Friday, February 28, 2014

Is the Controversy Surrounding Certain American Horror Story Themes Warranted?

            American Horror Story is notorious for bending the rules when it comes to network television. For the past three seasons it has dealt with some pretty extreme controversial issues. These issues include abortion, rape, homosexuality, racism, incest, etc. But have there been some instances where the show has gone too far? One scene in particular that has drawn a lot of attention was the mass school shooting that took place in the first season. While many lack the ability to take this show very seriously, it should be expected that some of the content would draw from real life horrors. The horror and controversy surrounding this particular scene is unwarranted, considering the themes of the entire show in general.

Season one of American Horror story, known as the “Murder House” season, revolves around a broken family. An unfaithful husband, a distrustful wife, and their depressed teenage daughter, Violet, all get to face their issues in a house filled with the ghosts of those who died there. Totally oblivious to the fact that these people are dead, Violet finds solace in one of these lost souls. She befriends Tate, a boy known only to her as one of her father’s patients. He seems a little “off” right from the very start, a trait that attracts Violet to him in the first place. There is always mystery surrounding Tate, and it’s not until the episode titled “Piggy Piggy” is his past is unveiled. 

This is where the controversy begins. It is revealed that Tate was the culprit behind a mass shooting at Violet’s high school in 1994. The episode opens with a scene of terrified high school kids trapped and hiding in the schools library. What comes next is the image of Tate entering the library and subsequently picking off each of the kids one by one with a shotgun. It never actually shows the kids being shot, but the effect is horrifying nonetheless.

It is a common notion among critics that the show shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Each episode has so much going on that it’s hard to get bored, even if the elements of horror have been borrowed from classic and somewhat overused haunted house themes. Robert Bianco of USA Today, like many other critics, takes on the mindset that most of the time the show is laughable. “As with so many stories that are held at a constant rolling boil, the excess quickly becomes funny rather than frightening” (Bianco).

The realistic nature of the content was simply unexpected. The crazy, supernatural, and ridiculous nature of most of the show doesn’t coincide with the portrayals of more realistic human suffering. Many regard the show’s value as merely for entertainment purposes, not the place for real life issues. Columnist James Poniewozik for Time reflects this notion when he states that it is, “a disorganized, unbelievable mess, [but] it’s often disorganized and unbelievable in an interesting way”. This particular scene crossed the supposed “line” that the show has drawn for itself simply because it was believable and hit so close to home in regards to how the American society sees this issue.

Columnist Richard Lawson makes this opinion clear in his criticism of American Horror Story. He claims the show, supposedly meant to be terrifying, is actually quite amusing and should not involve serious content because of that fact. He states that, “obviously everything on the show, if done in real life, is insanely terrible -- maybe a viewer somewhere knew a man who had his neck snapped while drowning in an apple-bobbing tub and was gravely offended when the show did that -- but this particular set piece seemed so deliberately exact. There was a particular event, or events, that they were trying to directly evoke and that's just cruel”.

But is this scene so much more outrageous than everything else going on in the show? Many other aspects of American Horror Story are far from unrealistic. Does Lawson truly believe that things like rape and suicide are not realistic and tragic true-life events? The only difference between the mass shooting image and the other issues is that the former is highly publicized in our media while the latter is not. Suicide and rape are much more prevalent in American lives than mass school shootings. While still terribly tragic, American media has placed a far bigger taboo on school shootings than on suicide or rape epidemics. This seems to me the main reason why this shooting scene horrified viewers much more strongly than the images suicide and rape. This seems to be more of a societal flaw than a particular flaw of the show itself.

In essence, American Horror Story is simply a television show, and like any television show, it is going to draw from the cultural surroundings of its time. It embraces the fact that it is always a stir for controversy, even though many can recognize the familiar tried and true horror themes. Any number of these themes can be deemed as crossing the line. It all mostly depends on what is culturally relevant at the time, and what the media deems worthy of recognition. 

Bianco, Robert. “American Horror Story: Scarily Scatterbrained." USA Today, 4 Oct. 2011. Web.
Lawson, Richard. "'American Horror Story' Goes Too Far." The Wire. The Wire, 10 Nov. 2011. Web.
Poniewozik, James. "TV Tonight: American Horror Story." Time Entertainment. Time, 5 Oct. 2011. 

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