“Art, it is said, is not a mirror, but a hammer: it does not reflect, it shapes.” – Leon Trotsky

Horror is alienating because it shocks: it de-familiarizes our beloved emblems by warping them into terrifying shapes; it’s the societal symptom inverted on a screen. Shock pummels our suspended fantasy until it collapses to reveal a moral lacuna, what cultural critic Slavoj Žižek calls the void.

It is interesting that shock is usually called an artistic flaw, as if to shock is to be lazy or self-conceiting. But anti-shock critics are pointing in the wrong direction, because shock has less to do with the artist and more the viewer. After all, shock is not a particularly comfortable feeling: who likes to sit in a movie theater and be swiftly ejected from his or her comfort zone? The comfort zone is fiercely guarded territory in our society. The comfort zone isn’t mere hedonistic preference — it is society’s homeostasis. To move from comfort zone, that is to move from homeostasis, is to risk injuring that collective body, as if at a certain distance from the zone it might shatter. And the other fear, the unspoken one, isn’t that society will shatter, but might just adapt and live on.

Therefore, shock is much more than a crutch for uncreative artists. Shock is revolutionary. And by default, the medium of horror is equipped to be as well.

According to cultural critic Robin Wood, the key feature of horror is the “normality threatened by monster.” By the movie’s conclusion, the monster is either destroyed to make way for the “return of the repressed” or lives on to radicalize the society it disrupts, leaving the viewer to rebuild a new fantasy atop the void.

The first the type of horror axes either the slut or minority first, or like in “The Exorcist” ’s case becomes a two hour-long condemnation of single mothers and secularism. These are the thin morality tales that hide their conservatism beneath fake blood and the faux profane. At their antipode are movies like “Carrie,” whose monster is interpellated by contending forces of the ultra-religious and societal, and who ultimately turns violently on its creators. Or, of course, George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead,” which is frequently cited as a horror-ized vision of Vietnam’s gore, interracial strife and the isolation of the nuclear family unit.

Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” is a meta-example of this normality versus an anarchic being. The protagonist Alex is suspended in a hyper-aestheticized unreality, a society where corporeal representation has consumed the actual body. His violence is abhorrent but reactionary, a human attempt to penetrate the surface and see if it bleeds. By the end of the movie, the repressed has returned and Alex is transformed by the state from revolutionary to hollow human, excavated of mental and bodily autonomy. In “A Clockwork Orange,” Kubrick inverts the natural order of horror with his dark irony: the monster is the human and the victim is the unreal society of spectacle, the abhorrent creature.

Shock needn’t be that bloody. Look no further than Gustave Courbet’s painting The Stone Breakers. In the shadow of 1848, which brought a wave of violent workers revolts in Europe and Marx and Engels’s “The Communist Manifesto,” Courbet’s 1850 painting depicts two faceless stonecutters stooped over their labor, eschewing the Romantic techniques of the time with its un-heroic subjects and lurid realism. While art of the marketplace is an orphaned object, totally estranged from its creator save for the artist’s unobtrusive signature, Coubert’s painting strong-armed the ugly, anonymous and futile production into its center.

In this way, shock is its own defense mechanism against the inevitable vassalage of art to state or market. It fashions itself so repulsive to bourgeois mores that it’s impossible to co-opt. Of course, that co-option is inevitable (i.e. Banksy’s graffiti being auctioned at Christie’s), and the burden is on each generation of artists to radicalize themselves.

Which is why “American Horror Story” fails. I really enjoy the show. It scares me viscerally. It uses classic techniques to evoke fear. It regurgitates old tropes into self-aware camp (Does camp count as camp if it knows it’s camp? That’s a notebook for another day.) It has slick production and even slicker actors, who shift between their seasonal roles. But for all its reinvention, for all its half-hearted progressive moralizing, it’s an old show. Take for instance, this seasons’ freak show theme, which at first seems commendable for inviting the fringe-dwellers into its lens and positioning the real monsters as “the people outside this tent,” as Elsa says.

I take issue with the tent, though, which is positioned as a utopic site for the disabled. Their freedom depends on possession of the carnival, which is at stake, yet that freedom is a deception. It depends on the coerced commodification of their ‘monstrosity,’ the alienation of humans for profit. This could be a provocative critique, but it’s undercut by “AHS” ’s sin of doing the very same thing. Let me be clear — the disabled on that show are there to titillate.

This is not the first time “AHS” practices what it preaches against — the first season featured an evil abortion doctor who kept the surgical remains in jars that more resembled premature babies than fetuses. The shock derived from the decidedly conservative fantasy where he was the baby killer, literally playing God as he stitched the parts together to create the Infantata. In the third season, Black protagonist Queenie worked in a fried chicken shop and Marie Laveau, despite being a powerful voodoo priestess, lived in starkly different class conditions than her white counterpart. She also worked at a hair salon called Cornrow City. These are fictive choices that beg analysis. Why does Murphy insist in reveling in stereotype? To shock his liberal audience? It does, but not in the good way. Where good shock propels viewers into new realms of thought, this “return to the repressed” type of shock only isolates its leftist viewers. It’s too easy.

“AHS” gained its reputation for bringing cinematic gore to the little screen. As excellent as “AHS” is from a purely formalist standpoint, it fails to subvert its historical materialist context in any significant way. Murphy can continue to believe his art is progressive, but to actually be so, his abstract beliefs must be grounded via praxis, it must be disruptive. As Bertolt Brecht spoke of the theater, “The theater-goer in the epic theater says: I would never have thought that. You can’t do that. That’s very strange, practically unbelievable. That has to stop. The suffering of this or that person grips me because there is an escape for him. That’s great art — nothing is self-evident.”

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