THR's weekly breakdown of the FX franchise's most mysterious season yet.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the second episode of American Horror Story: Roanoke, "Chapter 3."]
After a lead-up shrouded in secrecy, the sixth season of American Horror Story filled in its biggest question-mark when it revealed itself as AHS: Roanoke after the Sept. 14 premiere.
The newest cycle of Ryan Murphy's FX anthology played out unlike any other in the long-running hit horror series. Delivering on Murphy's promise of a new narrative, viewers found themselves tuning into a true-crime-style docuseries titled "My Roanoke Nightmare" that flip-flopped from the present to the past.
The story, which is "inspired by true events," centers on a couple, Shelby and Matt Miller, who moved into a haunted mansion in North Carolina. Lily Rabe and Andre Holland play the couple telling the story, while Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. star as the pair in a dramatic reenactment. Matt's sister Lee is played by Adina Porter in interviews, and Angela Bassett in the reenactment. Spirits related to the 16th-century Lost Colony of Roanoke — including Lady Gaga (introduced in the second episode), Kathy Bates and Wes Bentley — haunt the land. As story tells it, more than 100 people vanished without a trace from the pre-16th century N.C. colony, leaving only the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree. (Head here for a full premiere recap.)
Despite the hauntings, the Millers can't leave because every cent they own is tied up in the house. The second and third episodes continued with the docu-series format, following the new storyline of Lee's daughter, Flora, who gets abducted by the spirits on the other side, while Denis O'Hare's character doubled-down on the ghost stories orbiting Shelby and Matt's new home. The third episode brought about the most shocking moment yet: when Shelby catches a trance-like Matt having sex with Gaga's mysteriously evil character in the woods. The episode also pulled back the curtain on "My Roanoke Nightmare" by giving the interviewer behind the camera a voice (which sounded a lot like Cheyenne Jackson) and briefly showing the set when Lee needed a moment to grieve her missing daughters.
Ahead of the premiere, the cable network and showrunner, who co-created AHS with Brad Falchuk, kept the subtitle, plot and main cast a secret. In a bid to switch things up for the devoted fanbase, the powers that be told The Hollywood Reporter that the mysterious marketing campaign will continue throughout the season and, in an effort to keep the ongoing plot from being spoiled, none of the talent or producers will be giving interviews to the press.
THR spoke at length with FX marketing boss Stephanie Gibbons, who is one of a few who knows how the season will play out, and briefly with Murphy. Each week, THR will combine what we know with what we've learned to provide the most updated information on the theories and revelations surrounding season six.
So far, Murphy has revealed that the season will connect with its predecessors, and that a game-changing twist will arrive in episode six. With 10 episodes total to the season, how will the mythology of AHS continue to rear its head? Check back here every Wednesday night and share your thoughts with THR in the comments.
The main castmembers were confirmed in the credits at the end of the Sept. 14 premiere: Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett (above, right), Kathy Bates (above, left), Wes Bentley and Denis O'Hare all appeared during the episode, while Evan Peters and Cheyenne Jackson are still yet to be seen. Lady Gaga made a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance in the second episode, joining Bates and Bentley as assumed ghosts of the lost Roanoke Colony during a human sacrifice ceremony, and has been credited as a special guest star. Jackson is credited as the voice of the "My Roanoke Nightmare" producer on both Wikipedia and IMDB. The actor also shared a photo from set on Wednesday.
The third episode brought about the return of Leslie Jordan in a similar role to his Coven witch from season three, Quentin. This time, Jordan plays Cricket Marlow, a medium from New Orleans who arrives at the Millers after a spiritual calling. He performs a seance in hopes of communicating with the dead to find Lee's missing daughter, Flora. Marlow discovers that Flora has been taken by the malevolent spirits of Roanoke, but is being protected by Priscilla, a "bad seed," according to Bates' haunting visit. But most importantly, Marlow provides the backstory to Bates' character, The Butcher, and her fellow colonial spirits.
Centuries ago, The Butcher was a wife, Thomasin White, to the Governor of Roanoke, John White, and a mother to Bentley's Ambrose. John went away on a supply run and in his absence, Thomasin was in charge. The others didn't approve and imprisoned her, locking a steel cage around her head (a nod to Bates' Coven witch, Delphine LaLaurie.) She wanders the woods about to die, and Gaga's wood nymph rises from the ground to offer her a heart in exchange for her soul. The Butcher is then reborn, returns to kill the colonists as revenge and has been protecting the land ever since.
The most disturbing moment arrives when Shelby stumbles on Matt having sex with Gaga's character in the woods, while two of the onlooker hillbillies (one being Chaz Bono) masturbate. Afterwards, Matt has no recollection of the sordid event.
About her character, which has yet to be named, Gaga has only teased: "The character I'm playing this year on Horror Story, she's quite grounded. That might sound ridiculous once you see who she is, but she's very in the earth."
When O'Hare appeared in the second episode, it was clear that he was the man on the videotape from the premiere, Dr. Elias Cunningham, a university professor who, at some point after 1988, moved into Shelby and Matt's home to research a Charles Manson-Helter Skelter style true crime novel on the former owners: two sisters who were nurses turned murderers. (More on that below.)
Other returning members of the ensemble likely to make an appearance are Finn Wittrock and Matt Bomer, as they had let news of their return slip during prior interviews. Murphy recently revealed to EW that this season will see the return of the Mott family (below): "We explain how the Motts began, which is funny," he said. Wittrock played spoiled brat-turned-killer Dandy Mott, who Murpy calls a "favorite," in season four's Freak Show, and Frances Conroy played his mother, Gloria.
He also teased that Dandy Mott won't be the only returning face. "There's a lot of great, familiar people that have come through the seasons, the first five, who fans have missed who I've always tried to get," he said. "Many of them have been unavailable and I booked them far enough in advance this year that they're back. This is the year where you see the greatest hits in terms of actors of American Horror Story, and they all love doing it."
Ryan Murphy delighted the FX audience by bringing Cuba Gooding Jr. over to AHS to reunite with his People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story costar Sarah Paulson. Viewers on Twitter squealed with delight when O.J. Simpson and Marcia Clark had a sex scene early in the premiere (well ahead of his forrest romp with Lady Gaga).
Gooding Jr. (above, right) spilled the beans that he was tapped by the showrunner before the season began. “When Ryan calls you and says, ‘Hey can you do this? Would you like to do that?’ It’s an immediate yes, no matter what it is,” Gooding Jr. said. He even teased the intimate scene with Paulson: “It’s really been a treat to finally engage with her on camera, because when we did The People v. O.J., it was more about my scenes and then her scenes and us being in the courtroom but separate — but we’re not separate no more!”
Andre Holland (The Knick, above, left) and Adina Porter (True Blood) are two of the new and main players to join this season. In the third episode, Adina's Lee revealed that Flora isn't the first of her children to go missing. Her first daughter, Emily, was abducted when Lee left her in the car to make a grocery run. The moment calls for Lee to ask the "My Roanoke Nightmare" producers for a moment off-camera, giving AHS viewers a peak of the set that many had speculated might not exist.
Another fresh face who popped up early in the premiere and third episode was Cher's son Bono playing one of the hillbillies. The third episode also briefly introduced John Pyper-Ferguson (Suits) as a Roanoke colonist who was killed by Bates' The Butcher. The second episode's killer nurses Bridget and Miranda are played by Kristen Rakes and Maya Berko, respectively.
Murphy appears to have courted another alum from his previous show, as Jacob Artist, who hails from Murphy and Falchuk's Glee and was most recently seen on ABC's Quantico, posted a since-deleted photo of the AHS script on Instagram with the caption "Day 1."
As part of the unique marketing campaign for the mysterious sixth season, FX — led by Stephanie Gibbons — released 26 trailers teasing the possible theme. Among them, FX confirmed one was real and the rest were misdirects. "The truth is in there, we made absolutely certain," Gibbons told THR before premiere. "It’s like the needle in the haystack or the pebble in your shoe: It’s tiny but boy, do you notice it and that’s what we wanted."
The AHS fanbase launched into conspiracy theories and some of the speculation turned to the "Lost Colony" theme after photos, claiming to be of the AHS set, showed the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree, leading to guesses of Roanoke. The word was uttered by Jordan's Cricket duing the third episode, in an attempt to banish spirits from the home. (More on that below).
Indeed, the premiere revealed itself to be a docu-drama involving Roanoke, with the story unfolding as a show-within-a-show. After the premiere aired, AHS revealed the subtitle (and the premiere ratings turned out to be one of the franchise's best.) But speculation abounds as to whether or not the current narrative is the true one. Murphy had initially confirmed that season six would begin to tie together the mythology of the series, and he recently dropped a major hint to EW that a big twist is ahead for episode six — a number that, as Gibbons pointed out to THR, "has a particular meaning in the horror realm."
"The show has a huge turn and the thing that you think you’re watching is not what you’re watching," Murphy told EW. Falchuk added that the season can be broken down into three stories: Episodes one through five, six through nine and then 10. "No matter what you think it is, it’s not that. Episode six comes and you’re like, ‘Wait! What happened?'" he said.
One observant Reddit user posted a theory ahead of season three that each episode would correspond to the respective season in the franchise, and that the new season wouldn't actually begin until episode six. Jordan's Coven-like appearance, following the events of the first two episodes, only further helps the theory.
Shelby and Matt's story began in similar fashion to the premise of the inaugural season of AHS, Murder House. After Matt was attacked by a gang and nearly died, Shelby suffered a miscarriage. The couple moved from Los Angeles to the abandoned mansion in N.C., where the haunting then, inexplicably, began. Shining-like ghosts wandered the halls, Blair Witch figures hung from the ceiling and teeth fell from the sky. There was also a wandering pig-man. The Piggy Man urban legend also reared itself in Murder House when a butcher wearing a dead pig's head slaughtered Eric Stonestreet's character after he said "Piggy Piggy" into the mirror.
In the second episode, the nearby woods appear to be just as haunted as the house, serving as a wormhole-like door to the evil spirits of Roanoke. First, Shelby stumbles into a human sacrifice ceremony of a man wearing a pig's head led by Bates, Wesley and Gaga's characters. Later, Matt joins Shelby in the woods and the pair witness the results of the ceremony: burning flesh and a severed pigs head atop (explaining the piggy-man ghost who later appears in Lee's mirrored reflection). Lee's daughter, Flora, moves in and her imaginary friend, Priscilla, said "they" are going to kill everyone in the house and save Flora for last. The little girl goes missing at the end of he episode.
But the Roanoke spirits aren't the only ones haunting the mansion. A mysterious girl in the woods directs Shelby and Matt to a cellar, where they discover a hideout and videotape that explains the nurses who had appeared to both Lee and Matt. It's there that O'Hare's Dr. Cunningham explains the house's ghosts of 1988: two sisters, Bridget (Rakes) and Miranda (Berko) murdered five patients when they opened an assisted living facility in the home. The first letter of the victims' names spelled out their "favorite" word, but the spirits of Roanoke stopped them before they could finish, making the season-six setting "MURDE House." (A nod to The Shining's REDRUM.) Despite attempts to cover the bloody message, the words still appear years later as final proof to Shelby and Matt that their "inbred" neighbors aren't the ones playing the tricks.
Matt met Bridget and Miranda during a flashback scene that was reminiscent of Asylum, which starred sisters of a different kind, nuns Mary Eunice (Rabe) and Jude (Jessica Lange). Ghost nurses also appeared in Murder House. In keeping with the theory, episode one correlates to Murder House, episode two to Asylum and now three to Coven. And given Murphy's confirmation about Dandy, a Freak Show nod is on the horizon.
Much has also been speculated about the show's documentary format, but the third episode gave the man behind the camera a voice and even showed Lee on set during a breakdown moment. The episodes continue to delve deeper into "My Roanoke Nightmare" and stick with the format, but conflicting accounts between Shelby, Lee and Matt are more clues that these talking heads might not be the ones running this show.
This isn't the first time Roanoke has come up on AHS. During the first season of Murder House, Paulson's psychic character Billie Dean Howard tells of the colony of Roanoke when Violet (Taissa Farmiga) asks for her help to banish the ghosts in their home.
"It’s difficult to banish a spirit, but not impossible. The most successful attempt I know of happened when America was known as the new world," begins Paulson's season-one character. She then tells the tale: "In 1590, on the coast of what we now know as North Carolina, the entire colony of Roanoke — all 117 men, women, and children — died inexplicably. It became known as the ghost colony because the spirits remained. They haunted the native tribes living in the surrounding areas. Killing indiscriminately. The elder knew he had to act. He cast a banishment curse. First he collected the personal belongings of all the dead colonists. Then they burned them. The ghosts appeared, summoned by their talismans. But before the spirits could cause them any more harm, the elder completed the curse that would banish the ghosts forever. By uttering a single word. The same word found carved on a post at the abandoned colony: Croatoan.'"
Billie Dean mentioned she was filming a Lifetime series and when her character reappeared in the fifth season, Hotel, she was starring on a Lifetime show — an example of the AHS universe being connected.
During the third episode, Lee recounted the horror myth of Roanoke, though she said 116 settlers disappeared without a trace. (Is the missing person significant, or a result of stories being passed down the lane?)
Murphy confirmed to THR ahead of the season that six will be the cycle when the AHS seasons finally start to come together. "You'll see it this season, and then you'll really see it after this season," he said. "We lay a lot of pipe, and you'll see it explode in seasons seven and eight [which haven't been officially picked up yet]." He continued, "This is a show that could be like The Twilight Zone and run for multiple, multiple seasons and have its own inner mythology. So that's how we're approaching it. I'll keep doing it for as long as we have the ideas and the momentum."
When asked if he has a road map for the series, Murphy offered up this about Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, Hotel (and now Roanoke): "Oh yeah, absolutely. And the seasons are connected, for sure."
Murphy also has a history of ripping his villains from real headlines, something he's categorically done with each season. There was a set of real-life killer nurses in 1989, dubbed The Lethal Lovers. They were lovers, not sisters (O'Hare's Elias alluded to the sisters also being in love), named Gwendolyn Graham and Catherine Wood of Apline Manor Nursing Home. The Grand Rapids, Mich., nursing home aides murdered five patients as part of a pact. Graham was sentenced to life in prison without parole and Wood, 20 to 40 years, according to the New York Times — and their story reads awfully familiar to the pair on Roanoke.
The Butcher's husband John White also existed and sits at the heart of the famed tale. The governor of Roanoke returned from a trip to England in 1590 to find his settlement deserted. White and his men found no trace of the colonists he had left behind, including his daughter, Ellinor Dare and granddaughter, Virgina Dare. The only clue was the word “CROATOAN” carved into the palisade that had been built around the settlement. The event is said to have haunted White for the rest of his life.
Gibbons confirmed to THR that there will be no bait and switch: After the premiere, viewers will know the theme. But that doesn't mean they will know much else about the season as a whole. "As we’ve seen with other seasons, much lies ahead," she said (most recent case in point: Hotel's Ten Commandments Killer reveal). "You know more when you’ve read the first chapter, but it’s far from the end of the book... It's one twisty-turny season."
After the premiere ended, many viewers theorized that each episode could feature a new "true" American Horror Story. The second and third episode, however, continued with "My Roanoke Nightmare" and the trailer (above) released by FX after the premiere contained scenes that are still to come, including a seemingly resurrected Dr. Cunningham, looking much sharper than O'Hare's earlier paranoid, scruffy character who was seen on the tape.
O'Hare likely got a ghostly makeover, and his presence in the house is one of a few clues that the Millers' house, like Murder House, collects the dead. "This place is mine. I shall protect this place. I shall stop at nothing to hold safe this colony," said The Butcher, who revealed in the third episode that she never leaves the land. None of the spirits could ever step off the Murder House premises. (The same goes for season five's Hotel Cortez.)
But it's most important to heed Gibbons' advice: Should AHS viewers trust the narrative? Harping on Gibbons' use of "twisty-turny" — and Murphy's confirmation that episode six will throw viewers for a loop — there is no telling if Shelby, Matt and Lee are survivors of this horror, or if they are ghosts, and what the latter would mean for Paulson, Gooding Jr. and Bassett's actors.
Here are our burning questions:
Are the colony ghosts in fact spirits, or have they somehow risen from the dead? If spirits are indeed trapped on the land, could Piggy Man be the new Rubber Man — with the missing Evan Peters again being under the mask? Or, will Peters surface in the role of John White, when he returns to find the members of his colony have vanished, under The Butcher's orders? Is Jackson the one in charge, or could an unforeseen player be directing this entire "My Roanoke Nightmare"?
The teaser for the fourth episode shows Shelby and Matt ignoring Cricket's advice to leave and Shelby calling Matt on his Gaga escapade and attempting the "Croatoan" spell. In the third episode, Cricket used the word to successfully banish The Butcher from the seance, and "Croatoan" was the only thing uttered by the pig corpse-eating lost boys discovered by Matt, Shelby and Lee earlier on — so it looks Shelby is giving it a whirl.
Watch below and check back in for updates after AHS: Roanoke airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX for more on what we've learned.