I’m currently watching both TV dramas that regularly feature someone’s limb getting ripped off by a furious hellbeast. But are all dismemberments equal? Are American Horror Story: Asylum and The Walking Dead on the same level, or is one of them scarier than the other?
In some sense, that may not be a fair question. The Walking Dead has been telling a continuous story for three seasons, while Asylum has only aired one episode. But that’s because American Horror Story is an anthology, with each new season featuring a new premise and new characters. By those rules, it would be impossible for American Horror Story to spin the same yarn across three different years.
But that’s not a small thing. For me, in fact, it’s the reason Asylum is more satisfying—and scarier—than The Walking Dead.
Because for me, scary stories work best as short, sharp shocks. I want to be viscerally startled by them. I want to be shuddering or shouting before I’ve even worked out what I’m looking at. And even more importantly, I want some kind of mystery to remain, even when the story’s over.
That’s why I loved the ending of AHS’s first season. We learned a lot about that haunted house and all the dead people inside, but we didn’t learneverything.We didn’t know exactly why the evil baby was down there and how it got its power. We learned enough “rules of the house” to follow along, but then, after just 12 episodes, the story ended. We were left to our imaginations to sort out the rest, and that was delicious. I can still get a shiver when I consider what those mournful ghosts are going to do to the next people who buy that house.
And so far, it looks like Asylum is playing the same game of peek-a-boo. I’m sure we’ll learn more facts about this haunted psych ward and the freaks who live inside it, but already, the series is tantalizing us with unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions. Where did those aliens come from? Who the hell is Bloodyface? What will it do to Clea DuVall’s character as she lives with the fact that she got her girlfriend committed, just to avoid persecution? These foggy questions can linger around the mind, creating a terrible sense of dread. It’s better that we never know.
And yes, The Walking Dead has some of the same qualities. After three years, we still don’t know exactly what happened to cause this outbreak, and we still don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. The show gets a lot of mileage from the fact that everyone’s been cut off from technology, so there’s never any telling what’s coming next. (Plus, it has left certain characters dangling in our imaginations. Remember that father and son from the pilot episode? Who helped Rick when he got out of the hospital? Where did they go?)
However, The Walking Dead can’t maintain this tension forever. At this point, there’s a certain “sameness” creeping into the stories. Sure, different people are getting attacked by different zombies, but still… a zombie attack is always a zombie attack. And sure, Rick and the other characters are changing in the face of their collapsed society, becoming more violent and less empathetic, but they’ve been going through those changes since day one. Because the writers have so many episodes to fill, they have to stretch these changes out until they start to feel less urgent. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me. Even the “shocking” moments like Shane’s death or the revelation that everyone is infected with the zombie disease feel subdued to me when I watch the show, because behind everything, there’s this constant slowness to the pacing. A character dies here or there, but nothing ever changes. Not really. At the end of the day, the survivors have to run and the zombies have to feed. There’s no escaping that, and it can make the show a slog.
It’s still a good series. It’s well made and well acted, and the big themes about human nature and communal behavior will keep me tuning in. But I’m more intrigued by the show than enthralled, while the quick and freaky sensations of Asylum get me buzzing like a junkie.
I’m not saying I need nonstop thrills to be happy. Downton Abbey is a slow-moving, contemplative series (with soap opera touches), and I love it. But Downton Abbey doesn’t sell itself as a horror show. When you’re dealing with zombies, I wonder if “slow moving” is a recipe for disaster, both for the survivors and the viewers at home.
Mark Blankenship had trouble sleeping after seeing Bloodyface at the end of the Asylum premiere. He tweets as @IAmBlankenship.