I’ll admit, I was hesitant going into this season of American Horror Story (official name AHS: 1984). For one, it’s the first installment without Sarah Paulson in a main role. Paulson has been a mainstay for the franchise for years and always able to carry each season through any weaker moments. Who could possibly fill those shoes? Besides that, this season’s theme—’80s-era summer camp—is one fans have been hoping to see for years, which means expectations were high. So I went into the premiere last night feeling skeptical.
The good news: This season is good. And scary—like, actually scary.
You see, this isn’t something AHS has been known for lately. Last year’s Apocalypse had only a few frights, and 2017’s Cult was more political commentary than anything. AHS: 1984 marks a creepy return to form for the franchise, packed with classic scares and familiar tropes, which is absolutely a positive thing. Nothing about AHS: 1984 is particularly original, and that’s the point. It’s an homage to iconic slasher films like Friday the 13th and Halloween, and spotting these references is part of the season’s appeal.
The story centers on a group of Los Angeles twenty-somethings (Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, Cody Fern, and Gus Kenworthy) who escape the city for the summer to be counselors at the recently reopened Camp Redwood, the site of a 1970s massacre. The serial killer, Mr. Jingles, was arrested and sent to a mental institution. But, surprise surprise, he escapes right as the counselors arrive and has his sights set on them.
Mr. Jingles is a perfect mixture of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers with elements of Freddy Kreuger. As for Camp Redwood, it’s ripped straight from the script of the first Friday the 13th movie. The pilot establishes the framework of a horror story you’ve seen many times before but never gets old. The key players are all there: a timid ingénue (Roberts), the oafish jock (Kenworthy), the oblivious wild child (Lourd). The pop-out scares are abundant, and the chase scenes play out like a choreographed dance. At one point, Roberts’ character, Brooke, is running from who she thinks is Mr. Jingles, and her movements feel almost musical—every trip, slip, and scream was molded by the horror greats of decades past. It’s brilliant.
Of course, creator Ryan Murphy’s touch is all over this. The actual story is tired and true, sure, but he subverts it in a way only he can. Tone-wise, the show is a delightful blend of Scream Queens and the fifth AHS season, Hotel. One minute, you’re unnerved; the next, Gus Kenworthy takes his shirt off and cheekily demands everyone to “check out his bod.” Creepy dialogue about Mr. Jingles is immediately followed by the arrival of Camp Redwood’s activities counselor, Trevor Kirchner (Matthew Morrison), who swigs beer and makes bad sex jokes. The transition between horror and humor on 1984 is frequent and abrupt, which is what we’ve come to love and expect from a Murphy production.