Sex, ghosts, murder and old movies create a post-modern, post-Gothic swirl in FX’s stunning new series American Horror Story. Co-created by Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck ) and Brad Falchuk (Murphy's co-creator on Glee), the story of a damaged family and a haunted house is more macabre than Nip/Tuck and has a higher-than-Glee camp quotient. You can’t be seriously terrified of a show in which the housekeeper – Frances Conroy channeling Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca – finds yet another body in the basement and wearily deadpans to her cohorts, “You get the shovel, I’ll get the bleach.”
Yet American Horror Story is so truly creepy that you have to wonder whether audiences will return. It’s one thing to have your pants scared off by a movie, another to invite those fears into your home (or onto your iPad) every week.
The series begins in Boston, where Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) has recently suffered a late-term miscarriage; her psychiatrist husband, Ben (Dylan McDermott), has been sleeping with a student, and their rebellious teenaged daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), just wants to be left alone. They start over by moving to Los Angeles, into a spooky 1920’s house where so many people have died it’s on a “murder house” tour.
We see the house before they do, in a flashback where Adelaide, a young girl with Down syndrome, warns red-headed twin boys not to go inside, “You’ll die in there.” And from then on we can see how heavily the story figures in the series’ title. Murphy and Falchuk play with just about every scary-movie cliche around, starting with the deadly basement where babies’ body parts are kept in jars on a shelf, and where we see the murderer scoot across the screen while the victims look the other way. Because the words “Don’t go in the house” are as meaningless here as they have always been in horror films, Ben sets up his office at home, inviting psychotic patients into their lives.
The casting is ideal - McDermott isn’t afraid to make Ben unlikable, and Britton grounds the looniness in common sense. But the great casting really appears when we meet the neighbors and the help. Jessica Lange is twisted elegance itself as Constance, the nosy faded-belle next door, whose favorite recipes include poisoned cupcakes. Her daughter, the now-grown Adelaide (Jamie Bewer) is still handing out death-warnings. And Conroy adds a campier touch as the scowling maid, Moira, who has always worked in the house and has become sanguine about stumbling over corpses. Among other haunted, time-tripping tricks, Ben always sees Moira as her hot younger self (played by Alexandra Breckenridge), and has also developed a fondness for setting fires.
As amusing as some parts are, the show also includes genuinely repellent murders, and episode two includes a realistically harrowing Manson-inspired attack. As it evokes the ghosts of earlier horror stories, from Rosemary’s Baby (there’s a good chance someone has been impregnated by a demon) and the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV series (a terrifying episode about nurses being stalked in a big lonely house), this series recreates their lingering terrors and piles on more graphic details.
Just as the plastic surgeons in Nip/Tuck always asked their patients, “What don’t you like about yourself?” there is a refrain in American Horror Story. Characters keep asking one another, “What are you afraid of?” They usually mean it in some psychological or emotional way, but it’s the killer-under-the-bed kind of fear that drives the series, and will either lure viewers in or send them cowering away.
American Horror Story premieres Wednesday on FX. This brief behind-the-scenes feature has its bouquet-tossing moments, but also gives a good overview of the series.