Warning: This article contains spoilers for American Horror Story seasons 1-5 and discusses mature themes such as sexual abuse, profanity, and graphic violence.
When I walked into college the morning after the premiere of American Horror Story: Hotel four different people asked me if I’d seen the episode. I hadn’t and was adamant about no spoilers. All the people told me to watch it, that it was uncomfortable but good, that it would blow my mind.
No one told me about all the violence, the grotesque images, the three-minute long rape scene. No one told me, under all of this, there would be no plot line.
Ryan Murphy seems to believe long rape scenes should drive horror stories, that images of violence that made me want to vomit should be the main reason why people tune in, not plot. Innocent girls were tortured and murdered; a man was anal raped in a horrific three-minute scene; a live man with his eyes gouged out and tongue cut out trying to speak while his lover’s hands are nailed above his head.
Maybe part of it is just me, being a little bit more squeamish than most. But there is a huge difference between torturous, horrific images being used to further a plot and those same images being used to shock viewers. The first episode of Hotel was plot-less, following so many different routes it was hard to see how everything fit together.
That being said, no amount of story will excuse the excessive rape scene in the middle of the episode. Three minutes of a man in a skin-tight white bodysuit wearing a drill bit dildo raped a young man on a bed while a woman leaned and whispered in his ear, taunting him. Nothing excuses rape. Not even Ryan Murphy’s pathetic excuse for the scene, saying it was a “metaphor for people who are struggling with addiction”. Sexual assault should never be used as a metaphor for anything. Case closed.
It’s hard to critique a show like American Horror Story. It’s meant to push boundaries, it’s different and shocking and more than a little disgusting. Individuals draw the line for what is okay and not okay in different places. Some people may be perfectly fine with a guy having sex with a woman and stabbing her to death while having an orgasm (as seen on the second episode of Hotel) while some people may be extremely uncomfortable by just the mention of an erection on television. Everyone has their own ideas, their own comfort level, so any critiques of American Horror Story can be pushed aside by calling the people who speak out as “conservative” or “naïve”.
This works up to a point. I am a squeamish person. I don’t like excessive violence. I closed my eyes when Twisty the Clown took off his mask for the first time in Freak Show; I muted the sound when Lana Winters was being tortured in Asylum. But I still enjoyed most of the series, I thrived on the interesting plot and was willing to close my eyes while the violence occurred (or pause the program after a particularly horrific scene to let myself decompress).
I don’t want to tell anyone that I like American Horror Story because it’s the equivalent of saying “I like rape on television”, “I like poorly written female characters”, “I like sociopaths that murder and rape people and are still marketed as love interests (I’m looking at you, Tate and Violet from Murder House)”.
In reality, what I’m saying is that I like television that is unlike anything else, I like shocking and raw storylines, and I like horror. And, in the television horror genre, this is, sadly, the best we have.
I like watching television about a haunted house where we slowly realize that so many characters were dead the whole time, that the story has so many more layers than we could’ve ever imagined, like Murder House. However, I don’t like watching television with rape, excessive sexual violence, and where the fans of the show undermine a character’s flaws just because he’s hot and they believe his “soul mate” should give him another chance (I could write an entire separate piece on Tate and Violet, honestly), like Murder House.
(This is the part where I would say something I liked about Asylum, but I only watched one episode and decided that was more than I could take. I didn’t sign up for torture porn and aliens.) I don’t like watching television where innocent people are tortured, where a gay woman is put through perverse conversion therapy, and where the plot is nowhere to be found and the violence is forefront, like Asylum.
I like watching television that centers on modern day witches with a primarily female cast that looks outside of fairytales, where they deal with real horrors, like Coven. I don’t like watching television with obscene racial violence and excessive use of misogynistic slurs and, again, rape, like Coven.
I like watching television that centers on disabled people and gives them depth outside of their disability, that has extreme overtones of how to survive in a place where you are different than anyone around you (the metaphor made my little gay heart soar), like Freak Show. I don’t like watching television where the three main actors playing disabled people aren’t actually disabled, where slurs are thrown around for “historical accuracy”, like Freak Show.
I like watching television set in a creepy old hotel, where Lady Gaga plays a century old vampire, where the hotel was built by a psychopath, therefore containing secret hallways and “body chutes”, like Hotel. I don’t like watching television where plot takes a backseat to grotesque images and sexual violence, sexual violence, and more sexual violence, like Hotel.
Ryan Murphy has made it so I cannot have one without the other; I cannot have witches without racial violence, I cannot have ghosts without rape. He’ll push the boundaries of storytelling, scare us with a murderous clown with half a mask, make us hold our breath while young witches go through the trials to prove their powers, and make us giddy when true love prevails, even in death. However, he’ll also turn around and make a metaphor out of a three minute long rape scene, he’ll show black people being tortured by a slave owner in gruesome detail, and he’ll make female characters that are one dimensional without their male peers (see: Violet and Vivian from Murder House, Zoe and Madison from Coven, Gloria, Maggie, Penny, and Desiree from Freak Show).
Why must horror fans settle for this? Why must I see t-shirts in Hot Topic that have a sociopathic murderer and rapist on the front with the tagline “Hi, I’m Tate, I’m dead, wanna hook up”? For the rest of my life, am I going to have to say; “I like the horror genre. Aside from all the senseless torture and rape scenes it’s really quite good”?
It is perfectly okay to still watch a show even though it’s problematic. People are allowed to like things as long as they are also willing to criticize them.
However, sometimes shows go to far. With Ryan Murphy saying, “the worse is yet to come” for this season, I’m afraid American Horror Story is on its way to a point of no return.