We love American Horror Story. At its best, it’s a postmodern masterpiece, mixing up the scariest bits of U.S. history and urban legend into frightening tales of Nazi medical experiments, social outcasts in haunted hotels, aborted demon children and immortal serial murderers with serious mommy issues. At its worst though, it’s a paltry pastiche of co-creator Ryan Murphy’s past work with needless pop-music performances, lazy moralizing about racism and inconsequential catfights over who’s the best witch.
So even though season six is already in the can and set to premier this evening, the past five seasons have given us a wish list of things we hope the series will and will not do in its sixth season.
DON’T make all your heroes murderers.
Throughout Freak Show, Murphy made it easy to sympathize with many of the titular outcasts: poor Meep, the chicken-decapitating geek, wrongfully arrested and murdered at the hands of brutal inmates; Ma Petite, the world’s smallest woman, tossed into a large jar of formaldehyde by freak collectors and Pepper, the pinhead, framed for infanticide by her shitty sister. How sad, right? Yeah, sad if you weren’t freaked out by them chopping up a policeman’s body alongside all the other freaks at the end of episode one.
In all its other incarnations, AHS kept some of its characters innocent and pure. If they killed, it was because they had to, and the decision haunted them for the rest of the season. But murder in AHS became much more casual with Coven.
In Coven‘s first episode, telekinetic teenage witch Madison Montgomery kills a bus full of frat boys after they drug and rape her at a party. She’s not too bothered by it. Moments later, Zoe uses her deadly vagina to hump the lead-rapist to death in his hospital bed. Later on, Nan the mind-reader forces Patti LuPone to drink bleach as punishment for murdering her crush. Then, in the last episode, elder witch Cordelia burns a witch at the stake even though the witch helped restore Cordelia’s lost sight, but really who cares? Murder in Freak Show and Coven occurred with zero consequences. In the rare instances that police arrive, they depart just as quickly without much adieu.
While we’re at it, AHS should probably also stop indiscriminately killing off all of its characters. Almost everyone in Freak Show dies a horrible death, pretty much everyone in Hotel died too. After a while, it became hard to feign much shock over it. But remember when Violet committed suicide in Murder House, and when Sister Mary Eunice got pushed over the handrail in Asylum? Tears!! Tears, my friends! It pays to choose your murderous moments well.
DO keep using trans actors of color.
Apart from Laverne Cox, we’re hard pressed to name any other trans actors of color given the spotlight in a major TV series. By starring transgender model Erika Ervin as the six-foot-eight, cisgender, circus starlet “Amazon Eve” in season four’s Freak Show (pictured left above), Murphy showed the prejudice faced by gender nonconformists and other societal outcasts — the disabled and foreigners, for instance — while also giving her strength.
When Dell, the homicidal yet closeted strongman, comes to Eve’s trailer to kill her, she righteously kicks his ass. When Ma Petite, the world’s smallest lady, goes missing, Eve makes a fuss until she reappears. And when Dandy, the wealthy psychopath, goes on a shooting spree in the series’ finale, Eve tries to overpower him even after he’s already gunned down several of her co-stars. Yes, her death closely resembles the real-life murders of trans women of color, but keep in mind that nine in 10 Americans say they don’t personally know any trans people.
Hotel didn’t use a trans actor of color, but casted cisgender gay actor Denis O’Hare in the role of gender-nonconforming hotel manager Liz Taylor. While O’Hare made Liz one of the most beloved (and memorable) AHS characters of all time, exposing audiences to empowered transgender actors helps pave the way for real-world trans acceptance and respect, so let’s keep that trend going.
DON’T have resurrections as an option.
Okay, we’ll admit it: we hated Coven — it was basically like Mean Girls: Hogwarts. The entire season could be summed up by the YouTube video above containing every utterance of the words “bitch” and “supreme” over and over again. But among the many reasons that Coven failed (believe us, we’ll get to them) was the erasing of all life-or-death stakes by resurrecting almost every dead character.
Sure, poor dismembered Evan Peters came back as a mentally addled Franken-frat-boy, but four other women came back with nary a scratch: killer-vagina witch Zoe, Stevie Nicks-wannabe Misty Day, burned-at-the-stake Council member Myrtle and murderous mom-next-door Joan all rose again. And when your characters can’t stay dead, you throw out one scariest tools in the horror toolbox: fatal consequences.
Hotel and Murder House took a different tack with resurrection by having its slain characters return as cheerful ghosts with very little left to worry about. The “ghosting” of characters has the same effect of removing all stakes since in Murder House, Freak Show and Hotel all of the ghosts can still kill, fall in love, drink and fuck just like they could when they were alive; their only limitation is that they can’t leave the property — hardly exciting.
If Murphy simply has to include resurrections, he should take a cue from Pet Semetary and have the resurrected characters come back frighteningly transformed.
DO keep having a serial killer.
Serial killers are as American as mass shootings; America has more serial killers than any other nation and we treat them like goddamned celebrities. So Murphy’s regular inclusion of serial killers reflects our sick obsession with people-slayers while addressing our very fear of becoming their next random victim.
Moreso, Murphy makes his serial killers complicated manifestations of the deep, dark psychological issues we all face: Murder House‘s Rubber Man represents repressed anger and sexual urges, Asylum‘s Bloody Face struggles helplessly against the truth of his own parentage, Coven‘s Axeman serves as a seductive warning about letting the wrong man into your heart, Freak Show‘s Twisty the Clown illustrates how bullying and false rumors can make monsters of kind people and Hotel‘s Ten Commandments Killer and “Addiction Demon” operate as the superego/ultra-id of American addiction.
If anything, we’d suggest that season six tease out its serial killer thread for as long as possible. It needn’t necessarily weave the villain into the finale like Asylum, but killing Twisty in episode four left Freak Show with a noticeable gap that the other cartoon villains just couldn’t fill, and Hotel‘s handling of its killers proved anti-climatic with one being having a predictable reveal and the other simply disappearing without explanation.
DON’T do musical numbers. This isn’t fucking Glee.
Almost every critic groaned about Freak Show‘s use of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” in the opening episode. True, the song narratively worked for heroine Elsa Mars — a disgraced German-expat looking for redemption in her traveling sideshow — but Freak Show took place in 1952 and Bowie’s song didn’t come out until 1971.
Soon after, Freak Show trotted out the moody lobster boy performing Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” (1993), the murderous co-joined twins singing Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” (1996), and Elsa once again doing Lana Del Rey’s “Gods and Monsters” (2012). Their inclusion merely confirmed what viewers had feared since Stevie Nicks’ two gratuitous appearances in Coven — Murphy had given into to his love of musicals and was turning AHS into Glee.
While Freak Show‘s pop-music performances arguably breathed new life into beloved songs, the show didn’t need to include them at all. Great music existed in 1952 after all, and by settling on modern-day crowd-pleasers, the show’s creators basically wrote off the entire musical era as boring. Even worse, the contemporary tunes pulled us out of the show’s historical fiction, one of the strongest devices AHS has going for it. Plus, they did little to heighten the emotional drama or character depth — they were just ear candy.
AHS is not a world of plucky teens trying to find happiness — it’s a bleak dystopia where innocence gets punished and evildoers literally get away with murder. Thankfully Freak Show dropped its musical schtick largely by episode seven of its 13-episode run, and Hotel largely dropped musical numbers and starting using music video montages instead — particularly two memorable ones set to “Hotel California” and “Tear You Apart” in episode one. We’re pretty sure Murphy won’t be able to resist using music in season six. Let’s just hope he uses it sparingly.
DO use real-life historical events.
Part of what made the first two seasons so terrifying was how they twisted real-life events into vivid nightmares. The Murder House used turn-of-the-century opiate addiction, back-alley abortions, the 1947 Black Dahlia murder and the 1999 Columbine school shooting to construct an atmosphere of endless violence. Similarly, Asylum referenced real-life Nazi medical experiments, the post World War II tuberculosis epidemic, the diagnosis of lesbianism as a mental disorder and The Diary of Anne Frank to build a world of inescapable dread. Hotel even put in a few nods to Hollywood’s golden age and the post-World War I boom.
In contrast, Coven missed a golden opportunity by mostly ignoring the history of American witches and voodoo. The Salem witch trials of the early 1690s, the voodoo practices of Haitian refugees in early New Orleans, the exploits of Marie Laveau and the “satanic panic” of the 1980s — combined with other American witch and ghost stories — could have cast a terrifying spell over all of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies (the secret witch school where Coven takes place).
Instead, Coven focused mostly on the predictable and boring present-day rivalry between the white witches and black voodoo practitioners, boiling much of the show’s drama down to a ho-hum racial turf war. Coven would have been infinitely cooler had it used history to show the real-life horrors of persecuting Black people, powerful women and non-Christians. Harming the innocent? Now that’s scary!
DON’T use heavy-handed social messages.
In episode nine of Coven, Queenie, the smart-talking Black witch, gets tired of Delphine LaLaurie’s White supremacist bullshit — Delphine is a historic slave torturer after all — and forces Delphine’s disembodied head to watch all eight hours of Alex Haley’s Roots followed by Roots: The Next Generations, Mandingo, The Color Purple and the 1997 Halle Berry comedy BAP*S. A few scenes later, the American Civil Rights ballad “Oh Freedom” plays loudly while witch-hunter Josh Hamilton guns down a bunch of Black voodoo practitioners one after the other. Cut to shot of Delphine sobbing while watching footage of the 1964 Selma marchers being beaten, sprayed with firehoses and arrested by cops.
Oh yes. Racial issues are important, but Murphy is hardly the person to lecture us on them considering his “ha-ha racist” mom in The New Normal, his reference to the house mother as “White Mammy” in Scream Queens season one and the fact that two of Freak Show‘s three Black characters quickly died at the hands a rich white boy (of course, killing off Black characters is another long-running horror trope — ugh). Coven‘s subtle-as-a-sledgehammer anti-racist moralizing happened in a tone-deaf scene at odds with the series’ overall tone. We already knew Delphine was despicable, and a few episodes later, she resumes her racist ways, BAP*S be damned.
A similar (but thankfully shorter) bit of moralizing also took place in the first episode of Freak Show when Evan “Lobster Boy” Peters delivers an on-the-nose speech about how freaks don’t fit into society and are willing to kill for one another if need be. His oration comes after multiple scenes of freaks being treated like crap and moments before they all chop up a policeman. Yeah, we get it — freaks hang together.
In contrast, Murder House used distant glances, cold body language and heart-wrenching arguments between the adulterous Dr. Ben Harmon and his unfortunately pregnant wife Vivien to convey the anguish caused by infidelity. Asylum‘s dank cells, lifeless recreation room and myriad medical tortures illustrated the failure of religion to care for those most in need — no speeches or overwrought scenes necessary.
DO incorporate the teasers’ imagery into the story.
FX ramped up anticipation for the first two seasons with tantalizing teasers hinting at each story’s themes and menace. For Murder House, we got unsteady footage of baby dolls rotting in metal pans, shadowy figures standing atop basement stairwells and a slender man clad entirely in a black rubber suit reaching for the pregnant belly of a reclining woman — whoa.
The Asylum teasers were pretty great too. They showed white-faced demon-nuns praying in padded rooms, dumping body parts into the forest and images of mental patients writhing in restraints and trying to escape their tiny cells — creepy.
Both seasons incorporated the imagery into their storylines. The Rubber Man became the lead villain in Murder House, fighting for possession of Vivien Harmon’s unborn child. Asylum had cannibalistic monsters hiding in its forests, ready to eat any patient fleeing the demonic nuns.
But Coven largely stopped this trend. Its teasers showed young women suspended in weird angles around an empty mansion, women’s bodies pierced through with giant needles, women ingesting snakes and an ominous half-woman half-snake seated alone in a parlor. The teasers were scarier than the actual show, and yet none of the ideas ever made it into the storyline.
Freak Show‘s circus-themed teasers featured three-legged women, shabby clowns with unnaturally large grins, a child-eating circus tent and a particularly disturbing image of a beautiful angel whose wings turn out to be a crude machination of sticks and torn flesh. Only the grinning clown made it in.
Thankfully, Hotel‘s teasers resurrected the incorporation of trailer material into the show with its living corpses stitched into mattresses, dead children tromping around the stairwells and a clawed hand cruelly seizing a lady by the throat. We were glad they all checked in.
While it’s hard to imagine how season six could possibly incorporate all the imagery from the 26+ teaser trailers created to keep viewers curious about the show’s theme, the history of AHS trailers suggests that season six could do just that, if they’re smart about it.
DON’T always go for the happy ending.
Murder House — a season filled with nonstop throat slashings, emotional blackmail, monster babies, occasional rape and a dead gay couple with a fire poker shoved in one of their asses — ended with a goddamned Christmas special. Yes, it was weird to see the Harmon family laughing around the tree, infinitely happier as murdered ghosts than they ever were as breathing mortals. All the other violent ghosts look on in envy, excluded from the holiday revels; Vivien’s demon fetus turns out to be an incorrigible but bloodthirsty Dennis the Menace raised by the next-door-neighbor, and it seems that the Harmons will never let the Murder House claim another victim. But how did TV’s darkest horror series end up concluding with a humorous holiday episode?
Asylum took a similar (thought much stronger) tack: after the non-stop bleakness of Briarcliff Manor, wrongly accused Kit rescues Sister Jude from the asylum and they raise Kit’s alien-born children in the countryside; Jude dies a dignified death accompanied by the kiddos in the forest; Lana Winters becomes a successful, openly lesbian muckraker delivering the televised interview of her career — moments later, she dispatches her serial murderer son, Bloody Face part deux; and the negligent Monsignor dutifully commits suicide after coming to terms with all the harm he has caused. Evil is punished. All wrongs righted. A just world prevails.
Coven, Freak Show and Hotel all ended similarly. The beleaguered Coven opens its doors to a large crop of eager young witches (strange, considering Miss Robichaux’s had only four students the entire season), and Elsa Mars gets her desired TV career and then goes to sideshow heaven, free to mingle with every other dead performer from her Freak Show. Pretty much all of Hotel’s guests die (except Romona the Black-sploitation vampire and Iris the front desk clerk) and their ghosts get to perpetually hang out at the Hotel Cortez bar, abstaining from their murderous antics until the building achieves historic landmark status in 2026 — fun.
It makes sense that AHS would want to leave its viewers with a modicum of hope after so much fear and dread. But perhaps some of its villains should go unpunished (free to kill again), some of its horrors go unexplained and a few good apples be left to rot. After all, wouldn’t it be much scarier to acknowledge that life’s terrors don’t always disappear after the end credits?
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Amazon Eve as a transgender character. Eve is actually cisgender in the show even though she’s played by a trans actress.
(Story originally published on October 7, 2015; it has been updated to include information from season five, Hotel)