In terms of queer content on mainstream television, it was Ryan (GLEE, NIP/TUCK) Murphy and Brad Falchuk who broke the mould with their 2011 debut of the triumphantly taboo-breaking AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The anthology show was largely experimental in nature, yes. The haunted house format was lifted wholesale from horror’s historical archives and, yes, it played fast and loose with genre tropes and generic hooks. But it was the first show in which queer sensibilities collided with horror film archetypes and, since its inaugural year, the show has become progressively more inclusive and diverse, altering the landscape and making the horror genre a considerably more gay-friendly zone.
Moving through so many so many pop channels and with a constantly mutating identity – the show is something of a perverted pastiche, extrapolated from horror film history and taking cues from cult (Stanley Kubrick, Tod Browning, Jonathan Demme) cinema, the writing of Stephen King, Larry Kramer, Virginia Andrews, and Shirley Jackson. Yet despite its schizophrenic influences and tongue-in-cheek approach to addressing large themes, AMERICAN HORROR STORY is a show that refuses to pander to audience expectations of what horror should look like and what character ‘types’ should populate its broad (and very bloody) spectrum. Horror story staples, severed heads and acidic camp aside, the creators of the award-winning show never subscribed to the conventional way of doing things or attempted to play it safe.
We all know great horror is the domain of “the other” and “the outsider”, and nobody understands this better than Murphy and Falchuk. In mainstream horror, queer or LGBTQ characters have been relegated to sub-plot status, the culturally-loaded perspective, trash-talking best friend or the monster-as-metaphor concept. Before AMERICAN HORROR STORY debuted, there was very little referencing to sexuality (unless it was gay subtext). In recent years, there have been a handful of TV shows to feature prominent queer horror TV characters and themes: BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER’s Willow Rosenberg’s (Alyson Hannigan) sexual awareness coincided with her initiation into the dark arts, BBC3’s IN THE FLESH touched on mental illness/homosexuality with its reintegration of formerly rabid zombies back into ‘normal life’ and the soapbox satirical-leanings of Charlaine Harris’ SOOKIE STACKHOUSE series looked at gay rights through the prism of vampirism.
What makes AHS distinct from the issue-led parables is that the LGBTQ characters in AHS are identifiably human, profoundly flawed and not defined by their sexuality. These characters are not monster metaphors or a point-pushing plot device that falls to either side of the positive/negative representation dichotomy. AHS doesn’t offer up cultural in-depth analysis, hew close to politically correct terrain or worry about straight-faced advocacy. Much like ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, the show has created a dialogue (while maintaining its anarchic and witty identity) without heavy-handed politicking, giving all shades of the rainbow a platform (albeit a blood-soaked one) while consistently avoiding the trap of stereotype – and though it HAS incorporated elements of history in its outlandish plots, LGBTQ history (with the exception of ASYLUM) remains an untapped resource for potential future storylines. In each successive season, the core concepts have remained the same: fringe culture and persecution, family, monstrosity, sex, death and double-lives, all of which mirror the reality of LGBTQ beings.
So let’s look at some of the queer themes/characters in AMERICAN HORROR STORY:
The first installment in Murphy and Falchuk’s anthology show laid the groundwork for future seasons and is the most accessibly mainstream. The show was a riff on haunted houses and can trace its lineage back to the architect of the ghost story as well as Shirley Jackson, incorporating pregnancy horror, high-school massacres, homophobic murder, ghosts, infidelity, real-estate and the potential-for-horror that might be rippling beneath the surface of the seemingly perfect nuclear family. The creators played with the trappings and concepts of horror films during the show’s first year, but there was still quite a bit of queer culture in its DNA. The beaten down glamour of Jessica Lange’s central figure (in her first incarnation) is the kind of evilly camp creation partially informed by the ghastly granny-oriented Grand Guignol of the 1960’s wave of what was once referred to as “Hag Horror.” Lange was equal parts Bette Davis and Blanche Dubois. Much of the core cast (and crew) identified as gay or sexually fluid: Zachary Quinto, Ryan Murphy, Sarah Paulson and Denis O’ Hare. It scrutinized hate crimes with the double murder of a Martha Stewart-obsessive gay couple and fleetingly touched on the idea of family and its flexibility and the family we construct ourselves.
The second installment, ASYLUM, really cemented Murphy’s reputation as the most dramatically sociopathic showrunner in television history, featuring a gallimaufry of flesh fetishist serial killers, satanic nuns, Nazism, institutional abuse and Catholicism with Sarah Paulson knocking it out of the park as crusading journalist Lana Winters in 1960s Massachusetts. It tackled the pre-Stonewall religious persecution experienced by LGBTQ people in American history and the morally-reprehensible tools the church used to intimidate and silence those they perceived as guilty of moral turpitude including incarceration, ECT and conversion therapy. The seriocomic tone and high-camp of its predecessor took a back-seat in a season considered by many to be the darkest. ASYLUM follows Lana (Sarah Paulson), a woman whose storyline initially resembles a Final Girl narrative arc. She gradually evolves into an infinitely more complex and well-rounded character as the season progresses. As much a literary homage to the brazenly Sapphic characters of a Rita Mae Brown novel as she is a non-traditional horror story heroine, Lana Winters is one of the strongest queer/lesbian characters in horror.
The third season was a lighter installment and the first to look at subcultures and community-based microcosms under siege from the wider world. Think BEWITCHED by way of a social commentary on race-relations, discrimination, feminism and female-centric orders. Agenda-driven entertainment often feels like a necessary evil and politics should always be a secondary concern for artists/filmmakers. Character and plot should lead the story, not political principles. The recurring theme of people othered is revisited here, more allegorically than ASYLUM, and Murphy/Falchuk managed to get the right balance between cultural commentary and entertainment. Although COVEN had a heavy gay slant (tribes, persecution, sex/race wars), only a minor gay character was featured. And the flamboyant eccentricity of fashionista and Wiccan Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) was clearly modeled on Quentin Crisp.
The fourth installment saw AMERICAN HORROR STORY channelling Tod Browning’s FREAKS, the spirit of Carnie Culture, killer clowns and Marlene Dietrich. In every small town, monstrosity is all about context: how we frame it and who dictates those parameters. Although the premise of FREAK SHOW echoes Browning’s classic FREAKS, the show never really capitalized on the initial idea of “Them Vs Us” in rural 1950s America. There are shades of Gore Vidal in the aggressively heteronormative hard-men played by Denis O’ Hare (Stanley) and Micheal Chiklis (Dell Toledo).The slick, pretty male-prostitutes who hang out in underground dive bars felt like an allusion to John Rechy’s novel CITY OF NIGHT. Again, there were themes of ‘society’s monsters’ challenging small-town orthodoxies, and the exploitation of vulnerable outcasts in the entertainment industry and hate-fueled crimes. Plus, transgender actress and model Erika Ervin appeared in all 13 episodes as Amazon Eve.
One sub-genre of horror that could never be accused of taking a reductive stance regarding LGBTQ folks is vampires. No other monster has provided a framework (THE HUNGER, Anne Rice, Poppy Z Brite, and THE LAIR) in which to delve quite so deeply into the terrain of taboo sex and sexuality. The dubious case of Elisa Lam was (supposedly) the basis for The Hotel Cortez, the setting of the fifth installment of the show – HOTEL. Drug-addled ghosts, serial killers (including celebrity queer psychopaths Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer), terrifying transients and vamps orbit the newest cast member to be introduced to AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Lady Gaga. Much like iconic performers Madonna in the 1980s and David Bowie in the 1970s (both ambassadors for gay rights and queer culture), Gaga is the epitome of individuality and has become the representative for a new generation of queer kids. Her inimitable style harks back to Micheal Alig’s Club Kids, the androgyny of Grace Jones and though her life-affirming pop music may not be to everybody’s taste, she has undeniably made an impressive cultural impact and earned a Golden Globe for her performance here.
The actual vampires in HOTEL, known as “The Afflicted” could be read (by some) as an Aids allegory, though unlikely when HIV is now an easily managed disability rather than the death sentence it was twenty years ago. Several gay, bi and pansexual characters checked into The Cortez during the latest season, by far the most interesting of the bunch is Denis O’ Hare’s front-of-house/hostess Liz Taylor. The character felt the most natural and it was refreshing that there weren’t any cringe-worthy references to her biological gender, at least not until the halfway point of the season. Occasionally when dramas touch on gender identity, coming out or alternative lifestyles, it can feel like a box-ticking exercise in educating the status quo with a left-ist polemic. In HOTEL, Liz’s gender-identity was a non-issue. Her back-story felt organic and relatable without being preachy. Outside of horror, there is a far greater queer influence. One only hopes the horror genre will take note.