‘American Horror Story’: The Secret New Season Is Haunting

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large

All the secrecy and false leads that co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk arranged to shroud the sixth season of American Horror Story seem to have paid off: Viewers were probably quite surprised to see the twists in the unveiling of the latest edition of the anthology series on Wednesday night. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE SEASON PREMIERE OF AMERICAN HORROR STORY.

It looks as though the American Horror Story subtitle this time around is “My Roanoke Nightmare,” and I say that with some tentativeness because that phrase was used in brief flashes onscreen, and the beginning of the season may be a fake-out for what is to come. AHS6 commenced by presenting us with its version of a schlock-TV true-crime tale, in the manner of Forensic Files or Killer Kids or some other reality-based foolishness like that. Except this schlock has a superior cast: Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. (co-stars of The People v. O.J. Simpson reunited, intimately), Lily Rabe, The Knicks Andre Holland, Kathy Bates, and a few other AHS regulars obscured by being caked in rural Virginia mud.

Related: ‘American Horror Story’ Recap: Reality Frights

The premiere commenced with a “based on true events” disclaimer as Rabe and Holland faced the camera to tell us about some spooky things that happened to them when they bought an old house in the woods, and we saw Paulson and Gooding playing Rabe and Holland in what were called “dramatic reenactments” of these events. Confusing? Just for a few seconds because the story, as familiar as it seemed in outline form (scary-house stories range from Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House to The Blair Witch Project, which has a film sequel coming soon), was nicely upsetting.

Paulson/Rabe play Shelby, and Gooding/Holland play Matt, a couple who out-bid some very mean-looking poor white people (I know I can’t say hillbillies; Matt called them “ZZ Top wannabes”) for a dubious dream house in the middle of a forest. Wouldn’t you know it — Matt is a “traveling salesman” (how quaint, and doesn’t Shelby know there’s a tradition of bawdy traveling salesman jokes that might disturb her?) who spends a lot of time away from home. Shelby is a near-stereotype — a high-strung yoga practitioner who’s gluten-free and wine-dependent. She makes a perfect victim for slamming doors, apparitions of people floating through rooms, and a sudden hailstorm that rains down human teeth. This last was the premiere’s spiffiest, most yucky touch.

In reading some post-show Internet comments, I noted that history and horror buffs are aware that there’s something referred to as the “lost colony of Roanoke” from the 16th century involving some disappearing colonists, but I’m really hoping that Murphy and Falchuk don’t pull a switcheroo a few episodes down the line and dress up other AHS veterans like Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton in flashback Pilgrim costumes.

Right now, the new series looks both promising (especially good this night: Angela Bassett and Adina Porter sharing the same role as Matt’s sister, a police detective clinging to new sobriety) and limiting: How many times can Roanoke slam a door and make us jump?

Which leads me to think the producers have a much larger mythology to unfurl as the season goes on. After all, that house is roomy but not big enough to contain other rumored AHS stock-company-player returnees, including Lady Gaga, Denis O’Hare, and Cheyenne Jackson. It’s a safe bet this true-crime saga becomes something more campy and complex as it proceeds.

American Horror Story airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.