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‘American Horror Story’ Recap and Reaction: “Chapter 1”

A short introduction: American Horror Story was the first fandom where I made my mark, and I’ve been recapping every episode on the American Horror Story Wiki from the beginning. If you haven’t checked out the excellent community there, and are a fan, you should. For those who have seen my recaps before, I’m going to be adding my reactions and reviews to a shorter recap for Fandom. You’ll see something a little different in both places.

Matt and Shelby Miller

Making history

American Horror Story began with the simple and straightforward premise, and we were told at the end of the first season that the next would feature an entirely different setting and characters. This launched the modern renaissance of the anthology show, a pattern that’s been often imitated over the last 6 years. The second season added a time jump. The third returned to the present and hinted that a story could continue across multiple years. The fourth explicit shows that all the stories share an interconnected universe. Each successive year brought speculation and a determined hunt for clues to what was coming next.

That said, Season 6 planning for American Horror Story was one of the tightest lipped crews since Lost, and we weren’t privy to any spoilers about what was to come. At least, the 25 teases we got were declared to be mostly “foilers”. Until the significantly abbreviated opening credits (which have won awards in years past for design and direction) reduced to 2 title cards, we had no subtitle for this season’s story. With the end credits, all the hints and rumors became clear. There is no subtitle for season 6, since it will be composed of multiple stories. We won’t know how many stories are coming, whether they’ll be interleaved or consecutive, or how soon the next will come. And we won’t have much warning before things change.

Therefore, the pioneer of modern anthology shows has changed the game again. We’ll see how other shows respond to the multi-arc system, and what success can sustain these shorter tales. The first page in this new rulebook is fittingly titled “Chapter 1“.

Flipping the script

A cold open shows us a series of filmed confessionals / testimonies, claiming that this is a real story inspired by true events for a documentary presumably titled “My Roanoke Nightmare”. Whether we’re seeing actors (in the form of Lily Rabe, André Holland, and Adina Porter) delivering these statements from the accounts of the victims, or whether their counterparts (Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Angela Bassett) re-enact the accounts is left ambiguous. My money is on the former. The longer and more detailed, less soap-opera accounts ring much more true than the polished studio glamour.

A married couple, Shelby and Matt Miller, describe their courtship and moving from Los Angeles to North Carolina. A night of celebration turned into victimization by a gang initiation, and the emotional recovery from the violence drove them away from the city. A picnic romp in the woods leads them to a vacant, late 18th-century house. They pick up the property (and the surrounding, protected 10 acres) using the bulk of their savings in an auction against an Appalachian trio (The Polks). A preternatural presence watches them from the woods.

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The yoga instructor and pharmaceutical salesman work on rebuilding the house, which has tied up their savings. The occasional interruptions from the noisy woods puts them on edge. Being an interracial couple, they worry about violence from the locals. When separated, they each experience strange occurrences.  One morning, what seems like rain or hail to Shelby against the roof is actually a shower of teeth; the teeth have vanished by the time Matt comes home. Matt finds vandalized trash cans and a pig carcass on the doorstep, and conceals these from Shelby. Much of these ominous events retread what made AHS’s first season “Murder House” work. Unlike Ben and Vivien Harmon, Shelby and Matt really do have a happy marriage.

hot-tub

Stranger things

An incident in the household hot-tub drives Matt to question his wife’s sanity and safety. He invites his sister to keep his wife safe. A disgraced former police officer and addict, Matt’s sister Lee clashes again and again with Shelby. A lot of her backstory seems less relevant now; the gist is that she lost everything (including custody of her daughter) due to painkiller abuse. One night during an argument, things come to a head. Their fight is interrupted and the unarmed women are trapped in the basement with a creepy home movie. Matt frantically watches the security feed from his phone as intruders invade the house.

When the women are able to come upstairs again, they find the torch-bearing mob has redecorated for them. Miles of twine hang on every surface, where little bundles of twig figures dangle like demented Christmas ornaments. I’d think that if the two projects hadn’t been super secret, this episode and the new Blair Witch movie could have marketed each-other. They’re the same bundles of twigs, in exactly the same creepy decoration style.

Matt returns and they show him the video, which he thinks is a fake to intimidate the couple and scare them away. Shelby wants to leave, Lee suggests they stand their ground, and Matt pleads that they have nowhere to go, as they’ve invested everything. Shelby storms off, and collides with a woman in the road. The woman stands and walks into the woods, vanishing as Shelby pursues on foot. Shelby, now lost in the woods, finds a clearing with more of the hanging bundle totems. The ground itself begins to undulate, as if breathing, and she runs deeper into the woods. A torch-bearing mob surrounds her, including a bloody man walking with an exposed brain.

So many familiar faces are in this scene, from Kathy Bates to Wes Bentley. It’s good to have the band back together, since at this point in the episode we still had no idea of the story’s remaining cast. The cliffhanger endings that mark AHS as a general rule are still around. The special treat was saved for the end credits, in which we see that we’ve lost Lady Gaga and Matt Bomer from the cast to gain André Holland and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as main cast. I can totally see these two sticking around for a while.

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American Horror Story broadcasts on Wednesdays on FX Networks. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s coming.

For a full recap of “Chapter 1”, visit the American Horror Story Wiki. This article includes reactions to the episode in which specific details and events are discussed. SPOILERS may occur, so read at your own risk.


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