Within minutes of seeing the news the next American Horror Story season would be subtitled Hotel and feature Lady Gaga as a series regular, I found myself poring over a digitized page of the August 25, 1892 edition of the Los Angeles Herald. That's because AHS creator Ryan Murphy had previously said that top-hat imagery in the fourth season hinted at something about the fifth season, and Reddit informed me of a Top Hat Burger Palace in California, and further online digging revealed that the restaurant was on the former site of one Anacapa Hotel, which judging by the archival photos might be spooky enough to set an AHS season in, and which once advertised in the 1892 Herald, which means …
Here it is, arguably the best part of American Horror Story—the waiting. In the months leading up to the fifth season’s October premiere, fans can anticipate a slow but steady drip of information answering questions about casting (will Jessica Lange return?), characters (is Mother Monster an actual one?), and plot elements (are we talking more Bates or Overlook for this particular hotel?). A swath of the Internet will go delirious dissecting it all—despite the fact that it did exactly the same thing leading up to season four’s Freak Show, and was rewarded with the dullest story Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk have yet offered up.
Most entertainment franchises these days market themselves with slow reveals, and the fervor of AHS fans certainly pales next to the people scrutinizing leaks from Marvel regarding, say, its 2032 film slate. But American Horror Story hype is unique because American Horror Story isn't quite like anything else in pop culture. With a series that reboots itself each time with new characters, a new setting, and a lot of new cast, the arrival of a new season is more of an Event for AHS than it is for other TV dramas. The casting news from the similarly formatted True Detective has been met with comparable levels of ardor, and the marketing potential surely explains part of the reason why limited series like these are on the rise.
AHS also has its general craziness on its side. Every season starts out with delicious promise as it mashes up horror tropes, stunt-like casting (Gaga now joins the likes of Adam Levine, Stevie Nicks, and Patti LuPone), and meme-making moments of sex and gore and political provocation. Incoherence sets in; sometimes, it’s terminal, as was the case in Freak Show, which I was not alone in quitting midway through. But this is why AHS might just be the perfect use of the limited series—the slate’s wiped clean each time, and the next season can try to nail the prefect balance of outrageousness and entertainment once more.
FX President John Landgraf says Season 5 will indeed be an "unusually large reinvention" for the show; it's impossible to know what that means. The hotel conceit seems generic but actually has a lot of potential—as a contained site that can host Shining-style hauntings and Psycho-style psychos, it may signal a return to the location-based horrors of the series' high marks, Murder House and Asylum. One exciting sign is that the Gaga teaser video features the comeback of the theme song's legitimately unsettling, motor-revving noise that was unfortunately absent from the Freak Show title sequence. Outside of the short-lived reign of Twisty the clown, Murphy & co. basically gave up on frights for the past two seasons, which has been a shame: Being scary requires more discipline than being campy. Discipline is just what this show could use—the fans, at this point, provide enough insanity.