Last year someone recommended that I take a look at the hit television series, Modern Family. While I found the one episode I viewed amusing, I was severely underwhelmed with the production of the show — the sets were generic with no real feeling for architecture and place. It looked as if one could take the characters of Modern Family and drop them into Wisteria Lane (Desperate Housewives) without anyone noticing. The homes in both those shows look like a real estate staging.
Visuals should play a large part in the visual story-telling mediums of television and film. Authenticity is vital. One of my favorite childhood shows was Little House on the Prairie, but I can recall questioning why Walnut Grove was so desert dusty like a Western (from what I had learned in school up to that time, Minnesota was supposed to be greener). Friends, a show I never liked, further annoyed me with the bogus, vanilla depiction of 1990’s New York City (they didn’t even film the corny opening credits in New York City!) In contrast to Friends and Little House is Breaking Bad, which had a very deep feeling for time and place: New Mexico was one of the stars of the show (every time I saw the Sandia Mountains, I smiled)! The same is true of American Horror Story.
American Horror Story follows a distinct set of characters and settings each year with a repertory cast that includes Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson and Frances Conroy in dissimilar roles. While each season has presented very different stories, outstanding architecture (and production) is ubiquitous.
The first season, titled American Horror Story: Murder House, follows the story of a nearly broken family that moves into a home haunted by individuals who died there, often in very brutal ways. The exterior of the “murder house” is a real Collegiate Gothic-style mansion built in Los Angeles by Architect Alfred Rosenheim in 1908. Collegiate Gothic stems from Gothic Revival, an architectural style inspired by medieval Gothic architecture. Gothic Revival was a heavily used building style during the 1800’s because of its moral overtones for academic and religious buildings.
Filming for the interiors were done on a sound stage with near accurate re-creations of the real interior. Real or re-creation, what a visual feast for the eyes: the sumptuous Stickley (or Greene and Greene) inspired interior, accented with Tiffany windows and fixtures. The distinct sprawling staircase was a Crafts movement masterpiece. Not unlike the Enterprise from Star Trek, the “murder house” is a star of the show, integral to telling the story. The gorgeous house stands in bleak contrast to the horrible experiences of the people who once lived there and the awful things they did, which were hardly academic, religious or even harmonious with the concept of home.
The second season, titled American Horror Story: Asylum, takes place in the 1960’s and follows the stories of patients in an asylum for the criminally insane. I must note that I found this visual portrayal of the 1960’s to be more accurate than Mad Men (another favorite show of mine). The most glaring visual inaccuracy in Mad Men is the contemporary hanging ceilings in the offices. Here is an example of a hanging ceiling from the 1960’s: http://cdn.c.photoshelter.com/img-get/I0000S1oPAPSQ.Y8/s/880/704/Petro-Philadelphia-1960s-Office.jpg. Because Mad Men employs low angle shots so often, one can’t help but notice those flawed ceilings.
Exterior filming for Asylum was completed at the Orange County courthouse in California, a Romanesque style building. Interiors were created on a soundstage. Unlike the ‘murder house’, the ‘asylum’ was not as prominent a star except for one aspect, the stairs. Complex, slightly disjointed, reaching upward toward a skylight that was always dark, the stairs formed an amphitheatre of sorts. I couldn’t help but recall Dante’s Inferno where paradise has the shape of an amphitheater with an endless series of stairs: “..it is by such stairs/that we must take our leave of so much evil.” In Asylum, the opposite is true. Instead of ascending to heaven, one actually ascends to hell. Unlike Murder House, setting and story were congruent.
The most recent season, titled American Horror Story: Coven, follows the clash between witches and voodoo practitioners. Set and filmed in New Orleans, Coven beautifully depicts French Creole architecture while paying homage to female power as depicted in classic cinema.
French Creole architecture borrows traditions from France, the Caribbean, and Africa—-places that are part of the storyline of Coven at various points. French Creole architecture heavily employed the use of decorative wrought iron. Wrought iron is tough and beautiful, much like the characters of Coven. The nearly colorless, but finely appointed, witch mansion complements the distinct fashions of each character. Watching the final episode of Coven, I realized that each incarnation of the series shared one common visual architectural motif: stairs.
The stairs in Murder House are where Ben takes his life, a major turning point in the story. Promotional ads for Asylum and Coven both prominently feature stairs (see picture below). The stairs in the Coven witch mansion are reminiscent of those seen in the Joan Crawford classic, Queen Bee (also set in the South). Queen Bee is a story about a family dominated by ruthless and strong women — not unlike the characters of Coven.
Stairs are a principal and practical part of architecture that stand with a sense of purpose: in the same way that water gives and takes life, stairs can bring us up and plunge us down. Is American Horror Story bringing us up or plunging us down? The last shot of Coven is of the new supreme standing glowingly on those Queen Bee stairs. She is the new, modern supreme—one who encourages witches to come out of hiding and stand together in community. Hiding fosters fear, while visibility gives strength. Note that she was only able to become supreme and achieve this new age after the old witches, who were filled with hatred and stuck in their old ways of thinking, were eliminated one way or another. Perhaps this is the central theme of American Horror Story: we can only bring ourselves up when we let go of the things, like fear and hatred, that plunge us down.