[This article contains spoilers regarding the plot of American Horror Story Hotel, Devil's Night episode]
Numerous people have been active on social media recently, commenting on the last week's episode of American Horror Story Hotel which included an appearance by none other than the Zodiac Killer, as well as several other infamous serial murderers.
Before I delve too deeply into the subject matter, I should say a few words about my perspective. Motivated by many people's favorable opinion of the show, I began watching American Horror Story last season, i.e. AHS Freak Show.
In short order I began to understand why the show was gaining such popularity. The production was undeniably well done. The plots and subplots, for the most part, were intriguing. The characters, due to a combination of the writing and the high-quality acting, commanded your attention.
In my view, horror is a particularly challenging genre. When the creators of a production do well, the work can be as genuinely impressive. However, when horror is done poorly, the genre is much less forgiving than other genres. Fortunately, American Horror Story had developed a reputation for delivering a quality product — which was undoubtedly a contributing factor to its widespread popularity.
To be perfectly honest, by the end of the last season, I felt like some of the storylines had begun to wander. But, that minor shortcoming detracted relatively little from the overall success of the show.
The anticipation surrounding the start of this season felt significant, partially because the popularity of the show had never been higher and partially because Lady Gaga had joined the cast. However, more so than other shows, I maintained a bit of uncertainty given that the format of the show involves each season having a completely self-contained story constructed with entirely new characters. This premise requires that each new season do a total reset.
The constraints of life being what they are, I got around to watching the first episode about a week after it aired. Though it may sound funny to make this statement about a fantasy horror show, I just found the plot to be too far removed from reality to hold my interest. What I experienced of the story and its characters was not on par with last season's Freak Show, at least not in terms of my personal evaluation. In fact, I did not make it very far into the first episode before I concluded that my time was better spent elsewhere. I accepted the possibility that the show might still evolve into something interesting in the coming weeks (although, honestly, I doubted it). But, at the time, I was just not interested.
Of course, with the inclusion of the Zodiac Killer in the Devil's Night episode, I was compelled to watch, regardless of whatever misgivings I otherwise maintained.
This particular plot of American Horror Story Hotel revolves around a collection of surreal happenings experienced by the protagonist, Detective John Lowe. After a strange encounter with a woman who claims to be executed serial killer Aileen Wuornos, John finds himself an invited guest to what he's told is the annual Devil's Night dinner party. Shortly after John's arrival, the host formally commences the get-together with a toast of absinthe (a storied spirit that many countries banned in the twentieth century due to widespread belief it caused hallucinations and precipitated violence).
After a few initial words, John comes to realize that the host is purporting to be the long-dead founder of the show's namesake hotel, one James Patrick March. Moreover, the other invited guests, in addition to the same Aileen Wuornos, are notorious (and notably dead) serial killers, namely: Richard Ramirez (the Night Stalker), John Wayne Gacy, and Jeffrey Dahmer.
At this point, the final invited guest — also known as the Zodiac — arrives, wearing his ominous Lake Berryessa outfit (which conveniently conceals his still-unknown identity; the timing also avoids the problem of the killer drinking absinthe while wearing his hood). As is common in fictional portrayals, the writers followed the example set by Robert Graysmith and simply referred to the killer as "Zodiac," i.e. no definite article. Interestingly, the killer maintains an air of mysteriousness by way of saying nothing throughout the entire segment (perhaps this is just a pragmatic way of avoiding the question: what should his voice sound like); later, he does engage in a bit of nonverbal communication when he points his gun at the detective, but that's about the extent of his interaction.
As the Zodiac makes his entrance, March exclaims "You're late!" Ramirez then chimes in with the following:
Too busy writing letters. I don't get you man. The real fun starts after you get caught. Don't you know that? And giving yourself your own nickname. That's not cool, dude. It's not cool.
A bit later, John offers the following assessment of the Bay Area serial killer:
Zodiac, they never caught you. But, I assume you'd be dead by now. Dickheads like you don't just retire from being assholes.
Apparently, serial murder is equivalent to being an "asshole," who knew? At any rate, this synopsis of the situation is a version of the commonly held myth that serial killers will never just stop killing. I'm sure the creators of this fictional story did not intend to be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, let me use this opportunity to disagree with the detective's assessment. The killer may or may not be alive, but he certainly could be. And it's a distinct possibility that he did, in fact, "just retire."
The premise of the dinner party (assuming you're willing to suspend your disbelief) is that James March has served as a mentor and an inspiration to each of the prolific serial murderers at the table. Again, in the words of "Ricky," the Night Stalker:
You need to listen to this dude, John. He... is the master. I mean, he taught us all. He's a genius like Galileo or Peter Frampton.
Okay, I'll admit it. That was funny. Somehow, I have a hard time imagining Ramirez appreciating the musical talents of Peter Frampton via songs like Baby I Love Your Way.
Moments later, March explains:
We are the Mt. Rushmore of murder. We have reputations, codes of conduct. I've told you how many times? Leave no evidence.
I find this last line, "Leave no evidence," to be humorous. One of the most interesting aspects of the case of the Zodiac Killer is that the man managed to evade capture despite the massive amount of evidence that he left in the wake of his crimes. Law enforcement has fingerprints, a palm print, a partial nuclear DNA fingerprint, a possible mitochondrial DNA fingerprint, tire tracks, shoe impressions, shell casings, eyewitness descriptions, not to mention twenty-plus pages of handwritten evidence submitted by the killer himself. If the Zodiac was attempting to leave no evidence, he failed miserably.
At this point, Ramirez puts on a vinyl recording of Sweet Jane, and starts dancing with Wuornos. From an atmosphere perspective, this change definitely heightens the surreality of the scene.
Soon after, March sums up the importance of the evening:
Thank you all, for being here on Devil's Night. But it is I who should be the one celebrating you. I look around and I see the definition of American Success. They write books about you. Make movies of your life.... Years after your death, people continue to be enthralled. You've made your mark in history. Like the Illid, your stories will live on forever.
Fiction drawing inspiration from named, real-world serial killers is a delicate proposition. It's impossible to deny the impact that the violence perpetrated by these people has had on our society. Yet, it's important to remember that these are real people, who murdered other real people. The free reign of options available to a writer of pure fiction is replaced with a more constrained environment that requires certain elements of respect.
Herein lies my problem with the Devil's Night episode, it's too lacking in terms of respect. I like a good horror story as much, if not more, than the next person. Moreover, I accept the premise of the episode. In other words, I don't mean to suggest that this type of story should never be done. However, I came away from this installment of American Horror Story Hotel feeling like the handling of the story was just too gratuitous. From the flippant statement that Gacy could have murdered 333 people, to the strange and provocative developments involving Dahmer and an unfortunate victim whom March essentially gifts to the infamous cannibal, to the culmination of the sacrificial murder that the killers gleefully engage in at the end of the segment — what little there is in terms of fictional value comes at the cost of much real-world insensitivity. It just did not sit well with me.
As was the case with the True Genius episode of Criminal Minds, I'm finding it difficult to appreciate these recent instances of Zodiac-inspired fiction.
Before leaving this subject, there are a couple of noteworthy tangents which deserve mention. First off, the actor playing John Wayne Gacy is John Carroll Lynch (which in and of itself is a bit strange). Viewers who watched last season of American Horror Story may recognize him as the same actor who played the creepy but memorable Twisty the Clown. What's even more of a surprising coincidence, however, is that Lynch is well known for having portrayed a man who was the prime suspect in a movie about one of the other dinner guests. That's right, Lynch played notable Zodiac suspect Arthur Leigh Allen in David Fincher's Zodiac (2007).
Finally, for anyone who is unacquainted with the phrase Devil's Night, it's a real term which refers to a night when the young engage in mostly harmless pranks and mild vandalism. Though the particular night associated with this activity has evolved over time and is different in different parts of the world, in the United States, Devil's Night is generally accepted to be the night before Halloween, specifically October 30.
Readers familiar with the case of the Zodiac will immediately recognize this date as the same night of the year on which Cheri Jo Bates — a victim of a man who may well have gone on to become the Zodiac — lost her life. In fact, the Devil's Night episode was originally broadcast on October 28, 2015. Two days later, on Devil's Night, the 49th anniversary of Cheri Jo's death quietly ticked by, unbeknownst to most of the world...
Did you see American Horror Story Hotel, Devil's Night episode? What did you think? I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.