Watching ‘American Horror Story: Murder House’

Adam Gravano


Warning: This review will likely contain spoilers. If you cannot enjoy a story when components of its plot and structure are given in advance, please read something else.


A family moves into an old house, and, it turns out that, unbeknownst to them, murders had occurred there in the past. The haunting subsequently begins, as the specters of the past, both from their own lives and the house's past life interact with the less than ideal present: a cheating spouse with a mistress who won't go away, a daughter drifting away from her family and into self-blaming depression.


Much of this resembles some well-worn tropes, and not just of haunted house stories or even horror in general, but it works. In part, there's the old gothic novel trick of repeated dead-ends. For example, the repeated presence of the “Rubber Man” suit to complement the abundant eroticism of the series. The viewer feels almost compelled to say that sexual desire is lurking, and with Dr. Harmon's medical specialty biting on the psychosexual is certainly tempting, but ultimately this inquiry turns out to be a dead-end.


Also, its origin story as a last-ditch attempt by Chad to keep the one thing he can't control, his relationship with Patrick, adds a nice touch of a male inadequacy narrative reminiscent of some of Stephen King's work (The Shining has it, as does Christine). The racism of Constance and the realtor would be another dead-end, although, in a ghost story, where the past and present meet uncomfortably, race might be a fertile ground — maybe not for the particular setting, but in general (my mind lights on northern cities or even my home region of Long Island).


There are other tried and true elements of the season. The house's many ghosts interacting with one another as well as the Harmon family adds the complexity of conflicting goals and multigenerational drama to the tale. For example, all the women want a baby, as do Patrick and Chad, and sharing isn't exactly an option. In all, the viewer might find himself reminded that, as Sartre wrote in No Exit, “Hell is other people.” The multigenerational complexity is on its own intriguing as each of the ghosts can be a foil for another and the living, for example Nora Montgomery's conniving to get Vivien's child, even making a deal with Tate to do so (it should be noted that while Nora eventually gets her kid, it's not a bed of roses and she eventually gives up the child to Vivien).


In “Murder House,” one is confronted not just with the hell of other people but, to borrow from another modern author, William Faulkner, the reality that the past is not dead — in fact it's not even past.



While much of this has been done before, in different combinations, the series works well and manages to keep the viewer hungering for more. The fresh rating from Rotten Tomatoes is certainly deserved and it's a testament to the strength of this first installment in the series that not a single episode is rated below a 55. But the excitement wasn't all ex post facto. As the series was getting started Washington Post's Hank Stuever gave the series a B+, writing, “Overdoing things is one of Murphy's trademark flaws, but this show has a captivating style and giddy gross-outs.”


While Stuever raises the question of why the Harmons don't move out, so too does a less enthusiastic reviewer, Uproxx's Alan Stepinwall, whose headline labels the show, “an overwrought mess,” and who later goes on to compare it to an undergraduate's drunken pranks. The question is a bit of a cheap shot. A home is a large investment, and, in this case, it's not just a place where the Harmons intend to rest their heads at the end of a day.


Dr. Harmon is running his practice out of the house, and he and his wife invest a significant amount of money and work in remodeling it. It doesn't take an economist to appreciate the propensity of regular human beings to misunderstand when an investment is no longer worth the money and effort spent.


Even before this, there are logistical questions that hamstring this line of inquiry: taking the realtor to court will take time and money, as will the questions of where to relocate to and how to do it; all the while, the Harmons will need a place to live, and, as they nominally own it, the Murder House isn't exactly out of the question, especially if there are appeals. The oversight is forgivable, as with knowledge of what journalism pays one is likely to find that it's unlikely either writer owns property.


In retrospect, the first season is more than watchable. It's fodder for that special feeling of heightened awareness that comes from a good horror tale, where the telltale scrape of dried leaves across pavement and the chill in the wind excite them and that sense of something being just “over there, “just out of sight — nebulous, nefarious, and always watching, waiting.


Author Bio:                                                


Adam Gravano is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


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