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'American Horror Story': Our new fall favorite

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The basement of the Harmon home on FX’s American Horror Story is the last place you’d want to visit on Halloween. Dark, cavernous, and home to an overgrown, fanged monster baby dressed in a christening gown (more on that later), the cellar is the epicenter of all things evil on the wild new horror series. But Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) has descended to this hellish underworld, armed with a butcher knife, on the spooky holiday to confront a different basement dweller: the ghost of his mistress, Hayden (Kate Mara), who was killed in the backyard at the end of the Oct. 20 episode. ”Hayden, you have to leave,” implores Ben. His ghostly ex tries to touch him but instead begins coughing and spits out blood and teeth. Through lips smeared in red, she whimpers, ”I’m rotting from the inside out…what’s happening to me?!”

Blood. Murder. Ghosts. Sex. Those elements permeate the disturbed world of American Horror Story, the craziest new TV series of the fall season — and perhaps ever. Created by Glee‘s Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, AHS is a feverish, sexed-up reimagining of one of the most reliable tropes of the genre: the haunted house. ”I describe it as a horror show, but at the center is this incredibly provocative show about a family and relationships,” says Dana Walden, chairman of 20th Century Fox Television, the studio behind both AHS and Glee. Adds Murphy: ”All my favorite horror movies were based in sex. Rosemary’s Baby. Don’t Look Now. Repulsion. Fatal Attraction. I think that genre has been taken over by the Saws and the Hostels of the world. It’s become a much more violent snuff porn. This is not that.”

The saga follows Ben and Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), who, along with their rebellious daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera), move from Boston to Los Angeles to escape some grim and gruesome problems (she delivered a stillborn baby; he had an affair). They find a beautiful old Victorian-style home with a low price tag, thanks to its sordid history: The previous tenants, a gay couple, died in a murder-suicide…or so everyone was led to believe. Pretty soon, Vivien is having sex with someone/something in a rubber fetish suit, Ben is sleepwalking naked around the house, and Violet is encountering a basement-dwelling creature nicknamed the ”infantata.” And that’s just in the first 50 minutes.

Slowly, the Harmons begin to discover that the house they’ve purchased has seen even more death than they thought (it’s on a local L.A. murder tour) and appears to have been cursed from the start. And an enigmatic man named Larry (True Blood‘s Denis O’Hare) warns Ben that the house drove him to kill his own family years ago. Through flashbacks, we learn the original owner was a 1920s doctor to the stars who performed abortions in the basement and who had a Dr. Frankenstein complex (hence the jars of baby parts in the creepy opening sequence). As more mysteries of the house are revealed, the overarching question is whether the Harmons will survive their new home — which, of course, they can’t find anyone to buy.

American Horror Story aims to deliver the thrills and chills of a big-screen horror flick over the course of 13 episodes — a risky but potentially groundbreaking step for the genre. ”It’s the kind of thing where you have your best friend come over because you don’t want to watch it alone,” says Falchuk. Though scary television has had a resurgence of late (True Blood, The Walking Dead), the AHS team is quite aware that the show’s dark, aggressive weirdness and edge (hello, Rubber Man!) is bound to put some viewers off. ”To me that’s the genius of Ryan,” says McDermott. ”Everybody is just trying to be generic, and he is pushing the boundaries. You may hate the show. You may love the show. But you’re going to talk about the show.” And so far people are watching: AHS‘ first airing premiered to 3.2 million viewers, with a rating in the 18-49 demographic that is the second largest in the network’s history.

While the second episode dipped in the ratings 14 percent, president John Landgraf insists the network is thrilled with AHS‘ performance — and hasn’t had a single reservation about the adult material. ”Frankly, this content is more restrained than The Shield or Sons of Anarchy or Nip/Tuck in terms of graphic violence or sexuality. There’s plenty implied but very little seen. I used to give notes on Nip/Tuck all the time,” says Landgraf of his previous hit from Murphy. ”We used to have epic battles. I have not given a single note on American Horror Story. Not one.”

Ryan Murphy typically gravitates toward darker material, as evidenced by Nip/Tuck, the plastic surgery drama he created in 2003 for FX. With its campy, Caligula-lite sexual content and grisly gore, Nip/Tuck went on to become one of the network’s most popular series of all time. Falchuk joined the show in 2003 as a writer, and the two horror fans began tossing around the idea of a supernatural drama. But then a writer named Ian Brennan approached them with a script for a show about a small-town glee club — and the duo’s journey into horror was interrupted.

Three years later, with their Hollywood stock soaring, Murphy and Falchuk felt it was time to revive the idea and pitched it to FX. ”Brad was directing Glee, and I just went in [to meet with Landgraf] and said, ‘I want to do a really scary show,”’ remembers Murphy of the spring 2011 pitch, which was so thought-out he even had a tagline for the show in mind: The House Wins. ”But more than that, we wanted to do an exploration of adultery.” Landgraf greenlit a pilot immediately and was so keen on the project that the network also readied for a series pickup. ”We hired the writing staff and fronted some script development even as we were writing the pilot,” explains Landgraf. ”As we suspected, we wanted to go right into production on the series [so] we’d have the scripts and could pull the trigger quickly.” Murphy, who had a clear vision that his show should launch in October, was pushing as well. ”There was talk we could go in January or May of the following year,” he recalls. ”I said, ‘No, this is a fall show. I want to do a Halloween episode.”’

Britton, having just wrapped up her Emmy-nominated turn on Friday Night Lights, was the first to be cast. ”What appealed to me initially was actually my conversation with Ryan,” says the actress, 44. ”He was like, ‘You’re going to play something you’ve never played before. You’re going to play something we’ve never seen before.’ We had this great conversation about the dark side of marriage and deception.” But even she was thrown by the whiplash of going from the picket fences of Dillon, Tex., to hopping into the sack with Rubber Man. ”I read the script and I was like, ‘Um…whaat? I don’t understand,”’ says Britton. ”I kind of took a leap of faith.”

Filling the role of Ben was more difficult, since it required finding an actor who was comfortable with nudity — a lot of nudity. McDermott heard about the project from his agent, and pushed Murphy and Falchuk for the part. ”I was like, I know I’m the guy for this role,” says the 49-year-old actor. ”I just knew — the way he described it. The psychological horror. The darkness. I’m the guy! And I have a good ass!” Adds Murphy, ”He’s the only guy that we met with that didn’t question the sobbing-while-masturbating scene [in the pilot].”

But the biggest casting coup came when Murphy persuaded two-time Oscar winner Jessica Lange to step into the kitten heels of Constance, a failed actress who lives next door to the Harmons with her mentally challenged daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer). Based in New York City, Lange, 62, was wary of the move to L.A. and the time commitment for a one-hour drama, but it helped that Murphy tailored the role specifically for her; Constance went from being just a nosy neighbor to an integral part of the house’s murderous mythology. ”She didn’t just want to be the supporting part, she wanted to be very important to the story,” he says. ”We had a certain thing in mind for the character, and once we got her, we wildly expanded it.” Adds Lange, ”I had a lot of doubts, but Ryan can be extremely seductive. I fell in love with those long speeches. He really does write the poetry of it.”

Constance wasn’t the only character whose presence was increased for AHS‘ first season. Murphy and Falchuk determined quickly that Rubber Man would be a breakout figure. ”Gwyneth Paltrow read the script just as a friend,” says Murphy of the Glee guest star. ”She called me up and was like, ‘Oh my God — is she f—ing pregnant by that Rubber Man dude? Is it a rubber baby?’ That’s when I first realized people are going to be obsessed with Rubber Man.” Well, Ryan, since you brought it up…where did you get the idea to add a silent guy in a shiny rubber suit to your haunted-house drama? ”I was at some weird bookstore, and I saw a book on how to care for your fetish suit. On the cover was this gleaming suit. When we were writing the pilot, I brought the book in and showed it to Brad and said, ‘I’m obsessed with this!”’ And thus Rubber Man was born. (Fun fact: In most scenes, the suit is worn by actor Riley Schmidt — though McDermott was actually the one behind the mask for the pilot’s much-talked-about love scene, at Britton’s request. But when Rubber Man’s identity is revealed on Nov. 23, it will be somebody entirely different in the suit.)

Viewers will get their next glimpse of Rubber Man in the twist-laden two-part Halloween episode airing Oct. 27 and Nov. 2. Halloween is the one day the dead can walk the earth, so expect to meet some new specters, like the home’s ill-fated previous owners Chad (Zachary Quinto) and Patrick (Teddy Sears). The audience will also be introduced to Luke (Morris Chestnut), a guard protecting the Harmon home — and particularly Vivien. But fans should also prepare for the shocking death of a major character within the first hour.

In the lead-up to the Dec. 21 finale, psychiatrist Ben — ever the professional — will continue to see patients at home, including one (played by Modern Family‘s Eric Stonestreet) who’s terrified of urban legends. And if you think the ”infantata” is haunting, get ready for what Murphy calls ”our most horrifying addition to the American Horror Story family yet.” (Hint: We haven’t met all of Constance’s children yet.) Speaking of children, the true father of Vivien’s baby will be unveiled in the season finale. Teases Murphy, ”Wait till you see the birth!” While initial reports about the show suggested that the plan was to have the house kill a new cast each season, producers are now coy about the intended survival rate — many of the actors, like Lange, committed to just one season. ”Probably some of them [will return],” says Murphy. ”They’re not all going to make it, that’s for sure.” And as Falchuk reminds us, today’s corpse could wind up as tomorrow’s ghostly demon: ”If you watch the show, living or dying — it doesn’t really matter.”

With Glee and AHS, both of which shoot on Paramount’s lot, Murphy’s and Falchuk’s dance cards are quite full. ”It hasn’t felt hard at all,” insists Falchuk. ”If we were doing another Glee it might be harder. They’re such different muscles.” For Murphy, who just last week sold a sitcom to NBC, the increased workload has actually been helpful following a tough summer with the press and his stars after he revealed that some of the Glee characters would be graduating. ”It was a difficult period with me and some of the actors,” admits Murphy. ”Now we’ve all come out of it. So I try to be a little more sanguine and a little more humble about it all.” Plus, Murphy thinks American Horror Story may help him exorcise a few of his own demons — literally. His L.A. home, you see, is haunted. ”I rather like it,” says Murphy. ”I feel a presence particularly in one room, but I know it’s a kind presence. I’m not afraid of it, but I’m fascinated by it.” And where in the house does the co-creator of TV’s kinkiest new drama sense this otherworldly spirit? ”The bedroom.” Naturally.