The PR Monster:A Political Economy Analysis of the Terrifying Realm of American Horror Story
American Horror Story is a horror series created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy. Each season of the show is a self-contained mini-series with varying characters and settings, with only underlying connections to other seasons.
American Horror Story encompasses screams, sex, ‘jump-scares’, blood, psychotic behaviour, and death; it is some of the most vile content on television. The series is a franchise in and of itself, consisting of Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, Hotel, Roanoke, Cult, and Apocalypse (+the upcoming 1984); cleverly cross-promoting various seasons within others. The most recent season of the show has been significantly less successful than the season prior, therefore, the media network in which American Horror Story belongs to, FX, would benefit from a political economy of media analysis to explore how to resurface the success of their franchise, as their show has been renewed for at least two more seasons (Wagmeister 2017 para 1). I will be investigating how FX exploits the success of American Horror Story to execute this successfully by using the course concepts of advertising and franchising.
Since it’s release in 2011, the show has exercised the concept of advertising in powerful exhibitions of persuasion and profession. First, American Horror Story’s advertising campaigns are fuelled by the show’s horror genre. As outlined by Todd Van Slyke, an advertising instructor at the Illinois Institute of Art-Schaumburg, horror appeals
“play on our inherent fears of the unknown or that something is going to kill us. This is why scare tactics are stunningly effective.”
Fear is one of the principle emotions, therefore acquisition through advertising implies emotional significance, proposing the intention of the American Horror Story franchise to bring further fear and interest to viewers (Pham 2007). Fear is a universal emotion, thus making this show widely enjoyable. Marketing teams, such as the one behind the advertising campaigns of American Horror Story, use the concept of fear to induce interest by appealing to social, physical, and self esteem phobias. (Menasco and Barron 1982, para 7).
As outlined by the marketing director of FX, Stephanie Gibbons in a Vanity Fair article their marketing is produced to entice both the horror fan and the American Horror Story fan alike. She states,
“part of the thrill lies in the nature of the anticipation...It’s essentially much more thrilling to be on the shot that drives you toward the brass doorknob that’s slowly turning at the end of the hall, and to have your mind ponder what lurks behind that door, than it is to open a door and actually have it be known.”
For example, in the Cult chapter of the series, a large amount of phobia-inducing teaser trailers were aired prior to the show’s release. Their advertising depicted thrilling images symbolically representing serious phobias such as trypophobia festering in each sector of media in which these images and videos were displayed. Playing on such fear reinforces pre-existing fears often induced by nature’s most dangerous threats.
As examined in the Psychological Science Journal, many dangerous animals, such as crocodiles and snakes, have clusters of bumps or holes across their bodies, which is a characteristic that triggers trypophobia,
“...although sufferers are not conscious of the association, the phobia arises in part because the inducing stimuli share basic visual characteristics with those of dangerous organisms, characteristics that are low-level, easily computed, and therefore facilitate a rapid non-conscious response.”
(Cole and Wilkins 2013).
This marketing unconsciously triggers fears by associating the images depicted with danger and convinces thrill-seekers as well as the show’s fans to become interested in the show, therefore enticing them to begin watching. The show’s sixth season, Roanoke, has been significantly more successful in viewership than Cult and a reason for that can be linked to the difference in marketing (Patten 2017 para 2). The plot details, the theme, and even the cast was kept a secret until the show’s air, but the show marketing was a 26 part compilation of horror teasers with inspiration from over 500 different films (Bradley 2016). This marketing scheme was an exhibition of Gibbons’ plan to draw in horror enthusiasts as well as pre-existing American Horror Story fans thus reaching a broader audience to draw into the franchise. Because of the clever cross-promotion throughout the anthology series, drawing in horror viewers to one season guides them to become immersed in the entire franchise.
Media conglomerates like FX often develop franchises for successful stand-alone pieces of media as it can be extremely profitable from drawing on viewers from existing audiences, which thus lowers production costs (Dyer-Witheford 2017). American Horror Story exhibits an unorthodox form of franchising by maintaining the same franchise titles and actors, but changing the characters, settings, time periods, film styles and storylines. Being an anthological series, none of the storylines connect, but they all have a way of hinting back to each other. For example, in Cult, there are many references back to other seasons, urging viewers to connect between the varying storylines. Within the first episode, a character is seen holding a comic book titled “Twisty: The Clown Chronicles” which is a reference to both the show’s previous season, Freak Show (in which one of the main characters is Twisty the Clown) as well as the franchise’s spinoff motion comic with the same title (Flook 2017 para 2; Buecker 2017).
This is a strategic franchising scheme in the aspect that it entices viewers to watch other seasons and explore deeper into the realm of American Horror Story as it is highly complex and has a well developed plan of integration. Media advertises itself, not only through explicit adspots, but through franchising and branding. Therefore, by using advertising targeted at horror fans, American Horror Story reinforces their franchise through cross-promotion and cross-referencing thus economically benefitting the franchise and the network, FX.
The American Horror Story franchise is a section of a media oligopoly that is typically successful in its genre. Within the recent season, the shows viewership dropped 24% from the previous season, Roanoke (Patten 2017). The show has been successful previously, therefore a political economy of media analysis is beneficial to FX creators in order to maintain the success of previous sections of the show’s franchise. As stated in The Birdcage, “there was no ceiling on how much money the right kind of series with the right kind of potentially escalating fan obsession could take in.” (Harris 2014). This is relevant in the resurrection of the American Horror Story franchise in order to develop at least two more successful and profitable seasons of the anthology series. FX can achieve this by capitalizing on the cross-promotion of all sections of the franchise within the show and advertising using fear tactics and exploiting viewers excitement as exhibited in the promotion of the Roanoke chapter. Therefore, the obscene and explicit horror anthology series has the capability to increase its political economic value in following seasons by examining previous highs and lows of the franchise’s eight+ season run.
American Horror Story: Cult. “Election Night.” Episode one. Directed by Bradley Buecker. Written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk. FX, September 5, 2017.
Bradley, Laura. "Inside FX's Insane, Mysterious Marketing Campaign for A.H.S. Season 6." HWD. September 13, 2016. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2016/09/american-horror-story-season-6-teasers-interview.
Cole, Geoff, and Arnold Wilkins. "Fear of Holes." Psychological Science 24, no. 10 (August 27, 2013). Accessed November 17, 2017. doi:10.1177/0956797613484937.
D'Addario, Daniel. "American Horror Story Premiere Proved the Value of Surprise." Time. September 15, 2016. Accessed November 21, 2017. http://time.com/4494853/american-horror-story-season-six-premiere-surprise-theme/.
Flook, Ray. "'American Horror Story: Cult': Twisty Comes To Life In New Motion Comic." Bleeding Cool News And Rumors. September 02, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://www.bleedingcool.com/2017/09/02/american-horror-story-cult-twisty-comic/.
Harris, Mark. "The Birdcage." Grantland. December 16, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://grantland.com/features/2014-hollywood-blockbusters-franchises-box-office/.
Menasco, Michael and Penny Baron (1982) ,"Threats and Promises in Advertising Appeals", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 221-227.
Patten, Dominic. "‘American Horror Story: Cult’ Debut Ratings Fall From 2016 ‘Roanoke’." Deadline. September 07, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://deadline.com/2017/09/american-horror-story-cult-debut-ratings-down-donald-trump-ryan-murphy-sarah-paulson-fx-1202163266/.
Pham, Michel Tuan. "Emotion and rationality: A critical review and interpretation of empirical evidence." Review of General Psychology11, no. 2 (October 25, 2007): 155-78. doi:10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.124.
Ray, Amanda. "The Four-Letter Word in Advertising: Fear." The Art Institutes Education. January 1, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2017. https://www.artinstitutes.edu/about/blog/the-four-letter-word-in-advertising-fear.
Wagmeister, Elizabeth. "‘American Horror Story’ Renewed for Two More Seasons at FX." Variety. January 12, 2017. Accessed November 17, 2017. http://variety.com/2017/tv/news/american-horror-story-renewed-season-8-9-fx-1201958880/.