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Stillborn: the entropic Gothic of American Horror Story.

Despite its trajectory toward birth--tracking its pregnant heroine to the two final episodes, 'Birth' and 'Afterbirth'--the first season of the fascinating new FX series, American Horror Story (October--December 2011) is wholly given over to death. 'You are going to die in there', are the first words of the pilot episode, intoned by a girl with Down's Syndrome who is soon, herself, to die. Indeed, as Addie's words portend, everyone comes to die in the 'Murder House'. The series incarnates the death drive, and, as such, it is one of the most unrelentingly pessimistic cultural texts of the contemporary moment. On the surface about very palpable crises plaguing the contemporary United States--recession, a plummeting housing market, aging mothers, and declining birth rates--the series is, more fundamentally, about an insidious entropy, a pervasive cultural drift toward the relinquishing of life.

The first season of American Horror Story centers on a house, the 'Murder House', built in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. In present time, Ben and Vivian Harmon, along with their teenage daughter Violet, move into the house, having come west for a new start after Vivian has a miscarriage and Ben has an affair. The hopes of the Harmons for an auspicious future soon founder, however, on the fact that, with the exception of their rather aggressively-welcoming neighbors, Constance Langdon and her daughter Addie, most of the people with whom their lives become entangled are dead. The narrative moves not toward life and futurity but succumbs to the weight of the (un)dead past. Repetition drives the series, as stories--lives--accumulate in the deathless confines of the Murder House, each generation layered upon, literally impressed by, those that came before them. The past rewrites the present, exerting an inexorable shaping force.

The first occupants of the 'Murder House', Dr Charles Montgomery and his wife Nora, provide illegal abortions to aspiring actresses in the 1920s. An enraged boyfriend, finding out his baby has been destroyed, kills and dismembers the Montgomerys' baby, Thaddeus. Charles tries to sew his son's limbs back together, creating an infant monster who will perpetually haunt the cellar. In horror, Nora kills her husband then herself. Two decades later, a man who runs a dental practice out of the house rapes and kills a girl, who becomes the infamous 'Black Dahlia'. In the 1960s, two nursing students are terrorized and killed by a serial murderer. In the 1980s, Constance Langdon moves in with her husband, Hugh, and their children. Hugh has an affair with the housekeeper, Moira, and Constance shoots him in the act. When Constance moves out, Larry Harvey, his wife, and their two children move in. Constance is not to be ejected from the house, however, and she and Larry start an affair; when Larry tells his wife that he wants her and their children to move out, so Constance and her children can move back in, she sets fire to herself and their girls. Constance moves back into the house, living with Larry, and in the early 1990s her son, Tate, goes on a killing spree at his high school and kills five students. At around the same time, and at Constance's request, Larry kills another of Constance's children, Beau, who is badly disfigured and whom she keeps chained in the attic. The most recent occupants of the house, before the Harmons, were gay couple Chad and Patrick, whom Constance's (dead) son Tate killed when it became clear that Patrick's infidelity was going to prevent their having a child. (Tate wanted a baby for the endlessly bereft Nora.) Such are the central stories of the house, repetitions of central themes--murderous doctors, adulterous men, dead and monstrous children, husband-killers, and suicides.

Even a cursory description of its principal plots makes it clear that American Horror Story is an important addition to the Gothic canon, manifesting almost every conceivable Gothic convention (tyrannical males, persecuted and entrapped heroines, buried secrets, a haunted house with the obligatory dark and foreboding basement, murder, madness, monsters, proliferating doubles, and uncanny repetitions). (1) It exemplifies Chris Baldick's definition of the Gothic as that which combines 'a fearful sense of inheritance in time with a claustrophobic sense of enclosure in space' to produce a 'sickening descent into disintegration'. (2) All the characters--past to present--die into a kind of permanent undeath, becoming immured in the house forever. There is no movement forward, only repetition ad nauseum, to the point, as Baldick puts it, of disintegration. Indeed, the series pushes Baldick's definition to its endpoint, to dissolution, manifesting what I call the entropic Gothic: its trajectory is only toward exhaustion and stasis--'the final dissipation of energy and death'. (3)

American Horror Story is, moreover, an important addition to a specifically televisual Gothic, an as-yet little discussed genre that, as Helen Wheatley has argued, particularly focuses on home and family. The 'threatened domestic space and traumatised family', she writes, are 'pivotal in the specific identity of Gothic television', especially in the United States. The uncanny domestic spaces and imprisoned, threatened families of the Gothic are heightened by television's unique place in the home:
   It is television's ontological status as a domestic medium which
   potentially emphasises the Gothic rendering of homes and families,
   drawing parallels between the domestic space on screen and those
   homes in which the dramas are being viewed. (4)

For viewers of television Gothic, then, the terrors are multiplied--their own home, their own family, is reflected back to them from the screen, trapping them in an uncanny house of mirrors. American Horror Story heightens this effect of the televisual Gothic, I argue, by raising recognizably real early twenty-first century anxieties about homes and families. Heightening the mundaneness of its terrors (suffocating mortgages, for instance), the series presents the supernatural--the dead--as itself thoroughly real. Whereas Wheatley has argued that Gothic television is often 'heavily impressionistic', presenting its supernatural events 'through the use of special effects', or as 'suggested rather than fully revealed', the dead people of the 'Murder House' are indistinguishable from the non-dead, tangibly embodied and moving around the house like the living. (5) The viewers' home thus dissolves frighteningly easily into the 'Murder House', re-doubled on the screen, just as living dissolves into dead on the screen and viewers dissolve into characters: the living in American Horror Story are doubled by the dead on the screen and doubled again in the audience.

Emblematic of the entropic Gothic of American Horror Story, in which its audience is inexorably mirrored, is its pairs of twins. In the first scene of the first episode, set in 1978, twins enter the Murder House to die. And the season ends with the birth of Vivian Harmon's twins (one stillborn, one seemingly psychopathic). The first half of this essay is grounded in the more literal association of twins with reproductive technologies and aging mothers; twins thus stand in for a series of literal anxieties about interwoven children and homes--about the future of the 'American Dream'--that have plagued the United States in particular since the beginning of the recession (2007 through at least the end of 2012). The second half of the essay takes up the more metaphorical meanings associated with twins. American Horror Story's reiterations of the same, its proliferation of mimetic semblables, mark the entropic drift of the series toward sameness, undifferentiation, and extinction. Twins metonymically gesture to what the 'Murder House' itself represents--a realm of entropic exhaustion, of involutionary regression, of reality become virtual reality. That the characters (all of them) die and yet continue on, in a simulation ad infinitum of what their lives were, discloses the series' function as what Jean Baudrillard calls 'necrospective history'--a second event characterized by repetition, a 'cheap avatar of the original' that constitutes a 'form of dilution, of historical entropy' made up of 'ghost-events' and 'phantomevents'. (6) The series tracks a fundamental regression of the human to a spent, useless state, in which it is preserved only as 'a kind of ontological "attraction"'. (7) Indeed, the 'Murder House' is a literal attraction, a stop on a tour of the sites of Los Angeles's most infamous crimes. It is an absolute incarnation of the disappearance of the real into the simulacrum, of history into stasis, and of life into deathless immortality. (8)


With its entrapping houses and multiple dead infants, American Horror Story quite overtly registers contemporary fears about impending societal collapse brought about by the recent housing crisis in the US and the subsequent, sustained recession. Home prices, which peaked in early 2006, started to decline later in the year and by most accounts only started tentatively to rise at the end of 2012. For close to six years, foreclosure filings continued at historic high rates. Not surprisingly, one of American Horror Story's many cinematic intertexts is The Amityville Horror (1979), produced in an earlier moment of economic depression (and, not coincidentally, re-made in our most recent one, 2005), and of which Stephen King has famously written that the real horror is that the house is 'ruining the Lutz family financially'. (9) The viewer of American Horror Story viscerally senses doom, then, as psychiatrist Ben Harmon moves across the country and buys a 'classic LA Victorian' in an effort to save his family. Even when Vivian finds out about the violent deaths of the two former owners, Ben remains happy with the house because he's convinced it's worth four times what they paid for it. Like many Americans, however, Ben will soon discover that his 'American Dream' is stillborn. After a home invasion threatens the lives of Vivian and their daughter Violet, Vivian insists: 'We're selling this house'. Of course, the market being what it is, and the 'Murder House' being what it is (though so many houses are 'murder' to own), the Harmons are unable to sell their house, despite the increasingly desperate efforts of their realtor, Marcy. As Marcy tells Vivian in episode three, the housing market is 'dropping daily' and there's no end in sight. Indeed, the Harmons seem fated to follow in the footsteps of the former owners, gay couple Chad and Patrick, who poured money into renovating the house, fell out of love (Patrick cheated), but were forced to stay together because all their money was in the house and they couldn't sell it. (As Chad eloquently puts it in episode four, 'We can't flip the house because the economy is in the shitter'.) Many Americans facing foreclosure or bankruptcy may feel an identificatory horror when Chad and Patrick end up bloody and dead in the basement of their 'dream house'. And by the end of the season, the Harmons are all dead in that same dream house. Hanging from the chandelier on the landing, Ben, in particular, seems symbolically strangled by the dead weight of his ill-fated speculation.

If homes incarnate the dream of salvation, how much more so do children--iconic figures of a futurity that remains perpetually elusive in American Horror Story. Early in the series, Constance asks Vivian, in a tone that hovers brilliantly between saccharine and sardonic, 'Is there anything more wonderful than the promise of a new child?' (ep. 2). While Vivian's pregnancy spurs Ben's belief in that promise, and he calls their unborn child 'our salvation', the series itself is less sanguine. (10) Just as American Horror Story reflects the failure of home ownership, so too does it mirror the demise of the child as icon of futurity: the 2010 census signaled a striking decline in the US birth rate that commentators have attributed to the recession. (11)

If, as Lee Edelman puts it, 'the child has come to embody for us the telos of the social order', that telos is an ambivalent object of both desire and horror in American Horror Story. (12) Indeed, the deaths of babies and children preoccupy American Horror Story and are a powerful sign of its vision of a failing futurity. The theme pervades every storyline, beginning with Charles and Nora Montgomery, who provide illegal abortions and see their own baby murdered and dismembered. The current owner of the house, Vivian Harmon, has a bloody miscarriage at seven months and one of her twins, born near the end of season one, draws a single breath and dies. Her teenage daughter, Violet, kills herself midway through the season and then laments to her boyfriend (the dead Tate): 'We'll never have kids' (ep. 11). Ben Harmon's mistress, Hayden, becomes pregnant, contemplates abortion, and then she and her unborn child are killed by a (dead) occupant of the house, Larry, after she tells Ben she couldn't go through with the procedure. Years earlier (in the 1980s), Larry had driven his wife to set fire to herself and their two young daughters when he told her that he was in love with Constance. Constance's three children are dead: she orders Larry to euthanize the seriously disabled and disfigured Beau; Tate is shot by police after going on a killing spree at the local high school; and Addie is run over by a car. (13) With the single exception of one of Vivian's twins, who may or may not be demonic but who shows clear signs of psychopathy (having murdered his babysitter at age three), the children of every single major character are dead or never born.

This animus toward children has been a persistent thematic of Gothic fiction from the death of the heir at the opening of Walpole's originary The Castle of Otranto (1764), soon followed by the death of Agnes's baby in The Monk (1796), the monster's killing of the young William in Frankenstein (1818), Hyde's trampling calmly over a small girl in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Lucy Westenra's feeding on local children in Dracula (1897), and Miles's infamously mysterious death at the end of James's The Turn of the Screw (1898). (14) But the deaths of children--indeed the unflagging narrative movement toward the end of futurity--is nowhere as present as in the novel that began the American Gothic tradition which American Horror Story self-consciously continues. Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland (1798) concerns the titular hero's slaughter of his entire family, including four children, his pregnant wife, and an unrelated young girl, a plot that presages two of American Horror Story's intertexts, The Amityville Horror and The Shining (1980), as well as the (untrue) story that Larry tells Ben about how he was driven by 'voices' to kill his family. Stillbirths--never-born babies and slaughtered children--have always haunted the Gothic, then, marking the always-present inertia of the genre, the pull toward death. 'I have lost the hopes of my race', says Manfred after the death of his son in The Castle of Otranto. (15) Likewise, Wieland's Clara (the narrator as well as the protagonist/murderer's sister) ends the novel 'enamored of death' and begins her nihilistic narrative about the deaths of almost all her family members--and every one of its children--with the words: 'Futurity has no power over my thoughts. To all that is to come I am perfectly indifferent'. (16)

While the perils of reproduction and endangered family lines have perennially preoccupied the Gothic, (17) American Horror Story, I suggest, mediates specifically early twenty-first century anxieties surrounding the aging mother. The opening scene of the series stages this preoccupation as twin boys walk into the shot and are addressed by a girl with Down's Syndrome. Both multiple births and Down's Syndrome are more common outcomes for mothers who are older, and the rates of both multiple births and Down's Syndrome births have been rising in the US and the UK. In 2008 in the US, for instance, there was one pair of twins born out of every thirty-one live births--up from one pair of twins out of every fifty-three live births in 1980, and in England and Wales, multiple births have risen by twenty percent in the last decade. (18) The recent escalating rates of multiple births are due to what Angela Tchou has called the 'delayer boom'--the dramatic rise in the number of births to college-educated, thirtysomethings, women who are four times as likely to give birth to twins than mothers in their twenties. In vitro fertilization (connected to delayed motherhood) is also more likely to produce multiple births than natural conceptions. And despite technologies such as amniocentesis (which detects Down's Syndrome), and the large number of fetuses with Down's Syndrome that are aborted, Down's Syndrome births are also on the rise in the US, increasing by nearly one-third between 1979 and 2003. The cause: 'more older women are giving birth'. (19) American Horror Story features not only twins (two pairs) and a girl with Down's Syndrome, but also many of the other things that haunt older mothers: miscarriages, birth defects, and abortion.

In the tradition of the grotesque Gothic body, the series also exploits what Lisa Miller has described as the 'moral gag reflex' often induced at the thought of an aging mother (especially when she is over fifty). In a 2011 New York Magazine article, 'Parents of a Certain Age. Is There Anything Wrong with Being 53 and Pregnant?', Miller notes that an oft-repeated answer to her question--should people have babies at fifty?--was not only 'no' but that to do so was 'freakish'. (20) That this comment is directed mostly at women is suggested in the slippage of her title from 'parents' to the question of whether there's anything wrong with being pregnant over fifty, as well as in the photograph on the cover, both of which center the discussion around women's bodies in particular, making it clear that they are the real 'freaks', productive only of a monstrous future.

The two mothers of American Horror Story--Vivian and Constance--are both over forty, and their age is frequently an explicit part of the plot. Vivian's gynecologist tells her in the first episode that her body is a house, and that the foundation is decaying; and in the second episode, when Violet finds out her mother is pregnant, she disapprovingly tells her: 'You know the statistics when you have a baby over forty'. The viewer also witnesses the multiple tests Vivian undergoes, including amniocentesis (recommended for 'mature' mothers). Constance is older than Vivian and not pregnant, but after she has 'adopted' (i.e., stolen) Vivian's baby in the last episode of the season, she draws a horrified look when she tells her hairdresser that she has a baby: 'I'm not the birth mother', Constance has to assure her. When a new family moves in at the end of season one, the close-to-forty Marcy Ramos asks her husband (as they contemplate having another child since their son is about to go off to college), 'Am I too old to have a baby?' Her question could well serve as a tagline for the show. Indeed, with Vivian's and Constance's string of 'monstrous births', American Horror Story seems to suggest that, yes, some women are too old to have a baby. When Constance says 'my womb is cursed' (ep. 2), she links the Gothic supernatural evil of the house with her womb--and, inevitably, with her age.

At the same time that characters over forty are linked to a monstrous procreation, all the young women in the show choose (or are compelled) to have nothing to do with reproducing: they either have abortions, commit suicide, or are murdered. In the early 1920s, dozens of pregnant young women seek abortions from Dr Montgomery (ep. 3). Young women are raped and/or murdered in 1947 and 1968 (eps 2 and 9). In the present, the teenage Violet kills herself in the house (and only has sex after she's dead--with Tate, who is also dead). And Ben's pregnant mistress, the twenty-something Hayden, is also murdered in the house (after coming, herself, very close to choosing abortion). After death, moreover, Hayden reassures her lover that she cannot get pregnant, death being an infallible method of birth control. The series is littered, in short, with young women who cannot or do not get pregnant--or who abort the fetuses they find themselves carrying.

In its representations of the abject failure of young women to procreate, American Horror Story seems to enjoin a very real politics of reproduction. Hayden, who was one of Ben's students before she became his mistress, offers a very telling commentary after her death, as she confronts Vivian. 'I used to think I was privileged', she says, 'white, attractive, educated'--but she's come to realize she's missing something. 'I want what's in your womb', she proclaims (ep. 8). 'Educated' is a key word here, as it invokes the trend of college-educated women delaying motherhood. (The two young women killed in 1968 were, significantly, at home studying as their presumably less ambitious friends went out to pick up men.) Indeed, all of the murdered (and thus non-reproductive) young women of American Horror Story are located in eras that saw sharper than usual declines in the birth-rate, as well as unusual surges in women's labor-force participation: the early 1920s (just after women got the vote); the mid-1940s (during the wartime boom in women's employment and before the postwar move to the suburbs, stay-at-home moms, and larger families); 1968 (arguably the height of second-wave feminism, a year that saw the famous protest of the Miss America Pageant and the founding of the National Abortion Rights Action League); and, of course, the present, when the recession has dramatically slowed the number of births and hit men's employment rates much harder than women's, when women are earning more college degrees than men, and when the wage gap in the US for twenty-something childless women has all but disappeared. The series, then, registers a persistent anxiety about the twinning of women's independence and declining birth rates. Indeed, Hayden's lament voices the backlash that has always followed on the heels of decades in which women's economic power and reproductive control has grown: I'm privileged, I'm educated, I am equal to any man, I can have it all--and I want a baby.

While American Horror Story undeniably evokes the politics of backlash, it would be a mistake to read the show as itself political. The series does take up the highly political topic of who should and should not reproduce: should older women, single women, gay men, non-whites procreate? Should young, white, 'privileged' women be encouraged to reproduce more? But these questions ultimately fall victim to American Horror Story's drive toward a totalizing extinction that pays no mind to race, age and sexual preference. While, certainly, 'privileged' heterosexual whites (like Hayden) are not reproducing, it's also true that the gay couple, Chad and Patrick, don't either. And Luke, the attractive and muscular African-American security guard about whom Vivian fantasizes, confesses that he's sterile. There is no 'regenerative motherhood' (to use a term common among early twentieth-century eugenicists), (21) and neither is there any regenerative manhood, or any regenerative anything in American Horror Story: there is no politics of amelioration, just as there is no real politics of critique (backlash). An exchange between Chad (who desperately wants a baby) and Constance (who has four) manifests perfectly the impetus of the series. After Constance calls Chad and Patrick's desire to reproduce an 'abomination' and a 'perversion', Chad counters by telling Constance that her mothering amounts to her having been 'the hole' her children 'crawled out of. The dark hole, like the obligatory Gothic basement, defines the politics of American Horror Story--swallowing all hope, all sanguine ideals and all politics alike. As entropy transforms energy from useful to useless and ordered to disordered, that energy 'continues in a state of decadent or negative energy' and persists as a 'black hole of useless heat'. (22) Such is the undead Murder House--and it finds its perfect metonymic incarnation in the 'black hole' of Constance's womb.


Just as the more literal anxieties about the future (stillborn and never-born children, aging mothers, the vanishing American Dream) are embodied in American Horror Story's twins, so too is the series' more deeply-buried anxiety about our entropic drift. As Baudrillard writes, twins, above all, represent 'the hallucinatory redoubling of the same, in the primitive symmetry that makes the two twins seem to be like two halves of a single self, of the same individual'. (23) Baudrillard argues that humans had to struggle for death and for difference--for mortality and for individuality. If we relinquish that fight, we become 'once again indivisible, identical to one another--and immortal'. (24) We become the originary 'twin from whom we have never quite been separated'. (25) In Baudrillard's dystopian view of the present moment, we are, through cloning and other reproductive technologies, materializing our dream to return to that lost twin and to the reassuring sameness and lack of individuation it represents. We are a species 'unable to brave its own diversity, its own complexity, its own radical difference, its own alterity', he writes. We are tired of creating and maintaining difference and individuality, instead drifting back to the 'hallucination of the same', a static and frozen immortality. (26)

The 'Murder House', I argue, incarnates this 'hallucination of the same', the pull to return to our lost twin, to collapse into undifferentiation. It is the space of deathlessness, death as repetition and stasis, not the mortal death that follows struggle, individuality, and life. The real presence of twins in American Horror Story, at beginning and end, orients us to how all the characters become their own twin, their own clone. The characters die and persist, becoming their own undead 'perfect clone, an identical copy' of their formerly mortal self. (27) They become their own virtual selves in a nondeath that leaves them trapped in a stasis most of them had enacted anyway in their 'real lives'. Constance's husband, Hugo, for instance, has adulterous sex over and over and is killed over and over. Chad laments being tied for eternity to a cheating partner. In 'life' Violet had refused to leave her room and embraced a dead lover; when she finally kills herself, her life remains the same, the entropic drift of her life merely magnified in 'death'. And Ben, seemingly so devoted to the future, can only repeat the infidelity that is destroying what he claims to want; he incarnates the repetition compulsion of the death drive and of the series' pervasive entropic movement. People in the 'Murder House', then, die only into a deathless death, reviving the 'hallucinatory redoubling of the same' (28) that merely continues the pervasive repetition that had marked their lives; they become their own clone, marking the indistinguishability of life and death and embodying what Baudrillard calls an 'involutionary' (not evolutionary) trajectory that returns them to 'primitive entropy' and the 'nullification of differences'. (29)

In its multiplication of twins, including the striking (and, I think, distinctive) way in which almost every major character dies to become his or her own clone, American Horror Story evokes and transforms a staple trope of the Gothic--the 'double'. As Allan Lloyd-Smith puts it, the 'double or alter ego' usually represents 'some duality within the self'. (30) Examples from the Gothic tradition are many and probably best represented in the works Lloyd-Smith uses to illustrate his definition: Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. (31) As a marker of the 'other', that which is not the (conscious) self, that which the ego disavows, the twin has often produced the Gothic's uncanny effect, and doubling in American Horror Story does seems to function in this way, particularly for Ben. Larry, whose obsessive love for Constance in the 1980s caused his wife to immolate herself and their two children, is a notable double for Ben: he materializes Ben's repressed desires, hovering uncannily around him and appearing magically like the incarnation of a repressed wish. It is Larry who kills Ben's mistress Hayden (for no apparent reason), even though it is Ben who wants to be rid of her and who has been sleepwalking to the spot she will be buried and digging what will be her grave (and the digging itself can be seen as the search for the elusive buried wishes the ego will not know). Larry potentially also embodies, though, a still more deeply repressed desire of Ben's--the desire to be rid of his wife and child (something Larry accomplished himself quite spectacularly). Ben ostensibly wants nothing more than to be with Vivian and Violet, to keep his family intact, yet he is also compelled to have sex with Hayden even after he has promised Vivian that his affair is over, and he is clearly tempted by Moira. Ben is undeniably a man divided and struggling to keep certain unwanted desires, compulsively sexual and violent, under wraps. The omnipresence of Larry suggests his failure.

In American Horror Story, however, the presence of the twin/clone represents not only the double as repressed 'other', but also the double as same. 'Is there not', Baudrillard asks, 'a terror of and a nostalgia for this double, and, to go further, for the whole multiplicity of semblables from whom we have divided ourselves in the course of evolution? Do we not, after all, deeply regret our individuation?' (32) In this sense the double does not manifest internal division (the one and the other), but a flat, unbroken reflection of only the one. If the double as 'other' signals Gothic repression, the double as 'same' constitutes a kind of Gothic mimesis--the proliferation of multiple identical copies. Interestingly, although Freud is largely concerned with the double as the strange and the unfamiliar (because of the obvious importance to him of repression), he also suggests this different function of the double. After all, as he famously put it in 'The Uncanny', what is uncanny is 'actually nothing new, but something that was long familiar to the psyche and was estranged from it only through being repressed'. (33) Behind and before only apparent difference, then, a difference created by the mechanism of repression, is a prior and more primal sameness. Elsewhere in the essay, Freud speaks directly of the repetition compulsion--movement of and toward the same. And in the double, he writes, there is frequently 'the constant recurrence of the same thing, the repetition of the same facial features, the same characters, the same destinies, the same misdeeds, even the same names, through successive generations'. (34)

Freud's words harbinger the ability of the 'Murder House' to manufacture sameness through multiple generations--the production, in fundamentally entropic time and space, of multiple semblables, of proliferating mimetic doubles. While living in the 'Murder House', for instance, Nora shoots her husband in the 1920s, Constance shoots her husband in the 1980s, and Vivian 'accidentally' shoots Ben in present time. Moira has sex with men in the 1980s and in the present, and they die in every decade. The central monstrous births of the series are merely iterations of the original: Nora and Charles's baby, Thaddeus, is killed and then re-birthed as monster by his 'Frankenstein' father; from that point on, people birth monsters in the murder house--three of Constance's babies and Vivian's demonic twins. The disfigured Beau, in particular, seems to be a grotesque physical repetition of Thaddeus; and the pathological Tate and equally pathological living twin of Vivian both repeat the murderous impulses of that same monstrous Thaddeus (who seems intent on killing children who come in the house). These children--iterations of the past, of the same--are demonic not least, then, because they embody the unconscious production of sameness, and not only, moreover, within the single individual, but across generations. This sameness, in and of itself, as Freud notes, lends a 'demonic character' to events. (35)

The entropic drift of American Horror Story is evident not only in its twins and pervasive virtual clones, but, more visibly perhaps, in the series' representations of sex. Baudrillard writes that in what has been misrecognized as a sexual 'revolution', there is in fact an entropic movement back to our original viral sameness: in technologies of artificial reproduction and cloning, there is a 'dissociation of reproduction from sex'. We are, he declares, 'virtually relieved of the sexual function'. Sex has become 'extraneous, a useless function'. Are we not, he asks, trying quite deliberately to put an end to difference? 'Aren't we actually sick of sex, of difference, of emancipation?' (36) Not surprisingly, potentially procreative couples are markedly not having sex in American Horror Story: in an early argument, Ben yells at Vivian that they haven't had sex in almost a year, and Chad and Patrick are also no longer having sex (presumably because of Chad's libido-killing obsession with decorating and Patrick's infidelity). There is, though, plenty of non-procreative sex: Ben masturbates after watching the housekeeper, Moira, touching herself; Vivian also masturbates, thinking about the security guard, Luke; and Chad discovers Patrick is having S/M cyber-sex. The dead seem to be having more sex than anyone. Tate and Violet have sex after Violet kills herself. After Hayden dies, she repeatedly has sex with Constance's former husband, Hugo, although she seems driven more by the urge to stab him repeatedly at the moment of consummation (repeating his fate in 'life') than by sexual desire. The rubber suit, which Chad buys in a failed attempt to revitalize his sex life with Patrick, and which becomes the iconic 'rubber man' of the series, emblematizes the death of procreative sex: made out of latex, it accentuates the function of sex as 'useless', as simply a 'leisure' activity. (37) The 'Murder House' thus embodies what Baudrillard calls the 'final solution', the end of the human race as we know it. And, just as Baudrillard links this dystopian future explicitly to technologies like artificial insemination and cloning, so too, as I have argued, does American Horror Story evoke such technologies--with its older mothers, its obstetrical scenes, its twins and its Down's Syndrome child.

Although American Horror Story is claustrophobically focused on one house, it nonetheless suggests that the entropic drive holds much wider sway, that not only the inhabitants of the 'Murder House' but an entire society is given over to repetition, regression, and an involutionary drift to stagnation. Baudrillard argues that culture no longer serves as a force that differentiates us, as our environment should do in the process of evolution. Instead, it has become itself a force that functions to clone us: 'It is culture that clones us, and mental cloning anticipates any biological cloning'. It is, he continues, 'the matrix of acquired traits that, today, clones us culturally under the sign of nonthought--and it is all the innate differences that are annulled, inexorably, by ideas, by way of life, by the cultural context'. It is this kind of cloning, what Baudrillard calls 'social cloning', that precedes and makes thinkable biological cloning, the biological reproduction of the same. (38)

'Social cloning' is indeed a force in American Horror Story, and it is exemplified not least in the show's featuring of serial killers, people preeminently given over to repetition and death. Not only do two serial killers make an appearance in the series, but each one is then imitated in the present by a 'copycat' killer. In episode two, 'Home Invasion', three young people break into the 'Murder House' in present time in order to copy the serial murders of two women that took place in the house in 1968, using Vivian and Violet as stand-ins for the victims. (And those murders are themselves loosely based, according to creator Ryan Murphy, on the Richard Speck murders.) (39) Episode nine features one of LA's more infamous murders--the Black Dahlia murder--which is then replicated (by Hayden and Charles Montgomery) on the body of a young man, who becomes the Boy Dahlia. Constance's son, Tate, not a serial killer but a mass murderer, having killed five high school students on a killing spree in 1994, is preeminently a symptom of culture's contagious influence, its working to clone us 'under the sign of non-thought', since high-school shooting sprees (which were particularly pervasive in the US in the 1990s) are highly imitative crimes. As an indicator of precisely his 'nonthought', Tate seems not to be aware of exactly why he did go on a shooting rampage: he literally has no reason (ep. five). An unusually explicit example of the power of culture, specifically our omnipresent media environment, to produce sameness and death is manifest in Addie, Constance's Down's Syndrome child. Addie wants nothing more than to look like a 'pretty girl' in a magazine, and she shows everyone the picture she wants to imitate (her 'clone'), and then demands to be that picture for Halloween. Wearing the mask Constance buys her to replicate a banal norm of prettiness, Addie walks into the road and is struck by a car. She is literally killed by the cloned cultural image strapped over her face.

American Horror Story suggests, then, that the characters' lack of a future is integrally bound to their culture, which seems imaginatively barren--increasingly only a series only of repetitions. Constance says at one point that there are no more 'virgin plots' in America, and although she is speaking of land, her words equally signal the seeming lack of untold stories--the pressure to repeat only the familiar. And in American Horror Story, not only do people accumulate on top of each other on the same plot of land, but stories accumulate too, as plots are echoed--mirror images layered on top of one another. The effort to forge something new seems abandoned, innovation exhausted. American Horror Story not only dramatizes this otiose state of our culture in its own self-consciously repetitive plots, but also manifests it, since it is itself engaged in a persistent reiteration of prior Gothic/horror stories. The show evokes innumerable films, notably, Psycho, Don't Look Now, Prom Night, Halloween, Rosemary's Baby, The Omen, Carrie, The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Poltergeist, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Others, and The Sixth Sense. In fact, catching the series' references, the 'homages', to prior films, has become a veritable industry. (40) The series itself makes quite clear that there are no more 'virgin plots', only the recycling of the same. (41) The characters are caught up in these plots, bound to repeat them--like the mask of the stock, culturally-produced 'pretty girl' Addie straps on her face, like the three young people determined to reproduce an earlier serial killers' crimes exactly, down to the very last detail. The series' almost constant evocations of prior cultural products, whether self-consciously or not, reinforces the central thematic of the show--that we are lapsing into a deathless realm of barren reiteration.

Of the many Gothic narratives that American Horror Story evokes, none more completely anticipates its involutionary trajectory towards sameness and death, its collapse into undifferentiation, than Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1839). Like American Horror Story, Poe's story features twins, mimetic doubles, entropic drift, inertia, and final dissolution. From the beginning 'Fall' echoes the anxieties about futurity that similarly pervade American Horror Story: 'I dread the events of the future', Roderick Usher tells the narrator. As with the Harmons, Roderick's fear is literal extinction, the end of the Usher line, which had put forth no 'enduring branch'. (42) There are hints, however, that an incestuous connection between Roderick and his twin sister has led to Madeline's pregnancy. Her struggle in the tomb, where her brother has buried her alive (suggesting his ambivalence about the future represented by children), reads like a childbirth scene: when she emerges, there was 'blood upon her white robes, and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame'. She then falls upon her brother and 'bore him to the floor a corpse', a clause that ambiguously identifies the corpse as either Roderick or their stillborn child. (43) This possible stillbirth obviously resonates with Vivian Harmon's stillborn twin, and her death in childbirth. And like the Ushers, the Harmons die out.

The literal deaths of Roderick and Madeline Usher seem, though, like the deaths in American Horror Story, to be merely a continuation of the process begun in a 'life' that is finally indistinguishable from death--and the evocation of Poe's story in American Horror Story thus points up the latter's fundamentally entropic trajectory. The House of Usher, like the 'Murder House', is a realm of 'deathless things'. Both Roderick and Madeline suffer from mysterious illnesses that signal their succumbing to a 'primitive entropy'; indeed, one critic has called the Usher family curse specifically an 'entropic curse'. (44) Both Roderick and Madeline are characterized by a deep torpor, their bodies marked by a resistance to movement, to life, to a future. Roderick displays 'a want of moral energy', and at times his 'animal spirits seemed utterly in abeyance'. Images of 'vacancy' cluster around both him and his house, which exudes a kind of vegetative sentience and with which he is persistently identified. Madeline is literally 'approaching dissolution', suffering a 'settled apathy, a gradual wasting away of the person', and she is buried alive before the story ends (although whether she is alive or dead or in some liminal in-between state seems an open question throughout the story). (45) Of course, like people who 'die' in the 'Murder House', she doesn't die but returns, dragging her twin to his death as she collapses onto him. (46) Poe's story and American Horror Story are thus equally driven by and toward death, toward a ceding of life, toward a realm where life and death are impossible to tell apart. The dissolution of Roderick and Madeline into each other, and then the disintegration of both into the house that mirrored them, and then into the tarn and the very atmosphere itself (47)--the merging of all into all, in other words--perfectly represents what Baudrillard calls 'the regression toward a state of minimal differentiation', or the 'pure repetition of identical beings'. (48) At the end of the story, moreover, before Madeline and Roderick and their house disintegrate into the black, quiescent tarn, the narrator is reading a story to Roderick, and each event in the story is uncannily repeated in Madeline's breaking out of her tomb; the 'real' becomes what the narrator calls the 'exact counterpart' of what happened in the story. (49) As in American Horror Story's folding of real into fiction, in 'Fall', 'real' events magically imitate cultural production, and this magical mimeticism is integrally bound to the story's final entropic dissolution.

This essay began with houses and the very real anxieties that cluster around them in the United States, particularly at the time of American Horror Story's airing in late 2011, after several years of continuously falling home prices. The Gothic house has often, as I have argued, contained explicit fears about the viability of the American Dream and of futurity more generally: it has made incarnate the economic fears circulating around what is many people's most expensive purchase -as well as the reproductive fears centered around the family. Less overtly, the haunted Gothic house has also persistently functioned as the closed space of the human's seemingly inexorable return to its undifferentiated beginnings. It is the space of primitive entropy, of the death drive. It marks, to put it bluntly, our desire to give up--to forgo struggle, conflict, differentiation, individuation--to abdicate, in short, our future.

The House of Usher and the 'Murder House', moreover, also dramatically represent what Roger Caillois has called the 'temptation by space'--the seduction of the living being by its environment, its 'depersonalization by assimilation to space'. (50) Like Baudrillard (and like Freud), Caillois identifies an 'instinct of renunciation' in animals that 'orients [them] toward a mode of reduced existence, which in the end would no longer know either consciousness or feeling--the inertia of the elan vital, so to speak'. This instinct pushes the organism to succumb to space and to abandon its 'feeling of personality' or 'feeling of distinction'. 'Life takes a step backwards' (51) and the animal becomes absorbed in space, melts into space--just as Madeline and Roderick disappear first into their house and then the tarn, giving up their singleness, their struggle for life, and the future of their race. (52) Similarly those who enter and die in American Horror Story's 'Murder House', give up, even before 'death', any ability to originate new events: they merely recycle and repeat the past, succumbing to the virtual space of the house, the space of 'phantom events' where everything is a pale imitation of an imitation. The Gothic house, in short, is not only the sign of economic unease, as Stephen King has astutely noted, but it is also the magical space that demands assimilation. It gathers very real anxieties about impending financial collapse, and the end of the reproductive family, with which homes are so aligned. But it also incarnates the subtending entropic drift toward a particular kind of death--a death that is nonthought, sameness, ennui, a death that is, at bottom, a renunciation of the struggle to live.


(1) Helen Wheatley, Gothic Television (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006), p. 3.

(2) Chris Baldick, 'Introduction', in Baldick (ed.), The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992), p. xix.

(3) Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), p. 91.

(4) Wheatley, Gothic Television, pp. 18, 25, see also p. 200.

(5) Wheatley, Gothic Television, p. 3.

(6) Jean Baudrillard, 'The Millennium, or the Suspense of the Year 2000', in Julia Weaver (ed.), The Vital Illusion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 49.

(7) Jean Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution: Cloning Beyond the Human and the Inhuman', in Julia Weaver (ed.), The Vital Illusion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), p. 12.

(8) In 'The Gothic at Our Turn of the Century: Our Culture of Simulation and the Return of the Body', in Fred Botting (ed.), The Gothic: Essays and Studies (Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 2001), pp. 153-79, Jerrold Hogle has written brilliantly about the Gothic and the 'ghost of the counterfeit', arguing that the Gothic has, from the beginning, explored the 'disappearance of supposed "reality" behind and beyond the mere signs of it' (156), thus helping us deal with 'a modern world dissolving more and more into "spectralizations" everywhere' (158). Hogle detects a return of the body in contemporary Gothic (160), but American Horror Story seems to represent the pinnacle of the disappearance of the body and the triumph of simulation and the hyperreal.

(9) Stephen King, Danse Macabre (New York: Berkley, 1981), p. 143. King writes, of The Amityville Horror, that the reason the film works as well as it does as 'horror' is because 'the picture's subtext is one of economic unease': it encapsulates the economic hard times driven by the dizzying inflation of the 1970s (142). He says that the 'Bad House's most obvious effect--and also the only one which seems empirically undeniable: little by little, it is ruining the Lutz family financially' (143).

(10) For previous owners Chad and Patrick, home and baby were similarly interwoven harbingers of a future, and their home renovations go hand in hand with their plans to adopt a baby. They 'loved this place like a child', the realtor, Marcy, says (ep. 1).

(11) The birth rate in 2009 was the lowest in a century--and it dropped again in 2010. Gretchen Livingston and D'Vera Cohn, 'US Birth Rate Decline Linked to Recession', Pew Research Center, 6 April 2010, recession/, accessed 15 October 2013.

(12) Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), p. 11.

(13) Constance says she has four children but we do not learn the identity of her fourth child.

(14) Another contemporary example is the recent film adaptation of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black (2012), which is relentlessly about dead children and a curse that damns any hope of a future for the local villagers--all experienced through the perspective of a protagonist, Arthur Kipps (Daniel Radcliffe) who struggles to find any desire to create his own future and who ends up, along with his young son, dead.

(15) Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2003), p. 79.

(16) Charles Brockden Brown, Wieland; or The Transformation (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2009), pp. 176, 5.

(17) At least two critics have written of the 'gynecological Gothic', which certainly intersects with the argument of this essay. Both essays focus on Rosemary's Baby, one of the many evoked intertexts of American Horror Story. But both essays also focus on the dramatization of the struggle between mother and fetus as it refracts emerging notions of fetal personhood since the 1970s (enabled by technologies of fetal imaging). American Horror Story is similarly about reproductive technologies, not only the ability to see and imagine the fetus, but also the technologies that help older women reproduce at all. See Lucy Fischer, 'Birth Traumas: Parturition and Horror in Rosemary's Baby', in Barry Keith Grant (ed.), The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1996), pp. 412-31, and Andrew Scahill, 'Deviled Eggs: Teratogenesis and the Gynecological Gothic in the Cinema of Monstrous Birth', in Ruth Bienstock Anolik (ed.), Demons of the Body and Mind: Essays on Disability in Gothic Literature (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010), pp. 197-216.

(18) For the rise of multiple births in the US see Angela Tchou, 'Are Twins Taking Over? Making Sense of the Dramatic Rise in Multiple Births',, 23 August 2011,, accessed 15 October 2013. For the rise in the UK, see "Big Rise in Multiple Birth Rate', BBC News, 17 Feb. 2004,, accessed 13 October 2013.

(19) Susan Donaldson James, 'Down Syndrome Births Rise in US, CDC Reports', ABC News, 1 Dec. 2009, childbirth/story?id=9216796#.TyquddzEeuJ, accessed 15 October 2013. In the UK, Down's Syndrome births have remained static, even though diagnoses of babies with the syndrome have increased seventy-one percent between 1989-90 and 2007-08. Screening and abortions account for the static rate of births despite the increase in diagnoses--and, again, delayed motherhood is the cause of the increase in diagnosis. See Haroon Siddique, 'Delayed Motherhood Behind Increase in Down's Syndrome Births', The Guardian, 27 Oct. 2009, lifeandstyle/2009/oct/27/downs-syndrome-babies-motherhood, accessed 15 October 2013..

(20) See Lisa Miller, Parents of a Certain Age: Is there anything wrong with being 53 and pregnant?',, accessed on 15 October 2013.

(21) This term is used by Dana Seitler, 'Unnatural Selection: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Regeneration Narratives', American Quarterly 55 (2003), 61-88, in her discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's eugenic thought. Gilman is evoked in American Horror Story in Moira's exegesis of 'The Yellow Wallpaper' in episode 8.

(22) Michael Denison, Vampirism: Literary Tropes of Decadence and Entropy (New York: Peter Lang, 2001), p. 88.

(23) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 12.

(24) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', pp. 5-6.

(25) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 12.

(26) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', pp. 15, 12.

(27) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 8.

(28) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 12.

(29) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 8.

(30) Allan Lloyd-Smith, American Gothic Fiction: An Introduction (New York: Continuum, 2004), p. 173.

(31) In the American Gothic tradition in particular, there are the twins of Charles Brockden Brown's Edgar Huntly (1799), the virtuous Euphemia Lorimer and the evil Arthur Wiatte, as well as the doubled protagonists of Poe's 'William Wilson' (1840) one who acts and one who lives only to thwart and oppose his namesake.

(32) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 13.

(33) Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, trans. David McLintock (New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 148.

(34) Freud, The Uncanny, p. 142.

(35) Freud, The Uncanny, p. 145.

(36) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', pp. 10, 15. Baudrillard's suggestion that we may indeed be 'sick of sex', suffering a kind of 'exhaustion', is brilliantly explored by Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go (2005), in which literal clones struggle to find meaning in a sex that can never be procreative.

(37) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', pp. 11-12.

(38) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 25.

(39) murphy-talks-premiere-home-invasion, accessed 15 October 2013.

(40) It would be impossible to enumerate all the intertextual references in American Horror Story--and numerous blogs, websites and popular articles have voraciously been accumulating them. See, for instance, Kyle Buchanan's 'Can You Spot All of American Horror Story's Cinematic Homages?',, the American Horror Story wiki,, and 'American Horror Story's Movie Homages, from The Strangers to Hannibal Lecter', http://www. /news/pictures/zap-american-horror-storys-movie-homages-from-the-strangers-to-hannibal-lecter- 20111017,0,4811821.photogallery?index=2, all accessed 15 October 2013.

(41) Others do, arguably, add a certain depth to the narrative: the persistent echoes of Rosemary's Baby, for instance, suggest the demonic nature of at least one of Vivian's twins before we are ever confirmed in that belief. And visual references to The Shining and The Amityville Horror suggest Ben's otherwise very deeply buried desire to be free of his family. Gothic fiction also recycles through the series, whether fleetingly, as in the case of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or more extensively, as in the case of Moira's lengthy discussion of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 'The Yellow Wallpaper', which picks up on Vivian's earlier interest in the mural underlying the wallpaper in their living room, which she first uncovers, then, when she decides she doesn't like it, covers back up.

(42) Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher', in Poe: Poetry, Tales, and Selected Essays (New York: Library of America, 1996), p. 318.

(43) Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher', p. 335. See Dawn Keetley, 'Pregnant Women and Envious Men in "Morella", "Berenice", "Ligeia", and "The Fall of the House of Usher"', Poe Studies/Dark Romanticism 38 (2005), 1-16, for a discussion of Madeline's stillbirth.

(44) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 8. For the phrase 'entropic curse', see Jonathan A. Cook, 'Poe and the Apocalyptic Sublime: "The Fall of the House of Usher"', Papers on Language and Literature 48/1 (2012), p. 27.

(45) Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher', pp. 321, 322, 330, 323.

(46) Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher', p. 335.

(47) A tarn functions similarly in Richard Matheson's Hell House (1971). And in the film version of The Woman in Black, Arthur Kipps tries at one point to exert some resistance against the trajectory of the narrative towards death (including his own death drive) by pulling a carriage and dead body out of a black, tarry marsh (a scene that itself references Psycho). The effort proves futile, however (and resonates with the equally futile, iconic scene of the pulling of the car from the swamp at the end of Psycho).

(48) Baudrillard, 'The Final Solution', p. 6.

(49) Poe, 'The Fall of the House of Usher', p. 333.

(50) Roger Caillois and John Shepley, 'Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia', October 31 (1984), pp. 28, 30.

(51) Caillois and Shepley, 'Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia', pp. 32, 29, 30.

(52) Haunted house stories often enact this drama: Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (1959) and Merricat and Constance in Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), for instance, explicitly give up an effort to live in the world and merge with their homes, content never to leave--entombed. Eleanor, in The Haunting of Hill House, protests, 'I hate seeing myself dissolve and slip and separate', and yet, at the same time, she feels compelled to 'surrender' to the house that finally kills her. Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 160. And The Amityville Horror, both the original (1979) and the remake (2005), tracks the pressure on the male protagonist, George/Tom Lutz to succumb to the house, to become the man who shoots his entire family (even down to exerting pressure on his physical appearance: George/Tom Lutz looks increasingly, the longer he lives in the house, like the man who shot his family the previous year, who, in turn, looks like the evil reverend who killed Native Americans centuries ago on the site of the house).

Notes on Contributor

Dawn Keetley is an Associate Professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where she teaches American literature (mostly nineteenth-century) and popular culture, TV, and film - with an emphasis on the Gothic, violence, and horror. She has most recently published 'Zombie Evolution: Stephen King's Cell, George Romero's Diary of the Dead, and the Future of the Human', in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (Fall 2012) and is the editor of 'We're All Infected': Essays on AMC's The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human, forthcoming from McFarland Publishing in April, 2014. She is a columnist for FlowTV and has a column on Dexter in volume 18.08. She is completing a book manuscript Possessed Soul: Jesse Pomeroy, the Boy Fiend of 1870s Boston.

Address for Correspondence

Dawn Keetley, Director of the Graduate Program, Lehigh University, Drown Hall, Bethlehem PA 18015 USA. E-mail:

Dawn Keetley

Lehigh University
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Date:Nov 1, 2013
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