Audiences don't scare as easily as they once did. Not only have they seen just about every conceivable brand of horror movie—from torture porn to alt-history vampires—they've seen real-life terrors that Alfred Hitchcock never had to compete against. Considering this desensitization through saturation, it's a marvel that one of the biggest horror phenomena of the last decade comes in the historically tame format of a weekly anthology series.
Lumping American Horror Story in with other anthologies does it a disservice, though—the show is innovative and builds off its predecessors. Rather than a weekly reset, American Horror Story takes a whole season to spin its yarn before starting anew. This neat trick makes the series a uniquely unsafe place for its characters. They can—and probably will—die over the course of a season, but the actor behind the role will return again the following year in a new guise. But none of this would matter, of course, if the series wasn't scary as hell.
Brad Falchuk co-created American Horror Story alongside Glee impresario Ryan Murphy. Throughout the show's Emmy-winning run, the lifelong horror fan has become an expert on manipulating things that go bump in the night—as well as the audience's perception. With season three of AHS in full swing, the writer/director talks to Co.Create about how to tell scary stories for an audience way too big to arrange around a campfire.
Start with a poster. You need a big idea to show off the hook of your story. In season one of American Horror Story, it was a haunted house; in two, it was an insane asylum; three, it's witches. When you have that thing, you can start cascading from it, start coming up with characters and figuring out what kind of stories you want to tell within that framework.
If you can imagine yourself in a situation, it’s infinitely scarier. You sort of know you’re not going to get attacked by a minotaur. But you can imagine being attacked by some kind of monster in your house. It could be nighttime and you hear noises outside, and if you can imagine yourself in some character’s shoes at that moment, it’s scary.
Scary stories are very much about the idea of truth. What is truth, what is a lie, and what happens when you lie? For me the greatest horror out of anything you do is to lie, and so in any instance of great scary storytelling, there’s a lie. The biggest lie in the more typical horror movies is that you’re safe. You’re out by Crystal Lake, its beautiful there, and don't worry—those murders that happened were a long time ago! They’re not going to happen again! So you're living in a lie and you're going to suffer for it. In almost any great horror story, there’s a lot of lies.
In the first season of American Horror Story, the character played by Kate Mara is the main character’s past literally coming back to haunt him. She eventually [spoiler alert] becomes a ghost, but before that she was haunting him already, and that’s the experience of when you lie to your spouse—its going to haunt you. Even if your spouse doesn't know about it, there’s a ghost that lives in your house.
You might have this one thing, like, "He’s a Nazi doctor doing experiments on people." Then you just start talking through story points—does this happen? Does that? Once you hit one or two big story points—like, the doctor’s injecting something into the victim’s eyes or he chops off their legs and injects them with this stuff—then you start to think about how the victim got captured by him. What can we do in the scene before this one to make it feel even worse, and where does she end up after this happens?
So much of what we’re doing on the show is homage to great horror creators who we have such hero-worship over. You’ve seen the shower scene in Psycho—the shocking moment with the music blasting—and it’s hard to not use those kinds of moments. People come looking for them because they like them—they just want to see a different version.
When you’re working on a story and it feels like its too easy, then don’t do it. Wait until you figure out a solution that feels just right and one that gets you excited. It’s about constantly pushing—either going further or pushing it in a different direction, if it’s something they’ve seen before even a little bit in exactly the same way, we’re not interested in it. Any time you think left, you go right. The moment when you think this is a great moment for brutality you go into kindness and vice versa.
The horror is often in the not-seeing; the moment when you’re inside and you hear a noise outside. The scary thing is almost never as scary once you see it. But you have to see it. If you never saw the shark in Jaws, you’d be pretty bummed. You need to eventually see it, you need that release. You need that shock—that moment in Alien with the chestburster. Going back to Jaws, there’s the moment where the head floats by, which is a shock and a gross-out, but what’s scarier is imagining what wasn’t shown—the moment when the shark attacked that guy.
In general, there should be a basic idea of where the story is going, but not for every character. You don't know who's going to die and who's going to start becoming more important. Big picture-wise, there’s a basic idea, but you need some surprises too. It’s like driving from New York to L.A.: you know you’re going to get to L.A., but there’s 10 different routes you could take.