It’s finally October, and at long last, the premiere of “
” is upon us. Over the course of its three existing seasons, “American Horror Story” has triumphantly carved out a niche for itself, building a magnificent, gore-soaked bridge between the interests of twitchy genre nerds and more average, mentally stable viewers. American Horror Story: Freak Show
“American Horror Story” is a great show for a lot of reasons. It’s impressively bloodthirsty, it’s action-packed, its storylines are damn weird and will always keep you guessing. It’s also one of the best shows in recent history to get away with having a primarily female cast – and no matter how many times they nominate her for “Best Supporting Actress,” we all know Jessica Lange, a powerful, sexy woman in her ‘60s, is the show’s actual star.
“American Horror Story” is a great show for another reason, too, and that has to do, partially, with nostalgia. It isn’t just about pinpointing why horror movies are fun to watch, it’s about what the genre actually means to people who truly embrace it. Horror movies are about familiarity as much as they’re about the unknown, and the show’s habit of recasting the same performers to tell a different story each year is a testament to this. Each season is like a bizarre, acid trip mash-up of tropes, clichés, and references to the well-thumbed source material that inspired it.
There are way too many references to existing horror classics to list all of them here. In the spirit of the encroaching holiday season, however, here are some of our personal favorite, sneaky references to existing horror classics in the first three seasons of “
American Horror Story .”
Slideshow: 12 Sneaky References in ‘American Horror Story’
Devon Ashby is a featured contributor at
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12 Sneaky Horror Movie References in 'American Horror Story'
Twisted Nerve (1968)
Starting with his very first onscreen appearance, Tate’s presence in
Murder House is frequently accompanied by a distinctive, melodic whistling that you might have recognized from the Kill Bill movies. In fact, this music is originally from the 1968 British horror thriller Twisted Nerve, which stars the cherubic Hywel Bennett as a shy, mawkish serial killer. Like Kyle, Bennet’s character feigns harmless vulnerability to get closer to the woman he’s infatuated with, while blithely murdering anyone who happens to get in his way.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Murder House’s entire supernatural baby storyline smacks of this classic Polanski movie, about a hapless pregnant woman who falls into the clutches of malevolent Satan worshippers living in her apartment complex. The part that stood out most vividly for us, however, was all that stuff about Vivien’s burgeoning appetite for bloody, raw animal organs.
Heavenly Creatures (1994)
Peter Jackson’s 1994 retelling of New Zealand’s infamous Parker/Hulme murder case isn’t a horror film per se, but it’s every inch as terrifying as a traditional genre entry. In
Coven, Luke’s mom emotionally sings the Christian hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” to him as he struggles to regain consciousness in the hospital. Sister Jude’s unhinged recitation prior to the movie screening in Asylum comes from the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is performed in Heavenly Creatures by Mario Lanza – Parker and Hulme’s shared object of romantic obsession. These two similarly themed songs bookend Heavenly Creatures – “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” plays over the movie’s opening titles, and once the damage has been done, its answering song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” plays us chillingly into the end credits.
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
One of the most disturbing and memorable snippets from Stanley Kubrick’s dystopic future parable is the disturbing “behavior modification” sequence, in which Malcolm McDowell’s character, Alex, is forced to watch filmed acts of violence until he becomes physically sick. Behavior modification plays a big part in the plot of
Asylum as well – both Lana and Jimmy are subjected to barbaric variations of it. Particularly in Jimmy’s case, head and eye restraints and tight, claustrophobic framing are almost identical to Clockwork’s famous shots of Alex undergoing similar treatment.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
The very first episode of
Murder House opens with a low-angle shot of the future haunted home of the Harmon family. This shot is highly suggestive of Chainsaw’s infamous, sun-drenched tracking shot of Terri McMinn tentatively approaching the dilapidated Sawyer residence for the first (and last) time. In case you thought it was just your imagination, the very next shot is a close-up of a creepy, hanging animal bone mobile. A few other references to Chainsaw pop up throughout the series, too, most notably Asylum’s skin-wearing “Bloody Face,” which is an obvious, affectionate reference to Chainsaw’s star performer.
The Beyond (1981)
Lucio Fulci’s equally bizarre, beloved, and reviled supernatural oddity
The Beyond is obviously one of Coven’s very favorite reference points. The Beyond is Italian, but just like Coven, it’s set in New Orleans -- in a hotel that has become overrun by demonic spirits after hosting a few too many illicit, turn-of-the-century séances. One of Coven’s main story points is the performance of the “Seven Wonders,” a traditional magical initiation that, among other things, involves journeying to, and the returning from, Hell; The Beyond’s story revolves around the Eibon ritual, which opens the “Seven Doors of Death” – also, theoretically, allowing the initiate to journey to, and then return from, Hell. Coven’s most visually striking reference to this movie is probably Sarah Paulson’s mid-season blindness and clairvoyance, which mimic The Beyond’s Emily, a mysterious blind woman with cataract-white eyeballs and an ominous connection to the spirit world.
References to this seminal Alfred Hitchcock thriller pop up with regularity throughout
Murder House, Asylum, and Coven but the most notable instance occurs in Murder House’s second episode, when the movie’s theme music drifts hypnotically up out of the darkness to underscore a particularly brutal 1960s murder flashback.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
After her first interview with Hannibal Lecter,
Silence’s Clarice Starling is attacked by a different prisoner in Lecter’s ward, who flings ejaculate in her face. Going for the gusto as usual, Asylum features a similar scene, with Sister Mary Eunice as the unfortunate victim. (In a later Asylum episode, “The Coathanger,” Silence actress Brooke Smith pops up as an ill-fated psychiatrist trying to help Bloody Face get over his compulsive tendencies.)
After Madison “accidentally” kills Kyle by smashing him to pieces, she convinces Zoe to help her reconstruct his body out of stray, discarded appendages and use magic to bring him back to life. Obviously this is a Frankenstein reference, but season 3 draws so heavily on horror movies about teen angst and coming-of-age that it seems fair to point more specifically to Lucky McKee’s 1999 horror comedy.
May is a quirky, and surprisingly poignant slasher flick about a sympathetic psychopath who begins killing the people she falls in love with and stitching their “best” parts together, hoping to construct a perfect monster that will love her unconditionally.
Haxan, a.k.a. Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922)
The final episode of
Coven opens with a mock-up of an old silent film with title cards explaining the Seven Wonders tradition. This is most likely a reference to the Swedish horror movie Haxan, one of the first supernatural horror films ever made, and a cult favorite for many generations of genre fans. Haxan details the supposed rites and practices of witches throughout history, and was first released in 1922 as a silent film, but it’s been re-cut and messed around with several different times since then. Our personal favorite version is the one with a jazz soundtrack and loopy narration by William S. Burroughs that was released in 1968.
Lana Winters’ first fateful appearance at Briarcliff in
Asylum is underscored by snippets of Pino Donaggio’s ominous theme from Carrie. Once Lana is inside, the soundtrack switches to a different piece of theme music associated with Carrie’s deranged and violent mother, Margaret. Carrie’s mom is a religious nut whose obsession with sin drives her to horrifically abuse and torture her daughter, which sets the stage for an eventual explosion of retaliatory bloodshed. Although the story is different, Asylum covers the same themes – the abuse of innocent, helpless social rejects by power-mad religious authorities. Subtle nods to Carrie pop up in Coven too, when Madison is date raped at a party and responds by telekinetically flipping over a bus, killing her attackers.
The Exorcist (1973)
This movie’s infamous “spidercrawl” sequence, in which Linda Blair’s character flips over onto her back and menacingly scuttles down a flight of stairs, was deleted from the film’s original theatrical cut because people were worried it would freak out the audience too much. In
Asylum’s opening credits, a young woman in a hospital gown can briefly be seen “spidercrawling” backwards up a stairwell.