I’ve been watching FX’s horror anthology show American Horror Story since its inception and I’ve always tended to view it through an analytical lens. (I am an English major after all; how else would I watch TV?)
But with the newest season especially, which is airing right now, I can’t help but think about Robin DeRosa’s American Lit I class basically every time I watch it.
And why is that, you ask?
Because the premise of said sixth season of American Horror Story deals with none other than the lost colony of Roanoke.
Not familiar with the creepy story? Here’s an abbreviated version:
1585: Queen Elizabeth wants in on America so she ships Sir Walter Raleigh and a bunch of her loyal subjects off to present-day North Carolina. They establish the colony of Roanoke (known now as the Lost Colony) and to say the least, their presence ruffles the feathers of the surrounding Native American tribes. Just some years later, the colony is abandoned for reasons unknown. Fast forward to 2016: people are still theorizing about what happened to the colony of Roanoke (hello, American Horror Story). Recently, two independent archaeology teams have discovered evidence suggesting some colonists might have survived and were assimilated into local Native American tribes. Archaeologists today continue to look for clues that could grant us an explanation for one of history’s biggest unsolved mysteries.
I’ve come to the conclusion that reading all of that puritanical, radical, off-the-wall literature penned by the founding members of our infantile country couldn’t have prepared me for the horrors lurking in the AHS episodes that I’ve watched so far. William Bradford, Cotton Mather, and Johnathan Edwards may have made “fire and brimstone” cool, but the ghosts of the Roanoke colonists on AHS bring that mindset to a whole ‘nother level. Here’s a nice little excerpt from Edward’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God to get you in the mood:
“The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.”
Kathy Bates, who plays fictional Roanoke leader Thomasin White/”The Butcher”, has delivered quite a few fiery speeches so far (in her best attempt at an authentic 16th century English accent) that remind me a bit of Cotton Mather’s terrifying sermons. I suppose Mather probably didn’t disembowel those who disagreed with him though so I guess that’s where we have to draw the line on similarities.
Early American literature professor, Abby Goode, explains the draw of the Roanoke story and AHS through their connections to the American gothic:
“American Horror Story reveals how early American history, culture, and myths remain shrouded in the gothic mode—in tales of atrocity, violence, and psychosexual drama. As scholar Teresa Goddu famously notes in her impactful Gothic America: Narrative, History and Nation (1997), the American gothic is less of an escapist category and more of a mode than is haunted by history and horrifying social realities. Eerie as the lost colony of Roanoke may be, its story speaks to the horrors of racial and colonial violence that characterized the literature and history of settlement. American Horror Story’s earlier season, “Coven” (2013-2014), reflects a similar phenomenon, entangling the histories of the Salem witch trials with those of New Orleans voodoo practitioners. The season raises the question of the role of gender and sex in the American gothic: why are murderous women so creepy? Kathy Bates portrays one particularly terrifying woman in “Coven”: the character of Delphine LaLaurie, alleged New Orleans serial killer, infamous for torturing and murdering her household slaves. Here we see how the American gothic integrates historical atrocities such as slavery and colonial violence into a mode often seen as escapist, fanciful, or dreamlike.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is despite all of the gruesome, gory violence (here’s to hoping all of those scenes were far from the truth) there is some real context lurking somewhere in between human sacrifice and witchy women.
While this season of AHS is the most “historical” in the sense that it pulls elements from what we know (or rather, still don’t know) about the Lost Colony, the story itself is extremely dramatized and horrifically violent in such a way that is out for scares and not accuracy.
Perhaps someday we’ll really know what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, but for now all we can do is speculate and exaggerate upon what little we do know for the sake of entertainment. After all, isn’t that the whole point anyways…if you don’t know what really happened, just make something up?
With all of that being said, this season has sucked me in entirely and I gleefully look forward to seeing how it ends.