About Suspensions of Disbelief and American Horror Story

Happy new year everyone!

I know I’ve been excessively absent for a while, but one of my resolutions is to post at least one thing every week, even if its small. Maybe that will involve more reviews of books, movies, and TV shows and the narrative elements which work in them or the ones that fall apart.

Like many people over the winter holidays, freed from the requirements of work and school, I’ve taken to binge-watching TV series’ on Netflix. That phenomenon, and how it has changed the way TV shows are written and produced, could very well be the topic of another post. Today, however, I want to talk about the show I watched: American Horror Story. Specifically, I want to talk about season two: Aslyum and why it felt weaker to me than seasons one and three.

Small Spoiler Warning

While I won’t be talking about specific plot points in this post, I will be discussing the premise of each season, which may necessarily reveal some of the plot. If you haven’t seen the show yet and want to watch it completely unspoiled, I recommend it. If you’ve already seen it, or want to take the risk of a big plot element being revealed, then read more to hear my take on it.

Genre

As the title suggest, American Horror Story is, well, a horror story. But its genre falls somewhere between supernatural and magical realism. What that means is that AHS takes place in a world remarkably similar to ours, but with one or two pronounced differences from which many of the conflicts that drive the plot are derived. The rules of their world are different, but not so different as to feel totally surreal to us. Because of this, even as we recognize that the things that happen in this world are impossible in our own, we can still imagine them happening here, and that’s where the horror comes from. Key to this process is the willingness of the audience to suspend their disbelief, to accept as possible that which would be impossible in our daily lives. Speculative fiction of any kind cannot happen without this suspension of disbelief.

Show Format

Personally I find American Horror Story‘s format to be incredibly well done and interesting. For those of you who haven’t watched it, AHS treats each season as its own complete story. Every season begins a new tale, in a new world different from our own in a new way, with many of the same actors returning to take on new roles. I haven’t really seen anything like that before and it works. From a narrative perspective, this format allows the writers the freedom to explore many different unique premises without having to try and mesh them all together into a cohesive mythology, which can become a slog at best and a jumbled, unfocused mess at worst. The format of the show allows the writers to essentially hit ‘reset’ with each season, bringing audiences in fresh, providing them with a new premise and asking for a new suspension of disbelief. Again, it works.

Premises- The Speculation of Speculative Fiction

I want to take a second to talk in more detail about what I mean when a say premise. The way I’m using it, premise isn’t about the plot or the events that unfold throughout the season. In this context, the premise is the speculation that the story makes about the world, the unnatural or supernatural elements it introduces and asks us to accept. The premise is whatever elements of the story we must suspend our disbelief about in order to enjoy it the way the writers intend. Most of the time, there is only a single premise behind each story. Even if that story is long, unfolding over multiple seasons (see Supernatural for a good example of this) there is still usually only one premise. Here are some examples:

  • Supernatural – All kinds of mythological monsters/creatures/gods are real and there are people who hunt them.
  • Harry Potter– There exists an entire magical world parallel to our own unbeknownst to those without magical powers.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia– The magical land of Narnia exists, accessible from our own through certain portals, and follows different rules than our world.
  • John Doe– A man exists who knows everything but his past (the premise actually describes where this knowledge comes from, but I can’t share that without revealing THE major plot twist of the series so go check it out for yourself on Hulu if you’re curious).

As you can see, a premise can be very broad, or it can be very narrow. In fact it needs to be broad if it’s going to sustain multiple sequels or seasons. The fact that American Horror Story has resigned itself to each story covering only 12 episodes means they can make more narrow premises and get away with it.

Premise and Play

If you’re writing a piece of speculative fiction, then without a doubt your premise is incredibly important. If the premise itself isn’t interesting, no one will care no matter what you do with it. If your premise doesn’t allow for the necessary suspension of disbelief from your audience, no one will be able to care about about the characters or stories you tell.

But a strong premise is only half of what makes speculative fiction good. The other half is how you play with your premise. A premise provides a set of rules that your world needs to follow. Good speculative fiction not only follows those rules, but seeks out and explores all of the loopholes in them. It attacks the premise from all sides, shining light on all of the interesting things hidden in the shadows.

This is why a premise needs to be broad to sustain multiple sequels or seasons. If Supernatural was only about Sam and Dean hunting down creatures from American folklore as it was presented in season one, there is no way it could have lasted all the way into its tenth season without running dry. People would’ve gotten bored with it. But rather than focusing on that, the writers decided to branch to, to see what other logical conclusions their premise could take them to, and they followed those with great success.

Play is not subservient to premise. The two of them coexist. You need to have a premise that can be played with, but you also need to play with your premise in order for the suspension of disbelief made be your audience to feel worthwhile. Imagine a story where there is a city floating in the sky, visible in every scene. Then imagine the story never does anything with it–none of the characters ever go there, its existence is never explained and never affects events in any way. In that case, what was even the point of having it there in the first place? Watching or reading something like that, I feel betrayed by the writer for presenting a premise they never played with.

With all of this, I can finally explain why season two of American Horror Story bothered me. But first, let’s look at season one for some contrast.

American Horror Story: Season One

The premise of this season is that ghosts exist and that the ghosts of everyone who dies on the property of this one particular house remains trapped there forever. It’s nice, clean, and simple. And yet, there were a surprising number of places the writers took this basic premise. They explained, to some extent, why this property acted this way, they experimented with having certain characters die both on and off the property to move the story in interesting directions. And they chose an ending which, while not actually resolving anything, established a new status quo so it still felt like there was closure.

That’s pretty much all I have to say about it, and that’s why I like it so much. The advantage of the format this show has chosen to follow is that it can take a relatively simple premise, examine it from every angle, and finish. It was simple, yet rich.

American Horror Story: Season Two

The big problem with Asylum is that there are actually three premises going on at once. They are:

  • An ex-SS scientist was relocated to American and is creating a serum which mutates people into monsters
  • The devil and other angels exist and can possess people to inhabit their bodies
  • Aliens not only exist, but actively visit and abduct people

This is a huge number of premises to tackle in a season lasting only twelve episodes, and a huge strain on the suspension of disbelief of the audience. In fact, it was too much for me. I was fine accepting the first two premises, but I couldn’t accept the third. The aliens are what ruined it for me, and it’s because it was the premise which was played with the least. Throughout the entire season, there was no reason for aliens to exist either than for a deus ex machina towards the end of the season. And, given all of the premises going on, the addition of aliens was completely unnecessary. Had the writers decided to use angels instead of aliens, I would’ve bought it, because I had already accepted that, in this world, angels can exist. And doing this would have built in a natural remedy for the worst problem this season had: The alien premise refused to acknowledge that the other two existed.

This is why the first two premises worked together: they acknowledged each other. We got a lot of interesting reactions from the devil on the nazi’s work and saw a power play between them. Rather than stretching our disbelief even further by including both of these elements, they strengthened each other by recognizing the abnormalcy in each situation.

The alien premise, on the other hand, existed completely independent of the other two. We never saw the devil react to the aliens or the other way around, nor did we see the nazi scientist try to use/manipulate them to further his goals. The aliens existed by themselves for the sole purpose of existing. In a show that relies on suspension of disbelief and derives its horror from a sense of normalcy, this unnecessary suspension of disbelief with no payoff is a killer.

Why Genre Matters

I’m not saying that these premises together can’t work, but they certainly didn’t work done this way and honestly I doubt they could have worked in this context. Remember, American Horror Story derives its horror from magical realism, the idea that their world is close enough to ours to be uncanny and unsettling. The more you ask your audience to suspend their disbelief, the more disparate elements you add, the harder that realism is to maintain. And once a viewer feels like they’re watching fantasy, the only tools you have left with which to scare them are body horror and jump scares.

The problem with having two opposite premises–demons and aliens–is that any attempt to play with them simultaneously is inherently surreal. You don’t have an anchor to reality, like you did with the nazi scientist. This isn’t a problem for every work that tries to use these elements, only ones that try to do so while still maintaining the illusion of reality like American Horror Story tries to. As soon as a story has both aliens and demons in it, I’m waiting for them to throw down with each other. How awesome would that be? But that kind of progression was impossible for American Horror Story, given the genre they had defined. They set up these conflicting premises and were unable to merge them in a satisfying way.

Where it Works

I’m going to provide two examples where there is a similar clash of opposite elements (technology/aliens and magic/angels/demons), both of which come from Japanese light novel series (if you’re not sure what those are, I’ve written about them before). The reason for this is that, far more than Western media, Japanese stories dive headfirst into their premises and get far more out of them. They’re not afraid of the absurd, and stretch their premises to incredible lengths.

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumia

This one is a pretty famous series of light novels and is one of the few to have actually received an official English translation. You can find it in bookstores here in the US. The story includes time travelers, psychics, aliens, and a girl with god-like powers. If you can imagine something strange, it probably happens in this series.

And yet, it never feels overcrowded and nothing feels out of place. The first reason I think it feels this way is that everyone–except the titular Haruhi–is exceptionally aware of the absurdity of their situation. All of these different elements play off each other.

The other reason is the premise of the series. The premise isn’t that all of these different things exist and happen to all be in the same area, the premise is that the girl (Haruhi) makes them all real and brings them there because she’s bored. Because of this there’s a logic–twisted by the premise, but existent nonetheless–to the reality of all of these different things. It’s only one suspension of disbelief to make them all exist.

A Certain Magical Index

The premise of this series really speaks to why such disparate elements can coexist in a cohesive narrative without me having to add much: Both magic (represented primarily by religious organizations) and advanced technology/psychic powers (represented primarily by Academy City) exist and are at war with one another.

Yes you have to make two separate suspensions of disbelief here, but it’s worth it because the entire story is about how those two different things interact with each other. The story values both equally, plays with the limits set by both magic and science, and explores the murky intersection between the two. And it works because the tone of the story is absurd. It has to be when you have angels facing off against living rail guns, saints fighting teleporters. The dual-premise works here because the story wholly commits to both of them.

Final Notes

To be clear, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy season two of American Horror Story, nor am I saying it is terrible. I have seen plenty of shows far worse than Asylum for other reasons. All I’m saying is that, in my opinion, season two was the weakest for this reason, and using that as a springboard to talk about premises and suspensions of disbelief in speculative fiction. If you disagree with my opinion, comment and let me know what you think.

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