Home For Rent (Occupants Included): Bedlam and American Horror Story Move Haunting Into Primetime
Both of these shows share a similar theme, a group of folks move into a new place and slowly begin to realize their new digs are haunted. The interesting thing to me is how they compare as visions of paranormal activity from opposite sides of the pond. Bedlam centers itself around the modern, young, hip looking set of residents of Bedlam Heights, a new luxury apartment complex shoved into what used to be a mental institution. While Jed (Theo James) can see the spirits, the other inhabitants are menaced mainly by a few passing visions and the frequent sound of dripping water (usually coming from a laptop stuck on a picture of a river under a bridge.) American Horror Story throws it's cast, an average American family bruised by infidelity, into a creepy looking mansion where the previous inhabitants killed themselves in a murder-suicide scenario. Where Bedlam relied on subtle imagery and sound, American Horror Story went straight for the jugular subjecting each of it's characters to taxing visual and mental horror.
As a fan of ghost hunting shows from both the US and UK, I can see how social attitudes about the paranormal and haunting play into both shows. Watching British ghost shows such as Most Haunted , very rarely are EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) or other audio communication attempted, something standard in shows like Ghost Adventures or Ghost Hunters in the States. Instead, paranormal activity is treated with more of a nod to the Victorian spiritualist movement with a focus on table tilting, communication through mediums, and intelligent responses through knocks or Ouija boards. Meanwhile, American ghost hunters like Zak Bagins seem more interested in fighting (or having sex with) a ghost than perusing a means of communication. When they do go down that avenue, they are intent for a spirit to talk, touch, or appear. Where British paranormal researchers seem content with exploring the unknown and unseen, Americans require proof. If we can't see it, hear it, or touch it, then it must not be real. This is even reflected somewhat in survey results. A 2009 CBS poll puts belief in ghosts among Americans at 58% while a 2010 British poll by Choice.com puts their percentage at 73%.
While both of them engender a very different attitude toward the non-corporeal, I found both of them entertaining though I like what I can hear, touch and see so American Ghost Story gets a slight edge. Bedlam used its pilot to do a heck of a lot of setup. With five new characters to introduce, their relationships, and back-story to be fit in, there was precious time for thrills and chills. There were a few spectral appearances, some Paranormal Activity style freaky standing, and of course the drip-drip-drip. I do like how it sets up psychic Jed to unravel the mystery of a different spirit every week, but I wonder how long it will be sustainable. With Season 2 in development already for the BBC, I suppose they think it has legs. Legs that float about 6 to eight inches above the floor, but legs nevertheless.
American Horror Story throws both its characters and its viewers right into the thick of it. Before the credits rolled, there was already a creepy kid, two deaths, and all the set-up you need. Patriarch Ben (Dylan McDermott), his wife Vivian (Connie Britton), and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) move into their new haunted home with the specter of Ben's affair and Vivian's miscarriage still lingering over them. Ben, a psychiatrist, sets up his practice which includes creepy patient (Evan Peters), a teen with Columbine dreams (and a Twisted Nerve soundtrack) and designs on his shrink's daughter while Vivian settles into her new home including hiring maid Moira (a cataract-ed Frances Conroy in her eyes/ and sexpot Alex Breckenridge in her husband's). They encounter the eerie neighbors, and soon enough the house starts affecting everyone. Ben begins to sleepwalk and have an attraction to fire, Vivian has sex with a man in a rubber suit she believes to be her husband, and Violet starts to think her new beau (Peters) might be more than meets the eye. Packed with effects and visuals, American Horror Story wants to make an impression, and on this viewer it did. It remains to be seen if it can keep up the same kind of pace and intensity throughout the whole season.
American Horror Story seems just that. The family involved, minus the spooky stuff, could be any family that lives up and down the block in any neighborhood. Bedlam on the other hand reflects the more disorganized un-regimented life of a group of youths. AHS fits the formula of an American show, a long format drama driven by characters, and Bedlam seems like its story will propelled forward though an ongoing story-line augmented by a "monster of the week" in the Dr. Who vein. Both shows are good enough to garner your attention, but it remains to be seen if either can maintain a premise for a whole season, and American Horror Story seems built to resolve in the time frame of one season. Perhaps then it would move onto another tale as a season long anthology. Where horror has had success in the past was in the anthology vein (Night Gallery, Tales from the Darkside, Freddy's Nightmares), the occasional series (Dark Shadows, Kolchak, True Blood) makes it way through. It will be interesting to see where these two series go and what they scare up.