There are so many things I love about this series! I love how it moves around in time (I’m a sucker for anything vintage), the diversity of the cast, and the dark, intricate plotlines sprinkled with just a touch of camp. It’s absolutely delicious, like all the best nightmares are.
Another thing I love about American Horror Story is how Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and the other writers take characters and stories from real life. So in this series, I’m going to look at all the real psychos, sadists, and serial killers featured on the show.
AHS Murder House – Season 1
First, Tate Langdon (Evan Peters): he’s a troubled, moody loner, a teen who dreams of taking out his revenge on the classmates who shunned him. In episode 5 (“Halloween pt. 2”) we find out he actually did shoot up his school – then was himself shot – in the 1990s.
When most people think of a school shooting in the ‘90s, they think of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others, then turned their guns on themselves. Like the character Tate, they wore black trenchcoats and listened to Goth music.
But that wasn’t the first school shooting in America. There have been many shootings at public schools over the years, going back to the 1700s. Most were acts of revenge, committed by one person against another at a school. Others were the result of a fight breaking out amongst armed students. The modern type of school shooting, where a student (or students) comes to the school and targets fellow students and teachers for the express purpose of taking as many lives as possible, is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The first mass murder (four or more fatalities) at a public school (not a college), where the shooter arrived with the express purpose of killing many others (as opposed to a fight breaking out or an act of revenge on a specific individual): that dubious honor belongs to Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
A year before the Columbine massacre, on March 24, 1998, Andrew Golden and Mitchell Johnson, aged 11 and 13, pulled a fire alarm then ran to a wooded area, firing on teachers and students as they exited. They killed five people and wounded 10 others. When police apprehended the boys, they found they had stocked a stolen van with food, clothing, and camping equipment as well as 13 fully loaded firearms and 200 rounds of ammo. At the time, it shocked the nation…yet only a year later, the Columbine massacre eclipsed it, setting off a very dark and deadly trend that unfortunately continues to this day.
Another real killer featured in Season 1 was Richard Speck – the murder of the nursing school students is nearly identical to his 1966 mass murder. The main difference is that in real life, Speck raped, beat, and stabbed eight women.
The final real killer in Season 1 has to do with maybe the most famous real-life murder victim, the Black Dahlia. In episode 9, “Spooky Little Girl,” she’s raped, then accidentally murdered, by a dentist while under sedation. When I first saw this scene, the story seemed familiar, but I couldn’t put a name to who the real murderous dentist was. So I Googled it. Turns out, it wasn’t just one dentist who would rape his patients while under sedation – many, many doctors of various specialties have been found guilty of this. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did an excellent investigation into the problem and found it’s rampant in the medical community – they uncovered over 2,400 cases of doctors across the nation publicly sanctioned by medical authorities after being accused of sexually abusing patients. But many perps are never removed from medical practice. They just move away and start abusing patients again. Fortunately, unlike AHS’ Black Dahlia, their victims survived.
AHS Asylum – Season 2
The setting for Season 2 is Briarcliff Manor, an insane asylum where people were kept in horrible conditions, subjected to abuse and neglect … and treatments like electroshock therapy and forced lobotomies. It’s like something straight out of the pages of a horror novel. Actually, it’s from the pages of history books.
Insane asylums began in the late 17th century. Often the goal of these institutions was merely to keep the patients docile, so they were left in cell-like rooms, chained, put in straight-jackets, and later, drugged. Psychiatry was in its infancy, so mental illness was not well understood. Women, in particular, were labeled “mad” for nearly any infraction of the strict social code. Offenses like masturbating, defiance, or even not smiling enough could get a woman committed.
The most infamous of these was Bedlam (Bethlem Royal Hospital), the oldest institution for treatment of mental illness. It was built atop a sewer that frequently overflowed into the building. Patients were spun in suspended chairs, beaten, starved, dunked in ice baths, and other atrocities. Many didn’t survive. Edward Wakefield, a Quaker, exposed its abuses in 1814.
The character Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) may well have been inspired by the intrepid Nellie Bly, (the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane) who, in 1887, had herself committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. She then exposed the filth, beatings, neglect, and torture there. She published a series of newspaper articles, “Behind Asylum Doors,” which were later collected into a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse. The exposure helped legislators increase the institution’s budget and the abuses stopped.
While Briarcliff was undoubtedly an amalgam of many of these awful places, the one that seems to track the closest is Willowbrook State Hospital. First exposed by newspaper reporter Jane Kurtin, the horrifying conditions of the hospital were aired by Geraldo Rivera in 1972 in a special called “Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace.” The “investigative report” done by Lana Winters is a thinly-fictionalized, nearly shot-by-shot remake of Rivera’s piece.
Probably the most obvious – and evil – real killer in Season 2 is Dr. Arthur Arden/Hans Grüper (James Cromwell). He is explicitly an avatar of the Nazi Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele. Both did horrible, unethical, and cruel experiments – without anesthetics – on women, children, and twins in Auschwitz. Both were deceptively kind, as shown in episode 4, “I am Anne Frank, pt. 1,” where the younger Grüper (John Cromwell) is shown giving treats to the children in the camp.
However, unlike Mengele, who lived out the rest of his days in Brazil, Arden’s fate was more fitting. As Executive Producer Ryan Murphy put it, “… the image of a Nazi doctor going into an oven is sort of a brilliant metaphor of him literally paying. Obviously, he’s a terrible character but I thought his end was very justified and somewhat poetic.” Perhaps not coincidentally, the character’s surname, “Arden,” means “they burn” in Spanish.
Bloody Face is a Frankenstein’s-monster mix of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Norman Bates, and Buffalo Bill. And who are all those fictional monsters based on? The Butcher of Plainfield, Ed Gein. Dr. Oliver Thredson/Bloody Face, like Gein, is obsessed with his mother and her skin. Like Gein, he made furniture and objects out of human remains – specifically, like Gein, a bowl made from a skull and a lampshade and mask of human skin.
There is one real-life killer ascribed to AHS that I don’t think holds up. Some are saying Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) represents Lizzy Borden. She did murder her father and step-mother with an axe; but that’s where the similarities end. Borden was a stout, no-nonsense woman, used to getting her own way – nothing like the waifish, mewling Grace. She wasn’t French either.
Of course all this is a matter of opinion. I’m interested in hearing other theories! Let me know what you think in the comments. And tune in next week for seasons 3 and 4!