A show as long-running and as thematically varied as American Horror Story isn’t going to please every fan every season (the “timely” Cult was a low point, but last year’s crossover, Apocalypse, was fabulous). From its very first promos, I had a good feeling about AHS: 1984 — and so far the slasher homage has not let me down.
It’s been a nice surprise. Ryan Murphy’s earlier ode to all things slasher, Fox’s Scream Queens — which also featured 1984 stars Emma Roberts and Billie Lourd — was pretty mediocre (though casting Jamie Lee Curtis was genius). But Scream Queens, which was set amid the mean-girl culture of a sorority house, took place in the present day, and it abandoned its slasher leanings to become more of a shrill murder mystery by the end of its first season.
The decidedly more adult AHS: 1984 aims for authenticity by placing itself squarely in the time period that spawned so many Halloween and Friday the 13th imitators and sequels. Plus, it has campy fun with well-chosen era signifiers that manage to be both grimy and bubblegum at the same time — starting with its squad of coke-snorting aerobics enthusiasts who decide to ditch L.A. ahead of the 1984 Summer Olympics and take jobs as counsellors at the recently reopened Camp Redwood.
“Recently reopened,” of course, because of the horrific massacre that happened there 14 years prior. But even blood-stained Camp Redwood isn’t what it seems, in a story that’s so far revealed nearly every character’s got something to hide. The American Horror Story rulebook requires that expectations must be completely upended whenever possible; we’re just halfway through the season (episode five airs tonight) and already the juicy secrets have started rattling loose — ahead of what will surely be more giant twists down the road.
If you’re not caught up, get on that — and return with “Cruel Summer,” “Maneater,” and “Rebel Yell” (all featured on the soundtrack) and the show’s own synthed-out score permanently lodged into your brain to go over what’s happened so far, and ponder what’s to come.
To sum up, as briefly as possible: The sole survivor of the 1970 Camp Redwood tragedy — former counselor turned Jesus freak/ultraconservative rich widow/knee-sock enthusiast Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) — has bought the camp and is intent on transforming it back into a wholesome retreat for children. The counselors she hires all have their own reasons for wanting to get the hell out of L.A., most overtly Brooke (Emma Roberts), who’s just had a too-close encounter with Night Stalker Richard Ramirez, played by Zach Villa in a highly fictionalised take on the real-life Satanic serial killer.
The rest of the group includes Xavier (Cody Fern), whose dreams of becoming a movie star are threatened by the gay porn director who’s blackmailing him to stay in the X-rated biz; Chet, a would-be Olympian who was disqualified for doping (played by Gus Kenworthy, a real-life Olympic medalist); and college dropout Ray (DeRon Horton), who’s terrified the LAPD is about to discover his part in the accidental death of a fraternity pledge.
And then there’s Montana (Billie Lourd), a horny cardio fiend who seduces the Night Stalker so he’ll go after Brooke, whose former fiancé (deep breath, soap opera incoming) shot and killed Montana’s brother in a jealous rage, thinking his soon-to-be wife and best friend were having an affair — which Brooke (who doesn’t realise who Montana really is) denies but Montana believes to be true. (Since this is American Horror Story, which never misses a chance to go over the top, this crime literally occurs at the altar, with “White Wedding” on full blast as the groom kills the best man, the bride’s father, and finally himself. Is there a blood-soaked wedding gown in the mix? Of course there is!)
Anyway, that’s not even everyone, though 1984 has what seems to be a pretty scaled-down cast as far as AHS seasons go. We also meet Trevor (Matthew Morrison), the head counselor, who doesn’t seem to have any notable secrets, though he is hilariously well-endowed; Rita (Angelica Ross), the camp nurse, who’s actually a serial killer-obsessed psychologist named Donna; Jonas (Lou Taylor Pucci), the apparent ghost of a former Camp Redwood counselor who died in 1970 while trying to flee the murders; and finally, Benjamin Richter (John Carroll Lynch), also known as Mr. Jingles, the madman who slaughtered nine kids after suffering a psychotic break brought on by post-Vietnam War PTSD, and who escapes the insane asylum where he’s been locked up ever since.
Except, well, Mr. Jingles didn’t actually kill any kids in 1970. He may have done terrible things in the war, but the Camp Redwood killer was Margaret — taking revenge on all the other counselors who tormented her for being a goody-goody and then framing “Benji,” her only friend, for the crime. Over the years, shock treatment and other forms of institutional cruelty have lulled Richter into believing in his own guilt; when he breaks out of the asylum (with Donna’s help), he has grown into becoming the disturbed homicidal maniac everyone already thought he was.
So that’s a general who’s who of those lurking around Camp Redwood, circa summer 1984 — save a few unfortunate interlopers who also happen to visit the property and are quickly and gruesomely dispatched. The fact that so much plot has happened already is standard for American Horror Story, a series that’s pretty much perfected the art of the scandalous backstory at this point.
But in 1984, all that oversized drama hangs on a story structure that’s deliberately familiar, especially to fans of classic slasher films (with a little Rambo and kitschy 1980s signposts like “Where’s the beef?” tossed in for good measure).
We had a feeling that would be the case thanks to the note-perfect retro ad campaign, which carries over into the show itself. Even casual fans will note the heavy influence of first three Friday the 13th films — as well as other 1980s summer-camp horror films (The Burning, Sleepaway Camp) and Halloween, which provides the perfect blueprint for Mr. Jingles’ asylum escape.
And beyond specific references, 1984 makes gleeful use of slasher tropes galore, like the gas-station attendant who warns the kids “You’re all gonna die!” when he hears where they’re headed; the “prank gone wrong in the past” set-up (who else thinks the frat kid Ray oops-murdered is going to pop back up before the end of the season?); and the fact that Brooke — who’s certainly being positioned as the Final Girl, though who knows where this show will actually take the character? — is the first person to notice that there’s a killer in their midst.
As we mentioned earlier, because this is American Horror Story, nothing is ever as it seems. Of course 1984 is not a straightforward homage; it’s interested in dissecting all those tropes and offering its own commentary on them, while also being cheeky and naughty whenever possible. The pitting of Mr. Jingles against the Night Stalker is particularly clever because it allows the show to dig into various aspects of serial killer psychology.
Thanks to Donna, Benjamin comes to believe that he wasn’t born evil; he was shaped into being a “monster” thanks to environmental influences. That includes Donna’s own influence when her clever plan to “study the apex predator in the wild” means Mr. Jingles really does start racking up a body count, at least until Margaret sets him straight about what really happened in 1970.
At nearly the same moment, Richard realises that none of the evil he’s done is his fault, because he was born into it. The presence of mental trauma, Margaret explains to him, combined with the certainty that you’re doing God’s will (or Satan’s will, as the case may be), means you’ll never feel any guilt about anything. Be free! It’s worked for her for 14 years!
But as 1984 moves forward, all those ways of thinking are going to be further challenged. Jingles, whose reputation as a boogeyman looms so large there are Halloween masks made of his face, will presumably have to grapple with the bombshell that “it was never me,” while also coming to terms with the gruesome stuff he did (like locking Xavier inside a giant oven and burning his face off) in the interim. Also, last week’s episode ended with Richard — who appeared to have lost his fight to the death with Mr. Jingles — being revived with what looked like a helping hand from Satan!
What’s the Night Stalker going to be like now that he has supernatural powers? Will Satan manifest as an actual character? Who among those who are currently presumed dead (including Ray and Trevor) will return — either as ghosts, like Jonas, or something far less benign?
Who among the living will be pushed to the brink by what they’ve experienced — and add themselves to 1984's roll call of ruthless killers? Who else thinks Margaret probably killed her husband? Also: What’s going to happen in the morning when the kiddie campers show up to this Grand Guignol in the forest?
Inevitably, more rugs are going to pulled out from under us as the season continues. We also still haven’t gotten a Gus flashback, and there’s quite obviously way more to Donna (whose kiss-off “I’ll make sure you’ll be remembered as a feminist hero!” to an imperiled Brooke was pure gold) than 1984 has shown us so far. There’s still room for tons of 1980s history and culture to crop up, not to mention lots of other horror movies from the era that could get shout-outs (could 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street find an entry point?).
Also, it wouldn’t be American Horror Story without some fan-favourite cameos; will the almighty Sarah Paulson, who’s not starring on the show for the first time in nine seasons, grace us with a surprise visit — maybe on the series’ landmark 100th episode on October 23?
Obviously, a lot remains to be seen. The next episode, which airs tonight, is titled “Red Dawn” — named for the 1984 movie, though it could be more of a reference to the state of things once the sun rises over Camp Redwood rather than a hint about some Cold War terrors on the horizon. Or maybe all those Rambo references are about to pay off big time? We’ll have to tune in to see.