Subverting Repetition: The Danger of Gothic Reenactment

Curator's Note

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.


Thanks so much, Laura, for this meaty morsel on Murder House. You've made me want to rewatch the season in the context of the show's series-long obsession with re-enactment. Your essay begs the question about subverting reenactment, though: is this always the case on every season? I'm thinking about how reenactment is used in developing political narratives on Cult, specifically through Kai's act of storytelling. But when iterations of the stories are acted out, they fail: the Kool-Aid test, the truncated "Night of 1000 Tates." Is this because they've deviated too far from the original story? Or because they are reenactments with an ulterior purpose than that of the reenactment groups on Murder House?

Yes! I had originally planned to talk about the reenactments in this past season... but ran out of space. Season 1 does reenactment best with most episodes opening with a scene from the past, all grounded in the house: architecture is an excellent record of the past in the Gothic. Other seasons do include a lot of flashbacks, but not in the same way. Kai's use of cult history, though, harkens back to that first season. He uses the history of cults in an attempt to create a power of legacy and authenticity he doesn't truly have. This is very Gothic! He styles himself on the ghosts of cult leaders, some of which aren't even dead (well, Manson is dead now... but he wasn't when the episode aired). His reenactments are even more copies of copies without origin, revealing his power to be, ultimately, empty.

I'm really excited for you to see how this tread is picked up in Nick's piece on Roanoke for tomorrow which, of course, uses documentary reenactment as its primary storytelling mode for the first half of the season!

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