I believe the chronicle of the lost colony of Roanoke is relatively common knowledge among most fans of the paranormal, even if they don’t know the specific details. In short back in the 16th century a group of English settlers vanished from their North Carolina colony, leaving behind a single word carved into wood: “Croatoan.” There are a plethora of theories as to what the word means as awell as happened to the colonists but no definitive answer. Their erasure remains a mystery. While parts of the Roanoke legend have been intertwined with other horror works, such as Supernatural and Vanishing on 7th Street, what AHS focused on in its latest entry in the anthology is, of course, the more supernatural tilt of an explanation for the people’s disappearance.
And really, would we have it any other way?
(MINOR spoilers ahead.)
Told in a set of 10 tight episodes, the multiverse-laden events of Roanoke are told to the audience always from the point of view of a camera, which is the other predominant motif of the season. I thought it was a brilliant concept to do a frame story, loosely defined by this English major as “a story within a story”—the documentary of “real life” events called My Roanoke Nightmare and its sequel series, now set in “real life,” Return to Roanoke: 3 Days in Hell.
My Roanoke Nightmare consists of dramatizations of the harrowing ordeal of the Miller couple, Matt and Shelby, who provided interviews that are intercut alongside the reenactments. In “reality” Matt is portrayed by André Holland and Shelby by Lily Rabe; in the documentary, Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Sarah Paulson play actors who play Matt and Shelby. (It’s a lot less confusing if you just watch it.) Also involved are Matt’s sister, Lee Harris (Adina Porter and Angela Bassett), her daughter, Flora, a number of learned, well-meaning guests, a backwoods bunch, and the colonists themselves, most notably The Butcher (Susan Berger and Kathy Bates) and her supernatural superior, the witch Scáthach (Lady Gaga).
Long ago The Butcher murdered her fellow settlers and gave herself to Scáthach, tethering them all to the forested land of the Mott home in North Carolina. The Butcher, to put it lightly, does not appreciate visitors and subsequently uses her victims and all the dark creatures at her disposal to terrorize and ultimately slaughter all who step foot on the blood-soaked land. Matt, Shelby, and Lee manage to escape only to join their actor counterparts for Return to Roanoke: 3 Days in Hell (why return to the nightmare house? You know people in horror movies/shows make stupid decisions). This time around, many, many of the guests of this historical murder house are not so fortunate.
So, why did I find this particular season awesome?
1. Lee Harris. While I liked both Shelby and Matt, I thought some of their intentions and actions were a bit poorly explained. Lee’s motivations were always crystal clear: everything she does, she does out of the will to survive for her daughter and her brother. I find that horror often has heart, and Lee’s desperation to protect and sacrifice what she must for her child’s well-being is endearing. And as noble as that sounds, dear reader, do not leave here thinking she is a selfless, one-note character. She is also a recovering alcoholic and accused murderer. No one’s hands are clean in this house. Also, on a more personal note, I liked having a dynamic woman of color at the forefront of a horror-centric story, something that doesn’t happen often enough. Kudos as always, Ryan Murphy, for your inclusion of people of color, women with sexual agency and LGBT characters. Thank youuuu.
2. Satirical Implications on Society’s Obsession with Crime. Besides two documentaries, the story is told through news coverage, camera phones, the head-cams of a trio of hapless fame-seekers, a clip of Paleyfest, spoofs of shows like Ghost Hunters/Paranormal State and Snapped and coverage of a trial. It just speaks to the fact that we live in an age where cameras are ubiquitous, an age where nothing is sacred and murder is exploited, even arguably glorified, for ratings and hits on Twitter and Instagram. Now if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is. (Yes, I wish I had a more intelligent commentary on this season’s satire, but I just noticed it, I didn’t have anything smart to say about it. Meh.)
3. The Joy of Being Scared (in Controlled Circumstances). Like I mentioned last month, I am a fan of terror in controlled circumstances: movies, shows, books, video games, haunted houses on Halloween. I enjoy a good slow scare, the kind that creeps up on you and chills you to the bone, keeps you thinking in bed at night. I also enjoy the quick scares, the rush of adrenaline, the instant panic, the belly laughs when you realize it wasn’t that big of a deal/all over. It cracks me up. It’s all a different kind of joy, much darker, more perverse. Rarer and harsher and blunter, like a blow to the head. Only when you choose horror it’s like you bleed a little bit of joy instead. (Rhyme not intended but glad for it anyway.)
There was a large body count this season and a couple jump scares got me. There was also this creepy crawling chick who crab-walked on all fours—I hate unnatural locomotion! It’s so disturbing! But in the best and worst possible ways…Dread and wonder coupled together this year to make a monstrous martini. I won’t say I got drunk off this season but the buzz was morbidly pleasant indeed.
After six years of histrionic horror, I wouldn’t say Ryan Murphy’s monster (pun intended) had its most haunting season ever, but it was a story-telling triumph for the series.
Did you watch American Horror Story: Roanoke? If you did, what did you think of it? What’s your favorite season?
If you want to give a holler about this hallmark of horror, leave a comment below. Thanks.