In a brilliant pre-season campaign, American Horror Story kept its season 6 theme under tight wraps. Flashes from the previous seasons were intercut with fake and real hints as to what the season would hold. Where would we go next – ship? Museum? Fans, including me, eagerly awaited last night’s premiere. What we got was a genuine surprise, a left turn I don’t think anyone could predict. It begins as a mockumentary, with Shelby (Sarah Paulson, looking normal!) and Matt (Cuba Gooding Jr.) as a couple so sickly sweet in love their friends don’t want to hang around them anymore. Matt is a traveling salesperson and Shelby a yoga teacher. They marry, and Shelby quickly gets pregnant. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Shelby and Matt move from the big bad city to Matt’s hometown in rural North Carolina.
Frolicking through the woods, the couple stumbles upon an old farmhouse and set off immediately to check it out. Obviously, Shelby and Matt have never seen a horror movie in their lives because the place just screams haunted. Shelby says from the beginning the place didn’t feel right, but Matt loves it. They find out the place is up for auction as no one has lived in it for years (red flag number one). Their competitors are locals, hillbillies straight out of every lost-in-the-woods-cannibal-chainsaw horror movie ever made (red flag number two). The bidding starts at $21,000 – red flag number three, because where on earth can you buy a two-story, three bedroom farm-house on ten acres of land for that kind of price? The couple easily wins the auction, and off they go to move in.
Creepy stuff begins to happen almost immediately. It rains teeth. When Shelby tells Matt, he blows her off, saying the weather in the area has always been unpredictable. Hey, I live in Florida where the weather is decidedly unpredictable, but trust me, it has never rained teeth. Matt continues his travels as a salesperson, and the façade of their perfect marriage starts to crack. We also learn that they are unreliable narrators, as Shelby is over-fond of wine and Matt is slipping booze into his water. After Shelby is attacked in the hot tub, and the local police write it off to good old boys just having fun, Matt sets up a security system that is attached to his cell phone; if anyone trips it, he will be able to see it.
He also calls in his sister Lee (Angela Basset), a disgraced police officer with a prescription drug addiction. Enter unreliable narrator number three. She is none too crazy about her sister-in-law, whom she considers a California (gluten-free) corn flake. By this time I, and apparently a lot of other viewers, are wondering just where in the heck this is going. Not another haunted house, surely. Then the tropes are unleashed – we get a bit of Paranormal Activity, a bit of Insidious, a bit of Blair Witch, a bit of The Conjuring. It was like Stranger Things’ homage to eighties pop culture, horror style, but I still couldn’t see where this was heading. Is this a parody? Is Ryan Murphy playing us? Don’t get me wrong, it was still creepy and had an excellent jumpscare that nailed me….but what exactly was going on here?
I watched it a second time, and that’s when I noticed the placards before the commercial breaks – a tree with the words My Roanoke Nightmare. It took me a beat or two, and then I remembered what Roanoke is, and that’s when the chills started twisting at the base of my spine. For those of you who don’t remember this little footnote to American history, welcome to the United States’ original horror story. In the late 1500’s a colony was established in North Carolina. 115 people were left to establish a settlement in the name of the Queen of England. They named the colony Roanoke. A few of the leaders set sail back to England for supplies; when they came back three years later, Roanoke was gone. And not just gone- there was not evidence it had ever been. No settlement foundations, no sticks, no stones, no scraps of clothing, no bones. Vanished, as if it had never even existed. The returning settlers found one word carved into a tree – Croatoan, which no one knows what it means to this day, and that is all. Theories abound about what happened to those hundred lost souls -swept away in a hurricane; starvation, which may have forced them to turn to cannibalism; murder by the local natives. None of them get any more cheerful.
Now, think that this house and ten acres IS Roanoke and the possibility for endless terror just grew exponentially. Couple this with Murphy’s knowledge of the horror movie edges that truly scare us, and season 6 of American Horror Story takes on a whole new dimension, one largely unexplored before. There is great potential for landmark horror television here.
The bar has been raised, Mr. Murphy. I can’t wait for episode two. Don’t disappoint me!