For months, the sixth season of ‘American Horror Story’ was shrouded in secrecy. The FX network did not reveal the season’s theme ahead of time, and even went so far as to run fake and conflicting promos to throw fans off. Now that the premiere episode has finally aired, it seems that the theme is basically ‘The Blair Witch Project’, which is probably unfortunate timing to come out the same week as the official ‘Blair Witch’ sequel.
Of course, the new ‘Blair Witch’ movie was produced in secret as well, so each of these two teams probably had no way of knowing what the other was doing until the last minute. ‘American Horror Story’ is also, as always, a pastiche of multiple sources. How far the ‘Blair Witch’ parts of the season will go before something else takes over remains to be seen. Nonetheless, when the little stick-figure idols showed up on screen and appeared to be exact replicas of the iconic symbol from the original ‘Blair Witch Project’, I was struck by the coincidence.
That’s not to suggest that the show is doing a direct imitation. Rather than shoot in Found-Footage style, the premiere borrows its format from the type of fake “documentary” (I use that term loosely) you’d see on Syfy or (sadly) the History Channel. That’s a pretty big change for ‘American Horror Story’, and the weirdness is compounded by casting the main characters with multiple actors. We’re first introduced to interracial couple Matt and Shelby Miller played by André Holland (‘The Knick’) and series regular Lily Rabe in interview segments for an alleged documentary called ‘My Roanoke Nightmare’. As they tell their story, the episode cuts to what I suppose are meant to be reenactments where the same characters are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Sarah Paulson. This is quite confusing the first time it happens.
Happily married and minding their own business, Matt and Shelby are driven away from their comfortable lives in the big city after a gang initiation attack leaves the husband hospitalized for a while, the stress of which causes the wife to have a miscarriage. After Matt recovers, the couple pack up their things and move to rural North Carolina, a decision motivated by a misguided ‘Green Acres’ fantasy of bucolic country living. They spend their life savings buying a repossessed farm house at auction, which doesn’t appear to sit well with the racist hillbilly locals they bid against.
Right from the start, it’s clear that Matt is much happier with the house than Shelby is. The wife is easily spooked by creepy noises in the middle of the night, which Matt attributes to the hillbillies trying to scare them away. He’s determined to stand firm and make their new life work, but she’s ready to hightail it out of there when a freak hail storm rains what look like human teeth from the sky. Later, while trying to relax in an outdoor hot tub, Shelby is shoved under the water and almost drowned. The unhelpful local police assume that the woman is just being hysterical (they found no footprints or fingerprints), and even Matt isn’t sure what to believe until he finds a dead pig on their doorstep, presumably left as some sort of threatening message.
Forced to leave town for a business trip, Matt sets up security cameras around the house and invites his sister, Lee (Angela Bassett), to stay with Shelby. A disgraced former cop with a history of drug dependency, Lee is a no-bullshit badass broad who’s never had much patience for flighty yoga instructor Shelby. Tensions between the two women mount while Matt is away, until their arguing is interrupted by mysterious figures with torches encircling the house. A hundred miles away, Matt helplessly watches the security footage via an app on his phone. He calls the police and then races home in his car.
Hearing voices from the basement, Lee leads Shelby downstairs to confront the intruder(s). What they find instead is an old TV playing home video footage that looks basically like a clip from ‘The Blair Witch Project’, in which a man in the woods appears to be killed by a figure wearing a pig’s head over its face. They stay in the basement when they hear lots of frightening noises upstairs.
By the time Matt gets home, the police are already there and Shelby and Lee are safe. However, the entire living room of the house is covered by an elaborate web of Blair Witch stick idols. The cops chalk this up as a prank by some unfriendly neighbors. Shelby is terrified and desperate to ditch the house and move back to the city that very minute, but Matt and Lee still refuse to be run off.
Enough is enough for Shelby. She hops in Matt’s car and speeds away, trying to put as much distance between herself and the evil house as she can. She doesn’t get too far before an old woman steps into the road in front of her car. Shelby hits her and screeches to a halt. Freaked out, she nonetheless gets out of the car to help the victim. When the woman stumbles off into the woods, Shelby unwisely chases after her. She quickly gets lost in the woods at night and comes across a tree covered in the scary stick figure idols.
At this point, things get really intense as the entire ground of the forest undulates beneath Shelby’s feet like a giant creature breathing and people with torches close in on her from all directions. As she gets her first clear look at them, they appear to be dressed in old-timey Colonial garb. The episode ends when a man covered in blood, his head scalped, stumbles into the clearing and falls to the ground directly in front of Shelby.
The title of the faux-documentary, ‘My Roanoke Nightmare’, suggests right away that the people with torches are, I’m guessing, ghosts from the legendary Roanoke colony. Are they actually malevolent, or have they simply been trying to warn Matt and Shelby about evil in the area? I guess we’ll find out as the season progresses.
In addition to the new documentary format, this season of ‘American Horror Story’ (based on this episode, at least) marks a big change in tone over the last several years. It dials the over-the-top outrageousness and campiness way down to focus on old-fashioned scares and suspense. A lot of the episode is legitimately unnerving and tense. True, it relies heavily on simple jump-scares and shock effects, but sometimes those things can still be damned effective.
This being ‘American Horror Story’, the show wears its influences on its sleeve. Beyond ‘Blair Witch’, the episode steals freely from ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’, ‘The Last House on the Left’, ‘Deliverance’ and other inspirations. At the moment, they haven’t yet overwhelmed or distracted from the story or characters.
I’m inclined to say that this is a very promising start for the season, but most seasons of this show tend to start off well before eventually falling apart. The real test will be to see how it fares in the coming weeks.