NEW YORK -- Producing and sustaining a horror show for the American television audience is not a mission for the squeamish.
Over television's 60-some years, very few continuing horror series have truly taken hold in this country. Dark Shadows survived five years in the 1960s by blending camp and soap opera. Joss Whedon succeeded by making Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a Beverly Hills, 90210 of the undead. Supernatural works because it is, in effect, about two brothers on a really long road trip, and True Blood pins its allure on sex and deep bayou weirdness.
Then there's American Horror Story, the brainchild of Glee creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, which finished its addictively off-kilter first season last week on FX. Against every single odd, this haunted-Hollywood saga managed to take all the horror cliches in the book and, using those ingredients, spin a thought-provoking stew of compelling originality. (Warning to DVR jockeys: Read on and you will encounter spoilers.)
The show's first season documented the travails of the Harmon family in a 1908 mansion known as the "Murder House" for all the bad things that happened there. Now here's why the Golden Globe-nominated series shouldn't work:
Watching an episode of it is like leafing through a Bartlett's Familiar Quotations of old dark-house movies through the ages. Aside from the obvious prerequisite -- a menacing mansion with a murderous history and an abundance of creepy nooks and crannies -- pretty much everything you've seen in every horror show rears its head here.
There's the disembodied child's ball that rolls into the scene, the creepy and blank-eyed twins from beyond the grave, and the magnificently undulating Steadicam work (The Shining). There's the white rocking chair, the smarmy real-estate agent, and the menacing cellar with wooden steps that contains more than its share of dark corners and terrifying secrets (The Amityville Horror).
There's the lens-blur of intense scenes and the muffled hallway sounds that might or might not be a supernatural force (The Haunting). There's the absurd abundance of doors (The House on Haunted Hill), and the fact that they open and close on their own (fill in your own horror-movie title here). And, of course, there's the misshapen creature in the attic, the wide and looming staircase, and the elaborate chandeliers (pretty much every other episode of Scooby-Doo). Occasional fragments from Vincent Price's oozy oeuvre and the famous horror films from the British studio Hammer in the 1950s and '60s also pop up in cameos throughout the show.
Now. Here's a passel of fragments that explain why American Horror Story does work, and brilliantly:
The murderer in the full-body black rubber suit that might be living, might be dead. The decor-obsessed dead gay couple. The misunderstood teenage boy, dead 17 years, who turns out to be a Columbine-style killer but just wants to be understood. The maid who was murdered in 1983 while young and sexy and now is seen by some as a middle-aged woman and by others as the sexy young siren she was. The fact that dead people can be seen by the living, and interact with them physically, if they wish it. The dead wife of the 1920s abortion doctor who simply wants a child, no matter the cost. The gratuitous explanations of some of American history's more pernicious mysteries, including the Black Dahlia case and -- wait for it -- the disappearance of the Roanoke colony in 1590.
And then there is Jessica Lange, in a piercing performance that somehow manages to be simultaneously over the top and restrained and, as Salon TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz points out, channels the Southern Gothic sensibility of Bette Davis' terrifying turn in 1965's Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte.
"If it were possible to take a classic early '60s camp horror movie, feed it massive amounts of cocaine, then turn it into a basic cable drama, the result might look like this," Seitz wrote last month.
Why does horror have such a difficult path in continuing to succeed over time, particularly in series form? Mostly it's because the conventions of fear, particularly the supernatural kind, rely upon the unknown itself being terrifying. But when the unknown keeps doing the same creaky, thumpy, door-slamming thing and remains unknown, it makes for a less scary story. (Perhaps that accounts for the popularity of torture horror such as the Saw franchise; the fear is in the gore, not the possibility of it.)
American Horror Story, though, takes the opposite path.
Here, the living seem kind of dull but there's major character development among the dead. The house that belonged to Ben and Vivien Harmon and their daughter Violet (Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton, and Taissa Farmiga) is not a single-family dwelling. It is occupied by the people who have lived there -- and, what is more important, died there -- over the decades, and they somehow coexist in the same space. Some are kinder and more benign; others aren't done making misery for the living or for each other. "This," says a psychic assessing matters, "is a very crowded house."
As the season progressed, the emphasis shifted to the house's dead occupants. Or, put another way, as more people were offed, the majority of the cast became ghosts, and the center of gravity moved to the afterworld. In one of the season's more extraordinary scenes, we saw the teenage Violet gazing upon her own decomposing body in the house's bowels and realizing, wrenchingly, that she had been dead for weeks.
We were offered ghosts who decorate nurseries, ghosts who sweep up their messes, ghosts who complain that there's no Ramones album available, ghosts who trim Christmas trees, ghosts who have varying degrees of knowledge that they are, in fact, dead. And like the dead who occasionally appeared during episodes of the late HBO funeral-home drama Six Feet Under -- albeit as hallucinations of the show's living characters -- the dearly departed of American Horror Story offer us insights into our own lives and how transitory our problems are when compared to death itself.
Ultimately, American Horror Story is a fresh take on the tale of the immigrant experience. Death is the undiscovered country of destination, the place where people must build their world anew. It took the entire first season, but this much about the show has become clear: Dying is a starting point for exploration of the human condition. And what better way to look upon the living than through the eyes of the formerly living, which share traits with us but are also permanently, irrevocably different?