Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Time for Simon Abrams and I to continue our discussion of American Horror Story with a consideration of the show's third official (and so far best) episode, "Halloween, Part 1." I'll kick off with a recap of the episode's events and a few observations, and Simon will follow up. (Starting with this post, the links to previous conversations can be found at the end of each new post.)


2010. Images of earthy domestic bliss as Chad (Zachary Quinto) bakes pies and meticulously carves pumpkins in anticipation of Halloween. But those images are tarnished quickly as Chad’s partner, Patrick (Teddy Sears) comes into the kitchen and the tensions between the two, based on Chad’s suspicions of Patrick’s promiscuous infidelities and their dire economic straits, explode. They are the previous owners of the Murder House now owned by the Harmons, and after Patrick stomps out in anger we see the event that Marcy was obligated to disclose when selling the house a year later. Someone appears to Chad in the kitchen dressed in the rubber suit that Vivien and Ben discovered in Episode 1. Chad of course assumes it’s Patrick, but we’re not sure— Patrick was none too happy when he left to get ready to go to the gym, but was he angry enough to jam Chad’s head in a bucket meant for bobbing apples and then snap his neck? Unlikely, as Patrick walks in on the assailant seconds later. Marcy, remember, mentioned in her description of the “murder/suicide” something about one of the victims having a poker shoved up his— But we don’t see any of this (yet), as the scene cuts away to the main titles.

(Is Marcy just passing along the conventional wisdom about these deaths being a murder/suicide, or does she know something and is just covering up? Because no coroner would conclude from a snapped neck and a death-by-fireplace-poker that one of the assaults was self-inflicted.)

After the break, Marcy gets grilled by Ben and Vivien re selling the house, Ben’s motivations now in his way perhaps even more urgent than Vivien’s, seeing as that he’s buried Hayden in the backyard under his brand-new gazebo. Marcy again deflects responsibility for an ethical sale and suggests that the Harmons undergo an image makeover for the house—which was Chad’s motivation for dolling up the place for Halloween the previous year—in order to attract prospective buyers. Murphy and Falchuk have said in interviews how much they enjoyed writing for Christine Estabrook as Marcy, and perhaps they (and episode writer James Wong) have a bit too much fun in this scene-- “Don’t put the blame on Mame, Mr. Harmon,” she quips, just before suggesting that they hire “fluffers” to come in to give the place a little élan in the style of a Halloween magazine spread. (Ben and Vivien, of course, don’t appear to get the reference.) The scene is punctuated by a quick flashback to Ben catching the redheaded twins, in the grand tradition of tricks and no treats, egging the house before Vivien asks Marcy if she knows any good fluffers. Marcy recommends a young gay fellow she knows.

Travis (Constance’s lover glimpsed briefly in the “Home Invasion” episode) reads to Addy from a storybook about the origins and history of Halloween. He explains to her that on the holiday the boundaries separating the living and the dead disappeared and that people dressed up to ward away the ghosts. Addy tells him that she would never want to be a ghost—“It’s so sad.” Constance walks in just as Addy sidles up to Travis and whispers in his ear that she wants to dress up as a “pretty girl” for Halloween. She immediately accuses Addy of coming on to her boy toy, leaning in close to deliver a jealousy-flushed statement of love: “Now, you listen to me, good little girl. I have given every inch of my life to you for the last 30-some years. I would kill or die for you. But I will not share the affections of the men I bring into this house with any woman.” Addy reveals her Halloween costume of choice, and Constance retorts dismissively, “You can go as Snoopy again” before banning her from reading any more about Halloween (especially with Travis.) “The dead can walk freely on Halloween,” says Addy. Constance sighs: “We’ve always known that.” This is, I think a terrific scene on its own, but it lays the groundwork for the stuff that will really end up getting American Horror Story on its feet.

Larry returns and presses Ben for the $1,000 again, threatening to spill the secrets of Ben’s backyard project if he refuses. “I have patience,” Larry says on his way off the front porch, “but there is a limit.” Ben returns inside, where he thanks Tate for helping during the home invasion, demands an explanation as to why Tate was in the house to begin with and emphasizes again the inappropriateness of continuing as Tate’s doctor, given the circumstances and Tate’s burgeoning attraction to Violet.

What to make of Tate’s apparently sincere plea to Ben to keep on with the professional relationship? Is he in some way being honest (“You’re the only one I can trust”), or is he just manipulating his doctor masterfully? I think it’s a bit of both, actually, and again the contemplation of exactly why, based on the information doled out on Tate to this point causes the character to begin to emerge as one of the more fascinating in the series. Is it simply that ambiguity in evil (or perceived evil) is inherently more interesting than ambiguity in “good” (or “less evil”)? Ben’s apparent sexual psychosis is no doubt interesting, but more as an element that can be amplified and exploited by evil forces—his addictions would seem more run of the mill (at least as a subject for a TV drama) were he not being taunted by actual demons. At the very least there seems to be little mystery other than how far he might be compelled to go because of them, but again that’s more about how (and why) he’s being pushed. Tate, on the other hand, seems mired in a much more slippery sort of evil that we as a society still haven’t been able to get a handle on—the personality and motivations and fantasies of someone who might be capable of mass murder.

Vivien makes arrangements to get an alarm system installed in the house, and Moira asks for the holiday off to visit with her mother. Halloween being the family oriented holiday that it is, Vivien accedes to the request. Vivien steps outside and meets Patrick and Chad, the (dead) fluffers sent by Marcy, whom she hires to muster a hopefully spectacular holiday décor. Later, Chad pointedly sniffs at the gazebo (“You put that in yourself, Ben?”) and suggests tearing it down once Halloween is past in favor of an organic cutting garden. Startled, Ben cuts himself on a pumpkin carving knife. Patrick offers to tend to it and, after getting Ben alone, comes on to him in a strange echo of the celebrity flashback from the last episode. Ben rebuffs him and Patrick backs off, begging him not to tell Chad what’s happened. Meanwhile, Chad tells Vivien that he senses “a darkness” in Ben.

Addy tells Violet she wants to be a “pretty girl” for Halloween, so Violet takes the opportunity to bond with her by helping Addy with a makeover. (Addy looks in the makeup mirror and this time in another echo, this one of the mirrored closet, exclaims, “I’m beautiful!”) But her joy doesn’t last long when Constance sees what’s she’s been up to. This scene, in which Addy expresses her desire to be a “pretty girl,” and perhaps a bit more of the sense that she could be, gets shot down by Constance’s guilt over her own biological culpability regarding Addy’s condition and the insecurity she feels crushing her whenever anyone sees her out with her daughter. Addy runs away from her mother in horror, but this time Constance doesn’t follow.

Instead we see Violet descending into the basement to meet Tate, who she finds dressed in the rubber man suit. (“I thought my dad threw that out.” “Finders keepers.”) He then tells Violet (and us) more of the story of Nora and Dr. Charles Montgomery, revealing to her not only the basement abortion operation but that the boyfriend of one patient eventually found out about it and stole the Montgomery’s own child, echoing the Lindbergh kidnapping, only to return the child in pieces, pickled in jars, as retribution for the doctor’s own abortive services. Nora begins to crumble, of course, but her madness is shallow compared to that of Charles, who begins a horrifying reclamation project-- he attempts to sew his baby boy back together in his basement laboratory and loses what little grip on reality he had left in the process.

This is, of course, the seminal story of the Murder House, suggesting that infanticide might be the worst crime, the gateway horror to evil even more profound. But what really spawns the evil that inhabits the house? Surely not Montgomery’s work as an abortionist—he would have hardly been the only doctor providing that service in Los Angeles in the ‘20s. And the results of the murder of the baby were delivered unto the house from the place where the dismemberment took place. It is clearly Charles’s unhinged response to the crime that begins the legacy of evil in the Murder House, and we haven’t quite seen the whole story yet. (Remember the wound on the back of Nora’s head that clues us in inescapably to her ghost status when she visits Vivien in the “Murder House” episode?)

The key scene in the remainder of this episode comes a few minutes later, when Constance, in an act of apparent contrition, brings Addy a “pretty girl” mask that she thinks will appease her daughter’s desire to look beautiful for Halloween. Addy’s seems happy, and Constance reassures her that now she won’t have to worry about makeup “or anything like that.” But Addy hasn’t tried it on yet. For me, this scene is where American Horror Story really begins to flirt with the kind of emotional depth that might justify and deepen its thematic ambitions. I’m very interested in what you thought of it, Simon, having not yet seen “Halloween, Part 2,” of course.

Vivien confronts Ben about Hayden, whose phone number is all over their latest phone bill, and when she asks him if he saw her in Boston on his recent trip he denies that he did. He tells her all he’s been doing has been rebuffing her insistent calls, and I think Vivien wants to believe him, but it’s pretty clear this is a big one to try to swallow. Just as he insists that it’s over, his phone rings. Vivien picks it up. It’s Hayden, who has apparently just left a new message.

Chad, upset that Ben has not purchased Gala apples for the bobbing bucket, explodes and tells Ben and Vivien that they should leave, to which Vivien naturally responds with confusion. “We should leave our house?” she asks, to which he replies, “It’s not your house. We know it, and the house knows it. Frankly, you don’t deserve it.” Vivien begins wrecking up some of Chad’s décor work, but before he can take a step toward her, Patrick pulls him back. On their way to the door, Chad catches a glimpse of someone standing in the window in the rubber suit. The stress of the situation sends Vivien into a bout of abdominal cramping, and Ben whisks her away to the hospital.

Upstairs, Violet is listening to her iPod and cannot hear the trick-or-treaters who come to the door. Addy rings the doorbell because she wants Violet to see her costume, but of course she gets no answer. There’s a sign out instructing them to just “Take One,” but Addy, now in her “pretty girl” mask, can’t read it, and the hottie teenagers in their pirate wench outfits make fun of her because of it. When they leave, Addy, thinking she fits in with them better than she does, chases after them across the street, right into the path of an oncoming car.

At the hospital, the ultrasound nurse checking up on Vivien cannot account for the size of the baby at this stage of the pregnancy (just a few weeks), and when she sees what’s on the monitor (a sight we are not afforded) she passes out.

Back at the house, Constance is horrified to discover Addy’s limp body, mask still covering her face, splayed out in the street as paramedics try to revive her. Hysterical, Constance tries to tell the medics to move her over to the lawn of the Harmon house “while she’s still with us,” but they naturally refuse. Constance then screams and pushes them away, attempting to drag Addy’s body onto the property before her soul can escape recapture by the house, but she is ultimately too late.

Meanwhile, we see Moira visiting her own aged mother, hooked up to intensive care equipment in a nursing residence, apologizing to her for “not being there for you.” Clearly Moira is torn by the experience of “living” long enough to see what her mother has gone through in her long illness, and here she avails herself of the opportunity to detach the life support and send her mother out of her misery. Unbeknownst to Moira as she weeps over the now-lifeless body, her mother reappears over her shoulder and looks on, as unable to comfort her own daughter in death as Moira was unable to comfort her in life. This scene raises an interesting logistical question, in that it is, I believe, the first time we’ve seen a Murder House ghost interacting with the living away from the immediate property. So are the rules not precisely what we have to this point assumed, or are Murphy and Falchuk just playing fast and loose here?

Violet hears loud banging on the front door. It’s Larry, come to do some trick-or-treating of his own. Violet, understandably, refuses to open the door and when Larry continues, shouting now, she calls Ben at the hospital for help. As the doorbell keeps ringing and the banging and shouting continues, we see Violet staring at the door, unaware that the Rubber Man is standing in the kitchen just behind her, watching.

Ben and Vivien return to see the house open, the house alarm sounding furiously, and Violet apparently not at home. Once again, a knock on the door. Ben answers and sees a disheveled, smiling Hayden staring back at him. He slams the door. End of “Halloween Part 1.”

I think the show really gets cooking with this episode, Simon. How about you?


Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and I by clicking on the following links:





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