The following contains major spoilers for American Horror Stories, Season 1, Episode 2, “Aura,” currently streaming on Hulu.
American Horror Story thrives on its overt nods to tropes from previous horror classics. The trend goes all the way back to Season 1’s vaunted Murder House, which established the series’ bona fides by winking at the copious haunted house movies that preceded it before upending them completely. The policy of telling an entirely new story each season has helped the franchise diversify: playing the same trick on the myriad variations the horror genre has to offer.
American Horror Stories, the anthology spin-off, has been quick to exploit the trend, and while Season 1 was fairly hit-and-miss with the results, Season 2 has been sharper. That started with Season 1, Episode 1, “Dollhouse,” which played wickedly with feminist horror stories like The Stepford Wives. Now Episode 2, “Aura,” takes aim at the home invasion/home haunting trend that dominated horror in the early 2000s. Though a little quieter than “Dollhouse,” it succeeds in part because it understands the assignment so well.
Home invasion horror goes back to more traditional thrillers like 1967’s Wait Until Dark and 1971’s Straw Dogs. It found new life after the international success of J-horror in the late 1990s. Movies like 1998’s Ringu (The Ring) and 2001’s Ju-On (The Grudge) — which both spawned successful American remakes — set the stage by positing modern homes as the site of their shocks. That in turn spawned efforts such as 2002’s Panic Room and 2008’s The Strangers — both high-end films featuring actors and directors of note — and eventually gained unprecedented respectability when South Korea’s parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2019.
The trend also breathed new life into haunted house stories. Victorian furnishings and musty old cobwebs could be laughed at, but new movies found credible ways to put unquiet spirits directly into modern homes. ringus key conceit lay in a cursed VCR tape that would doom anyone who watched it, while The Grudge and similar stories took place in modern, well-lit domiciles. The familiarity became part of the fear — the ghosts could get you anywhere — and the success of 2009’s Paranormal Activity proved how closely home invasion stories dovetailed with modern ghost movies.
All of which makes a strong foundation for “Aura” to build on. It touches a lot of the genre’s basic tropes, with its protagonist Jaslyn obsessed with security only to find herself undone by the very measures designed to keep her safe. A home invasion during her childhood left lingering emotional wounds, prompting her to add the titular security app to the already secured home in their new gated-and-patrolled community. Its low-light capture ability draws the attention of ghosts, who first knock and then pound on her door demanding entry.
Ironically, the ghosts themselves adhere closely to classic traditions: spirits who linger on Earth either because they must atone for some manner of wrongdoing, or because powerful emotions such as rage keep them connected to the living. But their appearance via the app echoes ringus use of the VCR and Paranormal Activity’s habit of capturing hauntings on security cameras. So too does the episode play with the idea of being entrapped by one’s own security measures, notably the episode’s ironic finale when Jaslyn’s murderous husband returns from the grave to bedevil her via the app.
In the case of “Aura,” it’s less an upending of the cliches from that earlier horror movement as it is an updating of them. The world in the 2000s was still grappling with the impact of 9/11 and the onset of the Internet Age. American Horror Stories honors the horror tropes of that era, while providing a new wrinkle via new technology. The gadgets keep changing, it assures us, but the ghosts are always going to be waiting regardless.
New episodes of American Horror Stories stream every Thursday on Hulu.