American Horror Story recap: Stranger Danger

In 'Home Invasion,' the haunted Harmons find themselves under siege by horror fetishists, their own demons, and -- eek! -- Jessica Lange's poisoned cupcakes! 
Ep. 02 | Aired Oct 12, 2011

"IS THAT YOU BANGING AROUND UP THERE, RUBBER MAN?" Ben (Dylan McDermott), Violet (Taissa Farmiga), and Vivien (Connie Britton) fend off strangers with strange ideas in "Home Invasion." Did you see the devil's haircut in the stained glass behind Vivien's head? 

Ray Mickshaw/FX

1968. The Broadway musical Hair is blowing sunshine on Broadway,  Jim Morrison is making a spectacle of himself everywhere, and a house in Los Angeles once owned by a doctor to the stars is serving as student housing for women enrolled in nursing school. But not for long. Two cars -- omens of impending doom, as they wear the show’s colors of taint and filth: Black and green. The camera dotes on the rear of the pea-toned Shelby Cobra, the distinctive logo – poisonous serpent upright and proud inside an egg-white oval – riding shotgun on the trunk. More conspicuous: The “Pat for First Lady” bumper sticker telling us that Richard Nixon is in the field, working the campaign trail, his loyal wife Pat by his side. Within months, “the great silent majority” will move the couple into the White House, setting in motion an American horror story that will coincidentally coincide with another: the emergence of the modern day, home-invading mass murderer. “Home Invasion” – a scary homily about sex, lies and cover-ups, stranger-danger fear and the toxic influence of culture -- implicated a wide variety of fork-tongued snakes... as well as the women who love them.

In last week’s peek into the house’s past, the Infant Terrible in the basement ravaged wretched, red headed twins. This week’s stinger-sequence history lesson reminded us that most horror stories get their jollies from snuffing young ladies.  Maria: Studious but not too square, full of Christian grace yet convinced of Universal Salvation. Gladys: Frumpy and feisty, impervious to the bigotry of her Barbie doll peers. They both liked television: Peyton Place and Laugh-In ("Sock it to me!") On the evening of July 5th, 1968, with their haughty housemates at the Hollywood Bowl giving it up for The Doors, Maria and Gladys made the mistake of being faithful to their calling as nurses and Good Samaritan principles. When a shifty-looking stranger with a (faked) bloody scalp knocked on their door asking for help, they opened their door and let him in.

His name was Franklin. He wore black and carried no truck with Jesus. And because a nurse once poisoned him with mercury from a broken thermometer, Franklin hated all nurses and wanted them all dead. The stranger knocked Maria and Gladys to the floor and then sang a snippet of a 1958 novelty song about an overweight girl named "Fatty Patty." At this exact moment, on the television, we heard a character from Peyton Place -- the shady villain Les Harrington, no less -- say the following: "As usual, you're out of line. And in very bad taste." Franklin smirked sinister. He drowned Gladys in the claw foot bathtub -- a life-taking baptism. Then he made Maria strip and dress in a virgin white nursing gown, then hogtied and posed her on the girls’ ivory sofa -- a sacrificial lamb on a living room altar, ready for slaughter... and ready to pay for the sin of our TV viewing pleasure. As Maria prepared her soul for heaven with prayer, the black clad snake scoffed and made it clear: This is The End. “I told you, Jesus isn’t going to save you.” He confused Maria’s profession of spiritual salvation with a plea for deliverance from worldly evil. She was really giving Franklin the finger of faith: You can take my body; you can’t touch my soul. All hail Maria, full of steel. (Or delusion, if you don’t go that way.) But whatever: Franklin stabbed her repeatedly in the small of her back, and all Maria could do was take it and take it and take it, and scream and scream and scream. Sock it to me, indeed.

“Home Invasion” continued American Horror Story’s storytelling m.o. of building stories out of pieces and planks of other horror stories. The fusion can be very clever. In an episode reminiscent to the 2008 home invasion/serial killer flick The Strangers, I loved how Violet was reading Albert Camus’ chilling philosophical novel The Stranger. I'm torn about drawing inspiration so directly from real-life tragedy to create fiction. See: Modeling Franklin so specifically on Richard Franklin Speck, who murdered 8 student nurses in their Chicago townhouse dormitory in 1966. (As the show conceded: "As usual, you're out of line. And in very bad taste.") Still, the blurring of fact and fantasy feels ironically appropriate for a story about a family whose understanding of reality is being challenged and subverted -- for better or worse -- by the unreal elements of their house. It also illustrates the feedback-loop nature of culture creation. Maria's assault and stabbing was set to shrieking violins -- a copycat version of the soundtrack stinger in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It was also staged in a way similar to a real-life murder committed by The Zodiac Killer, who began slaying in late 1968. (Of course, I only recognized the Zodiac m.o. because I had seen David Fincher's 2007 movie about the still-unsolved case.) "Home Invasion" reminded me that the late sixties outbreak of serial killers and mass murderers really did taint the culture. They made us feel unsafe. These monsters also captured the imagination, too. See: the post-Psycho/Manson boom in slasher movies and true crime flicks. Which, in turn, can make us feel even more unsafe.

The episode dramatized the concept of “home invasion” in literal and symbolic ways. Adelaide infiltrated the Harmon home yet again -- this time to play ball with the Infant Terrible in the basement. (A nice visual metaphor for the facing your fears/taming your fears advice that Ben tells his patients. Also a metaphor for becoming too comfy-friendly with our demons, too.) Tate got back into the house at night after being kicked out of it by Ben to watch Violet as she slept… although we later received confirmation that Tate is a spirit. Maybe the Harmons have invaded his home? Guilt-wracked Ben tried to prevent the legacy of his sinful past from entering his home and subverting his second chance life. And then there was Constance’s bid to push a trojan horse of Ipecac-spiked cupcakes into the Harmon house ... and into Violet's mouth. But why? What's her beef with the Harmons' daughter? We'll explore many of these insidious incursions in greater depth as move along, but first, let’s talk about one of the episode’s more peculiar invasion stories: Leah’s hair.

NEXT: "Devil's haircut! In my mind! Devil's haircut! In my mind!"

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