Has there ever been a queer “Final Girl” as tenacious as Lana Winters in American Horror Story: Asylum? Played by out-bisexual actress Sarah Paulson with astonishing defiance and lesbian specificity, Lana is a feminist survivor hero for our almost supernaturally patriarchal times. She becomes what Carol J. Clover calls the “Final Girl,” the woman who lives through the entire ordeal of a horror film, in a way that lesbians basically never have before.
Most of Asylum takes place in the early 1960’s, at a fictional Massachusetts mental institution called Briarcliff. This titular asylum is filled with characters who have been committed at least in part due to their sexual transgressions. Chloë Sevigny, in roiling boil form, plays the “nymphomaniac” Shelley. The baby-faced Evan Peters as Kit Walker was terrorized by racist locals for his secret interracial marriage before being wrongly accused of skinning his wife alive.
The patients are lorded over by the overcompensating nun Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), the ambitious Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), and Nazi war criminal Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). Each represents the personal moral hypocrisies that are integral to the corruption of the Catholic church, medical institutions, and the fascist state.
When reporter Lana arrives threatening to expose this hypocrisy, she is a crusading feminist ahead of her time. Lana’s queerness is not just an afterthought; her backstory is deliberate and fully realized in her tender homelife with her partner Wendy. Like Kit Walker, she has to hide her relationship from her community. Like any marginalized person, Lana knows she has to work twice as hard to get half as far, which is why she fancies herself a bit of a hero by sneaking into Briarcliff to get her exposé. After catching her trespassing, Sister Jude blackmails Wendy into committing Lana to “cure” her of her homosexuality and punish her for her career ambition. Lana’s hubris is what leads to her ordeal, and her ambitious drive will lead to her salvation as well. Paulson gives us a woman who is an agent of her own destiny for better and for much, much worse.
Lesbian identity in horror films is almost always repressed and almost always results in violence. In Haute Tension the protagonist’s obsessive love for her best friend manifests in dissociation and jealous murder. Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis’ infamous cunnilingus scene in Black Swan is merely a confused fantasy, one stop on a slow descent into suicidal madness. Perhaps the greatest case of sublimated lesbian obsession comes from Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, a housekeeper who would rather be destroyed in her former mistress’ house than allow another woman to become the new Mrs. de Winter. The genre Lana occupies sends the same messages as Briarcliff: that lesbian desire must be shackled, shocked, purged, and redeemed.
“Make sure you write the story that blows the doors off this place,” Shelly says urgently to Lana during a failed escape attempt. Shelly’s eventual fate — sadistic mutilation at the hands of Dr. Arden, who calls her a whore over and over — is another of the series’ most harrowing allegories of social punishments for “deviants.” Shelly’s brief arc has always felt to me like a dark parable of slut shaming. Sometimes it feels like there are no actions too grotesque for the state and the church to take in their attempts to hobble female sexuality.
Lana believes she has found a savior in the visiting psychologist Dr. Oliver Thredson (the irony of Thredson being played by another out gay actor, Zachary Quinto, is not lost in the scenes that follow). He objects to the electroshock treatment Sister Jude has administered to “cure” Lana of her “disorder.” He offers her a less “barbaric” therapy, dangling the hopes of her freedom as a reward. She agrees, under duress, to be subjected to humiliating aversion and conversation therapy. She is shown slides of sexy women, including a private picture of Wendy, while being administered vomit-inducing apomorphine. He then coaxes her to masturbate while touching the “tumescence” of a male inmate. This historically accurate torture, depicted alongside more fantastical frights like Satanic possession, exposes homophobia for what it is: evil.
These “therapy” scenes could be called exploitative, and certainly series creator Ryan Murphy is no stranger to the word gratuitous. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker has written of American Horror Story’s style, comparing it to to seventies horror movies that Clover was studying. “Like camp,” Nussbaum says, Murphy’s style is, “somehow at once misogynist and feminist, a tacky aesthetic with a special potency, perfect for exploring taboo themes about feminine strength and vulnerability.” To me, the historical immediacy of this state-sanctioned torture, and the queerness of the actors and creator involved, give these scenes the real potency of the exposé Lana will eventually get the chance to make.
Thredson smuggles Lana out of Briarcliff. Her momentary relief is quickly darkened by the revelation that he is in fact a serial killer named Bloodyface. Holding her captive in his medical nightmare basement, Thredson puts Lana through the usual Evil Plot paces. He explains that since he was raised in an orphanage, he never received a mother’s touch. In his delusional mind, this abandonment justifies murdering women and make masks out of their skin. His latest victim is Lana’s lover Wendy, whose frozen body and framed picture Thredson uses to further terrorize her.
There are countless small moments throughout the series when Paulson goes strategic behind the eyes, weighing exactly what a man wants to hear so that she can get out of an impossible situation. The moment that best exemplifies this is a GIF-worthy shot of her accepting a croque monsieur from Bloodyface. Her hair stringy, her eyes red and sunken, she taps the sandwich with her pointer finger and says, “This is good.” She tenderly calls him “baby” understanding that playing into his madness will keep her alive. I think about this moment every single time I find myself responding to a deep socialization to pander to the feelings of men in my family, at work, on the subway, at parties. I make them feel appreciated because on some level I know they could brutalize me at any moment. I’m nice to men because I want to survive.
Thredson rapes Lana once he believes she is “the one” to replace his mother. Considering Thredson’s conversation and aversion therapy, this rape resonates not only with Oedipal derangement, but forced heterosexuality. Following this violation, Lana uses the picture of her dead lover to smash her rapist’s head and escape. Again, her attempt is thwarted when the car she desperately flags down ends up being driven by yet another violent misogynist. The driver begins ranting about his cheating wife, suddenly produces a gun, and shoots himself.
Unlike so many Final Girls, Lana is no teenager. Her terror is not abject endless victimhood; she’s processing the horrors of the world and enduring. Behind every alto wail and vulnerable sob, Paulson knows how to create a female weariness: Not this shit again.
Following the car crash, Lana wakes up in her own personal hell, back at Briarcliff, trapped with the doctor no one else knows is a serial killer. Once she realizes the rape has left her pregnant, she manipulates Thredson into confessing to his crimes on tape. Threatening to abort the baby with a coat hanger unless he tells her why he chose his victims, Lana uses a reporter’s knack for stroking her subject’s ego to get him to reveal what she wants. If anything, it’s not Lana’s sexuality that makes her a sociopath, it’s the fact that she’s a journalist!
Lana manages to finally escape Briarcliff for good carrying Thredson’s confession tape, and eventually gets the satisfaction of shooting him dead when he attacks her one last time.
The season’s final episode takes place in the present day, some forty years later. Paulson wears old lady makeup, playing Lana as a famous journalist with a loving actress wife. She has written a book about her ordeal with Bloodyface and followed through on her promise to Shelly to expose the inhumanity of Briarcliff.
But she has one last monster to fight: her son Johnny, the child she gave up for adoption. The product of Thredson’s rape has inherited his father’s serial killer tendencies. Johnny hates Lana for not loving him, and tries to avenge his father’s death.
Just as she knew how to call Thredson baby, playing into his psychosis so he would keep her alive, she is maternal to Johnny just long enough to finesse his gun away and shoot him in the head. Nothing about this action is subtle, but Lana’s strategy is. By manipulating male egos in order to survive, she proves that entitled unencumbered misogyny is the thing that is truly crazy, not queer love.
Asylum helped me to realize what I love about horror movies, something I never understood until I could fully identify with a gay female protagonist. The world makes women and queer people suffer, and then tells us we have nothing to worry about. Allegories like Asylum, extreme though they are, make me feel validated that we do have something to worry about, goddamnit. Powerful men control our lives, make our sex illegal, use us for their own twisted ends, and then expect us to be grateful for a fucking sandwich.
When Lana defeats her son, she ends a generational cycle of violence. She triumphs over the nun who imprisoned her, who believed her love was sick. She triumphs over the man who tried to assimilate her body into his extreme misogyny. Lana proves that Briarcliff didn’t need to reform her, and that American Horror Story didn’t need to pathologize her. She claims the right for queer women not only to be the Final Girls in our own stories, but to be the ones to tell those stories.