The idea of an homage aside, it strikes me as a bit redudant for a show with the word “horror” in the title to require an episode dedicated to Halloween. While the arguement can be made that most sitcoms feature a Christmas episode where none really need to exist, the difference being is that half-hour-long comedies border on formulaic, and hour-long (or more for this show) cable dramas decidedly don’t. To give an episode of a sitcom a holiday theme tends to allow the characters to exist in a tinsely snow globe, without moving the plot along very far. (It also lends itself to being a choice option for holiday viewing; I have a whole DVD dedicated to The Office Christmas episodes that’s usually reserved for tree trimming day.) It wasn’t until I watched Hotel‘s Halloween episode, “Devil’s Night,” that I realized it was operating under the same principles as the sitcom holiday special: it was acting like a bottle episode. And it totally kind of worked!
Previous seasons of American Horror Story would present a Halloween episode that pulled out so many kitschy stops that it derailed the season’s progress for the sake of novelty. All of these episodes, in fact, have featured people rising from the dead to teach the living characters a lesson. (You could make an exception for Asylum, but there were those crazy forest beings and the devil incarnate, so let’s give it a pass.) “Devil’s Night” obeyed the same rule by bringing infamous – and dead – serial killers to the Hotel Cortez to partake in some annual carnage, but this time the deceased wanted only to celebrate their respective life’s work. Rather than returning to torment those who wronged them, like Murder House or Coven, March invites John to a demented dinner party, and the episode focuses much of its time on this event. And what a hoot seeing the returns of Lily Rabe as Aileen Wuornos and John Carroll Lynch as John Wayne Gacy (also known as the Killer Clown. See what they did there?)!
Over an absynthe cocktail and an hors d’oeuvre of hippie brains, March explains that he wants to “help” John by imploring him to understand the tactful and refined side of murder that he, as a detective, does not appreciate. The four real-life serial killers discussed their various backstories, illustrated their trademarks, regailed themselves with tales of slaughter. The episode made a valiant attempt at continuity by explaining how each of them met March, as they had all apparently made their way to Los Angeles at some point in their lives. It tried to justify the killers’ actions by proclaiming that they were examples of great American success stories.
That’s where the homage to the macabre comes in, I suppose. I do appreciate the attempt at recontextualization here, since there are few outlets where murderers are able to have their actions admired and not seem ridiculous. Even if it was done better before by the brilliant musical Assassins (I know that sounds crazy, but trust me on this), there’s something fun and twisted in lauding sick people, and Hotel kind of nailed it in that regard. This episode would have been more effective if it had kept Alex’s story out and focused solely on John, but the new developments could give Alex something to actually do on this show. The best part of this episode is that it didn’t burden itself with the goings on of the hotel’s numerous other inhabitants, or belabor any great teaching moments like Halloween episodes past. It just wanted to push John deeper into delirium and an excuse to make Lily Rabe homely for a day. The purpose for John’s developing psychosis remains to be seen, but “Devil’s Night” showed what happens when American Horror Story restrains itself: it actually becomes watchable.