Okay, it’s compare-and-contrast time. American Horror Story fans, meet American Gothic. I’ve been thinking there is a resemblance there, beyond just the title, and the recent addition of enigmatic Sarah Paulson to the cast of the former prompted me to finally write this.
Let’s start with the subject matter. Subverting the archetype of the happy American family has been done in practically every genre of entertainment, but works especially well for horror. The idea of evil lurking beneath the facade of normalcy may be what scares us more than anything.
The two shows take different approaches to the family dynamic. The Harmons (AHS) are a family coming apart at the seams in the wake of infidelity, and struggling to hold it together. The Temples (AG) are already in a shambles. The mother is dead, the daughter, Merlyn (Paulson) is insane, and the father is abusive–all things we find out in the opening scene. The show then shifts its focus to a new family unit, the one Sheriff Buck (Gary Cole) aspires to establish with young Caleb (Lucas Black). Both shows are big on the Creepy Child element; in fact each pilot opens with a mentally disabled/disturbed young woman reciting her own Arc Words. (Merlyn: “Someone’s at the door.” Adelaide: “You’re gonna die.”)
Each show focuses on a house as the scene of the crime, or crimes, which form the impetus for the story. AG opens with a violent confrontation, and then a murder, in the family home. Later in the episode we learn about an earlier horrific act that precipitated current events. AHS follows a similar pattern, suggesting in the pilot at least two rounds of death and destruction, and promising to peel back further layers as the series unfolds. Each story hooks us in by suggesting that we have only seen a glimpse of a legacy of evil.
AG leans heavily on the Small Town with a Dark Secret angle, further preying on the fear of evil hiding behind innocence. The pilot opens with voice over, by Gary Cole, waxing poetic about the joy of living in a small town, Trinity, North Carolina, with old-fashioned values. Later he whistles the theme from The Andy Griffith Show, subverting this well-known uplifting ditty while preparing to commit some unknown sinister act. AHS is conversely set in Los Angeles, but actually the setting doesn’t impact the story in the pilot. (Though we later learn the house in on an L.A. “Murder Tour.”)
Then we get down to the subject of demon spawn. Devil babies will play into the plots of both show, though the concept is only hinted at in the pilots. We see Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) have sex with what we can guess to be anything from a sicko neighbor to a supernatural being; and we know she ends up pregnant. Over in Trinity, Sheriff Buck is hellbent on adopting Caleb. In a vision that Merlyn reveals from beyond the grave, we learn that the Sheriff raped their mother before Caleb was born. We don’t know that he is Caleb’s father, or that he’s the devil per se, but we’re definitely encouraged to consider it.
That kind of ambiguity permeates both pilots. Information is doled out sparingly and non-linearly. Still, the AG pilot hangs together as a single, cohesive story. AHS, not so much. The pilot left a lot of people saying “WTF”? The latter approach is arguably a stronger one for a pilot; even if you weren’t sure whether you liked AHS from the first episode, you may have kept watching just to figure out what the hell was going on.
The two shows differ quite a bit in style, but thematically they are pretty similar. The biggest difference in the horror is in degree, a product of the time period and the network where each one debuted. It’s a long way from 1995 CBS to 2011 FX.