The anthology series American Horror Story recently returned for its fifth season, American Horror Story: Hotel. The bone-rattling chills began as soon as the first victims stepped out of a cab and entered the hell that is the Hotel Cortez, and the opening scenes introduced viewers to some of the malevolent and tortured souls that will wander the halls this season, suggesting the craziness that is to follow.
This season draws on a bevy of influences, both real and fictional. That’s been true for each incarnation of American Horror Story. From the real world, the Black Dahlia murder figured into season one and Marie Delphine Lalaurie played a central part in season three. Those real-life terrors are joined by allusions, homages, and blatant copies of classic horror movies and thrillers. Last season, for example, would be pretty much unimaginable without Tod Browning’s Freaks.
Three episodes in, American Horror Story: Hotel is already overflowing with horror references and influences — some more obvious than the others. Here are the ones we’ve noticed. Feel free to note others in the comments:
The Shining / 1408
That this season would reference The Shining was pretty much a given. From the carpet in the Cortez’s lobby, the haunted rooms that seem to lure unwitting tenants into their grasp, and visions that may or may not be real, Hotel has had no shortage of nods to Kubrick’s Stephen King adaptation. Apart from the obvious references, the claustrophobia that infects The Shining is present in Hotel. Despite being set in the heart of Los Angeles, the closed-in nature of the hotel also plays a role. Even when our characters venture out, as Lady Gaga does as The Countess when in search of her next target, they are soon brought back to the hotel either to unleash or face horrors.
The Shining isn’t the only Stephen King story to get a nod from Hotel. The cursed room from 1408 shares a lot of similarities with Room 64 in the Cortez, acting as a portal for the supernatural entities in the hotel and moving time from a dead stop to a breakneck pace at a moment’s notice.
The slasher genre is well known for upholding the idea that morals are powerful and breaking them usually leads to peril. Those who partake in temptation are usually punished, and that’s been true since Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho laid the foundations for the genre. Marion Crane steals $40,000 from her boss ahead of her meeting with Norman Bates and her subsequent bad end. The same is true for those in the grasp of the Hotel Cortez. Gabriel (played by New Girl’s Max Greenfield) is a drug addict who enters the hotel and ends up being punished after an encounter with the hotel’s Addiction Demon. Two pill-popping Swedish tourists become unwilling blood donors for The Countess’ children. What happens raises a moral question: They’re punished, but is their punishment out of proportion with their perceived transgressions? Toss in the hidden rooms, passages, and the feeling that the walls are always watching and it’s clear that Psycho is alive and well in American Horror Story: Hotel. It has to be.
The first moment we see the Ten Commandments Killer’s work on American Horror Story: Hotel, it’s hard not to think of David Fincher’s Seven. The religious-themed murders, the creative crime scenes, and a mysterious killer all suggest the director’s 1996 thriller. There’s also an element of Manhunter (or Red Dragon) at play in Wes Bentley’s John Lowe, the detective investigating the murders while also staying in the Cortez.
Lowe is the Will Graham, or David Mills, of this story, balancing his own personal demons and the darkness within the world he inhabits. And much in the same way Graham and Mills end up having a personal connection to the horror at the core of the tale, Lowe is affected by the curse of the hotel after The Countess adds his missing son to her brood of vampire children.
Speaking of The Countess (played well by Lady Gaga), her tale combines the classic lore of the vampire with the twists from more modern vampire stories. Her main influence is clearly Tony Scott’s 1983 film The Hunger, an erotic vampire tale starring Catherine Deneuve as the seductive vampire Miriam Blaylock. Gaga’s Countess and Denueve’s Blaylock essentially walk the same path, choosing human companions to be her ageless vampire lovers — at least until she decides to find another. Unlike The Hunger, it seems The Countess’ lovers don’t fade and waste away once they’re replaced. Instead they have to deal with her rejection and their own immortality.
Anne Rice’s work also serves as an influence, particularly Interview With a Vampire with its long fictional history and grounded portrayal of the vampires in the story, who are more cursed and damaged than servants of evil, creeping through the night. While The Countess has lived a life of cold and calculated control, those she has transformed into her lovers — Angela Bassett’s Ramona Royale for example — seem scornful and eventually come to view immortality as a burden, much like Interview‘s Louis.
House On Haunted Hill
Both the original and remake of House On Haunted Hill feature a setting that could be considered a character in itself; a quality shared by The Cortez. The former asylum in the remake of House On Haunted Hill and The Cortez are both built on malice and pain, created with evil intentions that have cursed those who die on the premises to roam.
But it’s not only ghosts that bond House and Hotel, it’s the motivations of the characters. In both the William Castle original and the late-’90s remake, those invited to spend a night in the House on Haunted Hill have dark backgrounds or underhanded plans. Both versions feature a jealous wife utilizing her lover to help kill her well-to-do husband — Vincent Price in the original and Geoffrey Rush in the remake.
Like most ghost stories, American Horror Story is less about what the ghosts will do and more about how they ended up as shades of their former selves and it’s this commitment to characters that helps elevate American Horror Story. Despite its tendency to delve into the crazy and nonsensical each season, American Horror Story does right by the genre by creating characters that carry the traditions of horror within each new entry, making it more than the sum of its references.