Anyone who has been on the Internet long enough has probably heard of Rule 34: the maxim that anything you can possibly think of probably exists in pornographic form, somewhere online. Inevitably, unfailingly, the human mind — noble in reason; in apprehension like a God — harnesses its dizzying creative potential, its dazzling intellectual possibility, in the service of getting off to a story about a werewolf-ified Harry Potter impregnating Legolas from Lord of the Rings.
To Rule 34 I want to propose a corollary: Rule 666. Whatever depravity you can think of — no matter how gory, how grotesque, or how gruesome — has appeared as a source of terror and titillation in Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, the star-studded anthology series whose eleventh season is currently airing on FX.
American it may be; horror it certainly is; but story is cutting it close. American Horror Story is not so much a linear narrative as an expensively lurid collection of horrifically meme-able psychosexual moments: rape via gimp-mask disguise (Season 1), necrophilia and also more rape (Season 2), dollhouses full of corpses (Season 3), snuff films (Season 4), It is also, almost certainty, the most morally abhorrent fictional show on television (we’ll reserve our takes on reality TV for another time). What makes American Horror Story so distinctively perverse isn’t its glamorization of violence, of torture, or weird sex stuff — the aestheticization of sexualized violence is practically a requirement for contemporary prestige television (see: Game of Thrones, Hannibal). Rather, the chilling nature of American Horror Story lies in the craven way it blends horror with comedy, snuff films with high camp, narrative with memes. American Horror Story is the apotheosis of our contemporary obsession with content: intense psychosexual experience for the sake of intense psychosexual experience.
Nowhere is this more evident than American Horror’s Story curiously bloodless — emotionally-speaking — treatment of horror itself. The awful things we see onscreen are presented to us neither as disgusting, nor (in the case of Hannibal) disturbingly, erotically beautiful, but hilariously meaningless pre-emptive candidates for listicles — and there are many — of the show’s “most OMG” or “WTF” moments. This sense of unreality is only bolstered by the fact that American Horror Story boasts an incredible cast of camp theatrical luminaries — Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, Denis O’Hare, Kathy Bates — who reappear each season in new, ever-meatier roles that inevitably nod to their offscreen personae. Each depredation in the show doubles as a chance to see big names do bigger things. Watch Jessica Lange as a nun seducing a priest in one season, then get mutilated in a German torture porn film in the next. Watch Lady Gaga drink the blood of strangers. Watch Angela Bassett curse Kathy Bates — as a murderous antebellum enslaver — into eternal life as a decapitated head, forced to watch Roots over and over again. Slay, queen, slay.
Every episode is more outrageous, more violent, than what came before. Murphy himself plays into this characterization of the show, promising viewers that various episodes will be the “most disturbing” yet. It is a show that dares rather than invites the audience to watch, imagining the only objection could be a weak will.
If there is a fundamental logic underpinning the horror story, it is this: at its best, horror renders literal and present those fears we — on a personal and a societal level — have suppressed. Vampires capture the lure of sexual liberation, of decadent libertinage made possible by supping on society at large. Werewolves suggest the untrammeled appetite; ghosts the haunting legacy of trauma past; zombies at once the singularity of the mob and our vulnerability to contagious disease itself: the way self-preservation can turn us into strangers.
But the striking thing about American Horror Story, and the implied audience to which it is directed, is that nothing, really, is repressed. Sacred cows are slaughtered in every scene; plotlines are stacked on top of nonsensical plotlines (Roanoke! Aliens! The Antichrist!), as if Ryan Murphy had a checklist of every awful thing you can dream up and was methodically, joylessly, working his way down it, transmogrifying cruelty into content.
Indeed, if American Horror Story has any literary antecedent, it is not in the classics of horror but in the pornographic and violent excesses of the eighteenth-century aristocrat, novelist, and serial rapist known as the Marquis de Sade.
Straddling the line between masturbation material and pure shock tactic, Sade’s novels — like American Horror Story — make little narrative sense. Rather, they’re exercises in ingenuity: lengthy depictions of rapes and tortures and murders that stretch the human capacity to its language to the breaking point. One character in Sade’s novel Juliette (published between 1797 and 1801), upon murdering his father, rejoices that “I was a parricide and an assassin…committing incest, murder, and sodomy, all in the same moment.”
Sade was heavily influenced by the popular eighteenth-century genre known as “libertine novels” — from the French liberté — anonymously published novels like, Thérese Philosophe (1748) L’Ecole des Filles (1660); Vénus Physique, (1740); the Histoire de Dom Bougre, Portier des Chartreux (1741). Mixing sexually explicit content with anti-clerical sentiment (one recurrent theme is young virgins getting deflowered by horny priests), these novels consciously sought to celebrate human freedom (particularly creative and sexual freedom) while condemning those who tried to put limits on it. The meaningless of the world, in the libertine novel, is cause for, if not outright rejoicing, then at least relief: it means we get to bang who we want, whenever we want to. Thus does our philosophical virgin Thérèse, in the 1748 novel of the same name, conclude that sexual desire can never be wrong, because it’s merely natural. "It is the arrangement of the organs, the dispositions of the fibers, a certain movement, the liquids, which make up the genre of the passions...nature is uniform.”
There is nothing particularly subversive, let alone queer, about showing blood and nudity on television.
Sade took this worldview to the extreme. Sade’s stories, like Murphy’s, are narratively all-over-the-place, endless processions of every fucked up thing you can ever think of. Libertine characters (philosophes, all) do plenty of raping and murdering; everyone else (particularly but not exclusively women and the poor) gets turned into meat. It’s a statement about the way of the world, of course, but Sade isn’t interested in condemning it. (His moral outrage is only ever reserved from those who seek to put any kind of limits on human freedom).
Rather, Sade luxuriates in transgression as the very thing that separates us — the knowing, smart, self-aware philosophes — from the mere sheeple, the rubes, the people still dumb enough to believe that there is a distinction between good and evil, still gullible enough to believe in God. Transgression — pushing human ingenuity as far as it can go — is the thing that makes us godlike. Our ability to imagine and enact sets us apart from the animals — and the other human beings that, in this schema, might as well be. “I am only sorry that no God really exists,” one character muses, “sorry, that is, to be deprived of the pleasures of insulting him more positively."
It is precisely that worldview that dominates every episode of American Horror Story, but stripped of even the pretense of philosophical justification. American Horror Story is a horror-show for a contemporary American audience in which very little is held to be holy, and nothing is buried very deep. It is a horror story for a culture profoundly uninterested in caring about anything enough to be horrified by it in the first place. Although the show occasionally pays disingenuous lip service to being about our shared cultural sins — the original sin of racism in Coven; homophobia in Freak Show — it primarily functions as a BuzzFeed listicle in narrative form: a way to showcase .GIF-able moments of our most beloved cult theater stars doing, well, some freaky shit.
It’s possible, of course, to dismiss me as a puritanical moralist, prone to taking things too seriously, missing the campy point of the whole thing. And American Horror Story is, for better and worse, high camp: that impossible-to-define genre (recall the Met gala debacle) that suggests theatricality, extravagance, artifice, queerness, pastiche — everything, as theorist Susan Sontag put it back in 1964, “a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content,’ ‘aesthetics’ over ‘morality’”.
How could the show not be anything but camp? This is, after all, a show that features Kathy Bates as the disembodied zombie head of a racist enslaver forced to watch Roots. And, certainly, plenty of critics have praised American Horror Story as an empoweringly queer show: using camp to evoke the queer experience.
But what makes American Horror Story so repulsively hollow is that it annihilates what is arguably camp’s best quality — camp’s sheer, extravagant, messy love for its subjects, the infectious ramshackle joy that forces it over the top in the first place. Camp works, when it works, because its studied artifice helps us get at something real, maybe even embarrassingly too real. Camp celebrates the kind of melodramatic bathos that otherwise gets dismissed as mere bad taste, and which nonetheless is a fundamentally true part of what it means to be a human being with feelings. (I happen to think Taylor Swift is today’s best practitioner of high camp, but that’s an argument for another essay). Camp is Oscar Wilde’s maxim that a mask tells us more than a face, put into practice. American Horror Story craves our attention, but it doesn’t love anything. And nothing, not even its bodies, are real.
American Horror Story annihilates, too, camp’s most politically queer quality: its sense of risk. There is nothing particularly subversive, let alone queer, about showing blood and nudity on television, nor in courting the attention of media listicle journalists. Sade’s work was, at least, censored; his final prison sentence was due to the violence of his writing (the others, incidentally, were for rape). American Horror Story, conversely, is now on its eleventh season and remains the source of a cottage industry of gifs, memes, and screenshots. It is, in fact, a kind of double pornography: providing us with an exciting simulacrum of transgression while demanding of us very little danger.
American Horror Story’s decadence is not the fun art-nouveau-and-absinthe kind, but rather the true decadence of a culture uninterested in anything but watching disembodied gifs of disembodied heads, of Emma Roberts saying “surprise, bitch,” over and over again.
Maybe, in the end, it’s precisely its nihilism that makes American Horror Story quite such, well, an American horror story. It’s a story about horror in a world where nothing scares us, and everything bores us; a world where our need for sex and violence and content and the emotional hit of watching something dangerous takes us deeper and deeper into the worst perversions of the possible. It’s a story about, as well as for, us. The killer has been inside the house the whole time.
Tara Isabella Burton is the author of the novels The World Cannot Give (S&S, 2022) and Social Creature (Doubleday 2018), and the nonfiction Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World (Public Affairs, 2020).