American Horror Story has graced our screens for the better part of a decade. While the anthology series has been experimental in nature, it has been instrumental in bringing queer representation to the forefront of mainstream TV (Reynolds, D. 2016). However, while forward with the aforementioned queer representation through characterisation, American Horror Story also has an underlying metaphorical storyline for homosexuality that some may not recognise.
Queer representation in mainstream horror has been subsequently consigned to a sub-plot position, categorising members of the LGBTQ+ community as the stereotypical effeminate best friend or using the monster-as-metaphor concept (Mendoza-Perez, I. 2018). American Horror Story utilises the monster-as-metaphor concept throughout various seasons, while also bringing the literal representation of strong and complex queer characters to the centre of the storylines. Being an anthology series, we have come to expect each season to differ from the previous, however, the core ideologies remain the same, by exploring: family, sex, sexuality, persecution, fringe culture and “the other”. All of which can be considered a mirror of the reality of identifying as LGBTQ+.
The monster-as-metaphor concept is based upon the idea that monsters in horror can be interpreted as queer, through the struggles and suppression they face from society. For example, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook became a queer icon through the storyline of the monster being misunderstood – this can relate to the queer community growing up in a society that tries to suppress and change them (Pariselli, M. 2018).
“Murder House” is the first instalment of Murphy’s anthology series and it helped set the tone for what fans could expect from future seasons. The season utilised the mainstream horror trope of a haunted house scenario that can be traced back to the architecture of the common ghost story, as well as the works of Horace Walpole and Shirly Jackson. While this season played with common horror movie themes and literal queer representation, using the sub-plot status, at its core the season employs the monster-as-metaphor concept. This concept comes in when we look at Jessica Lange’s central character who takes on a camp persona that can be linked to the 1960’s wave referred to as “Hag Horror” (Kelly, A. 2016). Lange portrays her character as an evangelical southern belle that locks her children away from the world because she perceives them as “monstrous’”. This can be read as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations the LGBTQ+ community face from religion, family and society as a whole.
With the third season of American Horror Story, Murphy presented us with “Coven”, the first season of his anthology to look at sub-cultures and small communities being scrutinised by the wider world. The series follows a group of women in New Orleans who have been ostracised from society and feared for being witches. “Coven” revisits themes of “the other” and explores the monster-as-metaphor concept from a different perspective, making the monsters human and rather than giving us a James Whale Frankenstein monster (Frankenstein, 1931) we are presented with a human “monster” known as the witch. The series as a whole carries a heavy queer slant, offering a storyline full of tribes, persecution and sex (Kelly, A. 2016), and it also has a deeper metaphorical meaning through storylines of families abandoning their children for being “different”, to society shunning those who do not conform. “Coven” encourages audiences to imagine themselves as the persecuted and the persecutor, by making both sides relatable (Ashby, S. 2013). The series ended with a speech from its main character Cordelia, in which she said: “We are not a cult. We don’t proselytize. We have no agenda. We’re not recruiting. Women who identify as witches are born as such.” (Petrie, D. 2013). This speech, while not explicitly about the queer community, reiterates a narrative that those who identify as LGBTQ+ have to reaffirm to society throughout their lives.
The fourth season of American Horror Story brought Murphy’s obsession with those considered “the other” full circle. Set in Jupiter, Florida in 1952, the season revolves around a German enchantress Elsa Mars and her Cabinet of Curiosities. Deemed “freaks” or “monsters” by society, the performers are rejected and feared by locals, and much like “Murder House”, “Freak Show”‘s monsters serve as a metaphor for those identifying as queer in any respect. As the season progresses the monster-as-metaphor concept becomes more prevalent through themes of monsters challenging small-town doctrines and brutal hate-fuelled crimes against those society deemed as “perversions” (Kelly, A. 2016). These themes and metaphorical concepts reiterate studies that prove those categorised as othered are more likely to experience a hate crime (Fitzsimons, T. 2018).
It should be noted that while we have explored the monster-as-metaphor concept throughout various seasons of America Horror Story, the show has also been instrumental in bringing literal queer representation to the forefront of TV. Murphy has made it so that American Horror Story will be known as the first series to have a catalogue of characters so diverse that it has featured more than thirty-five openly queer people throughout its nine seasons (Anon.2018). American Horror Story should also be commended for featuring LGBTQ actors playing queer characters, such as Sarah Paulson, Denis O’Hare, Zachery Quinto and Erika Ervin, unlike most TV shows and films that cast heterosexual actors in queer roles (Peterson, E, J. 2017).
After a decade of American Horror Story, it is safe to say that the show is unparalleled within the horror genre when it comes to bringing queer representation to the forefront of mainstream TV. It has brought us representation in several forms from allegorical, metaphorical and literal. These models of representation allow society to see the queer community in a more normalised fashion, rather than the monstrous evil that religious organisations would paint them as. American Horror Story is something that should be studied by horror filmmakers worldwide in order to apply the same prowess of queer depiction throughout the genre.
Anon. (2018). American Horror Story: LGBTQ Characters. United States. WIKIFandom. Available at: https://americanhorrorstory.fandom.com/wiki/Category:LGBTQ_Characters
Ashby, S. (2013). Queer Horror: a primer. United States. Dazed. Available at: https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/17727/1/queer-horror-a-primer
Fitzsimons, T. (2018). Anti-LGBTQ hate crimes rose 3 percent in’17, FBI finds. United States. NBCNews. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/anti-lgbtq-hate-crimes-rose-3-percent-17-fbi-finds-n936166
Jackson, S. (1999). The Haunting of Hill House. Viking Press. New York.
Kelly, A. (2016). Queer Fear and American Horror Story. United States. The13thFloor. Available at: https://www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/01/20/somewhere-over-the-dark-rainbow-queer-fear-and-american-horror-story/
Mendoza-Perez, I. (2018). Queer-Coding and Horror Films. United States. Control Forever. Available at: controlforever.com/read/queercoding-and-horror-films/
Pariselli, M. (2018). Reclaiming Horror Movie Monsters as Queer Icons. United States. Talkhouse. Available at: https://www.talkhouse.com/reclaiming-horror-movie-monsters-as-queer-icons/
Peterson, E, J. (2017). Lana Winters, Liz Taylor, and the Unrepentant Queerness of American Horror Story. United States. Media Commons. Available at: https://www.mediacommons.org/imr/2017/11/20/lana-winters-liz-taylor-and-unrepentant-queerness-american-horror-story
Petrie, D. (2013). S3-E13-The Seven Wonders. United States. Available at: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=american-horror-story&episode=s03e13
Reynolds, D. (2016). What Hollywood can learn from TV’s Gayest show. United States. Advocate. Available at: https://www.advocate.com/television/2016/3/25/what-hollywood-can-learn-tvs-gayest-show
Walpole, H. (2001). The Castle of Otranto. Penguin Classics. London.
Frankenstein 1931. DVD. Universal Pictures. Universal Studios Hollywood. Adapted from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Directed by James Whale.