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Can ‘American Horror Story: 1984’ Finally Make the Slasher Genre Work on the Small Screen?

The show’s ninth season has everything—’80s nostalgia, a killer named Mr. Jingles—but it’s fighting an uphill battle to stay engaging

Ringer illustration

The longer American Horror Story has been on the air, the more the series has begun to feel like a caricature of itself—from its fondness for stunt castings (shout-out Lady Gaga) to its attachment to campy title sequences conveying the new season’s theme. In that regard, the forthcoming ninth season—dubbed American Horror Story: 1984, premiering on Wednesday night—doesn’t look like it plans to break the wheel.

If the title itself didn’t make this clear, the new opening credits does: This season will funnel ’80s nostalgia down your throat. But whereas Stranger Things has looked to the works of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, and Stephen King for its era’s influences, 1984 portends to be a season that embraces (and likely satirizes) the slasher genre. With a summer camp as the season’s backdrop and a masked killer—named, I kid you not, Mr. Jingles—on the loose ready to attack horny camp counselors, 1984 seems to be taking most of its aesthetic and narrative references from the Friday the 13th franchise.

FX declined to provide advance screeners to critics, so the best indicators we have for the direction of the new season come from its promotional material, retro title sequence, and this bizarrely edited trailer that’ll have you checking for pill residue in your coffee mug. Whether 1984 hews closer to the franchise’s high points—i.e., earlier installments like Murder House and Asylum—remains to be seen, but the season is already among television’s most high-profile attempts to try to capitalize on the intermittent success of slasher flicks.

The slasher movie heyday was during the late ’70s and early ’80s; The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980), Prom Night (1980), My Bloody Valentine (1981), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) become box office hits. (One of the reasons slashers were successful was because they were so cheap to make; studios were happy to make a ton of them and see what stuck. The first Halloween, for instance, grossed over $70 million after costing just $325,000 to produce.) Slashers from that period adhered to a familiar pattern: A killer with a vague and/or tortured past butchers a bunch of hot teens before being confronted and ultimately defeated by the Final Girl. But this approach, while entertaining, became subject to oversaturation: There are 20 (!) films between the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises alone, which include installments with Jason Vorhees in outer space and a crossover where Jason and Freddy Krueger beat the shit out of each other. You can see how this could get … tiresome.

Slashers didn’t rebound until Wes Craven’s ’90s Scream franchise put a metatextual spin on the genre by introducing characters who were aware of its conventions. (Unfortunately, being a slasher cinephile doesn’t necessarily preclude you from getting killed off; RIP, Jamie Kennedy.) The most recent slasher renaissance arrived largely on the shoulders of Blumhouse Productions, the company behind last year’s Halloween remake that became the third-highest grossing film in the month of October, as well as Truth or Dare and the Happy Death Day franchise (think Groundhog Day meets Scream). The success of the new Halloween may not yield a preponderance of slasher franchise reboots—though another attempt at Friday the 13th is reportedly forthcoming from [checks notes] LeBron James’s production company—but it’s got two sequels on the way that should ensure Michael Myers and Laurie Strode at least stay relevant over the next few years.

But the cyclical popularity of slashers hasn’t quite translated to the small screen in this era of Peak TV, where success has largely been found by shows leaning into other styles of horror (The Terror, The Haunting of Hill House, Channel Zero) and whodunit mysteries (Veronica Mars, Sherlock). There have been a couple of slasher-adjacent standouts, though, with some important alterations. Showtime’s Dexter offered a compelling variant by providing audiences the POV of a serial killer—one with a vigilante code, so you wouldn’t be totally appalled by his behavior as he often fought against more sadistic killers. Unfortunately, as Showtime is wont to do, Dexter dragged on for far too many seasons, en route to one of the worst series finales of all time (it involved a hurricane and lumberjacks). Meanwhile, in 2009, CBS’s Harper’s Island—about a group of friends who get together for a destination wedding and begin getting picked off by a mysterious killer—felt like the most transparent attempt at making a season-long series straight from the slasher-movie playbook. Alas, what could have been an anthology series fell out of sight after Harper’s Island’s lone season drew middling ratings.

In recent years, the Canadian-produced anthology series Slasher has dropped three seasons and counting (establishing an important foothold in all slasher-related SEO inquiries in the process), while AHS creator Ryan Murphy’s first attempt at a slasher series, Scream Queens, lasted two seasons on Fox. But perhaps the buzziest present-day slasher was MTV’s Scream, a small-screen adaptation that sought to mine the franchise’s meta-horror with a group of modern high schoolers. Ultimately, the OG cast of the Scream series hung around for two seasons, before the show completely rebooted itself for its third and final (and critically derided) season airing on VH1, with a cast that included Tyga and current Hustlers standout/memelord Keke Palmer.

As someone who trudged through the Scream series hoping it would capture some of the magic that’s made Craven’s franchise so compulsively entertaining and rewatchable, the show’s inability to maintain a gripping narrative reveals the uphill battle that slasher series face—namely, can a slasher sustain tension for an entire season of television?

It might be shortsighted to reduce everything to a numbers game, but it’s a lot easier to avoid redundancy in the original Scream, which comes in at 111 minutes, versus its small-screen counterpart, whose first two seasons comprised 24 episodes—each of which clocked in between 40 to 45 minutes. That’s a ton of time to spend with the same group of protagonists getting terrorized by a masked killer (or killers). Even the best slashers adhere to a less-is-more approach; what is the original Halloween if not one babysitter’s night from hell?

All that said, 1984 has elements that may work to its advantage as a series. Unless AHS plans to shake up its status quo, 1984 will need to sustain the slasher vibe for only one season. The mystery of Mr. Jingles and his killing spree at Camp Redwood has a definitive end in sight. (Of course, it’s possible this premise is an intentional misdirection: One fan theory posits the new season is some kind of murderous game show.) Maintaining a season-long narrative, though, is something that AHS has struggled with in years past. A common refrain for AHS detractors is that the show typically burns through some of its most engaging elements too early in the season—remember when Freak Show killed off its singularly creepy clown after just four episodes?—while suffering from the kind of narrative bloat that’s often affiliated with the defunct Netflix-Marvel universe.

But while AHS’s seasons diverge quite a bit with tone, aesthetic reference points, and overall quality, the franchise has survived enough ups and downs in its run that even the worst-case outcome for 1984—a failed deconstruction of the slasher genre, or something thereof—shouldn’t prevent the series from making it to a 10th season and beyond. Much like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger, American Horror Story is nothing if not an unkillable force of nature. But something tells me that after 1984, the pantheon of slasher stars won’t require the addition of Mr. Jingles.