While watching the first episode I was surprised (and excited) to see that the show draws upon New England folklore.
The series is set in and around Briarcliff Manor, a large insane asylum in Massachusetts. (The audience is reminded throughout the series of the Massachusetts setting by the Boston accents the actors attempt with varying success.) In the current day, a young newlywed couple played by Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum are exploring Briarcliff, which has been abandoned for many years and is rumored to haunted. A system of tunnels run underneath the hospital out into the woods. Needless to say, bad things happen.
|Danver State Hospital before it was renovated|
The main storyline in American Horror Story: Asylum is set not in 2012, however, but in 1964 when Briarcliff is a bustling asylum run by the Catholic church. In the first episode we're introduced to various residents, including Kit Walker, a white Massachusetts man suspected of murdering his African-American wife and other local women. Therapists claim that guilt over hiding their interracial marriage drove him to become a murderer.
|Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Alma Walker (Britne Olford)|
But Kit tells the therapists what sounds like an unbelievable story. He and his wife were abducted by extra-terrestrial aliens who probed and experimented on them. His wife is not dead, but is still off somewhere with the aliens.
|Betty and Barney Hill|
I almost fell off the couch when I saw these scenes. This situation (an interracial couple abducted by aliens in the 1960s) is clearly a reference to Betty and Barney Hill, an interracial couple from New Hampshire who claimed they were abducted by aliens in 1961. The Hill's story is well known, and inspired the book The Interrupted Journey and the movie The UFO Incident. Some people have theorized that the stress of being an interracial couple in the early 60s led to their concocting the UFO abduction story.
Just to be very clear, neither of the Hills were murdered and they were never confined to an insane asylum. The theory about the stress of their interracial marriage also seems a little lacking, since thousands of people of many races have also claimed they were abducted. But the American Horror Story writers are clever to use the Hills as an inspiration for their show, which deals thematically with the conflicts between religion and science, and with the various civil rights movements (feminism, racial equality, gay rights) that were bubbling up in the early 1960s.
Just a final warning if you haven't watched American Horror story yet. If you are squeamish about violence, weird sexual situations, and poorly done Boston accents don't watch this show. But you should definitely watch if you want to see something crazy that is loosely inspired by some famous folklore from this area.