The sixth season of Ryan Murphy’s & Brad Falchuk’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY is arguably their most ambitious installment yet. ROANOKE is a meta-multilayered approach to revisionist horror, with allusions to several cinematic properties that we’ve now become accustomed to over the years, including BLAIR WITCH, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, THE AMITYVILLE HORROR and PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, to name only a few.
In the opening teaser, we learn that we’re watching MY ROANOKE NIGHTMARE, a horror-themed soap opera with slick production values and a torch-bearing spectral mob with the suitably twisted Kathy Bates as Agnes Mary Winstead, playing their murderous figurehead “The Butcher.” The lean dramatic re-enactment is spliced with docu-soap footage of the original trio of survivors: Lee (Adina Porter), Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt (Andre Holland). Audiences are drawn to everyday extremes, the amplification of quotidian issues: parental neglect, marital breakdown, addiction, and real people in real trouble.
The overarching theme of ROANOKE was surveillance and its fallout — Reality TV is the blood-soaked coliseum of the 21st century, and we the viewers, much like The Butcher, demand our pound of flesh…
[ATTENTION: SPOILERS APLENTY]
A Recap of MY ROANOKE NIGHTMARE
An alleged tale of folk horror, murder and child abduction in North Carolina, the story involves a rural newbie couple consisting of yoga enthusiast Shelby (now played by the entitled RADA-educated Audrey Tindal, herself being played by Sarah Paulson) and travelling salesman Matt Miller (now played by Dominic Banks, himself being played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), who relocate to North Carolina after finding an idyllic property surrounded by lush woodlands. When the auction-purchased house falls into their laps for a steal, all their dreams might be about to come true; it’s a beautiful setting steeped in folklore. What follows, however, are screams in the night, dismembered pigs, phantom assaults, raining teeth, unsettling VHS tapes in the cellar, human sacrifice and a Pig Man.
Matt’s tough, hard-bitten sister Lee Harris (played by the character Monet Tumusiime, herself played by Angela Bassett), a former cop and addict who reluctantly agrees to stay with Shelby. Shelby won’t give in to the low-level intimidation and leave the house, and even dismisses it as an elaborate hoax by cannibal clan The Polks… until Lee’s daughter Flora is abducted and her estranged husband Mason is found immolated. The slice of history Murphy and Falchuk are plundering this time is the mystery of the lost Roanoke Colony; to that end, they have created an alternate history wherein the colonists have submitted to the will of an ancient witch named Scathach (Lady Gaga in a minor role) for generations.
Enter Leslie Jordan’s Cricket Marlowe — a psychic-for-hire in cases of missing children, who’ll act as an intermediary between realms for an extortionate fee. The interactions between Cricket, The Butcher and Scathach richly expand the AHS-Verse mythology by creating an alternate timeline that is coherent, creepy and compelling, with callbacks and overlaps with what has come before. The Butcher and her bloodthirsty mob arrive right in time for The Blood Moon; we meet The Polk’s matriarch (Frances Conroy), and our trio manages to escape the horror of Roanoke.
RETURN TO ROANOKE: 3 DAYS IN HELL
Utilizing real-time techniques, found footage, cinema verite and the film-within-a-film staple (SCREAM 3, WES CRAVEN’S NEW NIGHTMARE, URBAN LEGENDS: THE FINAL CUT, SEED OF CHUCKY et al). RETURN TO ROANOKE: 3 DAYS IN HELL was a planned mockumentary, with the goal of getting the people who survived MY ROANOKE NIGHTMARE — along with the actors who played them in the re-enactment — back in the house during The Blood Moon.
Things dramatically change tack in Chapter 6, where we’re taken behind-the-scenes to meet showrunner Cheyenne Jackson, who is pitching a follow-up season after MY ROANOKE NIGHTMARE became a ratings hit. Lee Harris (Adina Porter) has endured a tabloid witch-hunt; Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt’s (Andre Holland) marriage has broken down; and Monet (Angela Bassett) is now an alcoholic, while Agnes Mary Winstead (Kathy Bates) is taking her own character role a step too far.
The back half of the season manages a momentum never seen before in AHS: channeling THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. It unfolds like an entire reel of stylized snuff movies, before segueing into a live television interview with AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ASYLUM’s original Final Girl, octogenarian journalist and TV personality Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson).
But why was ROANOKE one of the most impressive seasons of AMERICAN HORROR STORY? Here are a few reasons…
Adina Porter was credited as a supporting character in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE, and one of the biggest surprises this season was Lee Harris emerging as The Final Girl in the ROANOKE storyline. Adina Porter was a revelation this year as the tough, compassionate and occasionally calculated former cop — a woman who lost everything when she succumbed to drug addiction after being shot, and lands in the middle of a vicious custody battle with her husband Mason. She fights off The Butcher (Kathy Bates) and retains her sanity amidst multiple murders, the slippery slope of sobriety, her child’s abduction, the death of a sibling and even possession.
For AMERICAN HORROR STORY to feature an older woman of color in a prominent and provocative role is pretty progressive — and pretty awesome. It helps that the character is so well-written; a competent and resourceful heroine who thankfully doesn’t meet any of the criteria of a traditional Final Girl, Lee is a multifaceted character with real agency.
Grand Dame Guignol
AMERICAN HORROR STORY has always had Glamorous Grand Dames playing characters who aren’t crones, grandmothers, or housewives, and they don’t get nearly enough credit for this. In ROANOKE, we have an incorporeal serial killer, a cannibal mama, and their equally-as-frightening television counterparts; these characters can easily be categorized as the kind of villains who might appear in a “Hag Horror.” More Grand Dame Guignol next season, please…
A Shorter Running Time and Small Core Group
This season benefited from cutting those three extraneous episodes, and there was no season “muddle.” By focusing on a smaller core group, we become more invested in characters like Shelby and Matt, and later Audrey and Lee. It also helps the show’s pacing immensely.
The Directors Attached
An incredible roster of female directors this year and they are: Jennifer Lynch, Elodie Keene, Marita Grabiak, Gwyneth Horder-Peyton, Alexis Korycinski and Angela Bassett! This is certainly encouraging.
I knew we hadn’t seen the last of Lana Winters in the AHS-Verse… and something tells me they’ll revisit her in another installment somewhere down the line.