American Horror Story isn’t known for being the type of television show that’s conservative or Puritanical in any way — it’s gory, twisted, and turns every television standby on its head. Which makes the show’s choice for the lost colony of Roanoke a perfect throwback, a true American horror story that is inexplicable and frighteningly weird.
History buffs and conspiracy theorists alike know the bizarre backstory of the lost colony: In 1585, a group of Englishmen arrived on the present-day North Carolinian island Manteo, which, at the time, was inhabited by Native Americans. The British were on a “military and scientific mission”; local tribes were, unsurprisingly, not exactly high-fiving the British for moving in and shacking up. By 1586, local tribes had driven out the English settlers, upset that they’d taken control of valuable land and resources. The British came back in 1587 on a decidedly less militaristic mission, taking 90 men, 17 women, and 11 kids along for the ride.
By 1590, the entire settlement had disappeared, leaving behind only two clues: “Croatoan” etched into a gatepost leading to the fort, and “Cro” carved onto a tree.
Over 400 years later, we still aren’t sure what happened to those settlers in Roanoke. Science has improved by leaps and bounds since then, but even remote-sensing techniques have turned up only vague clues, like the existence of burn pits, detected by far-reaching magnetometers. Compared to what AHS implies, and based on these clues, the dominating theories explaining what happened to the Roanoke colony are pretty tame: A New World disease spread among the colonists whose transatlantic bodies were mystified by the new germs and subsequently died en masse, or perhaps a violent uprising took place and forced the colonists to pick up and head to the mainland.
But a recent theory points to Albemarle Sound, an estuary located 50 miles away and in the opposite direction of where archaeologists have looked thus far. It might be a promising candidate for explaining what happened to a fleeing group of the colonists. Eric Klingelhoffer, an archaeologist at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, told National Geographic in 2013 that soil testing showed a wooden vessel submerged underground and that artifacts dating from the 16th century were inside. “We’ve done some aerial photography,” Klingelhoffer said in an interview. “[We used] ground penetrating radar across the most promising location for Elizabethan activity.”
Remote sensing is pretty high-tech stuff. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, remote sensing uses radars to detect “energy” that bounces back up to an aircraft or satellite above a specific surface. This energy, whether it takes the form of reflected sunlight or laser beams, bounces from the sensor to the surface and back to the sensor again. This technique is commonly used to track ocean wave changes and predict weather or to source tsunamis and earthquakes. It’s highly accurate and requires basically zero interference with natural habitats. However, it’s insanely expensive (though costs are falling), and, as a scientist bluntly stated in a NASA report, “You still need to put effort into ground-truthing.” In other words, it’s fine to pew-pew a couple of laser beams onto rocks and soil and oceans, but it takes the old Indiana Jones method of swinging through ravines and digging through marshes to actually confirm what’s going on.
In the case of Roanoke, solving the colony’s mystery is an almost impossible — though researchers stress not impossible — feat. For one thing, the stuff we’re looking for is over 400 years old. The onset of climate change is fast and furious, and, combined with erosion, could disintegrate a lot of artifacts that might have otherwise proven the existence of a runaway colony (remember, this is 16th century England we’re talking about, so the objects are probably made of wood, which any time in water will destroy).
In 2015, there seemed to be some headway in the search for Roanoke 50 miles southeast in Hatteras Island: Researchers stumbled upon “a sword hilt, broken English bowls, and a fragment of a slate writing tablet still inscribed with a letter,” according to National Geographic. But were these trade items passing through the area? Can we really know if they were just dropped here on accident or were left by colonists? We don’t know, and it leads us back to square one: Roanoke remains a frustratingly bizarre mystery that somehow has defied not just time but science and its myriad of advances as well.
So back to Wednesday night’s AHS episode, presented as a fictional documentary series titled “My Roanoke Nightmare”: Despite lasers, radars, shovels, and sheer human investigation and morbid curiosity for the past 400 years, we still have no clue at all what happened to Roanoke. That in itself makes for a real historical and scientific nightmare.