Sex, Drugs, and Horror: American Horror Story “Hotel”

By: Emily Sabia

For followers of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s popular FX anthology American Horror Story, the fifth season, Hotel, has started off slowly but has nonetheless, shocked and stunned viewers in its gory, controversial nature. As a loyal viewer of the series, I was eager to watch Hotel with the hope that it would draw parallels to the first season (arguably the best,) Murder House, by following the classic ghost story of a haunted hotel. However, by the end of the first episode viewers learn through a striking, bloody orgy scene that it is not ghosts that make the Hotel Cortez ‘horrific,’ it is vampires.  

The plot focuses on a detective, played by Wes Bentley, who is drawn to the mysterious Los Angeles Hotel Cortez after a series of disappearances lead him there. Haunted by his alcoholic past, his deteriorating relationship with his wife, and the disappearance of his son Holden, the detective moves into the hotel where he encounters many unique people and strange experiences. The Cortez is home to an entire cast of questionable characters that wreak havoc within its enigmatic walls. Some of these include a serial killer (Evan Peters,) a drug addicted prostitute (Sarah Paulson,) and a mother (Kathy Bates) trying to stay close to her vampire son (Matt Bomer.)

Lady Gaga, a new addition to the cast this season, is one of the standout central figures of Hotel. She is the ‘Countess:’ the mysterious, ruthless vampiress, and fashionista whose background and intentions are unclear. She hoards a host of vampire children in the Cortez and works alongside her ‘boy toy’ (Finn Wittrock) to lure victims in. Each episode provides another anecdote, fact, or explanation for the Countess and her current life as both the murderess and hotel owner. She delivers her lines simply, seductively, and with a near emptiness of any human emotion. From the moment the Countess first appears on screen she commands attention and makes an enormous visual impact with her dramatic clothing, overstated jewelry, and standout makeup.

While each episode of Hotel consistently provides viewers with scenes of gore, violence, sex, and new plot elements, the episodes feel largely disconnected in their narrative content. It has been exceptionally difficult to try and piece these complex characters, events, and time periods together into a coherent explanation of the Hotel Cortez and its inhabitants. In fact, the gaudy style and gratuitous violence completely overpower any evidence of effective storytelling.

The main thing that has struck me about each episode of Hotel is the ostentatious brutality. For example, the first episode immediately stuns viewers with a scene of a hotel guest being anally raped by an anonymous man wearing a pointed drill dildo. Many of the scenes felt overtly disturbing and as if they were one exposed body part away from exceeding the limitations of the MA rating. Murphy and Falchuk have certainly pushed many limits with Hotel but nonetheless; the first few episodes have been a promising new start to a consistently captivating series. Aside from the gore and scattered plot, the fundamental concept of the season and each character’s unique story is fascinating. I am hopeful that the episodes will all reach a logical conclusion and some type of coherency both within Hotel and the anthology as a whole by the end of the season. The eighth episode airs on December 2nd on FX.

A Different Kind of Horror


hiBy: Jaclyn Peraino

A lot of horror centers on fiction or fantasy; the existence of ghosts, monsters, and supernatural phenomena can be refuted. The horror of the human body and its natural cycles, however, are unavoidable and undeniably true. If you’re ever wondering what kinds of nasty (or exciting) things happen to your body after death, I suggest you pick up Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. This non-fiction story is sure to give you chills while providing you with some fascinating facts about the many, many uses of human corpses. Did you know that when you donate your body to science you might be used as practice for something as trivial as face lifts? Or that many companies use actual human bodies in car test crashes? Not dummies, actual dead humans. Test crashes have allowed companies to learn exactly how much impact the body can take on a crash and have led to the advancements of the safety precautions in the vehicles we have become accustomed to. There’s even a college in Tennessee (University of Tennessee) that has a yard dedicated to letting dead bodies decay. Not so surprisingly, it smells terrible. These bodies are left to decay naturally to learn about what happens to just about every part of the body. This can be helpful in forensics when time of death needs to be calculated. This site has some corpses left in water, others buried in bags, and some in clothes. Scientists will go out and run chemical analysis on various parts of the bodies. And, of course, they’re usually wearing heavy-duty boots left only at the lab to avoid smelling like rotting flesh when they return home for dinner. Those are just two of twelve intriguing topics covered in her novel. Other topics include crucifixion, cannibalism, decapitation, and head transplants.

This book has received wide recognition including a New York Times Best Seller, Barnes & Noble’s 2003 “Discover Great New Writers” pick, and Entertainment Weekly’s “Best Books of 2003.” The author has the perfect sense of humor to write on this topic. She’s sensitive but witty. It’s comical but filled with things you never thought you needed to know before: how much pressure for a bone to break, how the gut of a corpse expands due to gastric bacteria, how people in ancient times felt about death and preservation. The breadth of coverage and the language used make this book a great read for anyone, even people who don’t have a science background or people who thought they had no interest in learning about corpses. Trust me, you won’t regret reading this book. Plus, you’ll be filled with a multitude of fun corpse facts to share at your next family gathering

The Finishing School

By: Katie Rehberger

During the Haunted House unit we have looked at houses haunted by devils/demons, ghosts, both demons and ghosts, as well as houses that just seem to be haunted themselves. What we haven’t seen yet is a house haunted by the living (except for maybe Carl in Horrorstor).  The 1969 Spanish film La Residencia (or, in English, The House that Screamed) offers a unique take on the traditional haunted house while also exploring several other paths of horror, making it a truly bone chilling film that holds up well despite its age.

The first horror film by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, La Residencia is set in a French boarding school for troubled young women. The boarding school, however, is more like a prison than a school, run by the strict Senora Fourneau (played by Lilli Palmer) who doesn’t let the girls leave and frequently resorts to corporal punishment. Senora Fourneau also makes sure to keep her own son away from the girls.  The girls, however, start disappearing despite the fact that they can’t leave the boarding school. This plot allows the film to encompass several subgenres of horror—psychological, slasher, haunting, and monster.

The environment that Senora Fourneau cultivates with her severity creates a crucial layer of psychological horror. The general tone of the film is rather tense because of it. Viewers are immediately made uncomfortable by the way these girls—who aren’t even the delinquents they’re made out to be—are treated. The tension is only increased when the first girl disappears. Fear doesn’t even necessarily arise from the disappearance itself—although that certainly is creepy—but the way in which Senora Fourneau responds to the disappearance: by locking everyone in her abusive school. Senora Fourneau puts spectators on edge and the film plays with this, exploring other topics that will increase spectator discomfort. The film does not shy away from sex—there are strong lesbian undertones due to the all girl nature of the school. Viewers never get a clear answer, but it is heavily alluded to that there is sexual abuse occurring within the walls of the school—a truly disturbing thought. Not only that, but, because the girls are confined, they have made a schedule that dictates who gets to sleep with the one gardener when he comes by—a schedule with dubious requirements to become a part of it. The way sex functions in the film is truly unnerving.

Working in tandem with the psychological horror are the disappearances and murders taking the place. The school appears to be haunted as no one can seem to find the source of the terror that has befallen the school. The scariest scene in the film is the last scene when all of our questions are answered. Even though the unsettling and terrifying tensions that have been building up to this point are resolved in this scene, that doesn’t mean the horror dissipates. Rather, the horror culminates in one of my favorite scenes ever (horror or non horror). The scene is not only terrifying because the answer to the murders is so disturbing, it is also spectacularly scripted and acted. I watched the last scene in a film class (having not watched the rest of the movie) and I almost cried it was so great. I then went home and watched the rest of the movie. I expected that the last scene wouldn’t be as impactful the second time around, but it was even scarier and even greater because I was so wound up from the rest of the film. Therefore, I won’t give anything away, but I would strongly recommend at least watching the end of the movie. And watch the totally cheesy YouTube trailer above.

Minimized Cast, Maximized Horror

By: Loren Heubert-Aubry

Many horror films, particularly those of the found footage subgenre, rely heavily on a diverse cast of characters to fuel the plot, creating suspense and tension as they try to evade a cryptic or unseen threat and their personalities collide. The recent indie horror comedy debut Creep shakes up that formula by narrowing the cast down to two: the protagonist and the antagonist.

imageReleased in 2014, Creep follows Aaron, an average guy who answers a Craigslist ad for a stranger named Joseph, who wants him to film a day in his life for his unborn son before he dies of cancer. Aaron proceeds to follow Joseph as he goes about his day, bonding with him in the process. As Joseph’s behavior becomes more erratic and disconcerting, however, it becomes clear that he is not all that he seems. Aaron plays the everyman, and although his own secrets are fleshed out as the story evolves, Joseph is the real star of the show. Played by Mark Duplass, Joseph is just eccentric and unpredictable enough to discomfort us, and his dead-eyed smile is the stuff of nightmares.

Free from the burdens of keeping track of a wide range of players in the story, the audience is able to focus on the two main characters instead, exploring their personalities in more depth than might typically be afforded with a larger cast. Throughout the film Aaron and Joseph hang out, chat, and share their lives with each other, giving them a very human feel. Though it may come as a surprise, the vast majority of the eighty-minute movie is improvised, following only a loose structure supplied by the roughly 15-page script.

The expanded depth is crucial, because unlike many horror antagonists, Joseph is almost constantly on full display. The only two people for miles, he and Aaron are rarely more than 20 feet away from each other, and each of them maintains a friendly attitude. As viewers observe Joseph’s increasingly dark behavior, we desperately want Aaron to cut his losses and leave.

Another of Creep’s subtle but effective tactics is through its cinematography. As previously mentioned, the whole film is shot in found footage format from Aaron’s camera. The camera’s purpose well-explained (for the purpose of the craigslist ad), as opposed to the sometimes flimsy excuses other movies have for featuring a random cameraperson. More importantly, however, while the style effectively captures that shaky, grainy, limiting viewpoint we’re familiar with, the film often subtly places it in positions that construct professional-level cinematography in scenes. This effectively pulls off an improvisational feel while still featuring some good-looking and outright chilling imagery. The shot shown below, which is also the film’s official poster, is a great example of this.

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As one of the lesser-known horror titles of the last few years, Creep takes advantage of creative use of improv, cinematography, and character development to deliver a terrifying, if brief, experience. Any fan of horror owes it a viewing.

The Inexplicable in Irons

yoBy: Amanda Peters

Thirty-six minutes southeast of Manistee, Michigan, rests the tiny town of Irons. A small, quiet place, boasting three restaurants, one church, and a real estate office, Irons is known for their yearly Flea Roast and Ox Market (a fascinating event full of misplaced Southern accents, carnies, dollar store goods for resale, and fried-everything).

My aunt and uncle have had a cottage there since I was eight, and almost every summer since, my aunt, mom, sister, cousin and I have gone on our annual “scary ride”. I cannot remember the origin of this tradition, but once a summer, we get in our pajamas, gather some candy and stuffed animals, and pack ourselves into the car. My aunt then drives us around the densely wooded, and eerily under populated surroundings. We spend the next hour or so scaring ourselves with what we imagine we see in the woods. The spooks have changed as my sister, cousin, and I have grown up—when we were kids, it was glowing red clown noses (reflectors demarcating the road), the imaginary guy wearing an “I Heart Preteens” shirt, who came looking for preteens to cut up with his chainsaw (my mom and aunt are evil…), and the search for floating elbows at Elbow Lake (real name).

But as we grew older, the haunts grew more terrifying—more real. We had grown into the habit of driving down Bass Lake Road, to examine two houses there. On the right is a burnt-out shell of a house, with a red pick up truck in the front yard, and a trailer in the backyard. On the left is an old, red and white brick house—normal looking albeit for a few anomalies: a giant KEEP OUT sign, the lack of electricity (there are a few candles burning in the window), and most disconcertingly a large cross that is painted on the side of the chimney. That would be fine, except for the fact that the cross is placed differently every time we see it. Like the owner is manically painting and repainting it, shifting it to the top and then to the bottom of the chimney.

One night was especially bad. A new burnt out car was added in the front yard of the burned down house. On the left of the road, the cross had shifted again. We continued to drive down the street, and every single house was for sale except for the cross house. Spooked, we continued to our usual haunt—an alcove at Elbow Lake. We watched as green fog rose from the water, twirling ominously. It curled and blew against the wind, not with it. My cousin looked out the window to the right and screamed. Something was hanging from the large oak tree. Many things. We waited for our eyes to adjust better to the darkness—my aunt turned the headlights off. Hanging off the tree were dozens of tiny crosses. Two crisscrossed twigs, dangling from the branches like a macabre Christmas tree. My mom and aunt lost their composure—they were terrified. We sped back to the cottage.

I know that this is not a strong narrative, but I can attest to our shared eerie events. This is not a traditional ghost story—one with an origin story, a beginning, and an end. But what is scarier? A ghost flitting through the trees, or a figure, resolute in their humanness, spending hours twisting twine around twigs, trying desperately to recreate an image that they can never get just right on their chimney?

The Real Horror in Horrorstor

By: Danielle Coty (friend of the Course of Horror)

My journey to reading Horrorstor began when I became hooked on reading Grady Hendrix’s reviews of “Under the Dome.” His intensely sarcastic reviews, which became more desperate as the show went on, made me laugh. Even though I didn’t watch the show, I became invested in the weekly articles. When the season ended I discovered he had written a horror book.

As soon as I looked at the book I knew I had to get it. Its vibrant layout appeared remarkably similar to an Ikea catalog. At this time I only saw the front cover, and I didn’t catch the creepy undertones. I saw a cheerfully colored couch, not the screaming face that looms out of the picture frame on the wall above it. It wasn’t until later that I gave the back cover a thoughtful glance. Then my roommate and I went through the chapter pages before I read the book. Each one features an item with a fake-swedish name on the blue Ikea layout. But the descriptions of the items become increasingly sinister.

Yet when I sat down to read the book I still was not fully aware that it was a horror book. Instead the book starts off mocking Ikea. The new employees are trained to guide customers along the “Bright and Shining Path,” a route that has been engineered to make customers most likely to buy items. One could argue Ikea is naturally horrifying. In fact, the Wall Street Journal even published an entertaining article about how purchasing and assembling Ikea furniture has led to couples breaking up.

Despite the fact that Horrorstor includes torture, ghostly possession, and what might be categorized as zombies, I thought the scariest message was about the consequences of being trapped in a terrible job forever. With steady pressure to choose the right career, many college students fear that instead of finding a job that will inspire and support them, they will be trapped in a mindless daze for forty hours a week. The analogy Hendrix draws between working at Orsk and being a prisoner in an authoritarian prison with a devilish warden is rather obvious, but I don’t think the book suffers from that. Instead it made me think of my experience straightening shelves for hours after the store had closed, making it appear perfect so that customers could return to wreak their usual havoc in the morning. While some people may have found such a task rewarding, such as Ruth Anne in Horrorstor, I quickly figured out that job was not right for me.

Even if most of the events in Horrorstor are not everyday concerns, and being kidnapped by zombie-inmates is not high on my personal list of fears, Hendrix makes them more frightening by placing them in something that seems normal and everyday. With the sinister plot of Horrorstor hidden behind its colorful cover, it has been easy for me to recommend it to numerous friends. Sitting on a table, it appears ever-so enticingly like an Ikea catalog while the story within waits to snag unsuspecting readers. Even in the unlikely case that you dislike the book (so far everyone has loved it) I guarantee your next trip to Ikea will feel quite strange.

Fear the Scream Queens

By:  Allyson Boe

Looking to fill your most recent TV binge-watching void with something scary? Well look no further. FOX TV has the perfect show for you. From the producers of Glee and American Horror Story comes the horrifying yet unreasonably funny TV show, Scream Queens. Airing on September 22 at the 2015 Comic-Con, Scream Queens has got people screaming for more… literally! From its iconic actors to its addicting plot line, this latest horror spectacle is sure to lure you in within the very first episode.

Throughout the first season, viewers are introduced to the prestigious sisters of Kappa Kappa Tau sorority at Wallace University, lead by the heartless president, Chanel Oberlin (Emma Roberts). After the mortifying death of the previous president, Melanie Dorkess (Brianne Howey) that occurred last spring, Dean Cathy Munsch (Jamie Lee Curtis) attempts to shut down their Kappa Kappa Tau chapter. In order to stay up and running, Kappa Kappa Tau is forced to accept anyone who wants to join the sorority, even if that means destroying Chanel’s popularity in the process. In an attempt to scare off the potential new members, Chanel and her ruthless clique accidently kill their housemaid, whose body they hide in the freezer. The body soon disappears and the girls are targeted by a serial killer they call the Red Devil. They are forced to solve the 20-year old murder mystery of Kappa Kappa Tau and unmask the serial killer in order to save their sisterhood.

The mystery unfolds throughout the season, with the producers killing off at least one of the cast members every episode. Those lucky enough not to be killed usually end the episode with a missing limb or a horrible wound. The revenge has begun and no one is safe. Anticipation and suspense build as you are unsure of who the Red Devil’s next victim will be. From Chanel #2 (Ariana Grande) to Caulfield (Evan Paley), expect the unexpected because for all you know, Chanel could be next. All of the attempts to defeat and reveal the Red Devil’s identity have failed, frustrating the girls even more. Will they live to make it another day at Kappa Kappa Tau? Keep your eyes and ears open, rumor has it that there are big hints dropped, especially in the first episode, as to the identity of the killer. Maybe you will pick up on something that Chanel’s clique neglected to realize. Or maybe you can piece together all of the clues to solve the mystery.

Since September 22, seven episodes have aired, leaving only a few horrifying episodes left of the season. Although the first season is coming to a quick close, there will be a following season with only four of the twenty-five original cast members expected to move forward. No one can be sure of who those four might be or even how they will last that long with a serial killer on the loose. Will they sacrifice another to stay alive? Or will they band together, never leaving a sister behind? You will have to watch and see for yourself.