Perhaps all of that relentless positivity and self-empowerment they showcase on Glee has left executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk with a surplus of nastiness they need to get out. If the artfully creepy previews are any indication, American Horror Story will certainly do the trick. Critical reaction has been mixed, but most agree that it is an over-the-top experience.
Ostensibly a haunted house story, the series — which airs Wednesdays beginning Oct. 5 on FX — follows the Harmons, who relocate from Boston to Los Angeles in an effort to rebuild their lives after an infidelity and a miscarriage. But the house they move into contains dark secrets, and they soon learn that they have traded one set of bad circumstances for another that is far more terrifying. The top-shelf cast includes Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton as Ben and Vivien Harmon; Taissa Farmiga as their teenage daughter, Violet; Jessica Lange as Constance, the mysterious next-door neighbor; Denis O’Hare (True Blood) as the heavily scarred Larry Harvey, who tries to warn the Harmons about the house; Evan Peters as Tate Langdon, one of Ben Harmon’s patients; and two actresses (Alexandra Breckenridge, Frances Conroy), who will portray the Harmons’ housekeeper, Moira.
Murphy says doing a show like this is a dream come true, both because of his lifetime interest in the horror genre and the cast involved, most of whom he pursued. While there are many characters to follow, Murphy points to Britton’s Vivien as the one audiences will identify with most.
“She’s the one we’re going to be rooting for,” he says. “She is sort of the moral center of the show. If you have Connie, I think you have an obligation, because I think people want to see Connie Britton be strong and kick ass and not [be] weak and not [be] a victim, so we’re writing her that way.”
The treatment of women in horror has always been complex, treading a tricky territory between exploitation and empowerment. While they are undeniably treated as sex objects, women are also often the only survivors. In fact, they even get to kill the monster quite a bit. Murphy says he’s out to explore that topic and other horror-movie tropes in a show he says definitely has women in mind as viewers. Part of that means a limit on blood and guts, outside of “a ripped-out throat or two.” It’s far less gory, he says, than another show he’s known for, Nip/Tuck.
As is often the case with the horror genre, American Horror Story will be reflective of its time, Murphy says. The bad economy, for instance, makes it tougher for the Harmons to follow that tried-and-true advice regarding haunted houses and just “get the @#$% out.”
“The question is, what would you do if you put all your money into this house … and then suddenly you wanted to get out but you couldn’t sell it?” he says. “That’s not the only reason that they have to stay there — because Lord knows they still try to escape early on — but they’re a very smart group of characters. … All of these things happen to work against them.”
It might seem strange from the outside for someone to be dividing his time working on a sunny comedy like the massively popular Glee, and a weird horror series on a basic-cable network, but Murphy says that while it does take some extra effort, the work has been extremely fulfilling.
“You do have to sort of change your energy,” he says. “But the staffs of both shows are in the same building, and are both sort of obsessed with the other one’s show. … For the first time in a long time, I feel very content about creatively what I’m working on, just because I get to use both sides of my personality. You know, the light, fun, Rachel Berry side [from Glee], and then the dark, twisted, screwed-up side. So I feel very satisfied at the end of the day.”
Viewers who like to unravel mysteries should also feel satisfied while watching American Horror Story, which Ryan says is full of them, with the clues to be spread out over the season. He’s willing to give a little guidance, saying that people ought to pay attention to any redheads they see onscreen. “We love ‘gingers.’ I just think it’s a childhood thing for [McDermott’s character] that will be explained.”
Additional reporting by Jeff Pfeiffer
Photo: Credit: Robert Zuckerman