Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters
American Horror Story is once again making waves by pushing — heck, shredding — the envelope for sex, violence, and general sadism on basic cable. But this season it’s doing something even ballsier for a mainstream genre show: its emerging central storyline and the source of much of its horror are tied directly to the queer experience.
In American Horror Story: Asylum‘s premiere episode, “Welcome to Briarcliff,” we met Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), a plucky reporter who snuck into Briarcliff in the hopes of speaking to its most notorious inmate, a serial killer of women nicknamed Bloody Face. Lana – a lesbian living in secret with her schoolteacher partner Wendy (Clea Duvall) – was caught snooping by the sadistic Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who then blackmailed Wendy into having Lana committed by threatening to expose their relationship to her school. Wendy reluctantly and heartbreakingly consented, and Lana’s stay at Briarcliff was booked.
Over the past several weeks much has developed in and out of the asylum (aliens, demonic possession, Nazis, and lamps with nipples are just a few highlights). Most notably, an outwardly sympathetic psychiatrist named Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) took pity on both Lana and Kit Walker (Evan Peters), the man thought to be Bloody Face and the show’s other central “innocent”.
In the recent two-part “I Am Anne Frank” episodes (don’t ask), the show pulled a game-changing move: Dr. Thredson emerged as the primary antagonist for both Lana and Kit, with particularly unsavory plans for Lana.
In “Anne Frank” Part 1, Thredson seduces Lana with promises that he can help her escape if she shows signs of being “cured” of her homosexuality. Lana initially balks at the idea, insisting that there is nothing wrong with her – but the promise of escape eventually leads her to break down and accept the offer. Thredson subjects her to “aversion therapy,” in which she is forced to look at sexually provocative photos of women while being dosed with a drug that makes her vomit. (This is wrong on so many levels that I wouldn’t know where to start.) Thredson then attempts a “conversion therapy” that amounts to a sexual assault, forcing her to gaze upon and touch the genitals of a nude male patient while manually pleasuring herself.
It’s disgusting, and hard to watch. It also used to be an accepted practice among medical professionals who viewed homosexuality as a treatable disorder.
Zachary Quinto as Oliver Thredson
In the episode’s second half, Thredson executes the next phase of his plan: to help Lana escape from Briarcliff so that he can take her prisoner in his own lair. Once he has Lana in his basement, he shows her the corpse of her lover, whom he has murdered. He commands her to kiss Wendy’s frozen corpse, noting that he has taken her teeth to add to the mask he wears of his victims’ skins. Again with the “disgusting and hard to watch.”
Lana’s predicament is dire, to be sure – but why is it any more notable than other storylines featuring death by exorcism, forced amputation and lobotomy? To fully understand just how significant this turn of events is, we need to take a look at how horror works as a genre, specifically in terms of audience-character identification.
Because its central currency is terror, horror — probably more than any other genre — requires that audiences identify on some level with at least one character. Usually it’s the heroic character of the story, and in modern American horror films — particularly slashers — that character is usually female. It is then upon the filmmakers to get the audience to like and identify with this character so that he or she can experience her terror, panic, and ultimate victory over the villain (hopefully, anyway) by proxy.