If pressed, one could boil down the premise of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's new FX series, American Horror Story, to a simple setup: The fragile Harmons — Ben (Dylan McDermott), a therapist, his wife Vivien (Connie Britton), and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) — move to Los Angeles after Ben makes a terrible mistake that jeopardizes their family. The only problem? Their creepy new house may not be the best place to start over.
But "creepy" doesn't begin to tell it. There is a barrel of bizarre going on here, and it's all delivered fast and furious in the first episode (premiering Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 10/9c) when the Harmons meet their peculiar neighbors. They include bigoted Southern mother next door Constance (Jessica Lange) and her special-needs daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who has a knack for predicting doom; Larry (Denis O'Hare), the burn victim who begins to stalk Ben; Tate (Evan Peters), Ben's teenage psychiatric patient with homicidal fantasies; and the housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge), who appears one way to Vivien and Violet, but another to Ben.
There's also something seriously wrong with the Harmons' basement (and whatever is living in it), the strange rubber suit in the attic and the polarizing house mural on the ground floor.
The show's creators talk about a myriad of inspirations when asked how they came up with their dark and twisted new world. Here are the six that stood out when Murphy and Falchuk spoke with reporters last week following a screening of the series' second episode:
1. Infidelity: Before deciding to work in the horror genre, Murphy wanted to explore marriage and what cheating does to a relationship. "We were really interested in the theme of infidelity and how that can destroy and haunt you," he said. In the second episode, Ben's sins come back to, ahem, haunt him when his former lover (and student) Hayden re-enters his life asking for help. Amid the other screwy events of the hour, "the most frightening thing to me in the episode is when Hayden starts crying in the apartment. You're like, 'Oh, he's really screwed,'" Falchuk said. "To me, that's the moment where you're like, 'This is a guy who has brought the horror into his home.' And that's the idea of any haunted house movie. It's not just the haunted house, it's about the loss of your home. It's about not feeling safe in the most safe place."
2. Jessica Lange: Her character — "our Tennessee Williams thing," Murphy said — might be pulling the strings in the Harmons' new life, but that wasn't always the plan. Before Lange signed on to the project, the role of Constance was little more than a couple of short scenes in the pilot. Now, she "holds all the cards," he said. "We really enlarged the part and wrote all those other scenes [for her]. Once she heard the line, 'Don't make me kill you again,' she was like, 'OK, well, how can I not?'" Constance was heavily influenced by what Murphy calls one of his greatest theatrical experiences, seeing Lange in A Streetcar Named Desire in New York. "I saw her do it twice. I was obsessed with it, I was obsessed with her," he said.
3. The Night Stalker and Dark Shadows: While American Horror Story is billed as a psychosexual thriller and bears little resemblance to either show, both freaked Murphy out as a child — and he liked it! "My favorite experience with my grandparents was watching Dark Shadows, which they made me watch. That's how they punished me," he said. "It's a very seminal feeling for me, peeking behind a chair and loving that feeling of being scared."
4. "Go West, young man": The idea of Manifest Destiny goes hand in hand with their haunted house tale — really! — because, as Murphy put it, "there's no more room [in the country], for the most part. No matter where you go, no matter where you live, you will be dealing with someone who was there before you and their memories and their traumas and their lives." Viewers will see exactly what kind of traumas the house has inflicted on its previous inhabitants, too; its history is explored in the opening segment of each episode (Episode 1 begins in 1978 and Episode 2 in 1968). The third hour will get into its very beginnings in 1924. "Lily Rabe stars as the woman this house was built for. You'll see the origins of why did this house become cursed, in a way," Murphy said.
5. Modern crime. There's a reason grisly procedurals like Criminal Minds and Law & Order: SVU perform as well as they do. According to Murphy, there's an appetite for it: "There are still tour buses that go by the Sharon Tate house, there are clubs dedicated to famous murder recreations... I think it's sort of a way to circumvent your own anxiety in very anxious times." However, while people will die in American Horror Story — some in graphically violent ways — "it's not a murder of the week show, it really is not... The show is rooted in something so real and we're not trying to be gratuitous just to shock people," Murphy said. Instead, expect to see a lot of artful imagery taken from Japanese and Spanish horror films.
6. Halloween: It's one of Murphy's passions. "I was supposed to be born on Halloween. I didn't come out on my due date," he said, disappointed. He's only too happy to have a friendly ghost in his new house — "I feel a really cool presence. I feel my leg being touched at night when I sleep and sometimes it wakes me up. It's just weird, but I never feel afraid," he said — and nothing thrilled him more than what he did last Halloween: "I cleared my deck, I went out to dinner, I came home and I watched The Walking Dead and I had the best time. I loved it. I love that feeling of the fall in October, watching scary movies." To that end, he and Falchuk have written a two-part Halloween special for the series. "The first thing we found out historically... is that on Halloween...the dead are able to roam freely," Murphy said. "Once you read that, you're like, well, that's a two-parter."
American Horror Story premieres Oct. 5 at 10/9c on FX. Will you watch?