Checking all the boxes of American Horror, American Horror Story is by default indebted to the Gothic tradition. One of the building blocks of this tradition is the compression of time: history is constantly present. Haunted ruins feature so frequently because their continued decay reintroduces the past and its ghosts into today. But we mustn’t think that we can control that reintroduction.
From its first season, Murder House, AHS has grounded itself in reenactments of past events. Its 2011 opening scene is set in 1978, establishing the prominence of history, repetition of which builds horror in the present. Episode two, “Home Invasion” illustrates homage via reenactment but also the Gothic’s incompatibility with exact replication. In 1968, Franklin, faking an injury, was granted entry to the house, where two young nursing students try to heal him. He drowns one in the bathtub and bashes the other with an ashtray. In the present, three cult murder enthusiasts attempt to reenact the murder, forcing homeowner Vivien and her daughter Violet to play the two nurses. The group is obsessed with matching every detail of the original crime, from the time, to the vintage clothes, to the “surprise”: the very ashtray used in the crime. Insistence on perfection in their reenactment is the group’s undoing, however: Violet convinces one that the original tub is in the basement, where the ghost of a nurse will attack her. Vivien distracts another while changing into her costume, bashing his head with the ashtray. They subvert blind adherence to accurate reproduction, inventing new roles for themselves and rewriting the story as the Gothic always does.
Vivian and Violet’s innovative use of these antique objects creates a mockery of authentic repetition, revealing all reenactment to be merely counterfeit. Copies of copies in the Gothic are typically based on a false or empty original, making all subsequent versions even more so. We learn that “Our Franklin hated nurses. He had a bad experience with the mercury in a broken thermometer.” Thus, what he falsely interprets as intentional abuse by a nurse translates into real abuse of nurses and copied abuse by copycats. To complete the subversion of reenactment, the ghosts of the nurses getting revenge on Franklin by killing the reenactment group, which got to play Franklin after all.