Ask any mother what her greatest fear is and you’re likely to hear variations of a single theme: losing my child(ren). The moment our babies are born we are linked to them—emotionally, yes, but also physically, hormonally, and viscerally. Their pain becomes our pain; their joys and accomplishments our own. Many of us see our kids as carrying a tiny part of ourselves along with them, even well into adulthood— this all-important bond between mother and child is one of the strongest, most impenetrable forces present in the physical world.
American Horror Story, a phenomenal new show on FX that began this fall, on the surface appears to be another well-written narrative spectacularly cast with firm links to horror cinema (The Amityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, Psycho, Halloween, Pet Semetary, to name a few)—a family moves into a haunted house with a murderous history and some seriously strange neighbors. But look a bit closer. As the underlying messages unfold (now, over halfway through the season) one cannot fail to recognize the importance of show’s mothers and the way their unique experiences shape and command the story’s events. Let’s take a look at them now.
1. Vivien Harmon (played by Connie Britton). Things aren’t going well for the wife of Dr. Ben Harmon, first she miscarries a son at seven months gestation and witnesses firsthand her husband’s infidelity with a young student, but after moving into their new home she unknowingly has relations with one of the haunts (dressed in a rubber suit), becomes pregnant, is the victim of a break-in, is constantly treated rudely by her teenage daughter and neighbor Constance, and is later stalked by Hayden, the ghost of her husband’s dead lover. After being further harassed by the ghosts of the house, Vivan accidentally shoots Ben, who commits her.
The character of Vivien is obviously patterned after Rosemary Woodhouse (of Rosemary’s Baby), but rather than an apartment full of suspicious elderly Satanists, she’s being manipulated by the house’s departed former masters (and anyone else who happened to have died on site). Despite being destined for doom again and again, Vivien remains a strong, dedicated mother; she’s smart, talented (a cellist), nurturing, and brave. She tries numerous times to relate to her angst-ridden teenage daughter Violet, who is frosty and arrogant until Vivien saves them both from the attackers who break into their house. After becoming pregnant, she is immediately concerned that something is wrong with the fetus and seeks confirmation from anyone who will give it—Constance, Moira (the housekeeper), an ultrasound tech (who faints after seeing the baby’s image on the monitor), and repeatedly with an OB/GYN, who eventually informs her that she’s carrying twins. The question of who will be mother to them is a big one (as there seem to be several willing candidates), but don’t think Viv ain’t going down without a fight.
2. Constance Langdon (played by Jessica Lange). A native Virginian and former wannabe actress, Constance is the Harmon’s next door neighbor that suffers not only from boundary issues, narcissism, and a serious case of Mommy Dearest (this broad probably did the “wire-hangers” bit decades ago), but was mother to four children, three (that we know of) that have died violently. She wavers frequently and dangerously from concerned mother to heartless hag—and for this, Constance is a brilliantly-written train wreck of a character; culturally, there’s nothing worse than a neglectful mother. We know that Constance once was lady of the Harmon’s house herself, and that her son, Tate, now has disturbing connections to both Vivien and Violet, but one can’t help but wonder what her angle in all of this really is; is she, too, after the babies, or is it just the house?
3. Hayden McClane (played by Kate Mara). Hell hath no fury, right? The student lover of Dr. Ben who also happened to be pregnant takes a page from Fatal Attraction‘s Alex Forrest—this gal ain’t gonna be ignored. After first summoning Ben to Boston to accompany her to an abortion clinic (where he deserts her after learning of the break-in at his house), Hayden decides to follow him back to Cali, insisting he not only continue to be part of her life, but help her raise the baby that she’s decided to keep. Things become even more complicated when Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare), another of the house’s “lurkers,” takes it upon himself to kill Hayden with a shovel in order to protect Ben, or so he says. Trouble is, she was killed within the property line of Ben’s house and after joining up with the rest of the undead gang, decides she’s pretty PO’ed about losing her baby (which was presumably still inside her when Ben buried her in the backyard). After learning Vivien is pregnant herself, Hayden gains an entirely new focus and decides she’d like the babies for her own (with one small wrinkle). Hayden is a difficult character to like because she’s annoying, violent, and messes things up, but there’s no denying that she’s got a legitimate gripe (if anything was learned from Tarantino’s Beatrix Kiddo in Kill Bill).
4. Nora Montgomery (played by Lily Rabe). The mother that arguably matters most in all of this, the wife of Dr. Montgomery, whose own infant was stolen, killed, dismembered, slightly altered, and reanimated before she apparently took her own life inside the house. The show’s opening credits hint at the horrors that dwelled within the basement, and through flashbacks we learn of the events that led up to Nora’s death but Nora herself is a big part of this puzzle. At first portrayed as a helpless victim of the most horrible violence possible, she seems to be pretty handy at networking with the other ghosts in order to procure the thing she wants most, which is another baby, of course. Whether she’ll choose Team Vivien or Team Hayden is hard to say, the bottom line is, Nora’s vote is definitely the swing in this crazy (genius) mess of a show.