ByLiv Foley, writer at

The Addicting Potential of AHS: Hotel

Though it had more gross-out moments than ever, the fifth premiere hinted at a return to the best parts of the first season.

American Horror Story has, over its five wild seasons, touched on many dense topics—family, racism, gender, disability, sexuality, mental illness, aliens, God, Satan, clowns. But look at it in its entirety, and it becomes clear that the true theme of the show is real estate. Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, and now, Hotel—whenever the show reboots, the most important thing that changes is location, location, location. The plot might unwind into a dozen threads that never tie back together, characters may seem to shift personalities with each scene, but at least it all happens within a sturdy building (or big tent) that has its own culture and history. Maybe the focus on place is a metaphor for how the real, historic American horror stories still taint the country, or maybe just it’s easier for these particular TV creators to write setting than it is for them to write characters and dialogue, or maybe the big idea is to spook anyone considering signing a mortgage.

How appropriate it is, then, that arguably the most major meeting of the American Horror Story universes in five years happens because of a realtor. There she is, three-quarters of the way through the Hotel premiere: the twitchy property broker Marcy (Christine Estabrook) muttering about the dog she inherited from the doomed Harmon family that moved into Murder House. She’s there to show off the Cortez Hotel to a New York City fashion designer (Cheyenne Jackson) who, like the Harmons, bought this eccentric bit of vintage L.A. sight-unseen. Big mistake.

The bulk of the episode preceding the realtor tour offers a gut-churning lesson in just how distressed a property the Cortez is. For one thing, there’s no wi-fi or cell service. For another, people die in horrible ways there. The first victims are two Swedish tourists who check in against their best instincts; they’ll later encounter: a zombie living in their mattress, two children with a taste for human blood and neon-bedecked medieval torture cages operated by the concierge, Iris (Kathy Bates), who wants to force-feed them a smoothie of animal organs. When the ghost junkie Sally (Sarah Paulson) lets one of the girls free, she’s stopped before the door by the Countess (Lady Gaga), who casually slits her throat with a fingernail blade.

If this all sounds immensely convoluted and sadistic, well, welcome to American Horror Story. But there’s reason to hope that this will be among the better messes the show has served up. The four preceding AHS batches can be divided up by the question of the role their real estate played. Seasons one and two revolved around prisons of sorts—places that trapped visitors either because of supernatural greediness, the specters of Murder House) or human exploiters, the experimenters and murders of Asylum. Seasons three and four were more about refuges from the outside world for marginalized people—again, either of the supernatural sort, witches in Coven, or the human sort, the disabled and helpless in Freak Show.

The prison seasons were better: plausible generators of claustrophobia that allowed Murphy and Falchuck to get as horror-film sicko as they wanted, while also creating characters imbued with very relatable longing for liberation, companionship, and redemption.

Hotel seems more in the prison model, and it may even revive the best part of the best American Horror Story installment: season one’s ghost rules. Those rules said that in a site of great historic evil such as Murder House, everyone who dies on the premises must roam it for eternity, with their only day of freedom coming on Halloween.

In season five, it already seems as though a few characters are bound by those same laws. Spirits chained to their environments, vampires chained to their need for blood, and junkies chained to their cravings, Hotel’s premiere returned to the frightening essentials—death, desire, and property deeds.

Feel free to catch up on the season here if you already haven't!


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