The Walking Dead and American Horror story are two series which have excelled and are filling memory space of DVRs everywhere. What do these horror series offer, and why have they performed so well?
Horror is always at its best when it exposes something larger, when it serves both on a personal scale yet also something much bigger. The horror is a microcosm of the larger world around it, and an everyday horror is expressed in the supernatural.
This is true of the best parts of season 1 of American Horror Story where the horror was just a metaphor for the interpersonal dynamics of the married couple. The real horror was dealing with infidelity, trust, anger, (perpetual anger) and all the shattered lives caused by the ripples of hurt. The horror of all this inner-psyche drama sticks around like ghosts in your basement in a house you can never leave.
This existed in all the characters of AHS. All of the characters were fragmented and in search for wholeness, connection, love, trust, but instead remained isolated, fearful, hurt, and broken. The main focus was a husband who desperately wants to remain with his family, yet is unable to shake his past and fully shed himself of his scandalous behavior, and his wife who wants to trust her husband and put the trauma of her past miscarriage behind her.
And the mistress, who was horrifying and ‘fatal attraction-like,’ is just as needy and clingy while she’s alive as she is after she’s been killed and appears at the front door. You can’t just kill the past, you have to deal with it, otherwise, the ghosts in your basement remain. They haunt your psychological dark spots, always ready to fragment your spirit, destroy your dreams, and yes hurt your children.
The Walking Dead season 1 and 2 laid the groundwork for some cool hand-chopping moral ambiguities and dilemmas. The show did a great job of blurring the lines between right and wrong, and there were characters who were stuck in some grey areas trying to battle for a moral compass. Secrets, love triangles, and the dilemmas of bringing a child into a desolate wasteland. Is the life of one worth risking the life of all? Can you ‘euthanize’ your own family member when they have ‘turned’? Is it okay to keep secrets if you feel lives are at risk? How can you keep any kind of moral compass yet survive when there are no laws?
All of this grey matter is in contrast to the zombies who follow just one drive and that is to eat. Yet who is more humane? The humans who kill for no reason, or the zombies who can’t think about it and just kill for food? Having to make these choices is what makes us human. If you don’t have to make them, and are just trying to survive and only survive, then you are a zombie. Shane started to become a zombie before he even turned. You could see it in his face, hear it in his grunts, and the bullet in his head after he turned perhaps could have been put there before, since he was already one of the walkers.
Season 3 of TWD has been much more fun but a little less deep. There are some amazing character wars, but the characters themselves are more ‘cartoonish’. Consider Michonne (who I have a major crush on) and the Governor, much more fictionalized creatures from a fun zombie movie than fully well-rounded characters. But they are full of some twisted and incredible traits, mythologized and larger than life rather than the person you know from next door.
The body count in season 3 of The Walking Dead has been so much higher. There seems to be more ‘gore for gore’ sake, and the zombies are not just barriers but more prevalent, more present. The series isn’t any less wonderful, it’s just now less sublime, more ‘shoot-em-up’ fun. The line between good and evil is much more clear – there is no question of which side we are on, Darryl’s or Merles, for example, but the drama has been artfully crafted.
Same with American Horror Story, which, just by the setting alone has become more of a creepy, sick and twisted series compared to the near metaphysical ghost story of season 1. Horror in a mental institution and in a doctor’s chair to me seems a bit like cheating, a bit too easy, and at times even cliché and unoriginal. You don’t watch this show reflecting on your own relationship as much as you would in season 1, but there is still some major investment in the characters and that edgy, heart-beating thrill of watching the next twisted scene. Jessica Lange continues to hold the series together.
The serie’s deeper implications have moved from the intra-personal and psychological dynamics to larger societal issues; like how do we define mental illness, the ‘treatment’ of sexual orientation, and racism against inter-racial relationships.
Yes, horror works best when you are watching it and seeing yourself, not something too distant from your own experience. Something that when you watch you think, “We are all infected.” Yes, the secret of season 1 and 2 of TWD, that “we are all infected” is what makes horror as a genre thrive. We are all infected with this human experience. It’s a virus that lasts approximately 70 years, give or take a few decades, and during that time we look for meaning. And when done right, horror offer us a great peek into this unique affliction, but if not, it at least gives us some riveting drama to enjoy and makes our predicament a little more tolerable. At least for a few seasons or more.