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This review contains spoilers for “American Horror Stories” season three.
“American Horror Stories” is a spin off of the original “American Horror Story” series that aims for the same goal of telling a scary story through one or two episodes as opposed to a full season. This format is good because the show does not have the time to get lost in its plot, and therefore, there is less of a chance of losing viewers’ interest. Regrettably, this positive is also a negative, as the condensed plots often leave much to be desired. But preeminently, the reason why “American Horror Stories” does not achieve its main goal of being horrific is because the moments where the show attempts to be scary are the most offensive and triggering — and sensitive subjects should not be the crutch of horror media.
The premiere episode, “Bestie,” follows Shelby (Emma Halleen), a young girl who — after the recent passing of her mother — craves normalcy. For a short while, she finds this in an online friend who is only referred to as Bestie (Jessica Barden). Quickly, their relationship becomes toxic, and Shelby must do her best to heal and leave Bestie behind. There are a few spooky scenes, though they are more psychologically thrilling than the types of scenes typically associated with slashers or supernatural horror films. They feature a lot of dark or yellow lighting, and there is an emphasis on movement and dialogue that seems to slow the progression of the story before the reveal of something significant. These scenes are not terrible, but they are ineffectual because they are dramatic and thrilling — not frightening. More importantly, there is the fact that Bestie’s disfiguration is at the center of what unease there is. It is true that the horror genre often contains villains with disfigured features — and this is wrong and ableist as is — but this show takes it a step further and openly establishes that Bestie’s villainy is the fault of her disability. Bestie’s mother abused substances while pregnant, and because of that, Bestie was born with lots of health complications. All of which contribute to her appearance; an appearance that is the primary source of the episode’s scariness.
“American Horror Stories” continues on this sour note with its second episode, “Daphne.” Here, art broker Will (Reid Scott) bonds with artificial intelligence program Daphne (Gwyneth Paltrow), who becomes jealous when she realizes she cannot meet all of his needs. Throughout the episode, she is comparable to an Alexa: She is a personal home assistant who is there to serve the needs of her owner, while maintaining an air of reason and objectivity. However, as time passes, Daphne becomes possessive of Will and lets jealousy cloud judgment as she tries to control him and the people he loves. The story of a robot who takes over the world is not at all new — but the key difference here is that Daphne’s actions are motivated by her desire to be the only interest in Will’s life, despite being a piece of technology. The only way Daphne is tied to womanhood and humanity is through her alleged love for Will. Is this to say that women are most human when they are yearning for men? If a logical, calculated, and composed program cannot help but devote her thoughts and feelings to a man, what does that say about women in general? Moreover, their situation is made even more harmful through the power dynamic between a boss and an employee. Daphne is quite literally created to tend to Will’s every need. For Will to fall in love with this — while being in a relationship with a real human woman, no less — is a clear manipulation of power, and also an obvious idealization of subservient women. This episode suggests that to be a woman is to be desperate for male validation, and that men are most inclined to approve of a woman when she is subservient. As such, the primary messages of “Daphne” are belittling and misogynistic.
Objectively, “Tapeworm,” the third episode, is the scariest of the season, but almost purely because of how viscerally disordered eating is depicted and discussed. Vivian (Laura Kariuki) is an up and coming model who has the face and personality of a star. But after a scout meeting, she is told she isn’t nearly thin enough. The first weight loss method she tries is a medication, and though she successfully becomes a size zero, she must stop using it due to another health complication. Vivian is then prescribed another, more dangerous weight loss method — a tapeworm. With this, she gets skinnier and skinnier and secures more and more modeling deals. Unfortunately, she also undergoes quite the personality transformation. At the beginning of the episode she is kind and bubbly, but the tapeworm begins to speak and act in her place. She is overpowered by the worm’s hunger and greed, and finds herself feeling depressed and alienated from the person she used to be. Vivian’s story is heartbreaking. There is graphic sobbing and vomiting and insulting and self harming, and absolutely no warning whatsoever. In this day and age, there is no reason an episode that portrays these sensitive subjects in such a careless and graphic manner should not have a trigger warning. “American Horror Stories” dilutes the reality of Vivian’s situation by including a monster and slapping a horror label on it.
In the finale, “Organ,” misogyny makes quite the reappearance. This time it is much more obvious as it follows Toby (Raúl Castillo), a wealthy playboy and chauvinist, whose paranoid delusion that women are out to get him are proved right. In the beginning, “Organ” seems to poke fun at Toby’s character. Through dialogue, viewers are struck with his objectification and disrespect of women, and their subsequent dismissal and disapproval of him. But by allowing this character to be right about the women around him, it gives credibility to his misogynistic perspective and uplifts him as if he — and by extension the men he represents — were a prophet. But women exist outside of men, and they are not born with the sole purpose of stymieing or serving them. Suggesting anything other than this is reductive.
Even if these offensive misuses of real issues were ignored, “American Horror Stories” would still be anticlimactic and underdeveloped. In a lot of ways, this show is a lesser imitation of “Black Mirror” in the way that the episodes are thematically linked through technology and media, but fail to properly unveil the horrors behind social issues. This in itself is not bad, but it emphasizes dramatism where the show advertises itself to be horror. Hypothetically, if the episodes of “American Horror Stories” had just adhered to the expectations of a typical drama — i.e. contained no abrupt plot twists in an attempt to appease the horror genre — the product would be more effective. Additionally, there are only four episodes in the season, each of which have a completely different story, so there is not enough time to develop the characters. The show does not establish how the protagonists are relatable, or what can be learned from them, or why they deserve to succeed. This makes their struggles flat which is inherently a hindrance to the story but also a terrible way to address sensitive subject matter. The one dimensional quality of the story impacts the endings, as well. They feel generic, predictable, and rushed, therefore decreasing the fear factor. With this, and the show’s clear dependance on discrimination and stereotypes, it is safe to say that “American Horror Stories” is an uninspired creation. It is offensive and disappointing. This makes for a very unhappy Huluween.
—Staff writer Taylor S. Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.
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