American Horror Story’s Asylum: Site of Nightmares

American Horror Story‘s second season always promised to be creepier and more effective than the disappointing first season, which began well, but had devolved into a terrible mess by the time its end rolled around. The second season’s ending had its share of disappointments, but it had many fine moments that came before, the episodic impact of which ensured that despite some incoherence along the way, it managed to deliver a healthy dose of the heebie-jeebies to its viewers.

The key to American Horror Story‘s success in the second season, lies, of course, in its setting: an asylum, which doubles as locale for Mengele-like experimentation on human beings. This ensured that the invocation of standard horror movie tropes, American Horror Story‘s fundamental technique, would work particularly well. In particular the asylum becomes a distinctive site of horror because of the utter helplessness of its inmates: demented human beings, lost to the world and themselves, cast aside into a refuse heap to be prodded, poked and tormented till death mercifully intervenes. The asylum is yet another place where helpless humans can be made the targets of sadistic violence.

The asylum is also home to a classic nightmare: the mentally competent, locked up against their will, and slowly turned into docile vegetables or raving lunatics. The second season invokes this trope without fail: there are straitjackets, the struggles of the innocent, the forced administration of unwanted treatment. And so unsurprisingly, the two most horrifying and disturbing scenes of the second season–for me, at least–were the forced, brutal electroshock treatments administered to Lana Winters and Sister Jude. The horror of these scenes lies not just in the overriding of the patient’s will, or the terrifying convulsions of the victim, but indeed, in our knowledge that this treatment must have been administered to too many, too soon and too often.

Mention of these treatments brings us to the t-word: torture. Too much contemporary horror is rightly described as ‘torture-porn’: painful, systematic, degrading, mutilation being the most favored device to induce terror in viewers. American Horror Story‘s second season flirts with torture too; these moments are terrifying to witness. I had wondered whether the avoidance of torture was possible given the captive nature of asylum inmates’ existence, but the show went even further as its inclusion of a serial killer allowed even greater utilization of torture themes.

Like the first season the second season had its weaknesses: there were too many story lines and too much plot confusion (the invocation of extraterrestrial aliens was particularly pointless and silly). What enabled the second season to transcend them partially in a way the first season was simply unable to do was its atmosphere, which remained unrelentingly grim throughout. (Indeed, the introduction of a jukebox in the later episodes was jarring precisely because it seemed to provide a soundtrack that felt out of place and dispelled a carefully constructed mood.) Lastly, Kyle Cooper’s title sequence was brilliant: it retained the original music and drew upon a new montage of graphic and disturbing images.

Those thirteen episodes went by quickly; I look forward to the third season.

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