Can Horror Stories Have Happy Endings?
Benjamin W. McCraw
Unlike fairy tales, the protagonist of a horror story/movie doesn’t really live ‘happily ever after’ due to the carnage, death, and destruction often bobbing the wake of the struggle to survive the ordeal and slay the evil demon/ghost/monster/killer/alien/whatever. The hero/ine comes out bloodied and exhausted, done with an experience that will no doubt cause serious physical, emotional, and psychological trouble. No one leaves a horror story unscathed. But, the protagonist usually does leave. S/he may be broken, beat, and scarred, but the protagonist—unlike pretty much everyone else—still is. And mere survival in a horror story is a big deal. Still, it’s a stretch to think of that sort of ending as a happy one. However, when the first season of American Horror Story ended, my first reaction was: “wow, that’s a horror story with a happy ending.” That thought is part of what fixed my interest in the show—I couldn’t have predicted it to end as happily as (I think) it does and in a way that distinguishes it from many horror stories.
And that’s where the philosophical question arises for me regarding the show: just what does it mean for a horror story to have a happy ending? With so much death, violence, betrayal, and general awfulness, how could one think of the ending of all of that as a ‘happy’ one? Of course, the happy ending isn’t for the really nasty characters of the show: Hayden, Tate (maybe), and so on, and it’s not for the rest of the world with the looming rise of the Anti-Christ Michael guided by the ever-maternal hand of Constance. But for the characters left in the house at the end—Ben, Vivian, Violet, and Moira—can we think of them as having a happy ending? This question, naturally, means we need to figure out just what a ‘happy ending’ is—i.e. what it means for folks in their scenario to live well. And this is where philosophical thinking can help. Philosophers have thought about what it means to live well and living the ‘good life’ for millennia. We can use their thoughts to look at the ending of the Murder House. Do they really have a happy ending and, if so, how?
“Afterbirth” concludes Season One of American Horror Story by showing the ends of the various plot lines drawn throughout the series. To see how the episode puts an end to the show, we need to examine the story lines leading up to it. Vivien has given birth to sons: one of whom is the son of Ben and the other is the product of Tate’s rape in the first episode (“Pilot”). While Tate’s son turns out to be supernaturally healthy, Ben’s child is stillborn. Soon after the birth, Vivien dies from the ordeal. And just to round out the hit list, Hayden succeeds in killing Ben by hanging him from the chandelier. Everyone—pretty much—is dead at the end.
The final episode centers on the rest of the cast’s plot to get the children for themselves. Violet—long since dead from suicide—and Tate attempt to stop Chad and Patrick from stealing the children for their own. Luckily enough, the murdered, plotting couple have a falling out and, thus, lose interest in stealing the children for their own. The psychotic Nora attempts to replace her dead (and Frankenstein-ed back to life) child with Vivien’s. The stillborn child, having died in the house, lives on as (yet another) spirit and Nora finds herself with the child but unable to comfort him. At this realization, she gives up on the prospect of being his mother. Vivien, recently dead, finds her ghost son and maternally soothes his cries. The even-more-psychotic Hayden waits anxiously for the birth but is ultimately frustrated from getting the child she desired from her affair with Ben. And, finally, Constance continues on her continual quest to have the happy family she could never pull off in the past. She leaves the house with her grandson (Tate’s son by Vivien) and goes off to raise him as her own.
Though Constance does have one of the children, the rest of the family—Vivien, Ben, Violet, and Jeffery (the stillborn ghost child of Ben and Vivien)—remains together as spirits in the Murder House. This is the endpoint of the seasons’ plot: the Harmon family haunting the house with the rest of the spirits throughout its history with Tate and Hayden watching them with jealousy/love from the outside. We have a ghost family consisting of suicides and murder victims with leering psychotic stalker-lovers both of whom orchestrated much of the Harmons’ misfortunes. How could that possibly count as a happy ending? In what way could we think that a family living in those circumstances could be said to be living well? That depends on what it means to live well. And that’s where philosophical thought about happiness or the good life enters the picture.
According to hedonism, a life of pleasure constitutes living well. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) famously defends the view that happiness just is pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The good life, then, just is the pleasant life. Mill understands that no one can live a life of maximal pleasure all the time. So, his point is that the happy life is one that, on balance, has more pleasure than pain in general. Seek pleasure but not insofar as it will cause you a greater proportion of pain. Epicurus (341–270 BCE) defends a similar view but with a different emphasis. More important than seeking pleasure, for Epicurus, is the avoidance of pain. Now, this obviously involves avoiding actual physical pain but it includes avoiding mental or psychological suffering as well. Epicurus views the good life as one that lacks “perturbance” or any type of pain. To live well, therefore, is to live a tranquil life undisturbed by pain or discomfort of any kind. Mill and Epicurus provide us with two variations on hedonism and views on how pleasure makes ones live go well: Mill focuses on a more active sense of living a pleasurable life whereas Epicurus focuses on the good life as avoiding pain. How does a hedonist approach to the good life or happiness view the end of the Harmon family and the rest of the characters in Season One?
The Harmon family seems the best candidate for this view. At the end of “Afterbirth,” we see the ghost family gathered around the Christmas Tree (with Moira) evidently having a good time with each other. They may be dead but that doesn’t prevent them from enjoying being with each other as a family for the first time in a while and the only time we see throughout the series. Clearly, this squares with Mill’s view of the good life. They are having a pleasant time with each other and that’s what being happy means for Mill’s version of hedonism. And their time is unending. Since they are ghosts, they won’t die on each other and they are bound to their location. Ben finally appreciates his family—especially his wife now—and Vivien gets to have her little ghostly bundle of joy. Their end fits Epicurus’ view as well. They may be dead but they aren’t poltergeists struggling to inflict terror on the living inhabitants of the house in expression of unresolved ghostly hang-ups. Rather, they have a nice family celebration of a holiday. That seems about as tranquil and pain-free as one might expect (depending on your family, of course). Viewed hedonistically, it’s no stretch to say that the Harmons’ end is a happy one—they live well (even for dead people).
But others in the show definitely do not live the hedonistic good life. Tate and Hayden, for example, are most surely perturbed at the end of Season One. Hayden cannot manage to ensnare Ben and Violet has seemingly split from Tate for good. And I think that’s the right answer for Hayden: she lives a solitary and poor life at the end. But I’m not sure Tate’s life must be so bad and painful. Though Hayden teases him with Violet’s rejection, he remains hopeful in that, with unending time, she might return to him…eventually. So, Tate has hope, and he might be right. If Violet does come to accept him again, he’ll be just as hedonistically happy as the rest of the Harmons (presumably). But if not, he still retains some kind of hope (even if it’s a psychotic kind of hope) that means his life can’t be entirely wretched. Tate may not live well but I don’t see him living poorly either or, at least, not without hope of living well in the future.
What should we say about hedonism here and the end of Season One? It strikes me as just right. The Harmons live happily ever after (it seems) with Moira but the nasty-ish characters don’t share in their good life. But should we think that people like Hayden and Tate live the good life, given how they ‘live’ at the end? Probably not: there’s not much redeeming Hayden for all of the murders, attempted murders, treachery, etc. she has done. And Tate is a mass murderer, after all. But his love of Violet has changed him in some ways: he’s not able to kill Gabriel Ramos after his family moves into the house. The hope for Tate to possibly have a good life with Violet, then, tracks the development and change she effects in him for the better. Tate’s fate, then, should be somewhat open ended: he can’t live happily ever after now (because of his pretty nasty past) but the possibility of living well is open to him later (because of the possibility that he will become the sort of person Violet wants/needs). Hedonism’s assessment of the ending here seems to fit with what we want: a good ending for the Harmons, a bad ending for Hayden, and a kind of mixed ending for Tate.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want…Can You?
Another major philosophical theory of the good life is the desire satisfaction theory. Just as the name suggests, this position views the good life as one where you get what you want. That is, to live well is just to have your desires satisfied (whatever they may be). To assess, on this view, the ending of the season, we must see what each character desires and whether they are satisfied. What sort of desire or motivation drives each of these characters?
A desire for redemption and a struggle to be a better husband/father/person drives Ben throughout the show. Does Ben get what he wants? It seems that way: he’s rejected Moira’s advances (showing his faithfulness) and he’s celebrating Christmas with the family in the final scene (showing that Vivien at least somewhat forgives him). He has the redemption he desires or is at least on the path to it.
Vivien wants a real family: her depression over losing a child from the first episode, her anger/hurt at Ben’s infidelities, and her desire to see Violet flourish all point out the general desire of the sort of well-adjusted and harmonious family she never has. In short, Vivien wants her dysfunctional family to function. And she gets that at the end. We have the picturesque Norman Rockwell family celebration including her husband, children, and adopted mother figure (in Moira). That seems as close to a properly functioning family as a ghost might hope to have.
Violet wants Tate but the not-so-murdery Tate that she saw prior to learning of his numerous misdeeds. Probably, too, she wants a less dysfunctional family with a faithful father and satisfied mother. She never gets the Tate she wants, but there is some hope that Tate might become that over time. So, while Violet may not get her true lover, she certainly seems satisfied enough with the way things have turned out with the rest of the family.
Moira, now included with the Harmons as godmother to the ghost child, wants to help Vivien through the ordeal and have peace (by leaving the house). There’s no leaving the murder house for a ghost, so Moira will have to be content with the Harmons. But, given her attachment to Vivien, this situation seems good enough for her; especially considering her newfound role as godmother to Jeffery. And there’s some kind of peace in that ending for her even if she remains a ghost in the Murder House. In each case, it seems, the members of the Harmon family get what they want; their desires are more-or-less satisfied. Thus, they live well according to the desire satisfaction theory of happiness.
What about the rest of the cast? Hayden and Tate have frustrated desires for the objects of their affection. So, on the desire satisfaction theory, their tales don’t have a happy ending. But that seems just the right answer. Do we really think that Tate or Hayden are happy at the end of the show? Is it all that plausible to think that they are living the good life? The answer is obviously “no”. If we view the good life in terms of satisfying our desires, then that seems to account for how we think about the endings for Tate and Hayden: confirming our judgment that things don’t really end well for them.
Putting the Caring in Scaring
Both hedonism and desire satisfaction theories of happiness or well-being seem very subjective, meaning that what counts as living a good life is determined by the psychology of the person doing the living. If I feel pleasure or have my desires satisfied, that’s a matter of my psychology working out in certain ways. But others view happiness objectively rather subjectively, arguing that the good life is a matter of some kind of non-psychological achievement rather than just having the “warm and fuzzies” or getting what you want.
Two historically important objectivist views on happiness come from Aristotle and the Stoics. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) famously defines happiness as an activity of the human soul functioning excellently according to human nature. For him, then, to live the good life is to live excellently as a human being—according to whatever it is that makes us human. Specifically, this will involve excellent mental and moral functioning; that is, in getting and exercising the various human virtues. The Stoics, similarly, tale human happiness to be the life of virtue. For them, to live the good life just is to live the morally virtuous life. In either case, what makes one’s life go well is not simply a matter of your mental states or desires but some kind of intellectual and/or moral achievement. Living well means becoming an excellent human critter—not just having certain kinds of feelings (e.g. pleasure and contentment). So, on these views of happiness, to lead the good life is to achieve a certain kind of human excellence or virtue. How does this apply to the end of American Horror Story’s first season?
This sort of approach to happiness will also tell us that the Harmons live well whereas other characters will live poorly. But that’s a pretty strange claim to make: where is the moral development of the Harmons? Why exactly should we think of them as morally good/decent at the end of the story arc? Ben is probably the easiest to see. The season begins with the infidelity narrative. Cheating on Vivien drives the plot and leads the family to the Murder House at the get-go. And, through the course of young-Moira’s temptations, we see Ben struggle with his faithfulness but, at the end, Ben rejects her advances. By no means morally ideal, as we see in Ben’s treatment of Vivien during her hospitalization, it seems as though his rejection of Moira’s continued temptations does show moral development. We even find him back with his family at the very end: showing Vivien’s capacity to at least quasi-forgive and Ben’s desire to be the father/husband he should have been the whole time. Moira has a moral role to play in the story, too. She works tirelessly throughout to keep Vivien safe and protect her from whatever harms threaten her.
Importantly, though, we see the whole family work as a protector at the end. After the deaths of the Harmons, the Ramos family buys the house and moves in. Once the Harmons see a new family and understand that the cycle of death, horror, and pain will simply continue on for the new occupants, they resolve to prevent these terrors from reoccurring. Ultimately, the Harmons scare the Ramos family into leaving the house for good. And they decide to spend the rest of their ghostly existence doing the same; protecting each new owner of the house from death by scaring them. Moral protection, even if by scaring, seems to be a good moral action: expressive of caring for the well-being of others. Thus, the Harmons play a moral role by serving as moral guardians for the horrors that await any owner of the Murder House. Their haunting, in turning it from an attempt to harm to protection, expresses moral virtues in trying to prevent any other family from suffering their own fate. At the end of the story, then the Harmons are at least quasi-virtuous in various ways and, thus, it seems plausible to think that they live well on objectivist views of the good life.
And, finally, we come to Hayden and Tate. As the poster child for the psycho-stalker-murderer way of life, Hayden clearly does not live the good objectivist life. She remains jealously and destructively fixated on Ben (evidently murdering him wasn’t enough). There’s no change or remorse or even consideration of the morally heinous things she has done throughout the show. There’s no living well or good life for her based on any kind of moral considerations. Tate, though, is a bit more complicated. He’s not quite the same cold-blooded mass murderer that shot his schoolmates and burned his stepfather. He wants to kill Gabriel Ramos to keep him from Violet, but Tate can’t quite do the deed. This suggests that Tate isn’t quite as bad as he was. He isn’t morally good or virtuous, but there’s some hope that his change may lead to moral development. There’s some possibility that Tate may yet change into a better moral person but that’s left open at the end of the season. Again, the objectivist moral approaches to happiness give us the sort of answers we expect: the Harmons live well but not so much for Hayden and Tate.
Happily Ever After…Haunting the Murder House
At the end of the show, it seems as though some of the characters remain miserable and some genuinely happy. Each of the philosophical approaches to the good life we have looked at can explain why the Harmons live well and why Tate and Hayden live poorly. Whether the standards for the good life are subjective and psychological or objective and moral, the first season ends happily for the Harmons. And it ends happily ever after for them—ghosts can’t die again, after all. American Horror Story, then, presents us with a horror story that ends just as the stereotypical fairy tale: the good guys live happily ever after and the bad guys suffer pain and their own nastiness. And, while many horror movies, shows, and stories end with the protagonist surviving and triumphing, these endings don’t strike us as very happy—just not as bad as if the protagonist were to die. But the Harmons do more than survive (as ghosts): they and their lives are better than they were before their deaths. The funny thing is that it took their dying to lead to them ‘living’ the good life. Their ghosts live the happy life when they are dead that they couldn’t achieve when actually alive.
Benjamin W. McCraw received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Georgia in 2012 and teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina Upstate. His research centers on issues in epistemology and philosophy of religion; with articles in Social Epistemology and Logos and Episteme. He has also written a chapter in Psych and Philosophy and is currently co-editing project on philosophical issues and the devil.
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