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UFO Conspiracies in "American Horror Story"
The campy horror franchise moves away from Gothic fiction to embrace the very worst History Channel UFO conspiracy theories in the woefully misbegotten "Death Valley"
American Horror Story has never been accused of subtlety, but in taking on the UFO mythos, the program might have sunk to its lowest depths. Traditionally, AHS has built its seasons around campy, skewed takes on urban legends and traditional Gothic horror tropes, often with a sexually charged, frequently queer, edge. Sometimes the result approaches good, but mostly it’s bad. This bifurcated season saw a pharmaceutical take on a traditional vampire story in its first half and a second story that breaks AHS’s traditional format to deliver a huge wet kiss to UFO conspiracy theorists.
AHS: Death Valley is markedly different from past installments of the franchise in a number of respects. First, most of the story is told in black-and-white, mimicking a 1950s sci-fi movie. Second, it features real-life historical figures as its protagonists. Past installments have primarily dealt with fictional characters, but here the story centers on Dwight Eisenhower and features extended sequences with his wife Mamie, Richard Nixon, Jack Kennedy, and Marilyn Monroe.
Beyond this, the story is not a riff on a traditional horror story but a straightforward dramatization of current UFO mythology. It’s basically a live-action episode of Ancient Aliens, or, perhaps more accurately, a grotesque mummery of Dark Skies. In the 1950s, an alien spaceship crashes in the desert near Palm Springs, and Pres. Eisenhower (Neal McDonough) rushes to the scene, covering up the trip by telling people he’s visiting the dentist. The aliens, as per usual, want to abduct humans because their race is dying and they need to experiment on people to hybridize us. Eisenhower reluctantly agrees and gives them what they want, eventually including a base at Area 51, where NASA and Stanley Kubrick eventually fake the moon landing to distract from alien tech and save money on an actual lunar mission. Eisenhower and Nixon have Jack Kennedy (a laughably miscast Mike Vogel) killed because he planned to expose the truth about the alien invasion, and they also had Marilyn Monroe murdered because the Kennedys had told her too much.
Along the way, we touch on various other favorite UFO conspiracies, culminating in the appearance of Valiant Thor as the aliens’ liaison and lead researcher. The has rather intense sex with Mamie Eisenhower (Sarah Paulson) in front of a humiliated Pres. Eisenhower.
This story is played against a shorter segment each hour featuring a group of annoying woke teens, two girls and a male couple, who all become pregnant by aliens following a stereotypical lost-time abduction in the California desert and are taken to Area 51 to birth experimental hybrid babies, which are euthanized at birth because after 70 years, the aliens still haven’t gotten it right.
The tone of AHS: Death Valley is disconcerting. It’s shot like a comedy, though it is not funny, and none of the actors in the historical segment make much effort to play the real people they are badly mimicking. McDonough played this same material straight in the History Channel’s Project Bluebook, and here he is quite clearly phoning it in. Vogel only intermittently attempts JFK’s accent, and Paulson uses the same voice for Mamie Eisenhower that she uses for Linda Tripp in American Crime Story: Impeachment. The aesthetics are also laughably bad, apparently inspired by Plan 9 from Outer Space.
I sincerely hope that the final episode of the four-part Death Valley makes something of the mess they’ve thrown together. I’d like to find out that it’s all intentionally fake, but I doubt it. Overall, the show seems to be trying to make some sort of statement about the reproductive rights and bodily autonomy of women and queer people in the face of amoral patriarchal authority, but as is usual with Ryan Murphy productions, it never commits to its supposedly progressive perspective and repeatedly comes close to endorsing conservative views of sex, family, and society. Part of that comes from the tension between the structural conservatism of horror (the format of horror is revulsion at a rupture in the status quo) and the effort to center queer and female characters. But more of it comes from the mean streak found across the work of Murphy and his longtime collaborators. Even when Murphy’s work is trying explicitly to celebrate queerness, his shows nevertheless depict them as villains, idiots, immoral or amoral, mean but nevertheless mistake this for noble. Structurally, because horror historically coded its villains as queer, there is an underlying logic here, but in not thinking through the consequences of celebrating the villain to cheer the queer, the message becomes flawed. In the case of Death Valley, the show is such a mess that it invites us to jeer its queer teens as obnoxiously woke before moving them to a half-hearted heroism rooted in tropes about nuclear families.
Of more immediate concern, however, is AHS: Death Valley using the darkest UFO conspiracy theories unfiltered and unaltered, dramatizing for mass consumption the worst ideas of the History Channel fever swamps and giving them not just the endorsement of a major TV production—we know from Project Bluebook that viewers easily assume alien-themed shows are secretly telling secret truths—but spreading them to new audiences who will begin “researching” and falling prey to the lies that AHS winks and nods at being true.