American Horror Story: Season 6, Episode 1

Achieving cult status is one thing, maintaining that status is another. American Horror Story is one of a small group of TV shows that’s managed to garner a cult following in its own lifetime, so to churn out the same horror clichés each year would be disloyal both to its fan-base and to its legacy. Perhaps that’s why writer Ryan Murphy chose to take a completely new approach to the format of his much anticipated sixth season. It was clear that AHS6 would be unlike any other season of the anthological horror series when summer came around and fans still hadn’t received any information about it; no theme, no setting, not even a cast list. It’s hard to believe that not even the teeniest titbit of gossip leaked from the cloak that Murphy expertly cast over the season at the start of the year. On Wednesday night during its American premiere, fans were only just learning the season’s title, American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare.

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The opening episode is presented in ‘mockumentary’ style with two actors from the resident cast playing each character; one plays the ‘real life’ character, the other plays in the ‘re-enactment’ version. The best way to explain the format is by comparing it to the UK TV show Crimewatch, we hear the ‘true story’ from a survivor, and then we see the re-enactment by an actor. We’re introduced to Shelby (played by Sarah Paulson in the re-enactment and Lily Rabe in the testimonial) and Matt Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr in the re-enactment, Andre Holland in the testimonial), an infatuated couple who’ve moved to South Carolina following a violent attack inflicted on them in the city. They purchase an old farmhouse in an auction after having bid higher than a vicious bunch of rednecks who look as though they’ve hopped fresh out of Deliverance. When chilling sounds leave the couple sleepless in their beds at night, they begin to suspect the local rednecks. Strange happenings occur, particularly to Shelby, and when Matt goes away on business, the perpetrators make their presence known in horrific fashion. In Matt’s absence, Shelby accepts company from sister-in-law and ex-police officer Lee (Angela Bassett in re-enactment, Adina Porter in testimonial). Later, when someone (or something) enters the house leaving frightening twig dolls hanging in each room, Shelby indulges her instincts and escapes. Driving mindlessly along a dirt road as far away from the house as she can manage, she hits what appears to be an elderly woman. In a state of blind panic she exits her vehicle and pursues the dishevelled looking woman into the forest (bad idea) before a cult of similarly scruffy nutters close in on her.

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE — Pictured: Angela Bassett as Lee. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

This is, without a doubt, the scariest opening episode since Asylum. It’s genuinely terrifying. The mockumentary format that Murphy employs works incredibly well, it truly convinced me that I was watching a documentary, which made the events unfolding all the more alarming. It also helps that the characters are relatively simple and stripped back; viewers can relate to a regular couple looking for a new start in a way that they can’t with some of Murphy’s other larger than life characters. To remove the horror clichés is to find real horror, that’s why The Blair Witch Project was so horrifying – because it felt real. And Murphy clearly took influence in the 90s horror film for this season of AHS; from the disturbing twig constructions to the unknown entities lurking in the woods, Murphy’s take on the tale flatters rather than imitates.

The cast are, as per usual, impeccable. The ‘interviewees’ (Lily Rabe, Andre Holland and Adina Porter) mimic the mannerisms of real people in such a way that convinces the viewers of their sincerity; it encourages our belief in the story. I love this story-telling technique, it gives substance to the narrative and provides a supportive backbone for what we’re seeing on screen. The documentary element of the format doesn’t take away from the drama either, there’s plenty of room for it. After playing arch-nemeses in American Crime Story earlier this year, Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr interact very differently in My Roanoke Nightmare. They are immediately likeable and the viewer really roots for their survival (even though we already know that they will see it through – they’ve lived to tell their tales).

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AMERICAN HORROR STORY: ROANOKE — Pictured: Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Matt. CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

It is possible to make comparisons between My Roanoke Nightmare and the anthology’s first season, Murder House, but to do so would be to overlook how entirely different this season is to its five predecessors. This time, the horror is real; there aren’t any scary weirdos jumping out of mattresses with knives in the place of penises. A lot of people probably won’t get this series but, personally, I love it. People who are looking for an hour of torture porn aren’t going to. The terror is in the suspense rather than the surprise.

American Horror Story continues next Friday (23/09/16) at 10pm on Fox.