American Horror Story Asylum plays a master game of deception. While the narrative deceives the audience that they are going to witness a story about aliens and monsters set in an insane asylum, the show runners instead tell a tale where the supernatural elements are not the frightening element. In fact, the supernatural elements often only exist within the story as a savior against the horrors of the natural world.
During one the first sequences in the story, the creators carefully frame the world as a place where people are more of a threat than any kind of supernatural being. The image the audience sees after Kit Walker, one of the protagonists of the series, pumps up gas into a customer’s car in a 1960’s town is of human evil. The customer complains to Kit about the price of gas while we see a child in the backseat pointing a fake gun at Kit. It is of course, a child at play, but they are explicitly starting with this image to establish man as violent and cruel. The first supernatural element of the series occurs shortly as alien invaders kidnap Kit’s wife. The audience only sees bright, blinding light. At first, one may interpret this as a terrifying image, but the white is far more reminiscent of a heavenly body versus one from traditional views of hell. The aliens later in the series become saviors of major characters, saving them from death, and creating children who have the ability to heal. This image is different than the ones presented when we first see Briarcliff, the church run insane asylum that serves as the setting for the majority of the story.
The first shot we see of Briarcliff in the series is a looming low angle from the outside. The old building looks terrifying and consumes the frame. As we are led inside, we hear screams of the patient. The light in Briarcliff is dim with only streaks of light coming from the outside forming harsh, unforgiving shadows. The common room is mostly grey with only a record that repeats a “comforting” song on repeat incessantly. Outside the patient dormitories are hanging fluorescent lights that barely illuminate the space, but flicker incessantly. These are all horrors created by man, not by any supernatural force.
Lana Winters is an ambitious investigative journalist who originally enters Briarcliff in order to expose the institution and to interview, Kit, convicted of murdering his wife. Soon, in a horrific turn, Sister Jude, the ambitious nun who is the head o the facility, convinces Lana’s life partner to commit Lana into the asylum so she can be treated for her homosexuality. Sister Jude, as she exposes Lana’s fate, is shot from a low angle, exposing her power, while the high angle reverse of Lana shows a powerless victim. She is imprisoned by shackles around her skull and is bruised from the fight that led her to the asylum. The horror in this shot is one of purely human creation.
In American Horror Story Asylum, the supernatural elements can come to the aid of the humans trapped in the world of the 1960’s. In the second half of the story, Sister Jude, through a turn of events, becomes a prisoner in her own institution. The institution has changed however. No longer run by the Church, Briarcliff is a state run institution featuring the overcrowding and violence associated with state mental health facilities of the time. The show creators use an interesting cinematic trick however to make this transition palatable for Sister Jude. Almost immediately after the audience learns that Briarcliff becomes a state institution, Sister Jude gains an enemy, the angel of death. The angel of death had previously functioned as a frightening dream for Sister Jude. She had large black wings and always offered Sister Jude a way out of her suffering. Now, the angel of death was appearing in the form of a new inmate in Briarcliff who would torture Jude. This distraction though, keeps Jude unaware of the changes happening to her and to the institution. Instead of dwelling on the overcrowding of the institution, the shots of the other inmates only occur in the background of Sister Jude’s conversation with her nemesis. There is no dwelling on the surroundings. Eventually, when Sister Jude attacks the angel of death, now her roommate, we see the reality of her situation. She had actually attacked another innocent women, and in a terrifying scene in the office of the head of Briarcliff, we learn that years have passed without her knowledge. This scene is shot with wide-angle close-ups that distort reality. The light comes harshly from the side. In addition, the cross carved in the ceiling has begun to fade. Everything has changed and the angel of death was keeping Sister Jude in blissful ignorance of her world. At the end of her life, after she is freed from Briarcliff, Sister Jude gladly welcomes the kiss of the angel of death to bring her sweet relief.
The most terrifying events within American Horror Story Asylum all base themselves on the realities of the 1960’s. Lana Winters, shot from a bird’s eye view in harsh light, must attempt a coat hanger abortion to save herself from giving birth to a child of rape. Later, newsreels expose the misery of state run institutions using a sepia toned image that creates the impression of being in that time. This same trope is used as the show uses the same color scheme to show the interaction between a husband and his now docile wife who he had lobotomized because of her memories of the Holocaust. As Sister Jude looks into Lana Winter’s eyes and warns her of the dangers of being a strong, independent woman in 1960’s society, and then warns her not to look in the face of evil, the camera moves directly into Lana’s face. The human being is capable of all evil. In the real world, there were no supernatural elements to save characters from the real life horrors presented in American Horror Story. The true horror of the story then is that these characters would never have been saved in the real world.