I'm not sure how it is now, but as a kid in public elementary school we used to whisper fearfully of the poor kids being beaten in Catholic School. The sight of a nun striding through town instilled great fear (even if you didn't go to their school they could just grab you and start whacking if you sinned within eyeshot). All haughty with its 10 PM time slot and FX cable censorial freedom, American Horror Story has explored this icky sadomasochism with relish, solidifying it's place as America's hour-long totem as American history's abject depository, not only of our historical crimes but of our horror film history. It's a crucible of all the tropes and tricks --jamming in exorcism, Satanic possession, Nazi war criminal mind control experiments, breeding monster programs, alien abduction, and most terrifying of all.... nuns. This season, American Horror Story goes deep down back to that memory, the crux of children's terrified jouissance over being spanked in the era before panic over Satanic abuse led us to consider all corporal punishment as suspect. It's been great rediscovering that queasy current!
When the teasers came out with the nun's bleeding black alien eyes and the subtitle Asylum it was a shock of sadness for we fans of the original (see my old post likening the show to the Eagles song "Hotel California"). Here comes the downward spiral, we thought. Season one had its horny narcissist as its protagonist, a daughter who didn't even know she was dead, the whole bloody history of Hollywood, the James Elroy L.A. nocturne Black Dahlias and the Jack-cum-Joan Crawford search for eternal beauty and better parts for actresses and suits of human skin or latex and outwards to Columbine and back downwards to the ugly history of basement abortions and--best and newest-- that an old maid can make herself seem super hot to any man she chooses, and their friends will see them humping on an old broad from Six Feet Under like she's Audrey from Twin Peaks (1), all swirled together in a spiral of sexy adult soap opera, Dark Shadows on bar whiskey and 70s cocaine. Dude, that show was awesome. And bringing Meryl Streep chops to Bette Davis willfulness and Boris Karloff menace, Jessica Lange redefined cougar sexiness.
But moving the action to a 1974 asylum, really bro? Like Shock Corridor, Bedlam, Silence of the Lambs, 12 Monkeys, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Requiem for a Dream, Marat/Sade, Quills, Terminator 2, Strange Illusion, and dozens more, all of whom have been imitated to death.
But hey you know the AMH crew can pull it off because they presume you've seen all those films, so they can riff on them and you'll get the in-joke. In most shows there is a main character, the FBI guy, the crime fighter, the good guy, and plots are linear, or like The Twilight Zone or Outer Limits, consisting of a new story started from scratch and ended each night, or if we follow one kooky extended family in a haunted house it's a comedy like The Addams Family or The Munsters. But rather than shopping for tropes like leisurely Rod Serling at his Any Town USA grocery store, American Horror Story goes on a looting rampage, grabbing what it can from the ravaged shelves and dumping it all in the 1964 crucible made familiar by Mad Men, one of the last remaining years in our history when gay bashing, sexism, racism, corporal punishment, and smoking were not just normal, but inescapable. Going back to that time might seem cool on AMC, but AMH reminds us it's really a full-on nightmare.
And what a bounty of nightmare this is, where death is the last of your worries. See, I don't mind onscreen death because an actor reveals himself as an actor (no actor --no matter how brilliant-- can stop their breathing altogether, or suppress the occasional involuntary closed eye twitch). Playing dead is proof you are not dead, for one can't play dead and be dead at the same time. Kids love to play dead for that reason; it's life affirming! But there's nothing life-affirming about being imprisoned in a closet for weeks on end. We can't really imagine being dead for real, but we can easily imagine being left to twist in the hands of a sadist who's been put in charge of our welfare. It's very claustrophobic, and depressing, and why I generally don't like movies set in asylums or prisons. I can't breathe just thinking about it!
But the awful 'correctional' behavior for gays and promiscuous women (condoned by the state in 1964, presumably, and even today in Alabama, probably) is so new to TV, that it makes up for all the claustrophobia. In its genius, this week AMH even showed a movie within its stormy episode, refracting the horror image through a 30 year intertextual expanse and displaying what one presumes is a Catholic-sanctioned historical epic, Cecil B. DeMille's SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932). So after one of the worst hurricane disasters in Northeastern US history, we watch a show that takes place during a terrible storm ("Nor'easter") in 1964 where people watch a 1932 film. You do the math!
Maybe that's because decadence is cinematic and Christianity is not; De Mille never shows any spark of life in his Christians: they just pose like old paintings and drone on as their long fake beards slowly dissolve under the sweltering Roman klieg light sun. On and on they drone, until lion fang intervention is all but screamed for. And the Catholic system accomodates for this, and in fact might even be said to promote it, making sin twice as tasty than it would be for someone without a church upbringing.
March's acting style here is one long John Barrymore impression (March actually played him, more or less, in 1930's THE ROYAL FAMILY OF BROADWAY), a dramatic choice probably explained by his lack of guidance from DeMille, a director whose lack of dramatic subtlety can make even the most bitterly pious of yokels choke on their smuggled-in pint of Dr. Silver's Golden Elixir. At least I hope they'd choke, and not completely miss the point of all life, which is that SIGN is hardly a biblical epic at all but rather a horror film, similar to DRACULA (1931) in the way the stilted, undead quality of the recorded air in early sound film adds a solidity more nurturing than the bottom of a dark ocean, and the way it ends with lovers marching out of a deep cellar's steep stone steps into the wrathful sunlight, and it expects you to choose good over evil even as the villains are invariably more magnetic. Their malevolence pulls us closer into their sludgy violent orbit the longer we gaze at them; meanwhile the heroes gesture impotently or sternly lecture why it is an ugly old clueless patriarch should be obeyed instead of sexy young intellect in any form. And therein is the difference.
In DRACULA it's the 'good' - the white hetero pair bond and their holy father -- going into the light to live happily ever after after killing the 'evil' Count Dracula down in the depths of the ruined abbey, but in CROSS it's the reverse, yet the same: The 'good' are going to their deaths at the hands of lions after emoting their last few reels away in the Colosseum basement. Christians are the 'reverse vampires,' drawing crosses in the sand, making them out of sticks like sad sack introverts confusing symbols with spirituality, like nerds deserving of the lion saliva-whetted willie from which no traveler returns unbaptized.
That's where the demonic possession of American Horror Story's only uncorrupted nun comes floating back into view. Imagine if Ann Harding's cockteaser was possessed by a horny demon? The scene in this episode where she cows the once uncowable Dr. Arden shows just how cool a little Satanic influence can make one. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the devil's wishbone, the devil's drag strip, the devil's A.B.Cs...
POST SCRIPT -
In fine guilty style I thought and fretted about my use of c-word in the title of this article, thinking I could get away with it via its odd usage as a verb (an Exorcist quote) But my source for Catholic guilt assured me it didn't matter, I was still sinning. When no one had stormed my apartment in protest even after it being posted for several seconds, my guilt seeped into the things surrounding me, including America's Next Top Model. The whole show reared back like some timeline serpent of bitchy Kristen close-ups, biting me with the venomous self-realization of a Cleopatra. So I changed it, reversed it, like backwards Latin, then Pig Latin. Diousnessoay!
1. It would be interesting if they reversed that in a later season, a ghost who can seem totally hot, a perfect 10, as they say-- to your friends but you see only a drunk 6. That would be something the Lacanians would be really psyched about -- because it wouldn't matter.