I'll be honest here: I was born the year Twin Peaks premiered, and I had never seen an episode, save for a clip of the famous Red Room scene. When I first saw the promos for American Horror Story, however, that creepy, surreal tableau was the first thing that came to my mind. The red backdrop in the ads was eerily reminiscent of the "waiting room" red curtains, and the rubber-suited mystery man coming from the ceiling towards a very pregnant woman just screamed David Lynch. So, naturally, I grabbed some coffee and donuts to watch both seasons of Twin Peaks and see what else they had in common.
On the surface, the shows seem like they have nothing in common. Twin Peaks followed the investigation of the murder of Laura Palmer, the town's homecoming queen, who it turned out was living a cocaine-fueled double life. Special Agent Dale Cooper and the Twin Peaks Sherriff's Department set out to solve the mystery, fueled somewhat by a surreal dream Cooper had in which a one-armed man told him Killer BOB murdered Laura. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's American Horror Story, on the other hand, revolves around the Harmon family and the restored-yet-still-looks-terrifying haunted mansion that serves as a location for grisly murders (the previous owners committed suicide, a man burned his family inside the house, a sorority sister and the house nurse were brutally murdered and Constance killed her cheating husband and Moira, the maid, just to name a few.)
Once I started watching both shows, I immediately began to notice several parallels. Every character in American Horror Story has something to hide, from Ben's affair to the fact that the young Moira who constantly makes advances on him is essentially Audrey Horne 2.0, while the strobe effect used when Tate and Violet were trying to scare Violet's bully was extremely similar to the effect used in the Twin Peaks finale, where the lights ominously flickered during the Red Room scene.
Past that, however, the shows at first seemed too dissimilar to really look at side by side because of how their stories are told. Twin Peaks's 94-minute pilot opened with Laura Palmer's plastic-wrapped dead body washing up on shore, immediately setting off a series of events around town such as: Ronette, one of her schoolmates, wandering along a bridge and ending up in a coma; Leland, her father, having a nervous breakdown; Laura's best friend Donna falling for James, the boy Laura cheated on her boyfriend with; Audrey ruining her father's business deal; and Laura's mother experiencing a terrifying vision. I'll admit that I Googled "Who killed Laura Palmer?" about halfway into the pilot because I was too anxious to endure the guessing game, but it didn't matter that I spoiled the entire series for myself. The show isn't about who killed Laura Palmer -- the real point of Twin Peaks was the people living within the creepy town and the seedy double lives they all led , which the events following Laura's death in the pilot set up. I found myself focusing less on the mystery and more on caring about each of the characters: Why wasn't Lucy speaking to Andy? Will Leo ever catch Shelly and Bobby? Why in the world did Leland's hair suddenly turn white?
American Horror Story seems to be told in a completely different manner. The "murder house" is what drives the story here -- none of the characters would be relevant without the mansion. We find out Constance used to live there; Moira is literally stuck with the house, having been buried underneath it; the interior designers are actually the extremely dead past owners; and even the girl that pretended to be Ben's patient in the second episode was actually staking out the place to reenact the sorority house murder. Similarly, the characters that initially don't seem to be related to the house at all, like Hayden, the girl Ben cheated on Vivien with, actually are connected -- Hayden showed up on the doorstep, was apparently killed by Larry and ending up buried at the house, only to return to haunt it.
The pacing of American Horror Story is also much faster, more like a horror movie on speed. Each episode spans years or even decades of numerous horrifying events, while every episode of Twin Peaks only covered a single day -- and even then, the days seem to move pretty slowly. An investigation that would typically take one season was supposed to take two, and each plot point introduced within that period, like why a popular girl like Laura was involved in drugs, wasn't wrapped up until the end. To keep the suspense quick and constant, American Horror Story also relies on gimmicky one-liners, like Adelaide telling Vivien "You're gonna die in there" and Constance warning Moira "Don't make me kill you again." (But nothing will ever compare to the amazing weirdness of the Log Lady's "My log does not judge.")
When I reached the second half Twin Peaks's second season, however, I saw just how alike the shows truly are. Once the murderer was revealed (which offered up some great scenes), the show seemed to fall apart. The writers were forced to reveal it early to boost falling ratings, which left them scrambling to throw new stories at the viewers. So naturally, the program went off the rails. Twin Peaks didn't need the murder to be solved to function as a show, but it did requite a strong narrative, like the investigation, to drive the individual stories of the townspeople, the same way American Horror Story needs the terrifying mansion to tell us the story of the Harmon family and everyone they meet as a result of the move. It remains to be seen if AHS can stay compelling for longer than Twin Peaks managed to, but may I suggest adding a creepy Log Lady character to the second season to help the odds?
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