Why I’m Vibe-Watching American Horror Story

Critics who fault the FX show for unoriginality—or incoherence—aren’t letting themselves enjoy its real delights.

Jenna Dewan-Tatum as Teresa in the premiere episode of 'American Horror Story: Asylum.'

Jenna Dewan-Tatum as Teresa in the premiere episode of American Horror Story: Asylum.

Photo by Michael Yarish/FX.

Remember that scene in Cabin in the Woods where (spoiler alert) the camera zooms out to show hundreds of nightmarish creatures thrashing about in subterranean cells, waiting to terrorize this or that unsuspecting human with the push of a button? Ryan Murphy must have an ultra-premium membership with that monster-manifestation service; without some sort of bulk discount, his ghoul- and goblin-packed American Horror Story would presumably go broke in a matter of episodes, if not minutes.

In the first episode of the show’s second season, Asylum (which premieres tonight), we already have masked serial killers, malevolent aliens, and mad scientists, not to mention the less horror-genre-specific (but no less frightening) presence of unhinged nuns and an undulating mass of the generally insane. If the series continues apace, the hellish catalog will make last season’s ghostly boarding house—in which a century’s worth of restless souls rubbed shoulders and genitals with an ever more spectral family of mortals—seem merely cozy.

Indeed, American Horror Story’s freewheeling tour through the attic of our culture’s collective haunted house, while delighting some, has vexed many others. Critics have described the show as “confounded,” “a jumble,” and “one-stop shopping for horror tropes.” Slate’s own Troy Patterson called it a “fever dream” and a cook-top crowded with “various cast-iron pots steadily boiling with a mixture of fear and desire.” By many accounts, Murphy and his co-creater Brad Falchuk simply have too many cauldrons going, and plenty of critics seem to be waiting eagerly for the whole thing to boil over.

But maybe viewers are looking for the wrong things in American Horror Story. There’s a way to enjoy a series that values different things from the criteria we typically use to ascribe “success” to a show: aesthetic, not plot; mood, not emotion; sensory serendipity, not rigorous story structure. Coherence still matters, of course, but in terms of an artistic vision instead of (or even at the expense of) traditional narrative. It’s the way to best enjoy American Horror Story, just as it was the way to best enjoy Twin Peaks, Damages, and Six Feet Under. Let’s call it “vibe-watching.”

In his fascinating exploration of AHS’s status as an anthology show—each season telling a brand new story with common actors and themes—Phillip Maciak notes that Murphy and Falchuck “are attempting to codify an aesthetic that will bring viewers back.” What’s important about this recognition is that watching or reviewing the show in terms of plot, character development, or that most tyrannical of notions, originality, completely misses the point. AHS is designed to provide a world in which viewers can immerse themselves, not a set of characters to relate to or a story to emotionally invest in. You either get into its vibe, or you don’t.

That’s why it doesn’t matter how transparently the show borrows from the cache of horror clichés. Last year Patterson offhandedly accused AHS of aping music from Bernard Herrmann’s classic scores to Psycho and Vertigo, only to be informed by the production team that the actual music was being licensed from Herrman’s estate. Clearly, AHS doesn’t care if you notice its source material, because it’s not really about presenting a novel take on ghosts or demonic possession per se. Rather, the show packs a critical mass of combustible materials into a suitably volatile container—a creepy house with a family in crisis, say, or a rickety asylum—and tosses in a match.

Of course, if this procedure isn’t guided by a strong and compelling artistic vision, it’s liable to fail terrifically. Much of the success of the “vibe” approach depends on the viewer being able and willing to enter the world and find enough glittery stuff there to, in the absence of a domineering narrative, make up a personal show out of what catches her fancy. It is the vibe that matters, the vibe you must tune yourself to and from which you must extract your pleasure, for no Aristotelian catharsis is forthcoming.

Campiness, as a style, almost always invites vibe-watching, for as Wayne Koestenbaum has written, the camp experience involves making a “private airlift of lost cultural matter, [of] fragments held hostage by everyone else’s indifference,” of living for the sublimity of “this gesture, this pattern, this figure.” I bet you can tell that the bottle from which Jessica Lange dabs perfume onto her chest is the container in which my own personal sublime resides. Camp, not horror, is the soul and motivating force of AHS, and if you don’t delight in the fate that befalls Maroon 5 lead singer Adam Levine in the season premiere, you are not resonating at AHS’s frequency.

But don’t worry if Murphy’s campy charnel house still doesn’t seem all that inviting; American Horror Story just may not be the right vibe for you. Chances are, you’re already vibe-watching something else without even realizing it—like, say, reality television. Many a critical aneurism has been brought on by trying to understand the appeal of housewives milling about through cocktail parties and manufactured dramas (nothing happens! It’s not Reality!). But when that batty, Muppet-faced old lady in The Real Housewives of Miami mumbles something incomprehensible in Spanglish and then falls down at a party, it justifies every Bravo dollar, every minute of my time, and possibly the continued existence of a universe in which such a thing exists. In the company of such a wonderful vibe, it seems tacky to bring up something as pedestrian as coherence.