Historically, horror hasn't scared up a great track record on TV. Supernatural series? Yes. Terrifying ones? No. The good news for FX, which on Wednesday launches American Horror Story, is that audiences seem to be growing braver. Millions have dared to peek out from behind their fingers, making hits out of The Walking Dead and True Blood. Even when Nip/Tuck dipped its scalpels into overt horror — terrorizing us with sadistic serial killer The Carver — it drew record numbers to FX.
But do viewers have the stomach for a haunted house dreamed up by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who gave us both Glee and Nip/Tuck? American Horror Story's got veteran actors Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott and Jessica Lange, but also a homicidal basement-dwelling creature, angry twin redheads, an enigmatic, er, spirit in a fetish suit, demonic murals, a grotesque burn victim... and that's just in the first episode. To gauge the show's chances, we look back at the last 20 years of horror TV:
Dark Shadows revival (1991, NBC), Nightmare Café (1992, NBC), American Gothic (1995-96, CBS): The prime-time reboot of cult melodrama Dark Shadows revived conflicted Barnabas Collins (whose comrades included a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as a more feral lovelorn vampire. Fans fell, and hard, until the onset of the Gulf War and erratic scheduling cooled ratings. A year later, NBC tried out Wes Craven and Robert Englund's Nightmare Café, a weekly cross between Nightmare on Elm Street and The Twilight Zone that lasted just six episodes. Something more sinister arrived in 1995, when CBS unleashed the bone-chilling, genre-bender American Gothic starring Gary Cole as an immoral sheriff — read: murderous maniac — of a creepy small town in South Carolina. Critics raved, but a too-small audience forced the network to drop it after a season.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003, The WB and UPN) and Angel (1999-2004, The WB): Buffy funneled most of her teen angst into slaying vampires, and in so doing became a genre success story, even while the show blended the demonic and adult themes with a lot of snark and comedy. Buffy's most terrifying episode "Hush", a virtually dialogue-free hour in which the ghastly Gentlemen remove the hearts of victims who cannot scream, earned the show an Emmy nomination for writing, and thanks to rabid fans and fawning critics, the show lasted seven seasons. Its darker, more grown-up spinoff, Angel, also trafficked in real frights, most memorably with a full-scale exorcism — and the disturbing twist that followed — in "I've Got You Under My Skin."
Kingdom Hospital (2004, ABC): Stephen King's adaptation of Lars von Trier's very scary and uber-weird Danish series, The Kingdom, starred Andrew McCarthy as a doctor in a haunted hospital inhabited by the ghost of a Civil-War-era child laborer and a giant anteater-like creature with jagged teeth, among other peculiar living types. (It's no wonder: The hospital was built over the site of two horrific fires, the second of which destroyed an old hospital where an evil doctor performed experiments on his patients.) More than 14 million viewers checked out the premiere, proof of an appetite for horror. But many tuned out soon after and it was not renewed for a second season.
Point Pleasant (2005, Fox): When Satan's daughter Christina, who doesn't know she's the spawn of evil, washes ashore in a quiet New Jersey beach town... well, yeah, bad stuff goes down — especially for any selfish, self-centered residents who deserve it. Despite a promising premise from Buffy vet Marti Noxon, Fox audiences didn't care for the light scares — mean insects! jealous teens! — brought on by the good-looking Child of Darkness (or her good-looking co-stars Grant Show and Sam Page). The show was pulled after just eight episodes aired.
Supernatural (2005-ongoing, The WB and The CW): What started out as two brothers on the road in their Impala fighting demons in search of the truth has grown into a battle of Biblical proportions between good and evil. Sam and Dean have even been to hell and back. (Really, they've taken on Lucifer himself!) Supernatural has long outlasted series creator Eric Kripke's original five-season plan, and won over a small but devoted crowd (not to mention fans in high places).
Masters of Horror (2005-07, Showtime): Showtime commissioned an anthology of films from respected horror maestros, including John Carpenter, Joe Dante and John Landis, as well as newcomers, who were given creative carte blanche to play in pay cable's mostly uncensored space. Bring on the sex and gore! The resulting two seasons' worth of films were a mixed bag, according to reviews, but horror aficionados seemed pleased that the project happened on television at all (save for Takashi Miike's "Imprint," which was released only on DVD after the network deemed it too disturbing to air.)
Fear Itself (2008, NBC): Inspired by Masters, NBC tried a horror anthology of its own, rounding up film vets like Ronny Yu and Stuart Gordon to do their worst (albeit for a general broadcast audience). The scares ranged from gruesome (in "Eater," Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss played a newly recruited cop facing off with a Cajun serial-killing cannibal) to mundane (in "New Year's Day," Glee's Cory Monteith found himself surrounded by zombies). Reviews were mixed and the show lasted two months before low ratings (the premiere drew a series-high 5.29 million viewers) and the summer Olympics pushed it off the schedule permanently.
True Blood (2008-ongoing, HBO): Arguably the most successful horror show on TV to date, Alan Ball's adaptation of Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries was scary, sexed up, politically charged and plenty gory when it premiered. It was also polarizing — critics were sharply divided and only 1.4 million viewers checked out the first airing. But over subsequent episodes, viewers soon found their way into the campy, soap operatic shenanigans of Bon Temps' backwoods, where Sookie and her undead paramours braved supernatural — and supremely salty — demons. Episode 9 of the recent fourth season drew a series-high 5.5 million viewers (not including those who DVR'd or watched later airings on the network).
Harper's Island (2009, CBS): Seven years after John Wakefield went on a murder spree on Harper's Island, the daughter of one of his victims returns to celebrate her best friend's wedding — hey, why not? — and the killing begins again. Unlike the unnerving American Gothic, CBS hoped Harper's Island's was the kind of slasher fest — dismemberments, burnings, an unfortunate chandelier drop — enjoyed by audiences who made Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer box office hits. Critics appreciated the guilty-pleasure thrills and kills, but CBS wasn't in the mood to be patient. After three episodes, the show was bumped from its Thursday timeslot to Saturday nights, where it averaged just under 4 million viewers.
The Walking Dead (2010-ongoing, AMC): Set in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, a group of Atlanta survivors band together to stay clear of the "walkers" eager for their brains. Not exactly what viewers expected from AMC, a network that had just put itself on the map with high-brow period drama Mad Men and the explosively gritty Breaking Bad. But Walking Dead, Frank Darabont's slow-moving, cinematic-in-scope adaptation of Robert Kirkman's graphic novels, debuted on Halloween to nearly universal acclaim and the biggest ratings in the history of the network. That means more than 5 million people watched Rick and Glenn gut a zombie and smear themselves with its smelly insides. Nice.
Check out the trailer for FX's American Horror Story, premiering Wednesday at 10/9c on FX:
Will you watch American Horror Story?