Note: it may be helpful to read my Spoiler-free review of AHS Roanoke before reading this, but not absolutely necessary.
Hats off to Reddit for providing a laboratory to watch people process this season’s AHS: Roanoke. I was as much a participant as an observer. It was fun, for the most part. And most of my theories were wrong as well, though I was more interested in exploring entertaining ideas than predicting what was actually going to happen on the show. People write there for all sorts of reasons. I did not start out as some kind of voyeur, but what I saw on Reddit was as interesting as AHS: Roanoke itself.
Recently, a philosopher friend reminded me that you should not always believe what you think. I’ve already written about how hard it is to put the Humpty Dumpty of truth back together after it has been through the media blender. The problem with expressing this is that everyone nods sagely in agreement. The educated ones mutter, “The medium is the message”. But everyone thinks they are the exception, that they readily extract cold facts from this information slushee. Almost everyone walks around uncritically believing what they think. My purpose revisiting Roanoke is to provide substantial SPOILER examples of exactly why a ride in the media blender, even if it contains large lumps of factually correct information, makes accessing the truth an incredibly analytic labor; and we are too lazy to do this work even 1% of the time.
It seemed to me that prior to the finale, most redditors were of the opinion that if Episodes 6-9, commonly referred to as Return to Roanoke (RTR), were some kind of “Blair WItch Project”, faux “found footage” horror project, it would be lame and they would be pissed and feel disappointed. Ryan circumvented a direct confrontation on this by introducing yet another media genre, the amateur ghost investigators, kept the action distractingly fast-paced and focused on resolving only one of the story threads. My sense is that, of all seasons, opinions on this complete season were the most polarized. I thought it was brilliant, lots of people thought it was shit.
Before giving some spoiler examples to make my point, I want to add to my laundry list of reality style tv show genres that I mentioned before. I submit for your consideration, the “Real Housewives” franchise. How do you get a bunch of vain, aging, wealthy, well-educated (for the most part) women to parade their shallow, petty lives on television? Tell them it’s not them! Tell them they are playing a “character” in the exact same circumstances, with their name. Hand them a script describing their lives and conflicts and tell them this is the “character’s” story line. This is why you see so many real-time divorces on this show. It is way more than coincidence. Their venal, ugly, cruel or stupid character is on display for all the world to see and their husbands can’t stomach a nation knowing what they are married to. All married people know their partners are imperfect, but their deeper imperfections are usually part of a private world, shared by only two people; the place where people can be themselves, for better or worse. It must be impossible if the totality of your partner’s ugliness is on public display, and you realize how your partner has such limited self-understanding that they willingly parade this ugliness under the guise of a “character” with their name and a “storyline” describing their lives. I believe Andy Cohen, the angel-faced producer who calls these women his friends is a soulless monster.
Sydney, the cruel bastard, found the perfect candidate for the “Real Housewives” treatment, and her name is Audrey. He revealed this petty, cruel “that’s how I played her, fiery and pathetic”, vain, histrionic and insecure woman by telling her to just play herself. From her wedding tape, to her soliloquy on the three months of perfect love under the tree from which Rory hung, to her spontaneous eulogy praising Dominic as an excellent scene partner, we marveled at the remarkable piece of work that was Audrey. Fantastically entertaining, right?
But, back to the media slurpee…
Ryan was afraid we would get lost, so he offered us some information. “You cannot trust them,” Murphy told E! “I think all three of them are…what they said and what they explained in their version of events is not actually the truth.”
It is important to remember that when Ryan dropped the hint, we were watching the talking head interviews of MRN. Shelby and Matt were still together. They had not been to Palley Fest where Dominic made a move on Shelby. After MRN Shelby and Matt offered us very little about their story or perspective other than Shelby agreeing to return in order to win Matt back. There really was no opportunity for us to not trust what they say after MRN because they really aren’t conveying anything outside of their behavioral responses to what was going on around them. This hint was really to help us figure out what is going on in these interviews.
Let’s get Lee out of the way. Lee might be misrepresenting things because of Mason. It turns out this is true. Interestingly, I believe the primary reason Lana is introduced in the end is for the purpose of rehabilitating Lee’s reputation in our eyes. In this universe, Lana is the final word on someone’s character, she can read them. She tells us Lee is much like herself, and can be of singular focus, like a dog with a bone.
I believe the key reason that Matt and Shelby, particularly Shelby, should be viewed as unreliable narrators is Sydney. The whole MRN was “inspired” by a true story. Sydney bought the house and paid them to participate so long as they went along with his embellishments. (If you can’t suspend your disbelief in this theory, and go along with this for a while you might as well stop reading.) After Matt’s traumatic head injury, memory issues and being the object of Scatcat’s affections, I wouldn’t trust Matt to tell me the correct time.
Shelby said that the night Matt was knocked out was the worst night in her life. Really? Worse than a blood moon night in the Roanoke house visiting their cannibal neighbors? And how could they ever return after that experience?
It wasn’t such a big deal to go back because most of the big horror was Sydney’s fictional, extreme enhancements to spice the story up. Shelby and Matt’s real story was scary and mystifying, and searching for little girl in the woods is worrying, but what actually happened to them was not terrifying or horrifying.
Do you remember how there was really something “off” about Shelby when interviewed? Something didn’t seem right? The brief eye twitchy flutter just that once? It drove me crazy. Lily Rabe is such a fantastic actress, what was it about the character Shelby? The reason Shelby seemed so off was Sydney had her well beyond her comfort zone with the lies and exaggerations he spiced the show up with. But she had no choice. She committed to it, for Matt.
Here is a list of stuff I do not believe happened and that Sydney made up for reenactment “inspired” by a true story.
MEETING THE POLKERS
Could you image going anywhere within a hundred mile of the place where you had this experience? You are offered jerky made from someone’s leg, have the source of the jerky tied to a table filled with arrows, and begging you to end their life, AND then watch someone murder them by smashing their head with a hammer and getting sprayed with brains, while grandma is calling you “sweet meat”?
Why I believe it didn’t happen.
The Polks told Audrey that her fate was on account of her getting their young’uns taken. How could they not remember that Shelby and Matt were responsible for that, given they held them hostage? They could not remember it because they hadn’t held them hostage. This leads me to think the whole meeting Elias in person was “inspired” by true events. I think the only Elias the Millers met was via those videotapes.
In court, Flora said she saw her mother smash her father’s head with a large stone. But this wasn’t enough of a reveal for much of Reddit. They were trying to figure out how he was burned after that? This illustrates how hard it is to let go of a lie. Some say, “But we saw the burnt ghost of Lee’s husband, Mason, walk down the hall in RTR.” Yes, and Sydney had also arranged for a piggy man to show up to keep things entertaining. I believe this is the reason we saw family pictures including the real Mason during the interview with Lana. He looked different from the man playing the ghost. He had hair, for one. The ghost was rocking a cue ball look, like the actor who played him in MRN.
In court, the discrediting aspect to Flora as a witness was NOT that she got the cause of death wrong, but because she believed she had a ghost friend.
This need to insist that Mason was also burned, because you received the smallest additional lie to reinforce this, is exactly how hard it is to extract truth from a media slurpee.
THE SLAUGHTER OF THE ENTIRE SPIRIT CHASER TEAM
Many of those paranormal expert teams wish they would find stuff, but are prepared if they don’t. A bed sheet goes flying? Really? And it was so funny that they introduce Avery, the actor who plays the psychic Cricket. He stumbles upon a dirty bonnet, “We had one just like this on the show!” Then he proceeds to give a psychic reading of it, really? What did he say? “So much pain and desolation” or something like that. Psychic actor who played a psychic on the reenactment? Wow! Sydney really casts for realism, or what a coincidence!
And after Lee was surprised to find the Spirit Casers there, she seemed pretty cool. Her gun was holstered. She’s seen all this fake shit before. She calmly walks up the stairs to continue looking for Flora. Gee, what great investigators SPIRIT CHASERS were. They can’t figure out there is a live child hiding i the house? And Flora seemed unfazed by the whole thing, even watching piggyman chop Avery, it must have been clear to her it was bs because she knows what a real ghost is.
But the most telling information was when we heard the morning news describing a hostage situation. A woman holding one or two girls. If those cops were shot with arrows, and others sliced by piggy and the butcher, wouldn’t the cops be reporting the murders and also be looking to apprehend the cop murderers? Same site. Yup. Nope. Spirit Chasers was yet another fraud. You were wondering why the Butcher looked a bit different, right? But in the adrenaline rush of the carnage, you either believed it or had to think hard about it to realize it wasn’t true.
For what it is worth, here’s my list of true stuff. Lee’s story recreation with Mason and centering on Flora’s abduction. Flora talking to Priscilla.
Dead pig on porch real. Probably Polks. Lee and Matt seeing the burning BBQ cross- probably put up by Polks to scare them off. Why did Polks want to buy the house? They didn’t want any neighbors.
A few reports to police about seeing stuff in the woods and Shelby’s trip to the hospital and drug testing.
Matt seeing nurses.
Argument with bank representative.
Matt’s seduction by Scatcat. I believe he ate a boar’s heart and Shelby saw him in woods with Scatcat. Don’t believe Polks were there jerking off. Shelby believed Matt didn’t remember and she probably questioned herself having been the subject of a psychological and drug review in hospital. Also, after losing a baby, it is not uncommon for women to face psychological obstacles during their recovery.
Matt and Shelby seeing Priscilla by the root cellar door. The videotapes, at least the first one, was real.
They attributed the moaning in the basement to Mott. They knew the Mott story of building the house. They may have found the hidden passages by following some moaning. I don’t think they necessarily met Mott, though he might have been of assistance as he just wants to be left alone.
Matt’s second encounter with Scarcat, in the root cellar where she shares her story seems real.
Everything about Lee’s murders of the Polks and the boar’s heart seems to hold under scrutiny.
And of course, the poetry, “I am the tree and the lightning that strikes it”. I think that is real because Lee recites it after eating the boar’s heart.
Trail of doll parts and pig parts arrangements- Sydney.
It is amazing that Shelby is not permanently in need of a cane after being hobbled by Ma Polk. And Shelby seemed to really recover super quickly from the cleaver chop. Seems we have two possible explanations 1) Shelby is a witch with great healing skills and 2) all the injuries were fictitious. Seems either one or both are true.
If we think Agnes didn’t kill Sydney, maybe the whole attack on Shelby was staged. Who points a cell phone camera at someone about to kill them when the whole house is wired with cameras? She’s not a great improvisation actress cause she’s a yoga teacher. Audrey calmly bandaging up Shelby because she played a nurse in some production? And why did Dominic need to bring Shelby, a severely injured person, down to the basement to see what Matt was up to? This just smells of reality tv choreography. Could it even be possible that Matt and Shelby are still alive?
Finally, the British woman who was a Lee fan and made the YouTube post we viewed, seems a credible source, indicated that RTR was an exploitive work and they didn’t know if all those people were really dead or not. So, clearly, RTR was available for commercial viewing on tv or the internet somewhere. Certainly, information about all the murders would have been available in the news, especially Sydney’s death; he’s the Ryan Murphy of that tiny AHS universe.
It seems entirely possible that almost everything was staged in RTR except the Polk conflicts, Lee accepting a bite of the Boar’s heart, Lee pushing Monet over the stair rail, and Lee chopping Audrey and pushing her into cellar.
CRICKET AND EMILY
There was only one question that threw Shelby for a loop during the talking head interviews, Sydney asked her if she knew what Cricket whispered into Lee’s ear. Here is my short list of reasons that question received such a stunned look and mumble: 1) . Maybe she knew the answer but doesn’t want to introduce a painful topic that might be a family secret, 2). Maybe she knew the answer but wasnt supposed to know it, as Lee never told her, maybe she learned through a 3rd party, 3). Maybe what Cricket whispered to Lee was actually something very revealing about Shelby, or anything else, not Emily, and this made her squirm, or 4) if the whole Cricket story was the Miller’s invention or even Sydney’s invention maybe Shelby was startled and isn’t a facile enough liar and hadn’t anticipated the question. Personally, 1) and 2) are my favorite candidates. But this is were this sliver or insight ends on what I thought was supposed to provide a bit of insight as to what is really going on.
Sydney was so proud of himself for finding out about Emily via research. Remember, he seem fixated on Lee as an unpunished murderer. If he is looking to make Lee appear even more the dark horse, he wants to work the Emily story into the narrative, even if it is completely unrelated. Sydney may not have cared what Cricket actually whispered, Sydney could have decided whispering about Emily was the perfect way to introduce Lee’s lost child.
It’s possible a Cricket never even visited, or he heard it through the witch vine, and not some random spirit. Sydney could have given the Uber guy a $200 to say Cricket was there. We only saw tape of a reenactment ride, actually two different versions of the reinactment ride, not the real Cricket. I think the two slightly different versions of the Cricket Uber ride was really to cement the idea in our minds that Cricket had come and gone and ended lost in the woods chasing Flora and died at the Butcher’s hands. Nothing like a memorable punchline to have people recall things and reinforce something that might not be true. “Gay for pay” anybody? Another way to anchor a lie is to have the lie come up in more than one place, which happened with the Uber story. The uber driver having the last name Snow must not be coincidence. Snow is a witch family name.
And it just strikes me as wrong that Cricket held the negotiation in the forest with the Butcher about returning Flora in exchange for the Millers leaving. Doesn’t seem like her style. Not a talker. Further, Lee was able to hear Priscilla talk, she recognized her voice, but when the Millers went with Cricket to parler with the Butcher to negotiate for Flora’s release, we got a dose of an elementary mime exercise from Audrey and Monet’s overacting, demonstrating that they couldn’t see or hear the Butcher’s replies to Cricket. Until the Butcher showed up the night the Millers fled Roanoke, Cricket was their sole conduit for communication with the Butcher. Cricket shared the story of the Butcher and Scatcat, and the story containing the stoning of Priscilla by the Butcher. Cricket explained what the Butcher said during the seance and, as mentioned, the parler in the forest.
Gee, Cricket holds all the cards containing information needed by a desperate mother.
Are we sure about what team Cricket is playing for? I’m NOT talking about the “gay for pay”.
Sydney might get Shelby and Matt to exaggerate lots of stuff, but he’d be pressing his luck pressuring Lee. Besides, she’s his villain. Cricket is an important part of her understanding of things and Flora’s interaction with Priscilla reinforces part of the beliefs.
Even if Cricket is exactly who he says, who could have passed that Butcher story down? No written records of the colony were found, and according to the story, the Butcher killed all the colonists, unless someone was sent to bed without supper that night. Ah, but Scatcat survived. This is the witch’s tale of Roanoke, history is usually written by the victors.
Executive summary of Cricket-based info for those of you who forgot, “Scatcat witch. Butcher bad. Priscilla innocent child victim. Danger! Danger!”
HEY, maybe I can get a job writing Trump’s daily briefings- I keep it simple!
The kiddie BBQ, maybe it’s true. But I wonder, how did they get the police tapes of those three kids being interviewed by the cops? It was definitely from cameras mounted in the interrogation rooms, if it wasn’t just actors playing police interrogators. You think real interrogation tapes would be available after those kids were murdered? But, Lee’s presence as the “Master of Ceremonies” makes the kiddie shish-kabobs appear more credible. Maybe it started out a fraud and suddenly turned real. I’m sure Sydney the sociopath would be happy with the footage either way.
The business of the teen kabobs following the car wreck ghost and finding the body of Sydney’s first assistant in the car, well, she didn’t seem all that decomposed. The body is there on video, then the cops check and no body? Guess she went home, she must still be working for Sydney.
It was interesting no information was presented on who else Lee accused of and tried for murder, of course Ma Polk and Jethers… but there were a lot of bodies lying around if we believe what we see. Of all the murders, the teen-kabobs would have been capital murder charges. Even if found innocent by mental defect, she would not have been walking free so quickly, she’d be institutionalized. All the other deaths had midigating circumstances, but the teen-kabobs?
THE LAST PIG OF A POLK
I wonder who got the video tape of Lot heading into the city for revenge. Do you think Lot has ever been to the big city? You know who I think did that interview? I think it was Sydney, the miserable shit of a human being. He probably had to explain how to get to Lana’s address to Lot, and how to use an elevator as well. Given the Polks shunned the outside world, rounded up the ladies with cattle prods, got pickled ears and jars of black strap molasses for Christmas, that was a pretty shiny and new semi automatic machine gun Lot had there. Present from someone?
Given I think there’s a chance that Sydney directed Lot to Lana just in time for the interview (hard to believe that was coincidence), it may even be the whole Kathy Bates crazy Butcher biz was a set up by Sydney as well, because if he survived, then the Agnes murder spree was fake. When you pull one loose thread, sometimes everything unravels. Note that the only people she killed were right by the trailer. Definitely an acting opportunity of a life time for the Bates character, Agnes. Nothing like having a real crazy woman play a crazy woman. And the whole sudden appearance and disappearance of those strings of stick figure fetishes? I think it was an invention in MRN and that they suddenly appeared in the house and the quick appearance and disappearance of them in the root cellar with Agnes during her “madness and regret soliloquy” in episode 9- don’t buy it. Why would the witch bother? Why would the ghosts bother? Maybe a reflection of Agnes’s insanity, then it is just filmography work. Maybe Lee packing a gun was unanticipated. Maybe things got out of hand and Agnes really did get shot, and that just got her more immersed in the role and her own craziness. I think the Butcher may have killed Kathy Bate’s Butcher, for what that’s worth.
A HAPPY OCCURANCE OF WELL TIMED COINCIDENCES
Continuing this vein of thought, in the finale we have Flora dissappear one hour before the Lana interview, someone tapes Lot with his rifle vowing revenge on Lee, sitting in his truck (presumably heading somewhere) then we see the Lana and Lee interview being shot up by Lot. Lot is then shot to death on tv, Lee rushes to the Roanoke house to find Flora, as the Spirit Chasers, with surviving actor of MRN in tow, cut the fence to do an unauthorized paranormal documentary simultaneous to the Lana Winters live interview special? This has Sydney’s filthy fingerprints all over it. He just wants to get every last entertainment penny out of that house.
Even further, Shelby seemed to recover super quickly from the cleaver chop. If we think Agnes didn’t kill Sydney, maybe the whole attack on Shelby was staged. And who points a cell phone camera at someone about to kill them when the whole house is wired with cameras? Not a great improvisation actress cause she’s a yoga teacher. Audrey calmly bandaging up Shelby because she played a nurse in some production? And why did Dominic need to bring Shelby, a severely injured person, down to the basement to see what Matt was up to? This just smells of reality tv choreography. Could it even be possible that Matt and Shelby are still alive?
Finally, the British woman who was a Lee fan and made the YouTube post we viewed, seems a credible source, indicated that RTR was an exploitive work and they didn’t know if all those people were really dead or not. So, clearly, RTR was available for commercial viewing on the internet somewhere. Certainly, information about all the murders would have been available in the news, especially Sydney’s death; he’s the Ryan Murphy of that tiny AHS universe.
It seems entirely possible that almost everything was staged in RTR except the Polk conflicts, Lee accepting a bite of the Boar’s heart, Lee pushing Monet over the stair rail, and Lee chopping Audrey and pushing her into cellar.
JETHERS, CAMERAS AND CANIBALISM
If the whole kidnapped by cannibals part of MRN was fiction, as I believe, how did Sydney invent the cannibal stuff and it ends up being true! It seems Sydney does his homework. He found out about Emily, right? After buying the house, he probably bribed a local cop to help meet the Polks as a new neighbor. He ingratiated himself to Jethers and taught him how to use the camera and gave it to him. He probably did a nice easy big weed purchase, so the Polks figured he was “ok”. Jethers probably told Sydney about anything he wanted to know. He did that with Lee. Sydney probably felt he hit a reality gold mine with them.
Ma Polk, Jethers Polk, Lot Polk, ZZ Top Polk, Lee, Monet, Rory, Butcher, Colonists, Agnes (so likely!), Mason, Audrey, Chens, Nurses, Nurses victims, Dylan
THE MAYBE DEAD
Matt, Shelby, Dominic, Elias, teen kabobs
THE l JUST DONT BELIEVE THEY ARE DEAD
Sydney the Shit, Salad Boy, Everything Breaded and Fried Assistant, Car Accident Assistant, whole Spirit Chasers team, anyone shot with an arrow
DEAD DEAD DEAD
Scatcat, Priscilla, Cricket
I think the reason the only story that had closure was the Flora, Lee and Priscilla narrative because we really had little else that was clear or even true. For what it is worth, I think that Priscilla was Scatcat. Which ties up all the real, actual events in a nice bow.
It is quite possible that the first real conflict with the Butcher and her blood moon ghosts and modernity was just about to occur as we see the closing image of torch carried by a colonist heading down the hill towards the blazing conflagration that was the Mott house. It is interesting that the character is wearing fairly clean brown homespun doublet given all the ghosts were horrendously filthy up til now. And that doublet reminds me of Agnes’ Butcher costume. Have we come weirdly full circle here? When the real Butcher murdered Agnes, did she become part of the team for real now?
Sydney and the media blender we passed through were stories about manipulation.
And where there’s a witch, there’s a coven. Uber driver named Snow, Flora’s power to talk to Priscilla, psychic with secret Roanoke witch history, Flora spirited back to the house within an hour of going missing. Everything seems to conspire to bring Lee back, wanting to save her child who has been seduced into the idea of staying with Priscilla, where Priscilla was painted as a sympathetic child fearing the beastly Butcher.
Was Lee manipulated into being a willing sacrifice? Did Scatcat require a willing sacrifice? Butcher was manipulated into being a willing sacrifice. Is this the origin of the sacred taking?
Half of us have become so cynical, we think everything we see view in modern media is a fraud, the other half live and breathe every conspiracy and far fetched faux news as if it was personally witnessed. Will even the cynical believe a large, live-streamed battle between emergency services and the police that appears about to begin? How much would it take for a modern War of the Worlds broadcast to put half the population in a frenzy?
And, of course, we need to battle our own selective attention https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo
For what it is worth, I think Matt, Lee, Flora and Shelby all had witch powers and did not completely understand it. I also think Scatcat derives her powers from “old Gods”. The image of Agnes offering her throat to Scatcat was eerily echoed by Lee offering her throat to Priscilla. But this essay isn’t about the ghost/witches/old gods, themselves, so anymore of that goes elsewhere.
The idea that the only real story is Lee, the only deaths are directly associated with Lee (Polks, Monet, maybe teen kabobs) emerges when all the fake reality stuff ran off the rails because of Polks and Scatcat feeding Lee a boar’s heart. That everything Sydney touched, including Spirit Chasers, is just fake reality tv seems consistent with the theme perfect illusion.
On a final note, the deluge of media of varying quality and styles contributed to the spectacle of this presidential election; on Facebook, more false info was shared than true info.
Ryan’s timing on this moral and the example exercise extracting knowledge from a tsunami of various quality information in a dizzying assortments of formats was prescient. In terms of substance and writing I think this season’s AHS stands head and shoulders above the prior seasons. Bravo!
If you got this far, please leave a comment, even if it is just brief.