TV Horror Showdown: AHS v Bates Motel

As I touched upon in my recent review of The Exorcist TV programme, we horror fans are seemingly spoilt for choice when it comes to terrifyingly good TV horror.  So much choice in fact that there are many shows that I am yet to watch a single episode of, including Penny Dreadful, Fear the Walking Dead, The Strain and so on…

TV Horror - AHS

Two series I have managed to invest a lot of time in recently are American Horror Story and Bates Motel, for very different reasons.

AHS was a brand spanking new inject into horror TV, brought to us by the very capable Ryan Murphy (although I have never/will never watch Glee – shudder) with a great cast and great prospects.  BM promised an unflinching coming of age story of a true psycho with a wonderful cast of promising young talent and seasoned veterans.

I’ve decided to pit the two against each other in a series of categories to determine once and for all which TV horror series is better: American Horror Story or Bates Motel.

Location/Setting

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AHS has the luxury of basing each new series in a different setting and time period, including a modern day haunted house, a 60’s mental asylum and a 50’s circus.  The different locations and eras are integral to each story, becoming as much a character as the cast.

BM is set primarily around the motel and the Bates’ house.  The town they reside in does feature quite frequently, but the motel and house are the staples as much so here as as in the original Psycho film.  Watching Norman’s slow descent into madness in these locations makes the process more powerful and engaging and helps the audience to understand why he would never leave.

Characters

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AHS has different characters in each series but played by pretty much the same cast.  This has its own positives and negatives. Yes, each series is nice and fresh, but on the flip side the characters whom you became so invested in cease to exist after a mere ten episodes (although there are some crossovers).  Some of the best characters so far have been Twisty the Clown (Freakshow), Marie Delphine LaLaurie, the New Orleans socialite who murdered her slaves (Coven) and Lana Winters, the journalist regarded as crazy for being gay who ends up facing a fate worse than death (Asylum).

BM has the iconic characters of Norman Bates (as a teenager) and his mother, Norma Bates (alive).  It is credit to the writers and actors who show the slow descent into madness for a pubescent boy who confuses sexuality with his mother’s love and a mother whose behaviour damages her son beyond any normal reckoning and understanding.  Both desperate, both needing love and neither knowing the correct way to form and maintain human relationships.

Storyline(s)

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Each AHS series is a different story with many woven threads throughout.  Each series deftly manages to create an entirely new idea to the previous season, remaining engaging, original and entertaining.  The strongest storylines I believe were told in Murder House and Asylum.  Each episode dealt secret after secret which were always surprising, always shocking and always left you wanting more.  Personally, I think that AHS lost its way in the later series, and I found Freakshow in particular a bit of a slog to get through.

BM’s overarching story is to explain how and why Norman Bates is a psycho killer.  Obviously, this needs to be a slow-burning development, so the series are interspersed with stories about kidnapped women, mystery killings of prostitutes, drug trade and a lot of different romances.

Fear Factor

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AHS has some very frightening characters and some pretty awful murders, which I found effective at creeping out the audience.  Like with the other categories, some seasons achieve this better than others. For example, Twisty the Clown’s smile in Freakshow is enough to give anyone nightmares but he is bumped off rather quickly, leaving an unfillable gap in the scares for the series.  I thought he should have been kept in much longer – his back story is actually really sad, which makes you lose your fear and give him your sympathy.

BM doesn’t have an immediate fear factor.  You can’t simply turn on one episode and get a good ol’ scare.  This series requires your full on attention during each episode to understand how frightening it all actually is.  You witness the unravelling of Norman and his mother; his journey from a troubled young boy into a full blown psycho.  Believe me, witnessing him in the kitchen making breakfast, wearing his mother’s dress, believing he really is his mother, is more terrifying than any witch, freak or murderer from AHS.

The winner

Overall, it is very hard to pick a winner.  They both have strong points and are both incredibly entertaining to watch.  But, as I have to choose, I pick Bates Motel.  As much as I do love American Horror Story, I have found the series to be getting weaker and weaker while BM is becoming stronger and stronger.  Plus it has Vera Farmiga, my favourite horror actress, so you can’t really compete with that…

By Catherine Dunn (@toodamncat)

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