Updated: Sep 17, 2020
A little something I wrote while the season was airing.
Content warning: references to physical and sexual assault, murder and suicide.
The year referenced in the title of American Horror Story: 1984 was used arbitrarily to communicate the decade of the setting, and yet it is appropriate that the year is associated with the omnipresent feeling of being surveilled. The season constantly reminds us just how vulnerable Brooke Thompson is and just how little she knows about the forces that watch over her.
The ninth season of AHS doesn’t need many reminders about the era it’s set in, anyway. The season evokes the tone of a typical 1980’s slasher film, making most viewers immediately think films like Friday the 13th with its mix of the violence/sex combo, aerobics, masked serial-killers and brightly colored knee-highs.
But the writers have done their homework; the show makes sure to ground it’s setting in just enough reality that the stylized aesthetic doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief. The first episode follows Brooke Thompson, played by Emma Watson, as her home is invaded by a black-clad Satanist named Richard Ramirez. The killer, who brands himself “Night Stalker,” is a constant presence throughout the season and is arguably the main villain of the show. He has a love interest, connects emotionally to the main character and he has a sympathetic backstory involving physical and emotional trauma and poverty.
Pretty par for the course components of an American Horror Story villain, right? Previous villains like Season 1’s Tate Langdon were shown to have sensitive and vivid inner worlds and likeable traits in their seasons and some were given a bit more depth than their actions alone called for.
The character became a bit less average as viewers began realizing that Richard Ramirez was a real person.
The Night Stalker murders were a series of 14 brutal homicides committed by Richard Ramirez between 1984-1985. His early murders included torture and sexual assault and he too claimed that he was following the orders of Satan. While other characters have very clearly been based on real criminals, Ramirez gets slightly exalted status as demonstrated by the fact that he has had a cameo on the show before.
He appeared as a ghost in Season 5, “Hotel”, and it has been a ton of fun watching excited fans piece together if, or exactly how, Ramirez is a continuous character throughout the seasons.
Though many are excited by the terrifying and morbid implications of a real-life serial killer infiltrating this fictional and often fantastical world, not everyone is pleased with this season’s portrayal of Ramirez. One Redditor summarized the criticism when they wrote “...suggesting he’s just being manipulated by the women around him leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.”
This comment acknowledges the broader context of many serial killer tropes: that male killers are always made, in part, by women. The violence Ramirez inflicts on others is not only detracted from by choosing to focus on his misfortunes, like his past history of abuse and fear of the lethal injection (which the real Richard Ramirez did not end up dying from), but the responsibility for the brutality he enacts is shifted onto young women.
This suspicious contortion of the real-life events into recognizable tropes between evil men and even worse women is further complicated in the case of Montana. This woman is a sexual agent in their relationship, unlike the women and girls that Ramirez raped in real life, who were sexually objectified. Ramirez’s relationship to the women in the story leads predictably to many instances of sexual subtext in many Night Stalker scenes, which opens the door to a whole other level of criticism.
The Richard Ramirez of the show is the frequent subject of lovingly stylized fanart and romantic AMVs on YouTube pairing him with Brooke Thompson. People love this character in a way that would suggest his evil deeds were nothing more than the misunderstood tantrums of troubled free-spirit. And yet in a strange way, it further parallels Ramirez’s story in reality.
Like many famous serial killers, Richard Ramirez attracted many romantic pursuers while in prison. He even married one of them, and his wife claimed that she would kill herself on the day Ramirez was executed. Are the writers consciously suggesting a parallel between the real trend of murderers being revered by misguided fans and the blurry line many views walk between the exploration of foreign depravity and genuine obsession?