The other week, while watching the last few episodes of the wonderfully creepy American Horror Story TV series, I had a suitably jarring experience.
If you haven't seen the show, it's about an American family that moves into a house that turns out to be haunted -- and ultimately destroys them all.
In the penultimate episode, Violet, a younger, likeable ghost, is attempting to rid the house of an extremely nasty member of the living dead. She learns a spell for banishing bad spirits and tries it on him.
She flings the evil ghost's watch into the fireplace and untters a mystic word. In response, he quivers ironically, and then bursts out laughing. Violet gasps: "the spell didn't work!" The bad ghost tells her that they never do. People make up these rituals, he explains, to make them feel in control. "But guess what," he mutters, "they're not."
This pessimistic vibe lingers throughout the episode. A little later, Violet's mother, Vivian (who's still alive at this point), has the misfortune of going through childbirth in this freaky abode. As you might expect, things don't go right -- and she starts to hemorrhage severly.
Her husband begs her to fight on. But Vivian can also see Violet's spirit, who tells her, "mom, if you're in pain, you can let go." Fading at this point, she replies: "I don't think I have a choice."
Unusual as it was to see a TV show where the stars don't ulitmately "pull themselves up by their bootstraps" and "take control", what was just as surprising, in this context, were some of the commercials that paid for it.
The most striking to me was one for PlayStation 3, which praises a young hero named "Michael":
At first viewing, it seems as if American Horror Story and PlayStation 3 come from completely different universes. One ruled by defeat -- the other by conquest.
The Horror of the Real Estate Bubble
The "horror" in American Horror Story, in addition to the phantoms and spooks, is the seeming helplessness of the family stuck in this nasty home.
And you can see why this program became the new water cooler show: in an age of foreclosures, it captured an element of the zeitgeist.
The haunted house genre is after all, sometimes seen as an allegory about the anxieties caused by real estate -- and how sometimes, when a house goes bad, it can threaten a family's financial and emotional existence. Here's literary critic Walter Benn Michaels on the Amityville Horror:
"Think of the plight of the Amityville couple as investors in real estate: having risked everything to get themselves into the spectacularly inflationary market of 1975, they find themselves owning the only house on Long Island whose value is declining -- the only one for a few years, anyway, until rising interest rates, as intangible as ghosts only more powerful, would begin to produce a spectacular effect on housing prices everywhere."
The Triumph of the Gamer's Will
But if American Horror Story is a fable about being overpowered by mysterious (perhaps ultimately economic) forces, is not the PlayStation 3 ad its mirror opposite? In it, Michael, the gamer (whose portrait we see at the end) rather than get overpowered by phantoms, anxieties or crisis situations, is instead, their total master. The "ghosts and goblins" in the spot worship the guy like a god!
All of which makes me wonder if there's not a sort of cause and effect relation between these two spectacular forms of entertainment. It's as if the godlike pleasure of the video game has been invented as an antidote for the grim realities the TV show brings to mind.
You can see why young people -- especially males -- would love PlayStation 3. In a world where mom and pop may be over stretched, perhaps stuck with responsibilities and investments (real estate or otherwise) that are going south fast, a game like this at least creates a fantasy where a little personal heroism is still thinkable.
And the tag line "Long Live Play" suggests something else. Perhaps the reason the act of playing (like ritual) has been around as long as human culture itself is that our awareness of a potential disaster, always seemingly lurking around the corner, creates the need for mastery of some sort -- over some domain or reality.
Even if it's all only a game. Thoughts?