For the entire run of American Horror Story: Roanoke, I’ve pointed out its fictionalized images of real horrors visited upon black Americans, some for centuries and some more recent. And for the entire run of the installment, some readers have told me I’m imagining a significance that isn’t present in the show. In “Chapter 9,” where a police officer asks a screaming black woman if she’s survived “a lynch mob,” and where much of the footage comes from police body cams, if you don’t see that underlying theme, it’s because you’re determined not to see it.
“Chapter 9” is a solid episode of American Horror Story’s most meaningful and consistent season—and by “solid,” I mean strongly told, startling, and filled with slithering entrails and smoking corpses. The police finally take reports of atrocities at the Sappony Road house seriously, but only after receiving thousands of them, thanks to the video automatically uploaded by the cameras worn by a trio of curious young horror fans who visit the house during the blood moon.
“We told you the truth!” Sophia (Taissa Farmiga) tells the detective skeptical of their report of a car accident and a wandering corpse. “And I’m going to tell the world about what’s really happening here, about the police cover-up!” “It’s all there on camera,” Todd (Jacob Artist) says, and it is, because these three never stop rolling footage from their POVs, not even when they’re peeing. Milo (Jon Bass) rants, “This is how every horror movie works! The cops don’t believe it until it’s too late!” As he predicts, the cops arrive at the house too late to save its isolated inhabitants and hapless visitors from the blood-moon slaughter.… but not too late to kill one of the last survivors.
When the warning of “graphic, violent, and deeply disturbing” images comes after the first-person shot of a man clutching his own intestines as they slide out of him, you know it’s going to be bad. The sight of Dylan (Wes Bentley as the actor who played Ambrose White) holding his own intestines is ghastly, but its effect retroactively excuses the equally gruesome (and then unearned) scene of Cricket’s disemboweling. Given how later chapters justify earlier indulgences, maybe AHS: Roanoke is best suited to binge-watching, for those who can stomach it at all.
Showing the deaths of Sophia and Milo from their doomed perspectives cannily incorporates AHS’s fondness for sweeping camera moves into the found-footage format. The vertiginous effect of seeing the two fan-site operators hoisted on stakes—and hearing the sounds, so dreadfully, intimately viscous—and set aflame isn’t diminished by the disintegration of Milo’s iCloud feed. If anything, in this fictional world where being on camera is everyone’s deepest desire, seeing the feed die is its own terrible token of death.
It’s also an upending of the horror-movie logic this trio seems at first to bring to the show. Sophia could be a last-minute final girl: plucky, smart, dogged. Despite her hunger for website hits and followers, she’s fundamentally decent. She persuades Milo to help her save Audrey and Monet; she pleads with Lee not just for her life, but for Milo’s; her last words to him are “I’m so sorry.” As one of the founders of the fan site Army Of Roanoke, she’s already a storyteller, an ideal person to live to tell the tale. Her theories about the racial, colonial, and patriarchal undertones of “My Roanoke Nightmare” are imperfect, but they perfectly position Sophia as the metafictional version of Carol J. Clover’s “active investigating gaze” in a horror narrative.
(This paragraph discusses the end of The Blair Witch Project, so, hey, spoiler warning for a 17-year-old film.) But Sophia’s last words, and her last moments as Milo’s camera film her and hers film him, echo not the survivors of slasher films, but would-be final girl Heather Donahue. AHS: Roanoke has thrown out plenty of Blair Witch allusions, but director Alexis O. Korycinski and writer Tim Minear fill “Chapter 9” with them: the trio of hubristic young investigators filming their ill-advised hike to a notoriously haunted spot, Sophia’s heartfelt “I’m so sorry,” the repeated up-nostril shots of Sophia and Audrey both.
That shared angle is appropriate: With Sophia’s horrific death, Audrey regains her spot as the most typical final girl. But Audrey isn’t destined for survival, either. Milo and Sophia die because they can’t quite believe the danger is real, even after they see their friend and colleague butchered. Audrey dies because she knows it’s all vitally, viciously real. When Dylan arrives, she barks at him, “It’s all real! The spirits, the blood moon, the Polks. It’s all real.” As a police officer helps her to her feet, Audrey blinks in the daylight and asks, “Are you real?” When she sees Lee in the relative safety of a police cruiser’s open rear seat, Audrey snatches the cop’s gun to dispatch the real, admitted murderer… and a cluster of officers shoot her dead.
Unlike some previous seasons, on AHS: Roanoke, death has meaning. For all its excesses, this season has refrained from the show’s most tedious indulgence, which removes emotional stakes from character deaths by killing them off, then bringing them back interminably. So far, when those who die on this property come back as ghosts, they behave like classic ghost-story or horror-movie ghosts. They haunt and horrify, but they don’t continue the same dreary round of daily dramas that motivated them in life.
Wes Bentley took a beating in my reviews of AHS: Hotel, and I’m pleased to say he’s much more effective as Dylan. He’s entirely believable as the last cast member, pissed off at what he thinks is slipshod set management, who arrives on his own to fulfill his contract. He’s just as believable when he snaps into military mode, plotting out a quick-hit mission to retrieve Monet and secure transportation out of the danger zone. What came off as wooden in last season’s would-be tortured leading man is steely in a minor character passing through the story. I enjoyed Bentley’s performance so much so that I‘m legitimately sorry to see him go.
Given the disposability of black lives in horror movies and the terrifying regularity of black Americans’ deaths on film in real life, there’s a grim triumph is seeing Lee Harris—who murdered her own daughter’s father, then burned his corpse—as the last woman standing. Lee’s not just the last survivor, she’s a survivor. She’ll walk on her savaged leg no matter how it hurts if it can save her from prosecution and ruin. She’ll talk her way into a tactical mission with a former SEAL if it gets her what she wants—and she’ll have no trouble convincing him she’s indispensable to its success. Adina Porter gives every layer of Lee’s resolve depth and plausibility.
Lee is the kind of character who’s often described as “unlikeable.” She’s no-nonsense, brusque, and sometimes openly hostile. She’s smart, quiet, and deeply perceptive. She’s guarded. She’s persuasive and decisive. Above all, she’s determined. Lee will do what it takes to survive. Like Tomasyn White before her, she’ll even pledge her soul to Scáthach and become one of her disciples, slaughtering those who dare to profane the sacred land, if that’s what it takes to survive—whatever survival means under the sway of that cursed land.
- With his death well-established in the previous episode, the repeated images and angles of Dominic’s dead body would feel gratuitous if they weren’t so much tamer than the brutally real videos that make headlines more and more frequently.
- I’m pretty impressed that Lee’s search for the delete button manages to feel suspenseful even though we know she can’t succeed. After all, we’ve already seen that footage broadcast on the fictional show.
- “On the surface, it’s an interracial story set in a post-racial world, which of course is a lie, but they’re really talking about the colonization of America, The Butcher and the Roanoke Colony, which became a matriarchy in a patriarchal system. That’s why it’s so timely. It’s a power we’re fighting today.” “I dunno, I just think the show was scary.” “Yeah, Milo. Racism is scary. Patriarchy is scary.”
- Even better than that exchange is the confusion of fiction and reality when Sophia tells Milo they have to stop Lee before she kills Shelby and Lee (actually Audrey and Monet).
- Monet immediately understands why Lee was so set on retrieving that video from the Polks. Her “Mmm, mmm, mmm” is the most satisfaction anyone voices all season.
- Brava to Sarah Paulson for Audrey’s snarl of rage and fear when she sees Lee sitting in the relative safety of the cruiser’s open back seat.
- Next week is the finale, and, as the teaser reveals, it will include AHS: Asylum’s Lana Winters (Paulson in her third role of the season, sort of) interviewing Lee Harris. Lee survives this blood moon, but will she survive the series? We’ll find out together. [Originally, I misidentified Lana Winters’ appearance in the teaser as Billie Dean Howard. Thanks for your corrections, and I regret the error!]