Like the ghosts that figure so prominently in the FX haunted house series, American Horror Story (AHS) continues to make a commotion, despite being in a state of suspended animation. Most of this buzz revolves around the curious news that the program will contend in this year’s Emmy Award Ceremony in the Miniseries category, despite a full twelve-episode run. In addition, slowly leaking news of the cult program’s second season, which is scheduled to premiere in October, allege a distinctive and decidedly bonkers departure from the last season; the original cast will return as entirely new characters in a new setting. Star Trek‘s (2009) and Heroes‘ (2006-2010) Zachary Quinto will be a central character after last year’s supporting role as an undead gay homeowner still fighting to reclaim his residence. Add in the unexpected casting of Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and the cult favorite is still entrenched in the public consciousness.
For those who have not had both the fortune and misfortune of watching the uneven hour-long program, AHS joins Twin Peaks (1990-1991) and Dark Shadows (1966-1971) as one of the rare episodic horror shows on television. The series feature the Harmons, a New England nuclear family moving to Los Angeles after the father’s infidelities are exposed. Parents Ben and Vivian (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) and their teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) grapple with their own lustful urges, depression, and angst as they sink into the sunny misery of California. As if that isn’t enough, the Harmons share their dream home with dozens of ghosts, some malevolent, some good.
Building a tapestry of the most unsettling elements of human desire and malice, AHS features sex-crazed specters, homicidal leather babies, monstrous abortions, and (scariest of all) a family trying to sell a mansion during the worst housing crisis in American history. Dripping with suspense and artistic flights of fancy, AHS is certainly not the best show on TV, but it’s one of the most unpredictable and alluring. For you poor souls who have become addicted to AHS, we know that not getting your weekly fix has you suffering from withdrawal. Here’s your methadone:
1. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992): In their unnerving tones, West Coast locales, and plots centering on mysteries that increasingly prove supernatural, anyone that watches AHS will instantly recognize the parallels to David Lynch’s gold standard for television horror. Yet, despite the comparisons, AHS is entirely more surreal and cinematic than Twin Peaks ever was on television and is more in keeping with Lynch’s filmic conclusion. While I seem to be in the minority on the subject, I find the film to be the bizarre, haunting masterpiece that the series never was.
2. Sunset Boulevard (1950): Among both critics and fans alike, the highlight of AHS is Jessica Lange’s turn as Constance, the damaged Southern neighbor of the Harmons who, in true black-widow form, has outlived all her children and lovers. Both slyly offensive and disingenuously saccharine, Constance is the first season’s transfixing matriarch, bleeding resentment from her failed early efforts at being a movie star. A categorical “never-was,” Constance’s shattered dreams mirror closely those of silent cinema “has-been” Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s gothic masterpiece, Sunset Boulevard. Inexorably painful, these works shine from the iridescence and darkness of their collapsed stars.
3. Mullholand Dr. (2001) and Inland Empire (2006): The King of surreal horror, Lynch’s creative fingerprints are visible not only in the tone of AHS but in its very concept as well. This is never more the case than in his duo of Los Angeles-centered features, wherein he burrows deep into the demented and brutal underbelly of the shiny, bloated corpse of the City of Angels and finds California dreams transformed into nightmares. While AHS tends toward the more historical elements of LA’s dark past (including the Black Dahlia murders), the series follows both the narrative and stylistic trail blazed by the wild cinematic master.
4. Nip/Tuck (2003-10): Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s freshman effort, which chronicles the disturbed McNamara/Troy plastic surgery clinic and its two equally dysfunctional doctors, shares the quick editing and steely sheen that typifies AHS at its best, as well as the emphasis on amoral medical professionals. For those brave viewers looking for something a bit more shocking, venture on to the creators’ terrifying opus, Glee (2009).
5. Rosemary’s Baby (1968): If one of the central story lines – Vivien’s harrowing odyssey from being a mother to an otherworldly brood – seems all-too familiar, it’s because the subject became a hotbed for artistic exploration from the late 1960s to the 1980s. While staples of the movement in cinema like It’s Alive (1974) and The Brood (1979) maintain popularity, the most revered is Roman Polanski’s influential work, which defines maternal paranoia and fear in vivid detail. Murphy and Falchuk, so inspired by the tale of the titular heroine manipulated by a cult into becoming the mother of Satan’s offspring, infuses the first season with a myriad of references, including a particularly distasteful moment when the pliable Vivien is bewitched into eating raw animal organs by those invested in her child’s “future.”
6. The Shining (1980): If you like your haunted houses with an extensive sense of history like the Harmon’s (which features ghostly residents from as early as the 1920s), then look no further than Stanley Kubrick’s iconic, if not awkwardly paced, adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal tale of madness and isolation. Like the cyclical nature of the doomed owners of AHS’s mansion, the Overlook Hotel contains an unbreakable line of inheritance illustrated in The Shining’s immortal final moment.
7. Music by Portishead and Siouxsie and the Banshees: Evoking the eerie atmosphere necessary to mesmerize viewers, AHS boasts an impressive soundtrack of musicians adept at weaving haunting melodies, including Mirah (“Special Death”), Lights On (“I, the Sun”), Gossling (“Hazard”), Son Lux (“Flickers”), and Pete and the Pirates (“Blood Gets Thin”). All of these devilish indie groups owe much of their chilling sounds to the gorgeously macabre works of the trip hop-infused Portishead and the gothic Siouxsie and the Banshees, who in their respective albums Dummy (1994) and Peepshow (1988) make spooky cool.
8. Possession (1981): Domestic horror, a category AHS undoubtedly falls into, remains one of the most popular subgenres. Penetrating deep into the zeitgeist of familial conflicts and anxieties and reconceiving them as grand nightmares, domestic horror proves a relatable art form. No film has so vividly tapped into the horrors of domestic distress as the little-known cult film, Possession, directed by the Polish cinema master, Andrzej Zulawski. Much like AHS’s Harmon saga, the film features a husband and wife (Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani) embroiled in a tumultuous stage of their marriage, causing both to spiral into madness at the expense of their child. Exacerbating such friction is the revelation that Anna (Adjani) is having an affair with a monster. The masterpiece (a term I don’t use lightly) is like Godard’s Contempt (1963) with tentacle sex!
9. The Omen Series (1976-91): With the news of AHS’s second season departure from the narrative groundwork laid in the first, fans clamoring for resolution to the show’s cliffhanger, which involves Constance raising a cosmically powerful toddler, will be left wanting. While an inevitable glut of fanfiction will surely help fill out this unresolved storyline, insatiable viewers may find solace in The Omen series of films. Screaming in with the iconic first feature and devolving into formulaic horror drivel, the saga centers on Damien Thorn, a wealthy young boy who just happens to be the Antichrist.
10. Standout Haunted House Fiction: The history of narratives using haunted houses as a central plot device are rich, spanning back to Roman times and reaching prominence in the mid-nineteenth century, with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839). Due to Hollywood’s exhaustion of such settings, though, the thought of “yet another” haunted house film is usually met with a chorus of groans. Like AHS, two films reinvigorated the tired formula with nuance, thereby elevating themselves above the formulaic garbage heaps that include Amityville Horror (1979) and House on Haunted Hill (1959). First is The Innocents (1961), which is based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (1898). The Innocents follows the governess of a haunted mansion (Deborah Kerr) and is told in mesmerizing and lyrical brilliance by the languid camera of cinematographer Freddie Francis. The second is The Legend of Hell House (1973), which, like AHS, vibrates with a haunting sexual energy. Both are essential viewing for any lover of haunted house fiction.