American Horror Stories Takes on Terror of a Missing Child, What Really Lurks in the Deep Woods

What lengths would you go to for a chance at finding your missing child — even after ten years!

The penultimate installment of Ryan Murphy’s anthology experiment, “American Horror Stories,” takes a look at horror tropes involving strange beings living deep in uncharted parts of the forest. And it also tackles a horror all too real.

Before getting into the truly twisted stuff that makes up the closing chapters of this episode, we were treated to a fairly straightforward look at a family trying to just get away from it all with a weekend camping trip.

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As we’ve come to expect from “AHStories,” there are no real surprises along the way because the direction telegraphs every major move before it happens. That’s why we knew exactly where this was going when the couple’s 3-year-old son started playing peek-a-boo from Dad behind the trees.

Of course he was going to go missing. From there, we skipped ahead ten years to see several more obvious story beats. The couple had since broken up over the disappearance of their son. Their story gained national media attention, which further destroyed their lives.

The father, played by “Schmigadoon!” bad boy Aaron Tveit, was blamed at least by some factions for the loss of their child, with many assuming he’d killed them. We don’t get a full breakdown of what the mother, played by “Greek” star Tiffany Dupont, has gone through.

We know she’s shied away from her most recent relationship because her new boyfriend wanted to start a family. And we know she said that she’s not able to teach anymore. Is that because she’s too famous, or is she also facing scrutiny about her possible role in their son’s disappearance?

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The crux of the story is a hunter who arrives at Jay’s (Tveit) place and lures him back to the very woods where their son disappeared with a Boy Scout compass and a photo that could be their son as he looks today.

Remember how we said many things were very obvious, well good old Bob Birch (Blake Shields) was definitely one of those things. We knew he was trouble from the jump, and we knew he was being disingenuous because Shields played him as two-dimensional as a piece of paper.

We’ll have to give props, then, to “AHS” regular Cody Fern for his multi-layered portrayal of Aussie park ranger Stan Vogel. His was the only character in the whole hour where we weren’t entirely sure if he was good, bad or something else altogether.

That’s a testament more to the way he brought the character to life than the writing, as his dialogue was pretty earnest and straightforward. It was Fern’s choices in body language, line delivery, even the looks he gave the couple in their shared scenes, that cast doubt on him.

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We’d have liked a better job from Shields, as their characters were diametrically opposed, to keep us more on our toes as to what we might expect when Shields finally got them to the place in the woods he said they’d find illegal pot “growers,” and possibly their son.

What they found instead was a camp filled with dead bodies. And then, for no real reason than because he wanted to and we needed the exposition, Birch just unloaded on the couple, telling them he’d lied about everything, including their son and the compass, just to get their money. Then he was to lure them to the camp and let the “growers” kill them.

But things weren’t at all as they seemed, as one of the dead bodies suddenly became not dead at all, proceeding to rip Birch’s neck out.

The couple fled and made their way back to Stan, who had to deliver some more exposition about the “ferals” that live in the woods. Were they supernatural beings or just feral humans who live a cannibalistic lifestyle?

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From here, the closing moments were perhaps as inevitable as everything else that happened. Stan turned out to be the closest thing the lost couple had to an ally … so of course he was killed by ferals.

Once again, the ferals let the couple escape — we never did get a satisfactory explanation for this — until they were chased and ultimately surrounded in the woods. Here’s where things got a little hinky, though.

We were fine with the ferals trapping the couple, because not everyone makes it out alive in these types of things. And we were not at all surprised that their now-13-year-old son was among them.

What made no sense was that he was on a throne. Not that he could be somehow seen as their leader because why not? We’re fine with that. But that he either travels with a throne and has it set up any time he encounters people, or that his parents just happened to run right to where he keeps his throne.

The visual would have been just as effective with the boy standing. A crown alone could have made it clear he was a leader, or perhaps just the fact that the other ferals deferred to him. In the end, he did recognize that these people were his parents. But sentimentality wasn’t his strong suit. At least, not when his people were hungry.

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One of the things that made this particular installment work so well, even as it still played in very obvious tropes, was that it was just outside of our normal world. We loved Stan’s explanation that America’s national parks were created to protect people from those creatures that go bump in the night.

We loved even more that those creatures appear to be just us, albeit a much more animalistic and brutal version of us. Even the myth of Bigfoot, he explained, can be traced back to these “ferals.”

His explanation that they are just descended from mountain people who never came down and adopted a new way of living is certainly plausible. Could there be bands of people just like this living together deep in our national forests? Of course their could.

The best speculative horror plays with our perception of the world around us, and “Feral” definitely delivers on that front. This horror could very well be real and it could be closer than we realize. Maybe we’ll be a little wary the next time we’re deep in the woods, or up in the mountains or anywhere civilization doesn’t seem to quite reach.

We may not be alone.

“American Horror Stories” wraps its first season with one final episode next Thursday on FX on Hulu.

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