‘American Horror Story’ creates new breed of genre hybrid

December 5, 2012

Bloggers who love to hate “American Horror Story” continually rail against its excessive fetishization of the horror genre. And they aren’t wrong — the second season has included exorcisms, devilish children, serial killers and the Angel of Death, al

l within the first seven episodes. But now the second season is moving in a new direction with a new genre: science fiction.

“American Horror Story: Asylum” is not the first time sci-fi and horror have gone hand-in-hand. Recently, the 2012 film “Prometheus” attempted to combine the genres as well — albeit unsuccessfully — with a mishmash of brutal violence and alien life forms.

So why would “American Horror Story” place alien abductions alongside exorcisms if the point is not to tackle something new? Where does maniacal medical experimentation fit within the horror-infused realm of a haunted mental asylum? The answer to both of these questions lies not within the Wagnerian theatricality of the show but rather in the show’s central concept: genre critique.

“American Horror Story” is, more or less, a puzzle of genre tropes, the pieces of which are recycled motifs. The show is all about how those pieces come together.

Simply put, the show is not any less original than a film belonging to those genre styles, and by adding sci-fi to the mix, it proposes that even films like “Prometheus” — films that claim to be bold and unique because of their pastiche of genres — are nothing we haven’t already seen. It is a very peculiar way of going about it, particularly because something this intellectual might not be expected from the provocateur behind “Glee” and “The New Normal,” Ryan Murphy. But even among genuinely smart shows, rarely is science fiction used to form a pop-cultural thesis.

More importantly, “Asylum” experiments with what the sci-fi genre can do. Alien pregnancies now tie into demons and the like, and somehow it works, lending a signature moody atmosphere to the show. Where sci-fi is headed on the show will be dictated only by where the genre of sci-fi is headed in general — sometimes, the only inspirations for genre works are other genre works.

A version of this article appeared in the Thursday, Dec. 6 print edition. Alex Greenberger is a staff writer. Email him at entertainment@nyunews.com.

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