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American Horror Story’s season 6 premiere: “My Roanoke Nightmare” delivers torches and true crime

At least some of the rumors were true.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

After rumors broke early that the sixth season of American Horror Story would center on the lost colonists of Roanoke, FX and showrunner Ryan Murphy went full-throttle in their efforts to inject mystery into the upcoming season’s theme. Unlike with past seasons of the horror anthology series, Murphy and the network had vowed to keep the theme for season six a secret until it premiered — while releasing no fewer than six different trailers that paid homage to various horror films and tropes and hinted at numerous possibilities for what the season might be about.

In August, TMZ got hold of alleged leaked set photos showing the tell-tale mystery word "Croatoan," which was famously carved into a tree when the real Roanoke settlers vanished. But other theories made a strong showing among AHS fans, and FX president John Landgraf proclaimed that only one of the trailers was an "accurate" tease, declaring that "all the rest are misdirect."

But now AHS has finally returned, and the season six premiere, which aired September 14, has finally answered our questions … sort of. The theme of the season is indeed Roanoke; its official title is "My Roanoke Nightmare." The Roanoke in question does appear to be Roanoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the famous missing colonial settlement. But if this is Roanoke, it's a modern retelling, and the plot isn't exactly clear.

A title card indicated that "The following story is based on true events," which could be an oblique reference to the Roanoke settlement or something else altogether. And the episode was presented in a docu-drama format, complete with re-enactments that were one part TruTV, one part Lifetime movie, and one part faint nod to '90s thrillers like What Lies Beneath.

The story follows an interracial couple who are portrayed by different actors in the present day and in flashbacks. Shelby (Lily Rabe in the present; Sarah Paulson in the past) and Matt (Andre Holland in the present; Cuba Gooding Jr. in the past) find their lives upended after a brush with gang violence leaves Matt seriously injured and causes Shelby to suffer a miscarriage. They move from Los Angeles to a forested corner of North Carolina, but the violence seems to follow them in the form of their seriously creepy new house, which instantly begins playing tricks on them, and an odd band of local weirdos who surround their house with torches.

In addition to Rabe and Paulson, other returning AHS cast members who appeared in the season six premiere include Adina Porter and Angela Bassett, double cast as present and past versions of Matt’s sister Lee. Kathy Bates also turned up, as a bizarrely adorned local townie, while Wes Bentley appeared at the last moment as a leader of an outlandish local woodland cult.

Fans lamented that Evan Peters didn’t play a role in the premiere, but the episode's closing credits, which revealed the season’s full regular cast for the first time, indicated that he’ll be back at some point in the season, along with AHS alums Matt Bomer, Cheyenne Jackson, Lady Gaga, Denis O’Hare, and Finn Whitrock.

The first episode contained lots of Southern Gothic tropes, with hat tips to everything from typical redneck horror to films like Sinister and The Blair Witch Project, and even Lord of the Flies. Overall, it left viewers with little clue as to what the ongoing plot of season six will be. But the twist in the episode’s final moments — in which Shelby first discovers a ring of scary, Blair Witch-y forest totems, then witnesses Bentley’s band of woodland cultists doing some friendly neighborhood scalping (yes, scalping) suggests that AHS season six will at the very least deliver on the over-the-top ridiculousness and boundary-pushing habits the show has become known for.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the original Roanoke settlement was in Roanoke, Virginia. The original settlement was on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

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