Only a few episodes into the fifth season of American Horror Story, the concept of the dual self has emerged time and again. This is not revolutionary as historically, society loves a great binary.[i] Consider Freud’s concepts of Eros and Thanatos, or on a more basic level think about Donald Duck in Donald’s Better Self (1938) where he battles between his inner angel and devil. This notion that we have dual drives or dual selves seems ingrained. Theoretically, it is humans’ ability for a higher level of thought that distinguishes us as a species, but it is exactly this penchant for thought that also drives us mad. It is telling that Hotel uses the peephole as a symbol, since the peephole can be seen as a portal to the other side of the door. It reveals the outside of your inside, only visible through one side, posing a distorted view through the other. There is no clear reality through the peephole.
In American Horror Story: Hotel the characters straddle several dichotomous worlds. Like a sadistic see-saw, each person tries to navigate life/death, visible/invisible, light/dark, control/unregulated, and reality/mind until they discover who they really are. Supporting this binary world is the language of the hotel’s inhabitants: within the first five episodes several characters, including Iris (Kathy Bates), Sally (Sarah Paulson), Detective Lowe (Wes Bentley), Liz Taylor (Denis O’Hare), and the Countess (Lady Gaga), articulate the fractured self: “We have two selves and there are some places inside that have sat too cold and dark for too long.” “Control is an illusion, and I gave into the illusion.” “Feeling invisible? You see everything and the world doesn’t see you.” “We have two selves; one the world needs us to be, compliant, and the Shadow. Ignore it and life is forever suffering.”
Appreciating Hotel requires the audience to consider a reality other than the one we (think we) know. Philosophy majors will appreciate a reality which escapes the control of the mind, of our ability to grasp it, and I argue that this is exactly where Hotel exists. We cannot be so narcissistic and “in control” as to assume that reality is a static concept, and that we fully know what it is. The audience must subscribe to some version of dualism to understand the way that the characters move between the mind and the world. The subjective mind allows them to experience a reality independent of the physical world that most of us accept as reality: in doing so it brings them closer to their true self.
Similarly some religions understand this liberation through a self-referential ability to resolve one’s perceived self with one’s transcendent self. Neither Heaven nor Hell, The Cortez is a transcendent space that exists between the living and the lived where people can either check in permanently or simply pass through depending on their level of self-actualization. That is the clear distinction between the inhabitants and those who pass through. Iris and Liz Taylor have opened their minds to another reality and thus they both come to embrace their truthful selves (contrasted by the superficial hipsters in “Room Service” who live in the concrete, superficial monistic world of society).
As suggested by the see-saw metaphor, it is nearly impossible to balance these planes of existence. What the Countess is suggesting is that you have to indulge in your otherness or else you will forever suffer. Lady Gaga has said that Hotel is about addiction; however I feel she articulates it better when she discusses the “needs” of the characters.[ii] Addiction has such negative connotations and I don’t believe that everything that these characters are doing is negative, but I do argue that they experience a rewarding stimuli. Less about right and wrong, it is about surrendering to “your” side, putting your inside on the outside and saying “F” what the world needs me to be. For Liz Taylor it was about accepting himself on a permanent basis; for Iris, it was learning to be visible as something other than a mother; and for Detective Lowe it is relinquishing control and embracing the mind independent of a constraining “reality.”
What solidifies American Horror Story: Hotel in the genre of horror is its overwhelming penchant for transgressing boundaries. It does it through its physical environment, its perversion of the real, as well as through its characters and their actions. Not only does it disrupt the natural world as we know it, but Hotel violates the very laws of nature that govern our world. It is exactly this lack of stability that will forever scare people. Hopefully what we can take away from my favorite character, Iris, is that we shouldn’t have to die before we learn how to live.
[i] God forbid we move beyond binaries toward continuums, one step at a time my friends.