dinner she doesn’t eat, claiming she’s “pretty stuffed on bullshit” (meaning the lies Ben and Vivien tell each other and her) and then excusing herself from the table. The one time she almost fled the property with Vivien, a couple of familiar ghosts appeared in the back of the car, causing them to flee back inside the house. Lastly, Violet and Tate were recently depicted “post-coitus” which, when asked, Violet said didn’t hurt but was “intense.” Most women do report feeling pain their first time, though painless breaches of virginity supposedly occur.

All of these “clues” have led many viewers to believe that Violet is dead. But through the power of Murder House, she hasn’t realized it yet and neither have her separated (and perpetually self-involved) parents. Tonight’s episode appears ready to provide the truth about whether Violet is alive or dead. The previews indicate that a foul smell will begin emanating from under the house, the cause of which will be discovered by an exterminator who enters the crawlspace. These may be the remains of Violet. However, given the string of recent events, the foul smell could also be emanating from the corpses of the home invaders killed by Tate and… well, whatever that thing is living in the basement (the Frankenstein-like reassembled baby of Frank and Nora Montgomery, the builders and original residents of Murder House). Or, it’s even possible that Larry failed to get prospective home buyer Escandarian off the property before he expired. If he orchestrated such a betrayal (in direct disobedience to Constance’s orders), then his intentions remain to be seen, though it could be tied to his need to own Murder House once again.

Whatever happens with Violet tonight, we’ll finally get the “rules” governing the spirit world in “Murder House.” Many of these rules have already been revealed or hinted at, including:

1. Anyone who dies in Murder House becomes a ghost trapped on the property, unable to leave,

2. Ghosts can remain invisible and “unknown,” or they can manifest, be seen, and interact with the environment (including rubber bondage suits, and weapons),

3. Ghosts can have sex with each other and live people, without said live person being aware of the difference,

4. Ghosts can murder people. Ghosts can murder other ghosts temporarily, though they soon come back to life as if nothing happened,

5. Ghosts remain in the same mental state as when they died. For example: Hayden was murdered by Larry while experiencing tremendous anger at Ben and Vivien, combined with a longing to have Ben’s baby, and she has remained violent and malicious in spirit as well as viciously covetous of Vivien’s expected twins; Charles Montgomery was murdered while high on ether, and seems just as blissfully oblivious every time we see him; Nora Montgomery shot herself through the brain in a fit of insanity, and as a result can’t seem to make new memories, especially in regard to the fact that she’s dead or that her baby is gone. But how then does this explain Tate and his apparent amnesia over all his murders as well as the fact he’s dead? Well, I mainly think Tate is a big liar! But on the other hand he may have been possessed at the time of his psychotic break, possibly by a ghost yet to be revealed, and this caused him amnesia at the moment of his death (which is why he couldn’t respond to the policeman’s question, “Why did you do it?”).

6. Every Halloween, ghosts can fully manifest for 24 hours and leave the Murder House property. If they do not return to the property of their own accord when Halloween is over, they will vanish and apparently can’t manifest for a full week afterward, as seen with Hayden,

7. Being murdered on the property gives one’s ghost the instant knowledge of all that’s going on, as evidenced by Travis’s attitude upon seeing his own corpse seconds after Hayden murdered him, and,

8. Whatever other rules are revealed in tonight’s episode.

Needless to say, (especially after my obsessively detailed posts about Lost) I’ll be talking more about American Horror Story here, so feel free to leave your comments and theories in the comments or the forums.

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3 Responses to “American Horror Story: Rules”

  1. Thanks for elevating this to cover story, Dan! I love this show, but I was reluctant to post about it because our friends from across The Pond just recently received access to it and I didn’t want to be the one to talk about spoiler-ish things. I freely admit to hiding behind you on this one (can you blame me? have you seen what they do after “football” games?!)

    J/K, Mates…

    I’m trusting that you’ve seen “Smouldering Children” by now, so you know the what’s what. No need to dwell on those specifics, but let’s chat a bit about the other issues you raise because there’s alot going on in the Murder House that’s in need of some explanation.

    First up, it seems that the Murder House has more ghostly members than the cast of “Game of Thrones” plus “Boardwalk Empire.” Not all of them have a chip on their shoulders. Nora has kept to herself most of the time, and her deranged husband only comes out to assist with nasty stuff. We’ve only seen Beau twice (maybe three times). And Chad and his partner only pop up when they’re called or its relevant. So that Larry hadn’t seen his smouldering family previously doesn’t mean anything. The ghosts do what they want, when they want. I have no idea what being “on the cusp” means, except that Tate told Violet something similar when he introduced her to Beau, and now she’s one of them.

    Speaking of Tate, I’m mystified by him and his issues.
    All of the ghosts appear in the condition in which they died. Nora has a gunshot wound in her head. Larry’s family is smouldering. Hayden has bruises. The nursing students are bloodied. When Tate and Violet were making out on Halloween, he told her not to touch his chest (ostensibly because she’d feel the SWAT team’s handiwork); however, when they were in bed a few eps later, his hairless chest was also hole-less. (BTW, I convinced that scene indicated that she killed herself– the “did it hurt” was about dying, not about sex. My bad.)

    The only other ghost who appears to be able to manipulate her appearance like Tate does is Moira, but even then, her shot-out eye becomes a gimpy eye. Tate goes from bullet-riddled to polished? Seems like there’s more going on with Tate than the average ghost.

    Moving on…
    The thing in the basement– is it a ghost? The baby was kidnapped and killed off-site, dismembered, and returned in pieces, so the baby’s ghost isn’t trapped in the house. The doctor “reanimated it” with a heart from one of the aborted fetuses… Right there, not only have we offended most of the square states and the entire GOP, but we establish that there’s something seriously f’d up about the Murder House. I can take a curse making people insane and ghosts being trapped, but there’s something majorly bad that can reanimate the dead. I think Nora said she killed it after it attacked her, but she killed it in the house, so if it is a ghost, it’s double-dead and raises all kinds of philosophical questions on the nature of the soul (i.e.: what’s the soul tied to if this twice-dead thing can have a ghost?).

    Other thoughts:
    * Tate clearly has mommy issues, but why did he rape Vivian? His mother wants another child after all her losses. Is he so conflicted? He’s trying to please her while also hating her?
    * How much does the real-estate agent know? Didn’t she call Chad to be the fluffer?
    * What’s wrong with Constance? Not one of her children turned out OK. Addie had Downs. Beau had some congenital deformities. Tate is a grunge-era hottie but is batsh*t crazy. Does her misfortune have something to do with the Murder House, or is she just unlucky and is therefore susceptible to the Murder House’s powers?

    American Horror Story has been picked up for a second season. While I’m really into what’s going on this time around, I wonder where they can go with it. It seems like the demon pregnancy story arc is going to wrap up this week (12/14). What’s next? A whole season of Violet hiding her ghostiness from her parents? Are all the Harmons going to die and next season will feature a new family? But then what’s the point? We already know the main players, so there’s no mystery anymore. Do the Harmon’s come to terms with Violet’s death, write a book about it, put the house on the National Register of Historic Places to preserve it in perpetuity, and then go on a book tour? I’m curious, and fearful that it’s going to be a big letdown next time around.

    • @Jayne: I’m planning to do one of these pre-show posts combining relevant summations and semi-informed predictions, for both this Wednesday and next until the season finale. As you can see it will be hit and miss, but no less fun to try.

      What Tate told Violet upon her first sighting of Beau in the attic was “You’re evolved now,” (I’m paraphrasing from memory only) which was another of the clues at that time that she might be dead.

      Transformations: You’re right, most of the ghosts don’t seem to have figured out how to overcome their death appearances and make themselves different. This is a power/privilege only Tate and Moira have acquired. And it makes you wonder what deal/bargain they made for those powers, and with whom. I’m not completely convinced that Older Moira is in fact Moira. The Older version has far more knowledge of ancient history and derisive medical practices than you would expect of a young servant shot through the eye in 1983. Plus being shot through the eye would have triggered death by brain damage, which “should” have made Moira’s ghost more like Nora: unable to retain current information such as being dead, becoming stuck in a particularly powerful emotion, etc. Then there’s her power of aging after death: actress Frances Conroy is indeed 53 years old now, in 2011; in 1983 she would have been 25, so her young appearance makes sense as much as her older one. The only problem is, if she died in 1983 then how did her ghost continue to age? Unless of course Constance’s bullet DIDN’T kill her, and she continued to age until dying in the house just recently. Perhaps Constance only killed her a few years ago? She could have also acquired some of her additional (and scary) knowledge between 83 and 200x when she finally, truly died. However, I suspect there’s something more to Moira’s powers over her appearance, perhaps indicating some kind of bargain she struck long ago with the powers in the house. Tate appears to have struck a similar bargain. I wonder if ghosts who serve the True Madam (Nora) are rewarded with additional powers? For instance, Tate may be able to cover his bullet wounds and influence the living better by killing Chad/Patrick in 2010. But part of me wonders if Older Moira is more a personalization of the house itself, meaning whatever power/demon/spirit Charles Montgomery accidentally called into the house upon reviving his murdered baby. If that’s the case, then everything Older Moira says could be construed as the true “will” of Murder House.

      The thing in the basement is called the “Infantata” in the credits for the Pilot episode in which it appeared (in 5 frames total, I think). Currently it appears to have the same power as the other ghosts in the house: to appear/disappear at will or when called upon by others, such as Tate. My opinion is that it is capable of extreme cruelty to the living or childlike playfulness with other ghosts. I believe any scenes where a ghost is throwing the ball in the basement with an unseen other party is playing with the Infantata, whereas anyone playing ball in the upstairs attic is playing with Beau. This is why Violet was able to play with the Infantata in the basement without it attacking her, because as we now know she was dead at the time. Same with Hayden, and she was indeed a ghost. I do not know why the Infantata has not come forward and attacked on the few occasions that Larry/Ben/Constance are in the basement, except that it hasn’t attacked them yet because they are either a) current or former owners of the house, or b) they were with other ghosts at the time, or c) the Infantata may believe that they have purposes yet to serve (which may also explain Lorainne’s comment to Larry about being on the cusp, if she was told this by the Infantata). The other thing I notice is that the Infantata seems unable to appear anywhere outside the basement in which it was resurrected. So we may be looking at special unique “rules” for each ghost, which they each may be setting for themselves subconsciously. Or perhaps the house plays favorites, setting these rules per ghost depending on the circumstances of their individual deaths. So far, the Infantata is the oldest monster to appear in the house, which may indicate that it was never fully brought back to life, merely to “undeath.” Nora’s attempts to kill it were unsuccessful because what the Infantata has is not really life. Yet like other ghosts in Murder House it can attack the living. The Infantata may in fact be the source of power in the house, summoned into being by Charles’ tampering with nature, determining “house rules” or “rules per ghost” (whichever it is) arbitrarily through its infant-like understanding of the world mixed with its monster-like cravings, which it appears to pass on to other spirits trapped in the house. Tate being a sensitive boy may have had additional gifts prior to his death that may have made him susceptible to Infantata’s monstrous influence, driving him insane and convincing him to commit the horrific acts he does. Same, too, with his mother, Constance. Billie Dean often takes a reprimanding tone with Constance, as if she “should” know or remember the things the medium tells her. Perhaps Constance once possessed some small amount of psychic power, or still does, but cannot control it or use it, and therefore needs Billie’s clarification. Perhaps this is what drew Constance to Murder House, to begin with. Perhaps the Infantata still loves its mother, during calm moments, even though Nora doesn’t recognize it as her child due to her condition. Perhaps those who serve Nora are rewarded additional powers by the Infantata, if it is indeed the power source.

      So the way to undo the curse of Murder House and free the spirits trapped within could conceivably be to find the Infantata’s true body (the one Charles sewed back together) and destroy it. But if the Infantata spirit inhabits the infant body sewn back together for it, and it cannot be destroyed (since Nora obviously tried), then there may be no way to undo the curse. This aspect will be fun to see. 😀

      Other Qs:
      *Tate raped Vivian in order to create a baby to please Nora. Because as I explained, Tate may realize that ghosts who please Nora receive additional powers from the Infantata, with which he is also allied (as he demonstrated in the Pilot, convincing it to attack Leah, and in “Home Invasion” when dealing with the intruders, as they were both finished off in the basement by something with claws, evidenced by claw marks on their ghosts). Tate’s motives have nothing to do with his mother’s desire for another child, in fact he should be unaware of Constance’s plans. Should be interesting to find out how he reacts when he learns she plans to steal one for herself.

      *Marcy did suggest using “fluffers” to decorate the house better (Yet another sideways dig at Vivien’s terrible decorating style! Hilarious! I love it!) and Ben/Viv did mistake Chad and Patrick for the fluffers. But I noticed on re-watch that the dialog goes: Marcy suggests sending over one gay man, but Viv never says “Yes, do that.” So Marcy never contacted the fluffer. That was in “Halloween Part 1.” In Part 2, Vivien realized Chad was not the fluffer Marcy sent when he claimed it was his house and attacked her. So far as I know, Vivien should be aware that Chad and Patrick are the ghosts of the previous owners and not the fluffers Marcy offered to contact. Or she’s in denial that they’re the ghosts. The issue hasn’t been discussed since Chad/Patrick’s last appearance. Viv and Marcy may discuss it this week, so I’ll touch on this in the next blog post leading up to Wednesday night. 😉

      *As I mentioned above, I think Constance possesses some psychic ability that would make her a perfect living target/owner for Murder House, much like The Great Overlook wanted Danny Torrance in The Shining. And the fact that she gave in to her dark side and bought Murder House and does its dark bidding may indicate why her children are all deformed: many of them may be Constance’s attempts to mate with the spirits in the house (Charles maybe? Hugo, post-mortem? Other, yet-to-be-revealed spirits?) in order to create the uber-child she seems interested in having.

      Regarding second season: as we’ve already seen, Ben and Vivien do not have to remain alive in order to keep appearing on the show. 😉 They could die/be murdered/kill each other like the previous owners did and become ghosts in the house. Or, they could move into another house in the neighborhood and become nosy neighbors like Constance, and allow Murder House to draw in its next victim(s). Just like Dark Shadows. Frankly, I consider it to be one of the more ingenious contrivances of the show, especially as far as past/future casting. For instance if the Black Dahlia never appears again then we know that a) Murder House has no further use for her and she will recede into memory (story-wise) and b) the actors may not take a recurring role or can leave the show any time they get outside offers or want to part ways (Hollywood-reality-wise). For instance, I doubt we’ll see much more of Larry Harvey aka Harvey Dent aka Two-Face aka Dennis O’Hare in season two, except maybe as a single-episode day player or guest. This would allow people like Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton to become irregular stars on the show as well, allowing the network to budget better on high-price talent or perhaps bring on other big names for short, affordable stints. I will say that Tate, Violet, Moira and Constance are all pretty much guaranteed(doomed) to further appearances, as fans will want their story lines to continue indefinitely. And those are all good actors to count on for the next few seasons, I believe. But anyone else is likely to get killed and become a less-recurring character at any time. And these contrivances of the show mean that fewer appearances by major characters will be more greatly appreciated, making the show even better as time passes and the cast conceivably expands. 🙂

  2. So you’re of the opinion that Dr. Montgomery got himself tangled up in some black magic and brought hell home. For some reason, I’ve been in the “Poltergeist” camp, believing that the land the house sits on is cursed and Montgomery was its first victim, falling prey to the madness. In all the flashbacks, he wasn’t shown as being obsessed with anything other than a growing perversion of his craft– from doctor to abortionist to Frankenstein. That isn’t to say he wasn’t browsing grimoires in between takes, but his fall to me seemed more pathetic and driven by something outside than by his deliberate design. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue, for sure– did Montgomery’s failures and desperation bring on the evil, or was he lured to the spot because he was weak to it. In either case, the Murder House appears to have a siren song that calls to people in distress– Constance was a failure as an actress; Chad’s personal situation was precarious; the Harmons were already in trouble. (I rather like this metaphor for Los Angeles/Hollywood, actually– about how it draws the desperate with the promise of new and brighter and then destroys them…)

    I also agree that there’s something more to Moira and probably to Constance. They hate each other, but they share some knowledge about the Murder House that doesn’t seem to be possessed by the other ghosts. Moira and Constance have been in league in several instances, not least of which was the sweetbreads incident. But while Constance’s attention to Vivian seemed sinister (or swings between curiously kindly and sinister), Moira’s seemed consistently sincere, going so far as to chew out Hayden for being not half the lady “madam is.” So am I just falling for the line and Moira is really part of the house’s voice, or is she just smarter than her station would have indicated and she’s figured out how to make the situation work for her?

    Side note: Do we have any reason to believe Moira was first employed by Constance? Could it be that she has always been with the house and we’ve just not seen her before because her influence didn’t matter as directly as it did in ’83? I wonder because in 1983, nobody wore stockings like sexy Moira does, at least not for the job (unless it’s *that kind of job*). And the maid outfit? Really?? I thought that for being in the 1980’s she looked like something out of the 40’s, including her hair style.

    I also don’t buy Nora as being the true mistress whose pleasure counts for anything. She was a victim of the first corruption, and she’s remained damaged ever since. I saw that Tate used her pathetic weeping as an excuse to please his own malicious tendencies. It seems that the highschool massacre notwithstanding, he only takes aggressive action in response to an implied or direct request from one of the ladies of the house (living or dead.) Nora wanted a baby to replace hers, so Tate used this as an excuse to attack Vivian. Vivian was also being mean to Violet by ignoring her, so the attack wasn’t merely procreative– it was punishing, as well. Violet didn’t want to be sent to bording school, so he attacked Ben. If anything, I tend to think that Tate is the embodiment of the evil in the house, but it possesses him at its whim. He can be a really nice guy, or he can be a latex-wearing rapist mass-murderer.

    What also remains to be seen, and what I consider a major yuck factor, is the truly terrible situation Violet has gotten herself into. First up, she’s dead. If her parents leave the house, she’s lost to them. I’m pretty sure she didn’t think that through, but in her defense, of course, at the time of her suicide she didn’t know about the ghost rules of the house. She thought she’d just be gone and free of the misery. Little did she realize she’d be stuck there forever. Then, her boyfriend RAPED HER MOTHER! Granted, Violet was feeling on the outs with her parents, but jebus– what are they trying to say about Vivian and Ben? Are they such terrible people that we’re supposed to sympathize with Violet and feel that Vivian deserved it? Does Violet just forgive Tate? Are we, the viewers, supposed to be OK with that? And what type of perpetually sucky afterlife does Violet have now to be trapped in the house with him, once she learns the truth? I guess the point is that she’ll be forever stuck in her teenage mentality where she can forgive Tate for everything, even his most atrocious violence, because she “loves” him. Still, it gives me major creeps.