Illustration by Brian Fabry Dorsam.
This season’s new horror must-watch might just be “American Horror Story: Roanoke.” I do not say this lightly, and I say it with my heart still oozing with disdain for Ryan Murphy and most of what he creates (a topic for another day).
However, as a lover of horror and of storytelling in all its forms, I have to admit, this installment of “American Horror Story” surpasses the previous five seasons, and anything else in its television genre in recent memory.
My relationship with “American Horror Story” began when season one became available on Netflix, and ended during the anthology series’ third season, “Coven.” Recently, my roommate suggested I watch the first episode of “Roanoke.”
My roommate knows that the movie I find scariest is “The Blair Witch Project.” She suggested I watch the premiere, which borrows heavily from “The Blair Witch Project”; within the first five minutes, I asked her if there were going to be any weird stick people in this show. She coyly repudiated this idea. Spoiler alert: There is an abundance of scary stick figurines in the premiere of “Roanoke,” and I may never forgive my roommate.
That being said, what struck me most about “Roanoke” was its structure. Documentary-style interviews paired with “dramatic reenactments” a la “Paranormal Witness” tell the story of Shelby and Matt: a couple who move into a house and almost immediately are targeted by the angry, dead matriarch of the lost (or, in this mythology, relocated) colony of Roanoke.
The result is a show-within-a-show and a layering of intrigue and suspense. Immediately, you know that the characters with whom interviews are being conducted are safe, and yet you fear for their “re-enactors.” Somehow, the show simultaneously creates a separation and collapse of identity between the “real” characters and the characters experiencing the horrors on screen. For example, you fear for the extremely well-cast Sarah Paulson as Shelby in the dramatically reenacted scenes, even while you are certain of Lily Rabe’s (real Shelby’s) safety. This structure is constant through the first half of the season, which after the premiere, I refused to watch after dark.
At the mid-season mark, the story of Shelby and Matt has concluded, and the documentary crew has moved on. The show-within-the show-becomes a smash hit, prompting the producer to seek a second season. Suddenly, we are behind the scenes. There’s a whole new set of characters in the producers, crew, and cast of the original show. We see the development of this new show, which will bring back all the original players — Matt and Shelby along with many of the re-enactors who told their hellish story — to enter the house during peak haunting time, the blood moon, to be filmed by hidden cameras.
In one fell swoop, everything you thought you knew is thrown into question. The viewer is supposed to believe that Matt and Shelby’s story is true, but the characters of the actors and producers have no idea. The “American Horror Story” viewer is informed that all but one of these people will die making this show — which did not air as intended — and what they are seeing is the found footage (from static cameras, primarily; no need to fear the shaky “Blair Witch” or “Cloverfield” style so far, though the season isn’t over yet).
This turn is what convinced me that “American Horror Story: Roanoke” should be on every horror fan’s watch list. Not only is this structure intriguing and ambitious, the show’s producers (the real ones, not the characters) pull it off so expertly, both visually and in the writing, you’ll find it hard to look away, no matter how terrified you are of what you might see. If, like me, you gave up on “American Horror Story” during one of its earlier seasons, “Roanoke” is a good reason to give it another chance. If, like me, you have an ever-present hate-fire burning in your soul for Ryan Murphy, you’ll find none of his typical vapidity here. If, like me, anthropomorphic stick bundles freak you out on a very deep level, know that there are many in the first episode, and you should be prepared to deal with that, psychologically (but they have only appeared in the premiere so far, thankfully).
Whatever the case may be, if you’re looking for a long, scary narrative (and you’ve watched all of Jose and Brian’s marathon suggestions), “American Horror Story: Roanoke” should be your next stop. It delivers scares, suspense, and a stellar, diverse cast all in a well-written package.