Movies · TV

American Horror Story: Roanoke and the Art of Self-Mythology

By  · Published on October 21st, 2016

A look at how American Horror Story explains what’s really “American” about it all.

Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s horror anthology series American Horror Story has always been about gimmicks and what gimmicks can do for you today. Its initially independent anthology structure was one, its theatre troupe-like of casting was another, and its sheer derivative nature is a third. And through five seasons, AHS has employed different gimmicks that somehow feel the same, in spite of their intent to hold the audience’s attention with freshness: time jumping, jump cuts, jumping off of a building. AHS hasn’t exactly been deceitful to its audience about its intention to map out – through a particular horror lens – some sort of Americana ideology and identity. But the show circumvented it several times with flashy distractions. The canted angles, the ludicrously overwhelming plot elements, Jessica Lange’s acting. For the show’s sixth season, Roanoke, AHS has chosen to be its most direct about what it wants to be about: American self-mythology.

Past seasons of the show have dabbled in talking heads (in both a conventional and supernatural sense) – such as Lana Winters’ (Sarah Paulson) investigations into the eponymous Asylum of season two – but season six takes a little bit of a structural divergence from the rest of the series. No, the talking heads have become crucial. My Roanoke Nightmare is, for the time being, a pastiche of Discovery Channel supernatural shows like A Haunting and Paranormal Witness, where a superficially bland family (in this case, Shelby and Matt Miller, played by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland in the interviews as the “real” family and by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the show-within-the-show’s reenactments) leave LA after a racially motivated attack to start a new life in Matt’s home state of North Carolina. These shows rely on firsthand accounts, the talking head interview giving the illusion of authenticity, but nonetheless allowing the “witnesses” to craft their own narrative.

Rabe and Holland look into the camera and earnestly recount their desires, fears, and anxieties, constructing a particular identity for themselves and for the audience: that they are real people whose with authentic concerns, and deserve to be heard. These monologues are direct and inelegant, with motivations spilling liberally onto the table. Their personal thoughts are exposed as nakedly as one can in front of a camera in a testimonial setting. Subtlety has no place here. (Then again, did it ever have one in a Ryan Murphy production?) To paraphrase Dick Wolf, this is America’s story, and in turn, its legacy.

Lily Rabe as the real Shelby Miller

As tensions between Matt and Shelby, and with Matt’s sister Lee (Adina Porter in the interview/Angela Bassett in the reenactments), continue to mount, explicitly in these reenactments, repetition appears: you see tension once in a dramatized scene, such as when Shelby lashes out at Lee for moving a knife in the kitchen, and again, from the mouths of Shelby and Lee in the interviews. “My brother married one jumpy white bitch,” Lee tells the camera in one of her talking heads. The order of the structure occasionally switches, but the point is that having interview and dramatization side by side is supposed to be like a confirmation: this is a thing that happened, not only because I, a character from the show, am telling you, but because we’ve recreated my testimony.

Murphy’s America of American Horror Story is mean and dysfunctional, drug addled and abuse prone. He’s employed first person narration throughout the series to give a sense of intimacy and identification. Much of the third season, Coven, and the fourth season, Freak Show, sought to tell their stories from the perspective of one character: Taissa Farmiga’s young witch Zoe in the former, and Sarah Paulson’s two headed Bette and Dot in the latter. What they see of America is what Murphy sees. Both characters perpetrate awfulness as well as experience it firsthand. That these characters address themselves via narration is a form of self-mythology by itself, like trying to reaffirm something for their own purposes. AHS: Roanoke is the next logical step; Murphy adjusts the presentation to be explicitly about telling the audience, actively creating this image, repeating the same kind of information, there is an affirmation of this image of American identity, a very dystopic one, not merely for the character, but for the audience.

The precision of the landscapes created in AHS seem so detailed because of what feels like a uniquely American penchant for characters not only writing their own narrative, but for the desire of that narrative to become legacy. In AHS, history is a ghost that constantly haunts the present. The mythology of America, as portrayed in the show, is ideologically charged: the atrocities of racism, ableism, and other forms of systematic oppression become part of its DNA, but having the show’s characters tell you this in so many words is a fairly intriguing step for Murphy.

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By having his characters speak directly to us, by speaking of their financial woes, their career difficulties, and their dissolving sanity, Murphy suggests that the most American thing is turning self-mythology into commodity. There’s an audience here, imagined and real, ready to consume. So often the shows that Roanoke is mimicking are abound with someone using the words “my story”; and AHS is no different, adding the ownership to the subtitle. The confessional is in and of itself universal, but the existence of a market for that feels distinctly American to Murphy.

The references that Murphy goads and tempts the audience with this season – Blair Witch, The Mist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Amityville Horror, etc. – are nothing really new. But that he has allowed his show to congeal into something resembling more closely The Real Housewives of Roanoke (in its talking heads and high melodrama) offers something intriguing. The only difference between those shows is the amount of booze thrown at someone. But the stifling sense of self-awareness that often felt glib has retreated into an earnestness.

The show builds an identity not only for itself but for America: where truth telling is a performance and a contest to create personal identities to be commodified, ruefully taking inspiration from other iconography and narratives and using them for their own benefit.

In spite of the gracelessness of the mockumentary method, its directness is nonetheless an interesting choice, at least within the context of the show’s reemerging thesis. It’s always been there, but what American Horror Story: Roanoke presupposes is, “What if the show was just missing talking heads the whole time?”