Posted by: Kristen Hicks | November 12, 2011

Horror On TV: American Horror Story and the Walking Dead

I came to the realization recently that many of the shows I’m currently following on tv are of the horror genre. American Horror Story, The Walking Dead and Dexter all reasonably fall within this category. I’ve been a horror movie aficionado for some time, taking in the good with the bad and generally enjoying it all on some level. To see the subject of my somewhat strange fascination move into television, a medium I’ve come to revere in recent years is an entertaining turn of events.

The Walking Dead and American Horror Story are probably the purest versions of the horror genre set to tv. They tackle distinct subgenres, The Walking Dead sticking closely to the zombie movie ethos and American Horror Story creating a strange world out of a hodgepodge of horror movie references and over the top characters.

Zombie movies have generally played on different fears and represented a different type of societal metaphor than most other types of horror movies. They play on the issues of overpopulation and the collapse of societal structures. In an age where the next big crisis of economics, population, disease and resource shortages always feels right over the horizon, they plunge us into images of the most extreme possible version of the consequences tied to fearful global issues. Those who fare the best in a zombie apocalypse possess some sort of practical, survival skills (or can find and stick close to those that do) and can shift away from the modern technology driven version of civilization to a more instinctive and self preserving form of themselves.

In keeping with zombie tradition, The Walking Dead is a tale of characters braving an apocalypse and dealing with the new culture created by individuals stuck with facing an entirely new type of society that tears apart the expectations of human interactions as we know them, with occasional horrific set pieces of violent, mindless zombies attacking.

In contrast, American Horror Story is far less concerned with the character side of things, and more focused on taking the extreme moments and images common to the horror movie genre (of the non-zombie variety) and throwing them into play in a somewhat disorganized and playful way. Any viewers of the show who have seen their share of horror movies will find multiple familiar images, sounds and concepts in every episode of the show.

The show strips the more political and heady aspects of horror films, which can be and have been analyzed endlessly to draw out commentary on society at large, and focuses more on what makes the movies fun to viewers: the jumps and shocks and more gruesome imagery. Further, the show seems constantly interested in winking at the viewers with a grasp of horror movie history, joining shows like Community, which are clearly designed to be appreciated as fitting into a larger cultural conversation through regular references and nods to art that’s come before.

Both examples fit pretty neatly in the horror genre, but take on wholly different sides of it. Which is better depends entirely on what you’re looking for in your entertainment. Neither show is entirely brilliant, but both have something new to offer to the television landscape and leave plenty of room for discussion and analysis, especially for anyone who has sought out the films (and comic books, in the case of the Walking Dead) that serve as their predecessors.


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