November 9, 2016. Hillary Clinton concedes the presidential election to a “pussy-grabber” who spent his campaign sending tweets like, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” Addressing “all the little girls watching,” Clinton implores, “never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”[i]
The penultimate episode of American Horror Story: Roanoke premieres less than twelve hours later. “Chapter 9” opens with a trio of college-age bloggers looking for the house where My Roanoke Nightmare (the show-within-a-show constituting the first five episodes of AHS ‘s sixth season) was filmed. Sophie (Taissa Farmiga) wonders aloud, “How many likes do you think we’ll get on Instagram when we post footage of the house at the peak of the blood moon? We are gonna blow up the Internet, right?” The exchange that follows is eerily prescient:
Sophie: You know what I love about season one?
Milo (Jon Bass): Uh, everything? My Roanoke Nightmare is awesome.
Sophie: On the surface, it’s an interracial story set in a post-racial world. Which, of course, is a lie. But they’re really talking about the colonization of America. The Butcher and the Roanoke Colony. Which became a matriarchy in a patriarchal system. That’s why it’s so timely. It’s a battle we’re fighting today.
Milo: No… I don’t know. I just think that the show was scary.
Sophie: Yeah, Milo. Racism is scary. Patriarchy is scary.
It is unsurprising that white, heteronormative Milo enjoys his “reality” television free from sociocultural overtones. Notably, the third member of the group, Todd (Jacob Artist), is exempt from this conversation; the reality of a “post-racial world” is no more news to him than it is to Sophie. As an African American, Todd is already well aware of the everyday terrors lurking around the corner for non-male/white Americans. That this exchange can realistically occur, especially at a moment when a frustrated, white working class can ignore bigotry under the guise of change, accentuates the true American horror at the core of AHS’s season six: what happens when “reality” becomes reality?
Screening every episode of The Apprentice alongside any number of political thrillers could not have prepared anyone for the evolution of the executive branch since November. Re-watching American Horror Story: Roanoke, however, may shed some light on the presidential election of 2016. Over the course of Roanoke, via shows-within-shows and callbacks to previous seasons, the season parodies a number of reality subgenres and platforms, from crime, paranormal, and talk to YouTube and fan conventions. AHS: Roanoke holds a mirror to a nation obsessed with exaggerated versions of real people that both distracts from personal issues and glorifies performativity. What constitutes the “real” becomes impossible to disentangle from melodrama. “Chapter 10,” for example, begins with a flashback to Paleyfest March 15, 2016. Hosted by Trixie Mattel and Edward Hansen of reality production machine WOWPresents, the panel is comprised of the re-enactors as well as the “real people” who narrated My Roanoke Nightmare (furthering this meta-simulacrum, the cast of AHS: Hotel, largely replicated for AHS: Roanoke, was actually in attendance at the 2016 Paleyfest). When an audience member shouts, “We love you Shelby (Lily Rabe),” re-enactor Shelby (Sarah Paulson) responds, “Are you sure it’s not me you love”?
Through her character, Paulson, in the role of an actress providing commentary on the craft of acting, is highlighting the conflation of reality and fantasy that has not only become characteristic of the entertainment industry but is further accentuated by the prevalence of reality sub-genres. Reality programming offers staged drama under the auspice of truth, providing a welcome distraction from the day-to-day traumas of actual reality. While actors portraying fictional characters manufacture an uncanny amalgam of fact and fiction, reality genres further this muddling by operating within the pretense of access to a sort of authenticity where spectators can emotionally invest in the thrill of a conceivably factual experience free from the risk of personal harm.
Murphy and Falchuk invoke this multitude of genres, all engaging with various levels of “reality,” to demonstrate the extent to which “reality” viewing detracts from an uncertain, often frightening present. During the PaleyFest Q&A, one fan cried, “It’s been a really hard year, and My Roanoke Nightmare is the only thing that kept me goin’.” Even in introducing the panel, Trixie declared, “Their nightmare was our dream.” Through the mediation of a screen, viewers can invest in a possible, detached reality to temporarily escape from their own. The pleasure derived from the sensationalization of suffering, be it emotional or physical, stands in stark contrast to the uncertainty of the present. Unfortunately, however, it seems things that could happen, then, ultimately do.
The terror of our present reality lies in its unpredictability. Unlike the horror genre, where threats are both clearly demarcated within the confines of a televisual/cinematic frame, in reality, the viewer is always aware of a world that exists beyond the scope of the news camera. In the reality genre the camera encompasses the world. It restricts problems to what is displayed on screen, freeing the viewer from the responsibilities of practicality. I was reminded of this while watching Meryl Streep’s Cecil B. DeMille Award acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, where she remarked on “one performance this year that stunned” her, Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter. Noting the power of performativity, Streep related, “It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life.”[ii] Presidential updates come from Twitter, and Hollywood delivers political perspective. As such, Murphy and Falchuk are reportedly following AHS: Roanoke with an election-themed season seven.[iii] It seems that they will have plenty of ammunition. And that, horrifyingly, is our reality.
Amber P. Hodge is a doctoral student in English at the University of Mississippi. A frequenter of DoesTheDogDie.com, her dissertation focuses on the problem of the human in the global southern gothic. You can follow her on Academia and Instagram or Twitter @acafamber on the rare occasions she isn’t watching or writing about horror.