Recaps

American Horror Story: Roanoke “Chapter One”

The new season of American Horror Story finally returned after months of speculation and countless red herring TV promos. The decision to keep the theme of season 6 a secret left many fans wondering what crazy plot Ryan Murphy had in store. Did coming into the new season blind pay off? Let’s dissect the premiere of AHS: Roanoke!

Photo Credit: FX

Photo Credit: FX

As the episode began, we found ourselves watching a show within a show, specifically a show titled “My Roanoke Nightmare.” The presentation of this documentary style show was incredibly similar to offerings like A Haunting, Paranormal Survivor, or anything on the Destination America and Investigation Discovery channels. We met Matt and Shelby, a young married couple played by four different actors. Andre Holland and Lily Rabe play the real couple, while Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sarah Paulson play Matt and Shelby in the reenactments.

Matt and Shelby tell their story of moving from Los Angeles to North Carolina after suffering an attack in the streets by thugs (he was injured and she suffered a miscarriage). Once they arrive in the south, they come across a home up for auction that they are immediately drawn to. The turnout for the auction is incredibly low and incredibly suspicious. Matt and Shelby outbid three redneck locals for very little money (red flag #1).

Of course Matt feels right at home while Shelby gets a bad vibe. One night while having sex, they hear noises coming from outside. Matt goes to investigate and ends up getting a trash can thrown at him (red flag #2). He assumes it was the three rednecks they outbid, but Shelby feels uneasy. While Matt is gone one day, Shelby discovers it’s hailing outside. However, this wasn’t ordinary hail… it was teeth (red flag #3)! By the time Matt comes home, the hail of teeth is nowhere to be found and Shelby starts to look a little unhinged.

Her sanity gets pushed even further when Matt goes on a business trip, leaving Shelby all alone in the house. Shelby sees what looked like two nurses walking through the hall (red flag #4), but decides she was just imagining things. Following the tradition of doing stupid things while creepy things haunt you, Shelby decides to take a dip in the hot tub. All is well until she almost drowns to death at the hands of people carrying pitchforks and wearing old-timey, colonial clothing (red flag #5). Okay, we’re already up to red flag #5, that means it’s time to get the hell out of dodge!

Of course, the police and Matt don’t believe her story. One night, Matt hears those same strange noises again and finds a slaughtered pig at their front door. Matt sets up security cameras and decides Shelby needs someone around while he’s away on business. This is where we meet Matt’s sister, Lee (played by Adina Porter as the real person and Angela Bassett in the reenactments). We learn she had been a policewoman who became addicted to painkillers after suffering an injury on the job. She was then fired, got divorced, and lost custody of her daughter.

Shelby continues to feel uneasy while Lee thinks she’s just jumpy. After telling Shelby she is trying to remain sober, a bottle of wine rolls into Lee’s room. Lee accuses Shelby of playing a cruel joke, but Shelby had nothing to do with it. As the two women argue, they fail to realize a mob of colonial looking people with pitchforks and knives heading toward the house.

Photo Credit: FX

Photo Credit: FX

Matt watches the security footage of the mob on his phone while also trying to call Shelby and Lee to warn them. After hearing the door to the house open, Lee and Shelby go to the basement where they find a television playing a home video of a man trying to capture footage of some creature?/man? in the woods. After the noises of the mob fade, Lee and Shelby return upstairs to find a bunch of Blair Witch-like stick figures dangling all over. When Matt returns, he refuses to leave, but Shelby takes the car and makes a run for it.

However, before she can get too far, she hits an old-timey woman (played by Kathy Bates). Instead of being sensible and getting back in the car, Shelby follows the woman as she gets back up and heads into the woods. Shelby loses the woman and ends up lost until she comes across more Blair Witch-like stick figures hanging from the trees. She stumbles to the ground where she sees it… breathing/moving. We close out the episode as Shelby runs into the pitch-fork wielding, old-timey mob.

When the title card for Roanoke appeared, I immediately thought of the real-life settlement that is still shrouded in mystery. If you remember your high school history class, you may recall that during the 1500s, the colonists of Roanoke disappeared without a trace. I think this piece of history is perfect for a show like this. Not only is it based in reality, but it’s super creepy just reading the theories surrounding Roanoke.

Over the past few seasons of AHS, I’ve been disappointed with storyline executions and character developments. A pattern has emerged where the season starts off promisingly enough, but runs off the rails by the finale. There’s a reason why the first two seasons of the series (Murder House and Asylum) are almost unanimously considered the best, and that’s because the narrative and cast was contained.

I was relieved to see one storyline and a small group of characters. I don’t expect this to be the same every episode, but sometimes less is more. I don’t want to get lost in a myriad of plots and characters that won’t matter by season’s end.

Photo Credit: FX

Photo Credit: FX

I also have to point out that I felt genuinely nervous watching this episode. That hasn’t happened to me watching this show for a long time. The last few seasons have been more weird than they were scary. I’m also someone that responds more to subtlety in horror. It’s important to build tension, to make the audience fear what may or may not be lurking around the corner, and to anxiously await what comes next.

The idea that this season will play out as a documentary show is a really fresh and cool turn for the series to take. It’s completely unexpected and shifts the style completely. One of the most obvious changes was the lack of a title sequence. I’m not going to lie, the absence felt off. Every year, the title sequence sets the tone and theme of the season. It makes sense why they would forego one this time around if the season is playing out like a different show entirely. Who knows, maybe the title sequence will show up in the next episode, but I think we can manage without it.

There was a definite separation in the acting between the real life recollections and the reenactments. The acting by the real characters was quieter, more subtle. The acting in the reenactments was more dramatic and intentional. Sarah Paulson has always been the MVP of the series, so I enjoy watching anything she does.

The cinematography was beautiful and haunting. The house was creepy as hell, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of the mansion in Murder House. The imagery of the ground moving beneath Shelby was stunning. It wasn’t over the top, but still packed a visual punch. Narratively speaking, I can’t wait to see how this story plays out. Will we focus on this one couple’s story the entire season, or will be see others who’ve experienced the fury of Roanoke?

I don’t want to rave too much since I’ve been burned by this show far too often. Let’s hope Ryan Murphy learned some restraint and won’t rely on strange characters, outrageous plot lines, and weird sex scenes to shock the audience. Sometimes the scariest stories are the simplest ones. Come on Ryan, I know you can do it!

Check out a preview for AHS: Roanoke “Chapter 2.”

American Horror Story airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.

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