The Science of American Horror Story

For those of you who don’t know, American Horror Story is a U.S. television show that just premiered this television season (Fall 2011).

Essentially this is a show about a family moving into a haunted house. I know, it doesn’t sound very exciting when you put it like that, but trust me it’s a damn good show.

As I got caught up in the story and the characters, some of the things that went down really made me start thinking of the physics that must be happening in order for these ghosts to do the things they do.

Yes, it’s kind of strange to try to force normal physical laws onto supernatural/paranormal stories, but I just couldn’t help it, so here we go…

Me and American Horror Story

DISCLAIMER/SPOILER ALERT: I’ll try to keep this as spoiler free as possible, but the first season is already finished. So if you don’t want to be spoiled then you need to go catch up on those episodes. Repeat – if you haven’t seen this show you WILL BE SPOILED by proceeding on from this point.

If you’re on the fence about the show, go check it out – trust me I’m giving it my personal recommendation! Watch these two promos:

Ok, welcome back – so here’s the thing – I’m not a scientist by any means. I’m just a guy who read a few too many comic books, sci-fi stories and watched every episode of The Universe on The History Channel.

Still, you pick up a few things here and there, that’s why the ghosts in the house made me wonder so much about how they interact with the “natural” world. Sometimes I would get caught in the technical details even more than the story itself. I probably shouldn’t even sweat this stuff but I enjoy digging into it a little.

If you never watched the show, the deal is that there’s this house in California where a monstrous act occurred all the way back in the 1920’s. Ever since then the house (and the grounds around it) is kind of warped in some supernatural manner. What this means is that if you die in the house (or on the grounds), then you remain in that house as a ghost forever.

The strange thing is that these are the most physical ghosts you’ve ever seen. They’re not some disembodied spirits who float through the walls and fade away like mist. These ghosts are essentially just like us, they’re solid people who interact with us just like anyone else would. They can clean the house, build and repair things, hit you or cut you, have sex with you or any other things a normal human might do (including being physically injured themselves) -they just can’t leave the grounds of the house (except on Halloween).

They can also render themselves invisible until they want to be seen, and on some occasions exhibit some super-strength and other poltergeist-like abilities. Even though the hapless ghosts can become invisible, they can’t render themselves intangible -meaning they can’t pass through walls and such. We’ve never seen a shot where someone passes through a ghost, so it sure looks like they just have to stay out of the way when living people are coming through.

Magnetic Personalities

Solid State

It seems to me that most of the ghosts normal and paranormal abilities boil down to control over electromagnetism, whether it’s conscious control or not.

How can a ghost touch us if their bodies are buried and rotting away somewhere outside of the house?

For that matter, how can any of us touch each other? Or anything else?

I remember reading in the (very basic) physics courses I had about how we’re really not all that solid. We’re made up of a lot of empty space. There are vast amounts of spaces in between atoms and even within the atoms themselves. Why don’t we just pass through each other or fall through the floor?

The answer is the electromagnetic fields generated from the atoms we’re composed of. Even though we don’t feel them, the fields are all around us, and they interact when they come in contact with another field, giving the sensation of “solidness”. Check out this clip from The Universe explaining this better than me:

Thus these ghosts have to be generating some sort of field around/within themselves to be able to hand out beat downs they way they do. But how do they do it without a body full of atoms to cause those electromagnetic fields? Is it possible that when they die and are “Reborn” as a ghost, their consciousness becomes so powerful that it kind of automatically generates a body purely out of electromagnetism?

Maybe they use the atoms in the air to create “themselves”? It seems like they’re able to do the things that they expect they would be able to do, so it must be kind of instinctive.

Shocking Power

Besides the normal things, some ghosts have exhibited some higher levels of power.

Hayden is a bit of a tragic figure on this show. She’s someone I feel really badly for and yet also intensely dislike. I won’t get into the exact reasons in case you haven’t seen it, but trust me she has a lot of good reasons to be pissed off.

Not the least being that she is a bored ghost, trapped forever in this house with a bunch of other ghosts. Here’s a clip of her explaining things (somewhat).

UPDATE: Sorry folks, YouTube yanked the clip on copyright grounds. Go to this fxnetworks American Horror Story site to see some clips that won’t get taken down.

So what we can see here is Hayden not only moving around furniture like it was made of styrofoam, but she is also able to cause electrical surges to blow out the lights, apparently using only her conscious will to do it. The ghosts seem to be tied into electromagnetic fields a lot more strongly than we are.

That has to be where her super-strength comes from. The power of her mind making some kind of field to repel the other fields comprising the furniture, or something. Except it happens on such an instinctive level that to her it’s like pushing and throwing the objects around.

Sight Unseen

Another thing that always bothered me is that the ghosts are able to appear and disappear at will.

Did you get that? They appear and disappear at will! Holy crap.

What does this mean? Well, apparently they can control how particles of light interact with them. If light actually touched them, and then bounced off and reached our eyes, then we would see them.

Somehow using the power of their minds they are able to force light to bend around them. It can’t pass through them or they would be transparent (like glass). This has to happen so smoothly that there’s no distortion or ripple effect such as you would see from the Predator movies.

So what has to happen for you to be able to bend light like that? I guess gravity could do it. Einstein had to use the gravity of our sun to prove his general theory of relativity by showing that light from more distant stars could be bent along with the fabric of space (spacetime).

However, I highly doubt that those ghosts are generating that much gravity, since they would destroy pretty much everything on Earth if they did.

I’m not sure if electromagnetic fields themselves could be used to bend particles of light around an object. Like I said I’m not a scientist.

And here’s another thing…they don’t just become invisible, but they become “selectively invisible”. Meaning they can appear only to other ghosts but not to live people. Sometimes it seems like they can even choose not to appear to each other.

But if I’m standing in a room with you and some other guy, how do I make myself invisible to only you, but not the other guy?

It seems to me that if you’re not interacting with light then you’re just not going to be seen -by anyone.

Meta, Much?

I did some reading on how you might make something invisible in “our” world, using existing technology. I found out that scientists are using special materials called metamaterials in order to bend light waves around objects.

From the site:

A metamaterial usually consists of a highly conducting metal (for example gold or copper), formed in small shapes and arranged in a special structure.

Essentially the metamaterials interact with electromagnetic waves in such a way that they bend them, pretty much in the way that you’d need to in order to make something invisible.

To create invisibility, the cloaking device (metamaterial) needs to bend the electromagnetic waves around itself and the object it is cloaking. This requires that no distortions of the light waves (electromagnetic waves) due to the cloaking device are detected. This is certainly not science fiction nor is it magic. Scientists have already created cloaking devices that work for certain ranges of the electromagnetic spectrum, for example, microwaves, infrared light, and some acoustic waves.

Although from doing even further reading on Wikipedia, it seems this method is not very practical for Hollywood style invisibility, according to physicist Professor Sir John Pendry:

Can you hide things which are a few centimeters across? Yes. Is the cloak really flexible and flappy? No. Will it ever be? No. So you can do quite a lot of things, but there are limitations.

Alas, it seems modern day technological methods are not good enough to replicate the ease of which these ghosts pop in and out of our sight. Still, the above references do seem to corroborate the fact that the ghosts are manipulating electromagnetic waves in some way.

Seen but not heard

Not only can these ghosts not be seen at will, but they can also prevent live humans from hearing them, too.

But if the sounds we hear are just vibrations reaching our ears, how can the ghost sit there and talk to each other and the living people still don’t hear it? How can they selectively prevent vibrations from reaching a certain point in space (ie, our ears)?

I don’t have a very good answer for this one.

When this show first started I thought maybe the ghosts were using some sort of telepathy to make things happen. Meaning that if one of the ghosts tried to hit me it wouldn’t really connect, but they might instinctively make me believe that I had just been struck.

In the same vein, they might be talking to me but not really making any sounds. My brain would be filling in the blanks making me think they were talking when they actually weren’t.

This would also take care of the invisibility problem. Too bad it doesn’t fit. This theory was shot down fairly early on as we discovered the ghosts could clean the house and also put on live people’s clothing. The clothing thing was the dealbreaker. Why would a ghost who could conceivably use telepathy to make themselves appear however they wanted need to dress up in someone else’s clothing?

Although, apparently at least one of the ghosts has demonstrated some kind of super-hypnotism, if not outright mental telepathy.

Hot Old Maid

In the case of Moira, a ghost who is also the housekeeper on the series, she’s the only one who apparently can change her appearance -but I’m not sure if it’s at will, or not. Check her out here (sorry guys, this last one is apparently only viewable in the U.S.A. – darned copyright and staggered international premieres!):

BAH! Sorry again folks, YouTube yanked this one too, on copyright grounds. Try this fxnetworks American Horror Story site to see some clips that won’t get taken down.

How does Moira appear both old and young? It is a mystery…

This is another case that has me stumped. My first theory was that she could choose how she appeared to whoever she wanted specifically. I thought that she was only showing up young and hot to Ben (the father/husband of the series).

Then it quickly became apparent that men were seeing her young and hot, but women were seeing her old with the glass eye. I thought she was doing this on purpose but I began to suspect that this was beyond her control.

Wouldn’t it have to be some sort of mental mind game instead of electromagnetism? When there’s men and women in the same room she appears old to the women and young to the men. It has to be a trick of the viewers perception. If she were adjusting light waves to appear in a certain way then she’d have to appear the same way to everyone, right?

There came a time in the series when her hot young visage was finally seen through. This suggested that the old her was the “real” Moira, and her young self was an illusion. She even said something to the effect of “Now you’re seeing things as they really are.”

So she was screwing with people’s perceptions somehow. Is there a real-world way outside sci-fi/supernatural telepathy that could actually explain this?

It is a mystery…

The Wrap Up

Well, I’m sure I left you all with more questions than answers here. As I said, I’m not a scientist, but hopefully someone who is and has seen the show might jump in here and tackle some of these questions. Yes, it’s folly to try to force real physics onto the supernatural/paranormal, let alone Hollywood television, but it’s pretty fun for me.

Again, if you haven’t seen the show, do make sure to go check out this first season. However, I have some good/bad news for the second season. I’ve read that season 2 of American Horror Story will take place in a new house with a new family, and new ghosts.

I think this is both good and bad. I really connected with the family (and the ghosts) from this season, but I do trust the writers to come up with something good. I’ll give them another chance to do it again.

It’s kind of brave to take these established characters that people have bonded with and just push them to the side. Starting all over again with new characters is kind of a big risk, but I suppose they didn’t want the show to get stagnant.

So anyway, let me know what you think of these burning questions or if you have any insights you’d like to share. See you next time!

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28 thoughts on “The Science of American Horror Story

  1. This is awesome! I love (LOVE!) this show, and I love science. Thanks for a fascinating read!

    1. Hey Crystal, it’s a great show isn’t it?? I was dreading that last episode since I know it will be along wait until next season. Thanks for commenting!

      1. I didn’t even know that it was the last episode! (Apparently, I was living under a rock and only crawled out to watch AHS. . . ) I was really sad to hear that it’s over (for now)!

  2. Nothing more than I can say. This was the only show that I watched though I’m not really a fan of horror shows but this one is really awesome.

    1. Hey Ernest, I agree it is awesome. I’ll miss the characters from the first season but I can’t wait until season 2. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Not sure if it is my fault but your last video I can not watch. It says it is copyrighted by Fox. Anyway, I wish I could get this show here in Turkey. Have satellite but we always seem to be behind. At the moment, we are watching The Secret Circle but I like all programmes like that, especially ones with ghosts in. Seems like there are some familiar names of actors in this one. Suppose I will just have to wait!!

    1. Hey Natalie! Good to see you here.

      Yeah that last video I got a warning on when I uploaded it. It did say it would not be viewable out of the U.S. I suppose they don’t want to spoil the roll out of the show to other regions. I was hoping it was a short enough clip that they wouldn’t care but I thought wrong!

      I tried watching Secret Circle but couldn’t really get into it. Did you try watching Vampire Diaries? I actually like that one a lot.

      But back to AHS – is it even going to premiere soon in Turkey or is it not on the horizon? I hope you get to watch it soon!

  4. Holy mackerel! This post has just shown me how much I *don’t* know about the world. I don’t want to just see this show, I want to watch “The Universe” too! =) Wish I could help you with more theories, but I just don’t have the knowledge behind me. Maybe when I catch up with you. =)

    Thanks for helping me see the world in another way, John!

    1. Hey Samantha, I guarantee watching The Universe will blow your mind!

      And so will American Horror Story when you get around to watching it. I’m still trying to get over the last episode.

      I’m glad this post opened your eyes to some things you hadn’t considered. Thanks much for dropping in here and thanks for commenting! :)

  5. So, my brain is going a bit in my middle age, but here’s a question that has been bothering me about Moira, so I might as well get your opinion.

    I get the way she appears older and younger based on who is seeing her, but wasn’t she killed as a young woman? And, if so, how or why is she the only ghost that is aging? Did I miss something or am I getting it totally wrong?

    This was a great review of an incredible show. Definitely one of the best on TV right now, and Jessica Lange was amazing.


    1. Hey Michael – re: Moira – I’ve been beating my head against the wall on that very question, myself!

      I never saw a satisfactory answer as to why she is the only ghost that ages or has two appearances like that.

      I saw a post from someone on a forum who suggested that Moira was the only ghost who managed to move on and accept what she did so she can still “grow”.

      That sounds as good as anything, i guess! lol…if each season is a different family as would seem to be the deal, we may never find out. curses!

      And yes, Jessica Lange was awesome. I loved to hate her. Thanks for commenting!

  6. I love this show and got hooked on it while living in the UK. Thankfully they syndicate here just one day after it shows in the states,…so I’ve been able to keep up. I think that the story line is fascinating and the characters are so complex. They have some really great actors in this show, just can’t get enough of it. Looking forward to season 2.

    1. Hey Beth, I didn’t realize it hit the air that soon over in the UK, but that’s great.

      Yeah I thought the characters were all pretty deep as well. Burned man was my favorite, though. I’m also really looking forward to season 2.

      Thanks for commenting!

    1. Oh yeah, they couldn’t have pulled this off the same way on a network. I’m not sure if the networks would have taken a chance on this, anyway.

      This is an awesome show though, so I wouldn’t be surprised if watered-down copycats start showing up. thanks for your comment!

  7. The American Horror Story is the MOST twisted insane crazy diabolic perverted and senseless show ever and STILL one of the best shows I’ve? EVER seen (so addicting and oddly serene)

    1. Hey Alan, you’re right…the show is way out there and I still love it. it was the show I most looked forward to every week. Although I made sure I wasn’t eating while watching it because you never know what they were gonna throw at you lol.

      Thanks for commenting!

  8. An amazing post very informative……. I am a big fan of the Universe also. Magnetism makes us solid for me sums it up how for us more technically challenged people The Universe expalins things in a way that is more easily understood.

    1. Hey Nats,

      yes they do a good job of making those concepts relatable to us lay-people on The Universe. Even when there’s a show I think I won’t be interested in they manage to drop in a few facts that blow my mind.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  9. This show was definitely twisted. I was not expecting what happend the last couple episodes, which made me like the show more.

    1. No doubt! Those last few episodes blew me away. The writers were very brave with this show to do all that to their main characters.

      I’m not sure exactly what the new season will bring but I’m definitely looking forward to it.

      Thanks for your comment!

  10. I love how you broke this down and analyzed it! Lol. I think my friend said he knows the guy whose house they film some of this in, I could see if you could go in with an ecto-reader (de Ghostbusters) and check for spirits! Haha. I watched a bit of the show but have not gotten into it. It had a lot of hype in the beginning, but is there still a big fan base? I’m more of a GLEE girl. :)

    1. Hi Lizzy!

      Oh man did he get a tour of the house? I heard it was sold now. I would love to see it in person (and hopefully not be killed).

      Yeah they definitely should have went in there with the proton packs and ghost traps! lol.

      I think there’s still a major fanbase for this. I know I can’t wait for this to come back. I used to be a huge Glee fan but I stopped watching 3rd season. It’s hard to believe both of these shows are by the same guy, huh?

  11. I like the way you gave took this the extra mile and you were able to back up your discussion with videos, etc. I have not seen the show. But I like FX and assume that they would put out a good quality program.

    On a side note, your video that discusses why we appear as solids and why we do not go through the floor, is very interesting. I wonder what would happen if we were able to slow down the speed and actually become more of a jelly like substance. There would obviously be very complex issues that would have to be thought of before hand (your heart and organs could not turn into jelly).

    1. Make sure you check this one out as soon as you can. Each episode is a TRIP!!

      You know I bet somewhere on one of those episodes of The Universe they discussed that. They sure talked about everything else! Some of it becomes a bit of a blur to the layperson after a while, though.

      I bet for us to exist as a jelly-type substance a whole bunch of other physical properties of the universe would have to be different. I’m glad they’re not because I enjoy being solid!

      Er, semi-solid anyway…

  12. Wow, I didn’t even know this show existed. Thank god for instant demand for American Horror Story.

    I have to admit, I got lost and wandered off at the part where you mentioned that the ghosts could have sex with us……………………………………there, I just did it again. Is it just me or does raise a lot of questions?

    Although us guys wouldn’t consider this cheating, I can’t help think that our wives will.

    1. Hey Joe, I hope you check it out, it’s really good!

      But yes, the whole ghost mistress thing may not work out so well: “But babe, it didn’t mean anything…she was DEAD!”

      Great, now my mind is wandering, too…lol. Thanks for commenting!

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