American Horror Story: Roanoke Begins With a Glossy Spin on an Old Story

I’ve been watching American Horror Story since Murder House. I marveled at the brilliance of Asylum, rolled my eyes at Freakshow, reveled in the power of Coven (and Angela Bassett), and ran screaming from Hotel. After Hotel’s disjointed vignettes and oversexed violence, I was fairly certain that Roanoke was going to be the match that lit this dumpster on fire.

I’m pleasantly surprised by how gracefully the new format flows from one scene to the next. The documentary-style cutaways serve as an excellent way to build dramatic tension without relying on jump scares or bizarre, bombastic characters. I’m brought back to a reality that I’d become familiar with during Murder House: regular couple seeks respite and looks to start fresh in a new space.

American Horror Story has done the haunted house in the city, with Jessica Lange leading the madness, during the show’s first season. It’s finally time, dear Looters, to visit the haunted house in the woods.

This is a story that’s been told many, many times. It’s the backbone of every haunted house story that lives in the shadows of our collective consciousness. It’s a trope that’s been done, undone, and retold in a variety of mediums over a number of years. Unlike its theatrical counterparts, American Horror Story: Roanoke has the opportunity to rely on the slow build. In serialized format, it has more time to weave a “haunted house in the woods” narrative that isn’t a worn-out homage to the Amityville Horror.

It’s Too Quiet and I Hate It

I grew up in a very noisy household. We lived against mountains, tucked away from the sleepy city, but the house was vibrant and full of life. It was raucous and joyful. I fell asleep against a backdrop of gentle laughter and lively conversation. The sounds of the house settling were rarely ominous; I was comforted by the warmth of happy company and parents who were clearly present.

Part of the reason why I love living in the city is that I crave affirmation that others are out there, that I’m not all alone. The idea of rural living terrifies me. Echoing, empty houses in the middle of nowhere is a sure-fire way to elicit a resounding “NOPE” from me. Give me presence. Give me community. Give me warmth. You can keep your quiet.

Shelby and Matt, the show’s main characters, don’t share my perspective. They stumble upon their dream home while exploring the woods in North Carolina, close to where Matt grew up. It calls to them, as only creepy haunted houses in the woods can, and before I could shout “are you nuts?!”, a successful auction bid wins them the house. Cut to me throwing my hands up in exaggerated disgust and settling in for the inevitable bloodbath.

When Houses Talk, The Women Listen

Often when there are creepy things afoot in a spooky old house, the women and children will encounter it first. Even the most supportive and loving of men (read: Matt) are often dismissive.

“It’s stress, love. Don’t worry. It’s okay.”

“Are you sure you weren’t seeing things?”

“Maybe you should stop eating Burger King before bed, honey.”

Really, you shouldn’t be eating Burger King before bed for a number of reasons, the least of which being hypnagogic hallucinations.

Shortly after Shelby and Matt move into their scary dream home, things get weird. Between the aggressive middle-of-the-night door-knocking and the human teeth falling from the sky, the couple is understandably unnerved. Shelby is certain there’s something supernatural going on. Matt is sure that it’s racist rednecks trying to drive them out.

Now, Matt doesn’t dismiss Shelby outright. He tries to give her the benefit of the doubt. I can’t blame him for not believing her.Who would reaffirm that human teeth rained from the sky, or that a costumed angry mob with torches and pitchforks tried to drown Shelby in the hot tub?

Still, Matt doesn’t want to leave Shelby by herself. He calls up his salty ex-cop sister, Lee, to watch over her while he goes out of town for work. Lee is quick to roll her eyes at Shelby’s hysterics, telling the audience in the documentary cutaway that her brother married a jumpy white girl.

It’s easy to be dismissive… until you start seeing things, too.

Five years ago, in a tiny basement suite in Vancouver, I started hearing things in the middle of the night. It was easy to brush it off, at first. I was eight months pregnant. Work was taking its toll. I chalked it up to nerves and went back to sleep.

The whispers persisted for six months. I woke up each night at the same time: 3:15 am, the witching hour. Whether or not you believe in ghosts or disembodied voices, I know what I heard. For a time, the whispers were benign; nothing more than a breeze whistling past my ear. They grew louder and more aggressive once my son was born. It got to the point where I couldn’t ignore the immense creep factor. I would wake my husband up, pleading with him to listen.

Of course, he couldn’t hear anything. The hush of our urban suburbia became crushing in those hours before dawn. I’d stay up at night, finding any excuse to be awake. It didn’t matter how often I lamented to my husband, the only other person who heard them was my mother. We moved out shortly after for unrelated reasons.

It was an anxious first night in our new apartment, as I strained to hear anything above the whir of the Skytrain. There was only the trains and the restful buzz of a city settling in for the night. I could breathe. And, for the first time in many months, I slept.

When houses talk, the women are the ones who hear it.

Lee’s disposition sets her against Shelby, but even she can’t ignore the sounds coming from the basement. They descend. Shelby clings to her unyielding sister-in-law. Lee is all ferocious determination. An ominous video plays on an old TV. A mob descends on the house, keeping the women silently trapped for a half hour.

Meanwhile, Matt is watching everything unfold from his motel room in a nearby city. The cameras he’d installed before leaving were tripped by movement on the perimeter while the women were fighting. The footage streams to his phone, displaying a mob of people in costume holding torches and pitchforks. He desperately tries to reach his wife and sister, to no avail, and rushes back home as quickly as he can.

When he arrives, he finds twine effigies circling the grand staircase, right up to the roof. It’s no longer the whispers of a haunted house: it’s now directly tied to the occult. Of course, the cops don’t care. This isn’t True Detective — Rustin Cohle isn’t there to obsess and untangle the knots.

Shelby, Matt, and now Lee, are on their own.

We Can’t Stay, But We’re Not Leaving

As is the case with all haunted house stories, someone in the family urges them to leave. It’s time. Enough has happened. Sanity has been tested. It’s time to leave.

But, y’know, that’s quitter talk and Matt isn’t about to let a mob of racists drive them out of their home. It’s almost all of their life savings. Where would they go? What would they do? No, they can’t leave.

Shelby can’t stay. She won’t. She gets into their car, peels out of the driveway, and gets gone onto the highway. As she picks up a call from Matt (and loses track of driving for a few seconds), the vehicle collides with an old woman, sending Shelby into panic mode. But that little old lady in her pre-colonial garb, sporting a butcher knife in one hand, gets up and walks into the woods, seemingly unscathed.

I’ve got my hands on either side of my laptop screen at this point, fighting the urge to slap Shelby across the face to snap her out of her guilt-ridden reverie.

Do. Not. Go. Into. The. Woods. At. Night. Alone. Ever.

Shelby’s insistence that she barely left the road and still somehow got lost makes me roll my eyes in frustration.

“Girl,” I mutter to myself.

Her panic rises, mixing with my irritation, and collides headlong with another person seemingly lost in the woods. Unfortunately for him, he’s lost his scalp in the process. Ominous torchlight is closing in. Shelby has stumbled upon a ritual of some kind.

And she is in deep, deep trouble.

The occult implications and the season’s subtitle point to a possible exploration of the Lost Colony. This isn’t a simple case of a haunted house in the woods after all. It’s now rooted in a mystery that’s gone unsolved for the last four-hundred years: what happened to the colonists at Roanoke? For the first time in two seasons, I’m eager for more American Horror Story.

(Original Post: The Daily Crate)