AHS In Context: American Horror Story Asylum and the Slasher Phenomenon

For my dissertation right now I’m writing a chapter on Psycho.  I’ve written about Psycho on this blog, and I think it’s a fascinating work, but my study of the film led me yesterday to some interesting musings about American Horror Story Asylum: 2, a tv show that takes the slasher phenomenon head on and, arguably, indicts the lineage of violence that provoked it.  Psycho and AHS Season 2 are remarkably and intriguingly different, and I will examine their differences more in this blog post.    

                To begin, as I’ve certainly discussed on this blog, I’m analyzing Psycho from the lens of what I call “monstrous madness” – the tendency to depict mental illness as monstrosity in horror television, movies, and literature.  And to be honest, my take on the film has altered remarkably as I’ve started writing my dissertation.  When I first saw Psycho, I viewed it as weirdly progressive for its time period; after all, Norman Bates, by virtue of his delusion-based mental illness, is given quite a bit of sympathy for the murder of multiple people because the characters in the narrative – and, probably, we, the audience – are able to acknowledge that he was not fully aware – if aware at all – of what he was doing and couldn’t help the madness that swept him up in its wake.  I guess the perspective that such leniency was progressive in some way came from an assumption that the concepts of “crime and punishment” were more straightforward in 1960 when the film came out.  What I’ve come to realize, though, as I’ve been writing my chapter on Norman Bates, is that sympathy for Norman is not as surprising, or as progressive, as one might initially think.  In fact, giving sympathy to violence provoked by white masculinity has defined the history of Western Culture.  Psycho, of course, was quite unaware of this fact when it was released in 1960, although the way the topic is approached in Bates Motel may be a different story.  One similarly contemporary television show that I think is very aware of the history of the slasher film and culture’s tendency to forgive violent white masculinity is American Horror Story Asylum (season two).  After thinking about it, I believe AHS asylum is intentionally in conversation with Psycho, and I believe it’s responding to some of Psycho’s narrative decisions. 

                American Horror Story Asylum, like Psycho that came 53 years before it, bases its serial killer character off the infamous Ed Gein, who killed multiple women and kept a barn full of their body parts in the 1950s.  But Psycho – both the 1959 book by Robert Bloch and the 1960 film by Alfred Hitchcock – omit a lot of the monstrous details of Gein’s killing, which makes him look less malicious and more pitiable.  Norman Bates, as any fan of Hitchock’s movie will attest, is a relatively charming, attractive young man who appears, true to his namesake, surprisingly normal.  While, yes, he stabs two people, these murders – which are unquestioningly explained away in the narrative on the basis of Norman’s insanity – are, almost and oddly, benign in comparison to the macabre way Gein mutilated his victims – a bit of information that comes out later, in the 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but that’s never alluded to in Bloch’s novel or Hitchock’s film.  It seems, then, that Bloch and Hitchock cleaned Gein up; by making his crimes less grotesque, and by blaming his madness, they are able to make excuses for violent white masculinity; they make Gein not just less monstrous but downright pitiable.  In part, in Psycho, Norma takes the fall in this attempt; Norma Bates has to be depicted – to the extent that she’s depicted at all – as a horrific monster mom to explain away Norman’s crime, to blame it on the woman, not the man who chooses to wield the knife.  Norman had mommy issues; that’s why he did what he did, or so the narrative seems to go frequently, even in contemporary society with white male school shooters.  And Lila Crane’s take on Norman at the end of Bloch’s book says it all: “He must have suffered more than any of us.”  As such, the white male killer easily becomes the sympathetic victim. 

                Fast forward to 2013, and American Horror Story Asylum begins with the impending arrival of a serial killer at Briarcliff Asylum, a man the press calls “Bloody Face.”  The name, of course, indicates both a sort of parody of ridiculously dramatic serial killer names and, more obviously, a nod to Texas Chainsaw Massacre and their villain Leatherface who was also based off Ed Gein.  To that end, it would be remiss to conclude that AHS asylum is predominantly in conversation with Psycho when it’s clearly alluding to Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  But, I think, it would be equally remiss to assume that it’s not in conversation with, at the very least, both films that are based of serial killer Ed Gein – and perhaps the entire slasher subgenre. 

                Now the actual Bloody Face in AHS, unlike Norman Bates in Psycho, is depicted as a violent psychopath who skins women and then walks around wearing their skin on his face; he is grotesque, and much unlike Norman, who embodies Bloch and Hitchocock’s attempt to clean up the violence of white masculinity, Bloodyface, like leatherface, stands in for that representation, embodies the monstrosity of white male madness—when it comes to serial killers, and, possibly, when it comes to the history of white hegemony.  In this way alone, AHS – and Texas Chainsaw Massacre – are more progressive than Psycho, if progressive means willing to indict a white male character for his crimes (and, perhaps, by default, to indict white masculinity past and present), but AHS is doing some additional things that I think make it really noteworthy, really cool, really important to mention.

                First, Kit Walker, the angelic blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy (well, young man) who’s accused of being Bloody face in the beginning of the series is a character remarkably parallel to Norman Bates in Psycho – the book and the movie.  Young, attractive, charming, and innocent-seeming, he would seem to be unlikely serial killer material, and we, the audience members, are fairly certain he isn’t the killer early in the season.  Like Norman, also, the crime that Kit is accused of is one he can’t remember doing; in fact, like Norman, who blacks out when he “becomes” his dead mother and kills in her clothes, Kit remembers nothing about the death of his wife, Alma, despite being accused of her murder.  This psychological (and in Kits case perhaps physical absence, since he was abducted by aliens while her ostensible murder took place)  along with their generic characteristics, make Kit Walker and Norman Bates – both of whom also have surprisingly “ordinary” names, parallel characters.  And I think my perspective on this parallel is as follows: AHS does it to acknowledge Psycho and to call it out for turning its monstrous killer into a sympathetic, innocent, lovable guy.  By providing a parallel character to Norman Bates – but a character who is actually innocent – we can see how ridiculous Norman’s “cleaned up” depiction is, a ridiculousness that is highlighted and emphasized by the actual physical appearance of the killer in AHS, who is notably monstrous with the excess skin on his face. 

                Now, that being said, Anthony Perkins who plays Norman in Hitchcock’s film does look a lot like Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), who ends up being revealed as the murderer in AHS asylum.  And perhaps there is something more complicated going on here.  After all, while Bloody Face – like Leather Face – is revealed in his full monstrosity, Norman kills, and thus is meant to seem most monstrous, when dressed as a woman, but this only serves to render queerness as a monstrosity and to further forgive white masculinity, which is only accidentally taken over by that evil woman, Norma, or some version of her, when Norman kills.  But even if Norman’s monstrous madness is emphasized when he is dressed as a women, it is not commensurate to the level of monstrosity represented by Bloody face or leather face, two characters whose violent, ugly natures are unabashedly woven into the tapestry of their physical appearances and their personas.

Along with the fact that AHS shows white male violence for the monstrosity it is, the show is also a little mocking when it comes to considering narratives that we’ve used to excuse serial killers in the past.  Surely, to some extent, AHS is laughing at the notion of “mommy issues” as a narrative for why white male killers kill, and perhaps laughing at Psycho specifically, when, during one of the later episodes of AHS, Oliver Thredson has reporter Lana Winters in his grasp and chooses her as a surrogate mother figure after citing maternal problems as the reason for his killing.  More ridiculous, still, there’s a scene where he actually sucks her nipple.  I’ll admit, I read a wiki to get the second half of the season covered; I still have to finish watching it.  But showing the serial killer sucking the nipple of a “surrogate mother” to assuage his “mommy issues” and delay his killing spree seems like a rather tongue in cheek way of making fun of the narratives we use to excuse violent white masculinity.

                I will admit, a re-watching of all the texts under discussion here – Hitchcock’s Psycho, Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Murphy’s AHS Asylum, Season Two – would probably go a long way in sharpening this analysis, and it’s a likely step I’ll be taking in the next few days as I continue my dissertation.  Suffice it to say, though, I think AHS Asylum, when it comes to depictions of serial killers, is acutely aware of the cinematic legacy that preceded it, and intelligently critical of past cinematic tendencies to forgive the white male serial killer and lessen his crimes, to make him seem less monstrous because of his masculinity and his whiteness.       

AHS In Context: American Horror Story Asylum and the Slasher Phenomenon

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