Getty Images / FX
TV producer Ryan Murphy knows a little something about being creeped out by your own home.
“I currently live in a house that I believe has another spirit in it,” he tells PopcornBiz. “It's a really beautiful house and I feel very lucky to live there, but there's this one area of the house that whenever I go into I have a presence. I feel something, and it's not a bad presence. I've talked to other people who have lived in that house who say the same thing. But I believe in that, and so maybe it's me being gullible. I don't think it's a murder or anything bad like that, but I just feel something that I can't explain.”
Murphy – best known for creating the generally upbeat, uplifting and occasionally twisted sensation “Glee” – and co-creator Brad Falchuck get to explore that unsettling feeling in devilish detail with the new FX series “American Horror Story,” an ongoing drama that evokes the moody, atmospheric vibe of horror films like “Rosemary’s Baby,” “The Shining,” “The Amityville Horror” and “The Exorcist” and gives familiar tropes of the genre newly terrifying twists.
“I like the fact that the show is very sort of in your face and is also very emotional,” says Murphy. The story centers on the fractured Harmon family – guilt-plagued psychiatrist Ben (Dylan McDermott), depression-stricken Vivien (Connie Britton) and self-abusive daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) – who try to leave the hurts and tragedies of their past behind and make a fresh start in Los Angeles, only to find that their new home seems to be a magnet for death, disaster and freakish characters determined to further ruin their family.
“It is a house of horrors,” adds Murphy. “Also, the show examines other horrors in society, not just the horrors that happen in this house.”
Finding fresh ways to tap certain enduring, iconic and even too-familiar horror traditions and marry familiar horrors to new psycho-sexual contexts has been a treat for him, he says.
“When you put them through a prism of sexuality and emotionality they become more interesting. I love horror movies, but I don't like bloody horror movies, so there's not a lot of blood in this thing. It's never going to be a blood bath because I always felt that it's interesting to write a horror show for women, in a weird way. Not that that's the only people that it will appeal to, but my mother doesn't want to see blood and guts. But she does like scary movies that aren't so in your face. That's what we're aiming for.”
Murphy likes the notion that horror stories emerge to suit the anxieties, fears and paranoia of the current times, and believes the series will be reflective of what modern audiences are afraid of.
“I think the zeitgeist is definitely reflected in the show,” he explains. “It talks about all kind of American horror stories that we are sort of being bombarded with on a day-to-day basis, so I do think that it's a show that's definitely of its time. I always felt and wanted ‘Nip/Tuck’ to be that as well. They have that in common.” Murphy brought the series to the cable network where he also did “Nip/Tuck” for the creative freedoms it offered to explore some truly dark subjects. "I'm thrilled to be back,” he says. “I don't think you could push the envelope in terms of what we're doing with the content [on a broadcast network].”
McDermott says he’s not sure how audiences will react to Murphy’s envelop-busting, but he’s excited to be a part of it. “He does push the boundaries,” says the actor, “and I think people might love the show, they might hate the show, whatever – but they're going to talk about it. I think that this is going to gather a lot of attention, and that's what Ryan does very well. He's an artist, and once again he's created controversy.”
“I love that he's trying to keep his family together,” McDermott says of his character Ben. “I love that part of him: that even though he's messed up and he's trying, he's desperate to keep this all together - the nobility of that. This guy's very smart, he's a psychiatrist – and at the same time, he needs treatment himself. Maybe a LOT of it.”
“Choosing 'American Horror Story' was a very specific choice, because it was such a departure for me and such a risk for me,” adds Britton. “I wanted to do something that felt scary – and in every way, this has been. Aside from just being a scary show, in every way – even acting-wise, the way we work and all of it, it's just so outside my comfort zone and every day I'm scared to death. I'm like, 'I think I must be terrible in this'. But I wanted it to be that.”
Britton says that while Vivien is a wife and a mother, it’s there that the similarities end with her very relatable role on “Friday Nights Lights.” “I think in 'American Horror Story' we're going to see the complexities of a marriage that is falling apart and decaying and just difficult,” she explains. “It's just where it's a very different kind of marriage, a very different kind of family relationship and a different kind of environment and one that ends up being very scary.”
Acclaimed actress Jessica Lange was also inspired to step away from her usual film roles to take on a regular gig as the Harmon’s unsettling next door neighbor Constance, who seems to know more about the house’s twisted history than she lets on. “When this came up, I thought, ‘Well, here is great writing, here is a wonderful character – something very unusual,” says Lange. “I had a couple phone conversations with Ryan and I'd never had a man promise me so much, so I just decided I would do it.”
Farmiga, the teenage younger sister of actress Vera Farmiga, says the spookiness of the sets that comprise the Harmon’s home frequently helped her find the right mindset. “The scary scenes that we had to shoot, all the horror was there,” she says. “I didn't really have to think too much of it. I mean, if you were in the basement at that time with the lights off and characters there, it was pretty scary. It wasn't too hard to get into it.
For Murphy, “American Horror Story” ultimately allows him to access more shadowy corners on interpersonal dynamics than he’s been able to explore on his other series.
“For the first time in a long time I feel very sort of content about creatively what I'm working on just because I get to use both sides of my personality,” he says, “the light and fun Rachel Berry side and then the dark, twisted, screwed-up side. So I feel very satisfied at the end of the day.”
"American Horror Stories" debuts Wednesday at 10 pm on FX