November 25, 2012

American Horror Story and New England Folklore

This fall, Tony and I have been watching American Horror Story: Asylum on the FX channel. The show is lurid, violent and cheesy, but it shows me things I've never seen on TV before, and it's definitely not boring.

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.

Briarcliff Manor
While I was watching I was immediately reminded of Danvers State Hospital, the notorious asylum in Massachusetts which was abandoned for many years. The similarities are too big just to be coincidence. The Massachusetts setting, the haunted abandoned insane asylum, the tunnels underneath - it all makes me wonder if the show's creators have some connection with Massachusetts, or maybe just really loved Session 9. Briarcliff even looks similar to Danvers.

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.


Doug Lazorick said...

I can't believe I'm starting to root for sister Jude! I'm scared...

massachusetts said...

There are also similarities to Hanson Massachusetts' former TB Hospital, Plymouth County Hospital , famously creepy for the theft of jarred brains and other body parts long after its closing and still visited by ghost hunters today, Also who could overlook the famous Bridgewater state Hospital for the criminally insane of Titicut follies fame? Known for housing young men for minor infractions and exposing them to various forms of torture? It seems " horror story" has found a wealth of inspiration in Massachusetts for its fantastically creepy season.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the comments, Doug and Massachusetts. I think Jessica Lange will be the heroine of the show, surprisingly.

There are so many abandoned and still functioning asylums in New England - I'm sure the writers had a lot of gruesome inspiration.

vince cotten said...

american horror story season 2 was an awe-insping, intriguing, keep you at the edge of your seat season. for those of you that havent seen the show i highly recommend it. it is number 2 in my top 10 of to watch tv shows. also if briarcliff insane asylum does exist i would love to see it someday i too believe in the parnormal but never pursued to whether entities (or spirits/ghosts) do exist. again if you havent seen american horror story you should watch it.

Peter Muise said...

Vince, thanks for the comment. It was really a great season - maybe one of the best TV viewing experiences I've ever had. If Briarcliff does exist I wouldn't want to go inside myself, but I would admire it from the distance.

Anonymous said...

American horror story is the best t.v. show on since Breaking Bad .

Kaydencejayme Vaught said...

Loved it

Anonymous said...

The show references how Sister Jude's hit and run accident in 1949 was in Framingham...and later she shows up at an institution and is inspired to be a a nun. If there are any abandones asylums near Framingham, I think that could possibly be the setting.

Unknown said...

You should, she's fucking badass

Amanderp said...

She doesn't turn out bad at the end.. it's actually kind of sad