“American Horror Stories” riffs on home invasion horror with a tech-based morality tale that’s sweeter than it is scary.
“It can see what your eyes can’t.”
The world is a scary place, even without the myriad of monsters and supernatural creatures that have filled the episodes of American Horror Story. It’s increasingly easy to empathize with those who fear strangers and see the worst in humanity. Society has grown naturally paranoid and afraid of each other rather than heading in a direction of trust and understanding. Horror films like The Purge, or really any of the home invasion sub-genre, are built upon people’s worst desires bubbling up and terrorizing the innocent.
While this is well trodden territory at this point, “Aura” is built upon a strong premise that combines home invasion horror with the recent trend of terrifying doorcam videos that have become their own YouTube niche. “Aura” isn’t the scariest episode of American Horror Stories, but it presents a moving story that’s more interested in emotional catharsis than boogeymen. It’s an episode that occasionally punches above its weight, but “Aura” is still an effective and surprising installment of this horror anthology series.
The haunting footage that’s come out of raw doorcam footage is inherently creepy and it’s ripe territory for horror to explore. The existence of Ring, Blink, Eufy, Remo, and many other popular doorcam providers makes an episode like “Aura” arrive at the perfect time. The terrors of modern technology and how they influence societal norms is rare for American Horror Story and in some ways “Aura” almost feels like it would work as an episode of Black Mirror or even Tales From the Crypt due to its subject matter and tone. The episode generates true tension in its first-half simply through lingering shots of the Aura camera that give it the same weight as H.A.L. from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It definitely feels like “Aura” was built upon the jarring visual of Mr. Hendricks (Joel Swetow) screaming through black-and-white doorcam footage, but there’s a lot more to this episode than that.
Mr. Hendricks become a recurring presence who haunts Jaslyn (Gabourey Sidibe), but her own mental stability is the episode’s focus. Even before any telltale supernatural signs arise there’s evidence that she’s unfulfilled in her marriage with Bryce (Max Greenfield). “Aura” explicitly shows stylized flashes of Jaslyn’s compromised childhood, but a lot of it feels gratuitous and lazy, especially when simplistic home invasion visuals, like plastic animal masks, are featured and then never elaborated upon.
“Aura” begins in familiar territory when Jaslyn’s biggest obstacle seems to just get people to believe what she’s saying. This predictable gaslighting scenario isn’t the most entertaining and it goes through the typical motions. Her husband Bryce, for starters, is very condescending. Max Greenfield is an actor who’s exceptional at toeing the line between charming and obnoxious and “Aura” takes advantage of that energy the further along it goes. The episode’s director, Max Winkler, isn’t a newcomer to American Horror Stories, but he has more of a reputation as a New Girl director and that’s helpful here to reach the right modulation for Greenfield’s character.
Typically the worst thing about these narratives that are driven through gaslighting is that the gaslighting lasts too long and the story becomes a broken record of doubt for the main character, who the audience knows is right. The first two acts of “Aura” are pretty egregious in this regard, but it thankfully moves out of this territory and unpacks more rewarding material before the episode is over.
Mr. Hendricks is introduced as a grim spectre and his lonely janitor story offers him depth, but it’s still a sparse character. What works for this is that Mr. Hendricks is more of a red herring of sorts and he has just as much of a reason to fear Jaslyn as she does to be afraid of him. What’s effective about this turn is that Swetow’s performance never turns Hendricks into a caricature. His pain is palpable in each line of dialogue, which is essential when this morphs into a story about how Jaslyn moves on from her past trauma by atoning for her own sins. The quantum realm mechanics behind how Aura works and why it’s a beacon for ghosts don’t make total sense, but it’s enough to keep the episode moving and build to something more substantial.
This twist regarding Mr. Hendricks and all of the ghosts that Aura conjures also cleverly feeds into the episode’s general premise of how people are conditioned to fear others when we should maybe be more willing to open up our hearts and forgive others. That’s still a fundamentally dangerous message in many situations, particularly in scenarios like the one depicted in “Aura,” but it succeeds as an optimistic subversion for an episode that could have ended in a lot of different ways. “Aura” does undermine this to some extent with the punishing fate that Jaslyn is doomed to endure, which reflects some of the episode’s messier tendencies.
“Aura” is a fun change of pace for American Horror Stories that leans into familiar tropes and imagery, but uses them to tell a different kind of story for the anthology series. It’s a fun modern idea that gets muddled and occasionally feels rushed, but it still leaves a strong impression by the time it’s over. There’s enough that works in “Aura” to make up for the inconsistencies with its overall message. It doesn’t seem fair for Jaslyn to be haunted, but she leaves “Aura” a better person who is more likely to open her door and be receptive to the kindness of strangers.