FXs successful series American Horror Story (2011- ) (AHS) embeds its impressive ensemble cast in a different narrative each season, taking viewers on a journey through America’s aberrant obsessions and preternatural fears – murder houses, clowns, witches, serial killers, the ascension of Donald Trump and his followers, and most recently, the Apocalypse. Showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk underscore American history’s brutal treatment of minorities, women, the LBGQT community, and the physically and mentally handicapped. The horror in these distinctly American stories derive from the oppressors and the oppressed engaging in a bloody cycle of cruelty and vengeance amid an apathetic, complacent, and affluent society slouching towards Armageddon. “I really think American Horror Story is about the darkness of society,” Murphy notes, “It was always conceived to be a social statement on different things.”[i] America’s peculiar talent for ignoring its history, specifically anything painful or disturbing, is woven into each season’s blood soaked storyline.
Season two revolves around Briarcliff Manor, an early 1960s era asylum in remote Massachusetts populated with a combustible mix of the criminally insane, mentally and physically handicapped, and what the Third Reich called “asocials”. Operated by the Catholic Church, Briarcliff Manor is nominally run by Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange), a sadistic nun who abuses staff and patients alike in a vain effort to exorcise her personal demons. Sister Jude (like St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes) is locked in a power struggle with medical director Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), who demands total autonomy over patients’ “treatment” in furtherance of a depraved research agenda. Briarcliff Manor is, in Arden’s words, “a receptacle for human waste. Each patient is an example of evolutionary failure.”[ii]
The Holocaust is alive and thriving at Briarcliff Manor. Formerly a tuberculosis ward where forty-six thousand perished, the asylum is now the domain of Sister Jude, an incarnation of Dyanne Thorne’s Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975), and the icy cold and unmistakably Teutonic Dr. Arden.[iii] We see piles of shoes on cold cement floors, an underground “death chute” taking bodies of failed experimental subjects to an incinerator, and an efficient staff issuing fake death certificates to mask the killing process.[iv] Arden’s demeanor, penchant for torture, restrained sexuality, and indifference to human suffering suggests an archetypal Nazi doctor. When patient and suspected serial killer Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is caught infiltrating Arden’s lab searching for evidence to secure his release, Arden’s paranoia takes hold, accusing the boy of spying on his brilliant work. Arden asks is if he is Stasi [East German intelligence] or KGB. “I understand there are even elements in the U.S. government,” Arden sneers, “Oh yes, Jews and fellow travelers.”[v]
Who is Arden? Where did he come from? A new arrival to Briarcliff may have the answer, but there is a catch – the woman dropped off by the police is convinced she is none other than Anne Frank. When “Anne” (Franka Potente) encounters Arden in the common room, she is shaken to her core, “You were there! In Auschwitz! Nazi Schwein! Don’t you remember me, Dr.? I’m Anne! Anne Frank!”[vi] Dragged off to join the other lunatics, we are understandably skeptical of the deluded Anne, but her accusations regarding Arden ring true. Ryan Murphy compared the Anne Frank story to the Anastasia case because “there were many women who came forward after the diary and said, ‘Well, I’m the real Anne Frank,’ and they were struck down. Many of them were found to be mentally ill and suffering from schizophrenia . . . .”[vii] Subjecting Anne Frank to the vagaries of an asylum in 1960s America seems particularly cruel, but somehow fitting.
The two-part episode “I Am Anne Frank” inserts the Holocaust and its attendant “Nazi next door” narrative directly into Briarcliff’s dysfunctional reality. The episode begins when the woman claiming to be Anne Frank is brought to Briarcliff after stabbing ruffians during a bar fight for making antisemitic remarks. “I broke a beer bottle, I stabbed them,” she boasts, “They will live, but they will never forget.”[viii] Anne immediately begins a diary at Briarcliff, addressing the entry to “Kitty” like the real Anne did:[ix] “15 of November 1964 [note the European style of writing dates]: The walls are closing in. I can hardly breathe. It’s Amsterdam all over again. But there are eyes everywhere. The eyes of madness and disease. These people are resigned to die here. We were never resigned. We always held on to a shred of hope.”[x] Sister Jude drags the woman into her office, “Anne Frank, is it? What a relief it will be to millions of school children to know that you survived.” Anne promptly tells her tale, explaining how easy it was to remain anonymous amidst thousands of corpses at Bergen-Belsen and disappear into Germany’s rubble, living day to day as a pickpocket until meeting an American soldier. Her GI husband is conveniently dead, killed during the Korean War. When Anne’s father publishes the famous diary, heavily edited as we know, Anne decides it was better to keep her secret: “People finally started paying attention to what they had done to us, all because of a martyred, fifteen-year-old girl. She had to stay fifteen. And a martyr. I could do more good dead than alive.”[xi] Sister Jude is unconvinced and offended. “Your story is indecent,” she proclaims.” “No!”, Anne claps back in anger, “You are indecent! You have a Nazi war criminal working here!” Anne narrates a flashback depicting a young Arden (played by James Cromwell’s son, John Cromwell) stalking the children’s barracks at Auschwitz for twins for Mengele’s experiments and passing out candy to young girls he wanted to “save.” “And when they came back – if they came back – something had changed,” Anne says, “He made them sick. Whatever he had done to them, they were afraid to speak out. They had been sworn to secrecy.”[xii]
According to Anne, Arden’s real name was Hans Gruber (or Grüpper).[xiii] As much as Sister Jude despises her nemesis, she does not believe Anne. Exasperated, Anne unveils her tattoo – A 40603. “I know where I came from, Sister. Can you say the same about your ‘Dr. Arden?’”[xiv] Part II is next week.
[i] Tim Stack, “‘American Horror Story’: Ryan Murphy on Anne Frank debut – Exclusive”, EW.com, November 8, 2012, https://ew.com/article/2012/11/08/american-horror-story-ryan-murphy-anne-frank/ [accessed May 17, 2019].
[ii] American Horror Story: Asylum, “Origins of Monstrosity”, directed by David Semel, November 21, 2012.
[iii] See Brian E. Crim, “She Wolves: The Monstrous Women of Nazisploitation Cinema” in Selling Sex on Screen: From Weimar Cinema to Zombie Porn, eds. Karen Ritzenhoff and Catriona McAvoy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 103.
[iv] The Nazi “euthanasia” program known as T-4 issued false death certificates for children either poisoned to gassed to death in dozens of centers in Germany and Austria.
[v] American Horror Story: Asylum, “Nor’easter”, Season 2, Episode 3, directed by Michael Uppendahl, October 31, 2012.
[vi] American Horror Story: Asylum, “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1”, Season 2, Episode 4, directed by Michael Uppendahl, November 7, 2012.
[vii] Stack, “American Horror Story”: Ryan Murphy on Anne Frank debut.
[viii] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.”
[ix] “Kitty” is inspired by a character from children’s books written by Cissy van Marxveldt, a heroine Anne Frank admired. Jeff Jensen, “American Horror Story recap: The Girl With The Auschwitz Tattoo,” EW.com, November 8, 2012, https://ew.com/recap/american-horror-story-season-2-episode-4/ [accessed July 3, 2019].
[x] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.”
[xi] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.” The woman’s story resembles that of Ingrid Pitt, a Polish girl who survived the Holocaust and married an American soldier, who she later divorced. Pitt was an actress known for working in the horror genre. See Jensen, “American Horror Story recap.”
[xii] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.”
[xiii] A reference to Alan Rickman’s villain in Die Hard (1988)?
[xiv] “I Am Anne Frank: Part 1.”