The opening credits/titles for season 1 of American Horror Story are very creepy; in their visual ‘style’ they resemble those of season 3 of The Walking Dead. Let’s call this style ‘American Gothic’; what makes it work?
The central motif in ‘American Gothic’–at least in the two sequences cited above–is the decay of the familiar: inevitable, persistent, insidious, ever-present and perhaps most frighteningly, contagious. In the case of American Horror Story the haunted house is so because of the ghosts that live in it, carrying around their violent pasts, impinging on and infecting the present. In the case of The Walking Dead, the decay motif is especially straightforward: this is what is left of the world we once knew, this is what awaits us. In both cases, the title sequences remind us that true horror lies in that which is most immediately at hand, that the most proximal bears the capacity to contain the utterly unfamiliar; that is what makes it frightening. Novelty, because of its distance from us, can be comforting; the familiar is not so easily dismissed. Its decline is more frightening because it cuts a little closer.
The imagery of the ‘American Gothic’ style forces us to confront a world that lives among us even though it has passed away. It makes us reckon too, with the dissolution that lies within us: we are headed for death, our decline is inevitable. American Horror Story relies on old photo albums, household objects, nooks and crannies, and lab jars for preserving biological artifacts. (This last item taps into a straightforward source of childhood nightmares; no one is left unaffected by their visit to the samples room of a biology or pathology lab.) In The Walking Dead the decay of the world is infected by the melancholia of days gone by, of a kind of life no longer lived. It evokes terrifying dreams of deserted landscapes we found ourselves in, lost and alone; the cry of the disconsolate child is almost at hand. What makes this nightmare complete is the once known world is now strange; we see see traces of the past even as we realize it is gone forever. In American Horror Story the world is as it should be, peopled and populated by the living, but forced to reckon with those whose time is not yet up. Their remains intrude into day to day life, their actions live on beyond their first commission. The photos of children add a layer of menace to the intrusion of the pathological and horrifying into the mundane, in asking us to consider the possibility that children are monsters in the making.
But perhaps most fundamentally, the specific imagery of the style taps into a truth that can only be postponed but that must be faced up to eventually: that everything we know and love will no longer be. That relentless fact, always visible out of the corner of our eyes, standing in the wings of our mental stages, ready to wrap us in its clammy embrace is what makes ‘American Gothic’ effective.
Note: I’ve just found out that the American Horror Story and The Walking Dead title sequences are directed by the same person: Kyle Cooper.