Ryan Murphy, you sick, brilliant bastard. The Glee creator’s new opus, American Horror Story, might seem like the total opposite of his most famous show. One has fresh-faced high school kids singing “Don’t Stop Believin.'” The other has gimps and bloodbaths. But they’re both coming from the same place: a teen loser’s revenge fantasy about punishing the straight world for ignoring him. And this is Ryan Murphy’s home turf.
Murphy is the kind of TV star who didn’t exist a few years ago – the celebrity producer who gets more shine than any of the actors on his shows. He’s the unchallenged king auteur of all-American adolescent spite. But Glee‘s success must have been deeply unsettling to him – what happens to a high school grudge collector when he suddenly finds himself the most popular guy in the room? That has to take its toll. And that’s why I think Glee got too happy and lost its bitchiness (along with its ratings). It takes a man even colder than Murphy to look into those millions of smiling faces and say, “You suck.” So he backed down and gave his “You suck” persona its own solo franchise.
American Horror Story is designed to restore your faith in Murphy’s dark side. This is a hate letter to the nuclear family. When a couple (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) – whose marriage is seriously on the rocks – and their goth daughter move into a haunted house in L.A., their lives are soon terrorized by malicious spirits. Remember the house in The Amityville Horror, which kept whispering, “Get ooouuut“? This dump isn’t so subtle, except the family is too stupid to notice. Seriously, they made a down payment on a house before they checked to see if there’s a gimp in the attic torture chamber? That’s just not smart shopping. But for Murphy, the real American horror story isn’t how families break apart. It’s how families stay together.
It’s easy to see why American Horror is freaking people out. The ultraviolent hallucinations never pause long enough to make sense. In terms of coherence, it makes your average David Lynch movie look like Burn Notice. Murphy knows most of the viewers are only tuning in because it’s got his name on it. And he wants them to notice how nobody at the network has the muscle to veto any of his craziest ideas. (“Gosh, Ryan, you’re a genius! Tami Taylor fucking the gimp? But of course! Rubber suit, leather mask, can’t lose!”)
American Horror goes for a very specific kind of Seventies suburban downer ambience – Flowers in the Attic paperbacks, Black Sabbath album covers and late-night flicks like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. It even has Go Ask Alice-era urban legends. One episode begins with a stranger knocking on the door and saying, “I’m hurt and I need help.” Guess what happens next?
It’s all set up so the audience knows to chuckle when McDermott walks out of the shower and says, “Hey, babe, have you seen my razor blades?” or when creepy neighbor Jessica Lange calls her daughter “the mongoloid.” We also meet a teenage aspiring killer named Tate. (Wanna bet we’ll meet his sister LaBianca?) The house is decorated in pure Overlook Hotel style. Where’s the bathroom? Down the hall, turn left at the dismembered triplets.
It’s not hard to see why Murphy gets off on this stuff. He was an Irish-Catholic gay kid who came of age in the 1970s, a whirlwind of sex, drugs and Jesus. As he told Rolling Stone last year, “I liked church and was obsessed with the Crucifixion and leprosy and the pope. I would stand in church with my arms spread for an hour, doing penance for my sins. The nuns told my parents there was something wrong with me.” So, yeah, you could say he’s got issues.
Both American Horror and Glee are about people who can’t find their place in the American dream, so they spend years plotting elaborate vengeance. American Horror is the debasement of the suburban family, the way a lonely kid would have imagined it in the Seventies. That’s the stuff of Murphy’s goriest childhood dreams, and it’s there in everything he does. So how long are we supposed to wait until the big reveal where we find out they’re all already dead, and a 12-year-old boy named Ryan Murphy, out in the heartland, wakes up and says, “What a horrible dream. Help me, Jesus!” That’s not a spoiler, just a guess – but that’s where this story has been racing from the start.
This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.