American Horror Story: Asylum

I really quite loved American Horror Story. The first series was a completely over-the-top montage of haunted house tropes. Ghosts, unfinished business, and being unsafe in one’s own home, these were the themes of AHS. In addition, AHS was, very cleverly, a particularly American horror story. It focused on insecurities about sex and money in ways that aren’t really new. In Danse Macabre, Stephen King pointed out that The Amityville Horror was fundamentally about buying more real estate than you could afford. AHS latched on to some of that, too.

This second series is — and this is all in the trailers, no real spoilers — set in the 1950s, in a mental asylum, and deals with Catholicism, demonic possession, and medical experimentation.

It’s still fundamentally a show about sexual tensions. That much hasn’t changed. But this series doesn’t move me as much as the first. I don’t know if it’s because I, personally, am more afraid of haunted houses than I am afraid of Catholics and demons, or if this second series isn’t as good.

The acting is, as before, top-notch. The cast is exceptional, and they are well-directed. Everyone absolutely commits to the most bizarre, abject, horrifying, crazy-pants over-the-top melodrama. It’s delightful.

But … but there’s really a lot being jammed into the series. In the first series, all the separate elements were explained by the fact that many of them were ghosts. Ghosts with their own backstories and explanations, which we got to see in elaborate flashback scenes, yes, but they weren’t all happening at the same time. In this Asylum series we have a lot of plots and themes all going on at once. I find my disbelief-suspenders are a bit strained. “Really?” I think. “First we had [redacted], and now we have [redacted], and now you’re adding [redacted]? Seriously? All in one place? Huh.”

I found the flashback framing of the ghosts in series one to be very … clean. Each episode developed one ghost backstory and two or three present-day plots, until the final couple of episodes in which everything was all layered together at once – by which time we were ready for it. I liked meeting the ghosts slowly. Series two is just not quite working as well for me.

That said, AHS was, and still is, a show that takes risks. It goes for broke, doubles down, bats for the wall — whatever your metaphor of choice is, here. Not every move works. Some choices are predictable, others are merely grotesque. But when they do work, they are really damn creepy.

If Catholics, demons, and medical experimentation are areas of the horror genre you like, I still strongly recommend Asylum. And if haunted houses and ghosts are your cup of tea, go watched the first series. It’s a delight.

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