Why American Horror Story Is TV’s Scariest Ever Series

Maintain a firm grip on your bejesus, people. American Horror Story returns this September, and Ben Arnold tells us why it’ll be ruining hotel stays for the foreseeable future…

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TV horror was barely a thing until 2011, the point at which Glee and Nip/Tuck co-creators/writers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk unleashed American Horror Story in a bonanza of blood, guts and abject wrongness. Taking on the mantle of classic anthology series like Tales From The Crypt and The Twilight Zone, its continued efforts to be the most boundary-pushing, taboo-busting horror creation on TV have paid off.

It set its first season in a house with a murky past. So far, so ‘been done’, but in practice, it was utterly demented, taking every aspect of the ‘haunted house’ trope and supercharging it, with bizarre S&M ghosts, necrophilic romance and monstrous creatures in the basement.

The second series, featuring many of the actors from the first series in different roles, did the same for the insane asylum. The third took on voodoo and witchcraft in New Orleans, while the fourth centred on a travelling freak show. Last series saw us in the confines of the enigmatic Hotel Cortez – complete with proprietress Lady Gaga – the scene of decades worth of depravity.

Here’s how American Horror Story became the show we love to fear.

It references loads of classic horror…

Everything from Carrie to Halloween to The Shining and Psycho get a nod. “It’s amazing how many different periods of horror the show is acknowledging,” says Dr Johnny Walker, horror expert and lecturer in media at Northumbria University. “For example, the second series, set in the asylum, relates back to gothic literature, but even the title sequence references horror cinema’s beginnings, films like The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. It’s also set in 1960, which with Psycho and Peeping Tom is generally thought of in academic terms as the birth year of the modern horror film.” Even specific scenes from classic movies have been lovingly recreated, showing Murphy and Falchuk’s breadth of knowledge and affection for the genre. Take Twisty The Clown from AHS: Freak Show’s homage to Michael Myers, and the scene from AHS: Asylum, when Evan Peters’ Kit Walker did his best impression of Alex from A Clockwork Orange.

It scares you with the lights on

Daytime bloodbaths are a jarring rarity in horror, with nearly all movie murder happening at night. As Jessica Lange’s Elsa Mars, the freak show impresario from series four says, night time is “when logic loosens its vice grip and imagination comes out to play”. This notion is flipped on its head in episode one of AHS: Freak Show, when the grotesque antagonist Twisty the Clown, a waking nightmare for those scared of clowns, brutally murders a teenage couple in broad daylight beside a picturesque lake with a pair of shears. It’s a genuinely shocking moment. “It’s a cheap trick in a way, but not one that is employed very often, which is strange considering how affecting it can be,” says Dr Walker. “The Italians often did it, directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento. Horrendous things would happen in beautiful settings. The Greek horror film Island Of Death, the whole thing is set in daylight, which it was praised for subsequently.”

It’s inspired by real murderers

In another nod to classic horror, Bloody Face, the serial killer from AHS: Asylum, owes everything to Leatherface, the killer from the benchmark Texas Chainsaw Massacre, who also, charmingly, had a penchant for masks made of human skin back in the ’70s. Bloody Face’s respectable alter ego (no spoilers) also has bowls made of human skulls in his house, something that US murderer Ed Gein was found with on his arrest in 1957. Gein was the inspiration for many a cinematic killer, from Leatherface and Bloody Face to Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill in Silence Of The Lambs.

The cast plays the thrills to the hilt

AHS wouldn’t be half the show it is without its incredible line-up of actors, notably Jessica Lange, who has been a lynch-pin to the series, with her pivotal roles as insane neighbour Constance Langdon in Murder House, the betrayed Sister Jude Martin in Asylum, twisted up witch Fiona Goode in Coven, and Freak Show doyenne and amputee Elsa Mars. Zachary Quinto – who can twist himself from good to evil with a flick of an eyebrow – has also proved himself a serious horror player in both Asylum and Murder House. See also it’s superb turns from the likes of regulars Sarah Paulson and Angela Bassett, alongside the likes of Joseph Fiennes, Michael Chiklis, Ian McShane, Patti LaBelle, Eric Stonestreet, Danny Huston and the legend that is Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.

It’s got the most genuinely horrific bad guys ever…

The most villainous characters have been an inspired amalgam of horror’s most nasty, hewn from the murkiest corners of our imaginations. There’s the Nazi concentration camp surgeon continuing his work in eugenics on vulnerable psychiatric patients (the amazing James Cromwell as Dr Arthur Arden in Asylum). Kathy Bates in Coven was a revelation, as the impossibly cruel slave owner Delphine LaLaurie, who keeps her young complexion by spreading her face with a salve made from the pancreases of living captives chained up in the loft. Then there was the gimp-suited ‘Rubber Man’, a murderer/rapist, capable of unspeakable acts of violence from Murder House. And that’s without mentioning ‘The Clown’. Actually, let’s never mention him again.

It’s the master of shock value…

“There’s a lot to be said for shock value,” says Dr Walker. “As that’s one of the most interesting things about the show. It’s very affecting and clever in the way it explores issues. It makes us confront them, and takes no prisoners in that regard. If it wasn’t excessive, the audience may feel let down. It’s like a culmination of decades’ worth of tropes. You don’t have to be a connoisseur of horror to enjoy it, but for anyone who’s well versed, it’s like a pop quiz.” Biggest shocks? Well, since you ask. How about the time we realised that Dr Charles Montgomery, the original owner of the Murder House and part-time abortionist, had been making his own Franken-baby out of body parts? Or the bleach colonic and incest from AHS: Coven? Oh, and that time Anne Frank turned up in AHS: Asylum. Quite literally no one expected that.

One-hit wonders:American Horror Story’s scariest cameos

Neil Patrick Harris
Series: Freak Show
What’s sinister about a weird wooden ventriloquist’s dummy? As it turns out, nothing. It’s the psychotic and murderous ventriloquist – Neil Patrick Harris’ Chester Creb – that you should be considerably more scared of, particularly after he starts sawing people in half. And not by magic.

Chloë Sevigny
Series: Asylum
She’s the nymphomaniac sent to the Briarcliff asylum to have her randiness dealt with. But after she runs into former-Nazi surgeon Dr Arden, she loses her legs (quite literally) and becomes one of his terrifyingly deformed medical experiments. Not for the faint hearted.

Lance Reddick
Series: Coven
Cedric Daniels from The Wire might have been amazingly buff, but he was never this scary. In AHS: Coven, Reddick played Haitian voodoo terror Papa Legba, the sadistic gatekeeper of the spirit world. He also snorted coke and demanded innocent souls be sacrificed for him.

Contemporary British Horror Cinema: Industry, Genre and Society by Dr Johnny Walker is out now.