Groundbreaking “American Horror Story” Gives Queers a Place at the Blood Feast

 
 


Jamie Lee Curtis, Alpha Scream Queen

True, some horror films don’t have a likeable protagonist, either by design or by accident – in either case, they are generally not as successful with mainstream audiences (who generally like to have a heroine for whom they can scream, “LOOK BEHIND YOU!!!”). Other films make the choice to make the villain likeable, which encourages the audience to identify with the killer instead of his or her victims. This generally moves the tone away from true horror and toward horror-comedy, as evidenced by countless sequels starring a wisecracking Freddy or sass-mouthed Chucky doll. Other films go out of their way to make their hero unlikeable, an approach that generally lends itself more to black comedy, as the audience can then enjoy all the terrors and indignities heaped upon the hero through irony.

But back to American Horror. Lana’s story follows a classic American slasher formula utilized by films ranging from Texas Chain Saw Massacre to Friday the 13th to Silence of the Lambs. The masked killer, entrapment, and revenge element (having killed Wendy, Thredson is now due for retribution from Lana) are tried-and-true ingredients, and the stage is now set for a battle to the death between good and evil. But let’s take a step back to fully process the fact that the show is using every tool in its bloody toolkit to encourage its mainstream television audience to empathize with, care for, and — most importantly — root for a gay woman.

Simply put, if the audience doesn’t identify with Lana, the horror story fails. Without a proxy in the story, the audience might be entertained by the tricks and traps, but they won’t be truly invested or disturbed. So placing a large number of eggs in Lana’s basket is a pretty huge gamble – fortunately one made considerably less risky by a committed, engaging performance by Paulson (who is openly gay in real life) and a cold, humorless, and suitably unappealing performance by Quinto (who is also gay in real life). Up to this point there’s been no encouragement to identify with Thredson, and no compelling reason to disengage from Lana.

The goal seems clear: total audience buy-in to a gay horror heroine, and all the possible psychological implications that this identification carries with it.

Wait, whah? Okay, bear with me here…

Thus far, Lana’s journey can be viewed as a heightened version of what many (if not most) gay men and women have gone through, on some level, in their own lives. Sure, we’re not all breaking into asylums for a scoop. But the indignities forced upon Lana – and therefore on the viewer, by proxy – are all closely tied to her sexual identity. Take, for example, the blackmail that allowed for her committal. Intense pressure to stay closeted in order to maintain a certain socially-acceptable public image is still commonplace today, especially when employees are not protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Take the aversion therapy, in which Lana was made to feel shame and disgust at her sexual feelings toward women, including her own lover. This kind of procedure is common in “gay reparative therapy”, which is scary enough. But less literal but equally damaging shaming happens on a smaller scale any time someone uses derogatory, anti-gay language or ridicules a gay person or couple because of their sexuality. As we know, this happens all too often in the real world.

Whether deliberate or not, the fact that American Horror Story places the viewers in Lana’s shoes forces them to experience firsthand the abuse that is often directed toward gay men and women because of their sexuality. And while the horror genre has long used nightmarish metaphors to explore real-world anxieties, that’s pretty groundbreaking. Again, American horror films do tend to feature a female protagonist — a phenomenon that led Carol Clover, film scholar and author of Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, to suggest that these movies actually encourage transgender identification in male viewers — this takes things to an entirely new level. Because while killer queens and gender-confused psychos have long been a go-to for the genre, mainstream horror films that feature a gay hero or heroine and draw their horror from the gay experience are few and far between.

If the theory of identification really works, it’s possible that Lana’s story could, to some minute, subconscious degree, help to change perceptions about gays and lesbians for the better. While a movie like Milk or Brokeback Mountain is enormously important in promoting understanding and strengthening community, at the end of the day it is mostly preaching to the choir. AHS: Asylum is revolutionary because it meets the audience on their own turf, and uses the familiar tools of a populist genre to make its case.

Some people might argue that fighting for a place at the table only to then be nailed to it is an empty pursuit, but I disagree. I do believe that in promoting empathy for Lana and her own personal hell, the show is encouraging viewers to consider, even just for a split second, the various humiliations and slights that LGBT people experienced in the show’s setting of 1964, and which many still suffer today. Art gives us the opportunity to affect the heart, the head, and the pulse in ways that earnest pleas for understanding cannot. And to be treated as full equals means being prepared to suffer the same slings and arrows as anyone else. This is a rare case where I think that we should be thrilled to be playing the victim.


Thanks to supervising producer and “I Am Anne Frank Part 1″ writer Jessica Sharzer for allowing us to consult with her for this piece.
American Horror Story: Asylum airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FOX.


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