For the past few months, American Horror Story impresario Ryan Murphy and his team have been teasing fans about the theme of this fall’s season, the sixth of the anthology series. In years past, the subtitle of the season—Asylum, Coven, Hotel—has always been released ahead of the premiere. But this time around, marketers intentionally sowed misdirection—and generated manic buzz—with a slew of “which one is real?” promos, including a final, synergistic highlights collection set to a soundtrack of Lady Gaga’s new single “Perfect Illusion” just last week.
On Wednesday, the mischievous campaign finally ended and the true theme was revealed—American Horror Story: Sponsored Content. At least that’s what it felt like when Murphy, Los Angeles–cool in piped jacket and high-tops, materialized from behind a luxury automobile to introduce the premiere and its sponsor, Mercedes-Benz. The real horror, thankfully, turned out instead to be a true American fright: the vanishing of the Roanoke Colony in 1590. And thus we have AHS: My Roanoke Nightmare.
The particular formatting of that subtitle says a lot about the novel approach this season, which is a delightfully literal Unsolved Mysteries setup—the sort of breathless A&E program wherein real people narrate their harrowing experience in an interview while actors perform a dramatic re-enactment for the benefit of the viewer. In this case, we have Matt and Shelby Miller, a modern-day couple living in Los Angeles who, after being hit with a game of “knockout” and a miscarriage, respectively, decide the city is a bit much and that it might make sense to move back to the rural simplicity of Matt’s home state of North Carolina. Naturally, they choose an abandoned, Amityville Horror–style mansion in the middle of the woods. And of course, their house appears to be ideally situated in the middle of a paranormal Roanoke hangover zone.
The premiere featured the requisite ghoulish hijinks: Someone leaves a nasty dead pig on the porch, and yoga-teaching, cucumber-sautéing Shelby is almost drowned while decompressing with a massive glass of rosé in the house’s random old-timey hot tub. But who did it? The family of local rednecks who clearly didn’t much care for the interracial couple, especially after they lost the house to them at auction? Or is the culprit someone (or something) altogether more sinister? And what about that weird found-footage video in the basement with the guy chasing the pig-man through the woods? In any case, what you definitely do not want in the middle of a home renovation is the sudden appearance of a Blair Witch stick-doll installation in the middle of your foyer, nor for the ground to start literally undulating with displeasure at your presence.
This is all very fun, but I’m actually more excited—at least for now—by the show’s format. Having two actors for each role—Lily Rabe (“real”)/Sarah Paulson (re-enactor) for Shelby; André Holland/Cuba Gooding Jr. for Matt; and Adina Porter/Angela Bassett for Matt’s disgraced cop sister, Lee—doubles down on the uncanny delight of seeing AHS’s stable of actors play different roles over each anthology entry. As the A.V. Club’s Emily L. Stephens notes, the interview/dramatization model also introduces the potential for unreliable narration—maybe the theme really was misdirection in the first place! My campy heart can only hope that this treatment is extended to the haunting characters as well: Seeing Kathy Bates—who so far we’ve only glimpsed briefly as she bounced off the windshield of Shelby’s car in ghostly period garb—bitching about cellphones and car accidents in an interview chair would just kill me.
It’s worth noting quickly that Murphy has promised that Season 6 will contain the most callbacks to other seasons yet, revealing, as Hotel really began to do in earnest, to what extent all the AHS entries exist in the same narrative universe. The Roanoke mystery was featured prominently way back in Season 1’s Murder House, when “press-on nail psychic” Billie Dean Howard (Paulson) explained how a Native American elder had attempted a “banishment curse” to rid the area of the spirits of hostile colonists, ending his incantation with the word “Croatoan!” Sadly, an attempt to use it on dearly departed residents of the Murder House failed—and, if the Millers’ experience thus far in Roanoke is any indication, the curse may have an expiration date anyway. But something tells me that, given Shelby’s spiritual proclivities, Billie—re-enacted, perhaps, by Rabe?!—might get another chance. If that doesn’t work, this yuppie couple’s adventure in rural colonization may end as badly as the first one did, over four centuries ago.