Who could have imagined it was possible to create a new subgenre best described as “a thinking man’s horror”? Seems like an oxymoron, right? To my mind, one of the most common adjectives that precede the word horror is “mindless”. Successful horror has you by the adrenal gland. You don’t process it, you experience it. Maybe “The Walking Dead” is in this category. But I believe Ryan Murphy’s AHS: Roanoke easily fits this classification and is also a dose of old-school, unrelenting horror that can leave you breathless. Integral to the tale is a reflection on the complexities generated by modern media culture and it is seamlessly blended with the adrenaline rush of grizzly murder, monsters, blood, and torture.
The sixth installation of his very successful series, it outshines the prior years in one important way, in addition to the horror, we have to work hard at figuring out what we actually know, what are willful lies or exaggerations, and what is true when the person themselves has limited clarity. The viewer becomes entangled in processing a story through the lens of common, almost mundane media genres: ghost story reenactments inspired by true events, faux found footage documentaries in the style of “The Blair Witch Project”, “life in a fish bowl” odysseys ranging from “Big Brother” to “Paranormal”, news reports,YouTube, interview shows, amateur investigation shows, and touching on live-streaming video that receives instant acclamation by trending on twitter, creating an odd feedback loop of being both subject and object of media. But, unlike most stories, where you learn the truth in the end, this narrative suggests that the impact of the media itself may permanently alter what is going on and obfuscate the true facts of the matter. More “Rashomon” than “The Spanish Prisoner”, there is no intent to completely deceive. It is just a set of views and personal motivations that need to be untangled from a complex knot while looking through a kaleidoscope of media styles.
The series has three parts, Chapters 1-5, Chapters 6-9 and Chapter 10. The first five chapters are entitled “Return to Roanoke” which does an excellent job of capturing the pseudo-documentary “A Haunting” style tv shows easily found mid-afternoon US tv. “Inspired” by real events, we have the story presented by alternating between first person talking head narratives and a reenactment of the story. While the reenactment is not stellar, it isn’t meant to be, it is solid workman-like quality horror.
Chapters 6-9 have a poetic echo of the first five chapters reminiscent of Brecht’s “Waiting for Godot” with a meta-theatrical flavor, and I think the horror is much more disturbing than the first five chapters, but in a good way. AHS has an extensive fan base on Reddit. The finale left many on Reddit feeling slightly lost and confused by the stilted focus. It took me a day or two to understand, at least a bit. But, it wasn’t all cliff-hanger and no closure. Ultimately I think the finale went exactly where it needed to go. I just wish Murphy left us a few more breadcrumbs to follow.
You can’t unscramble an egg, you can’t remove the sugar from your coffee and you can’t get at the truth easily once it has been liberally buttered with truthiness to excite and please the palate. Murphy provides an illustration that many common media styles and sources can inundate us with information of various levels of quality, but it can be difficult if not impossible to reconstruct meaningful knowledge at the end of the deluge. It took me a while to understand the shift in focus of the finale, it took a bit of thinking. And the moral of the story was just that.
There are consequences to this moral. Police decisions to respond to things become more difficult. Gaging your personal risk becomes harder. Maintaining a firm grip on how the world works becomes more tenuous. And when the narratives across the myriad sources and mediums contain almost no actual information and just dazzle, brand, and excite, we may not be able to make the best political decisions. And boy, that is first class horror.