Getting into the right college can be murder. But on Fox’s horror-comedy Scream Queens, which has been picked up to series for a fall debut, it’s surviving college that’s the real life-or-death challenge. From Glee creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan, Queens is an homage to the slasher movies of the ’80s. (Or as Murphy puts it, “Heathers meets Friday the 13th.”) The series, about a killer stalking a college sorority, features an all-star cast including Emma Roberts, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lea Michele, Keke Palmer, Oliver Hudson, Abigail Breslin, Nick Jonas and Ariana Grande.
Like all of Murphy’s projects, Scream Queens has been cloaked in secrecy…until now. EW has your exclusive first look at the fall’s funniest thrill ride.
EW: Where did the idea for this show come from?
RYAN MURPHY: Brad and Ian and I, all three of us, were always obsessed with the ’80s/early ’90s slasher genre that was always about young people and always about coming of age. So we loved that and we decided to sort of be inspired by that idea. That was sort of the impetus of it. It’s sort of the idea of what would happen if you put something like Heathers meets Friday the 13th to those genre pictures like Massacre on Sorority Row, that early-to-late ’80s exploitation horror thing.
I really like the idea of doing a comedy and doing sort of anthological comedy. What I love about it is when it’s funny, it’s funny. And when it’s scary, it’s scary. One thing too that I hear all the time from women about American Horror Story is, “I love the idea of it but it’s too scary and I can’t watch it.” So the question we asked is, “How do we keep it scary but write something for that audience?” It doesn’t have the gore of American Horror Story but it certainly still has the scares.
The other thing it’s inspired by is it’s a real murder mystery whodunit. In the very first episode you meet all the characters and then the killings start happening on this college campus. Every character in the piece has the motivation to be the killer. So when you’re watching it, part of the fun is, Okay who did it? It’s not revealed until the last episode when literally the mask of the Red Devil, who is the killer, comes off and we say, Boom here’s your killer.
It’s also a show about the sorority/fraternity system in our country and what’s happening with that so it’s a satire about that.
What’s the basic plot of Scream Queens?
It opens in a flashback to 1995 at the sorority where something horrible happens. It’s a mystery that goes unsolved. Flash forward 20 years to today, and it looks like someone is out for revenge. Something horrible happened to a pledge and on the anniversary of that crime, someone is out for vengeance.
Who does Emma Roberts play?
Emma Roberts is Chanel, who’s the president of Kappa Sorority. She’s very funny and very ruthless. All her life all she’s wanted to do is be president of Kappa and have this great boyfriend and rule the roost. She’s very fashionable and very ruthless.
I love Emma. It was written for her. She’s super funny.
And Jamie Lee Curtis is Cathy Munsch, the dean of the school?
Jamie Lee plays the dean of the school who has had it up to here with these bitches in the sorority. She’s the dean of students who wants to change the system. She wants to stop the racist status quo that many of the houses in her university have fallen into. She’s a leader and a crusader and might have to shutdown the system by literally killing them all. She’s just had it.
She’s a woman who’s just gone through a really bad divorce. Her husband has left her for a 25 year-old. So she’s throwing all of her life into this job and reinventing herself.
She’s my new obsession that Jamie Lee Curtis. She’s really quite something.
I’ve always wanted to work with her. Being on the set with Jamie Lee Curtis and hearing stories about how they were shooting Halloween and the bad wig she had in Halloween II.
What about Keke Palmer?
She’s playing a character named Zayday. She’s a genius IQ and she’s at the sorority. She doesn’t like sororities but she’s talked into joining the sorority so that she can run for president and bolster her resume because she has great aspirations after she graduates from college. She’s a great, cool character who goes into that world to change the system, which would make Jamie Lee Curtis very thrilled.
And Abigail Breslin?
Abigail is Emma Roberts’s right-hand man along with Billie Lourd. They play Chanel’s henchwomen [Breslin is Chanel #5 and Lourd is Chanel #3] and Ariana Grande [Chanel #2] as well. They can’t believe what is happening with their sorority and can’t believe the dean is cracking down on them because they’ve lived a reign of terror. Now finally they’re seniors and it’s their time to live it up and they’re told they’re not going to able to and they’re not happy about it at all.
How did you get Ariana Grande to sign on for this?
I met her and she had been a big fan of American Horror Story. I pitched her the show, which she loved. We have to carve out amounts of time for her but I love her. She’s great and funny and she loves the genre of it. It’s the same thing with Nick Jonas. We work around their schedules.
What about Nick’s role?
Nick is so great. Nick and Glen Powell play members of a golfing fraternity called the Dollar Scholars. They are preppy monsters and they are white entitled kids who are on golfing scholarships and are the most popular guys on the campus. Glen Powell is Emma Roberts’ boyfriend.
Is there a love triangle?
There’s countless love triangles and lots of sex. Nick is very funny because he’s completely playing against type. The thing I will say about the Nick character is he’s not who he seems to be. Nick has a dark side, which comes out in the episodes.
Will there be a structure like one big death an episode?
One thing we’ve said to the cast is that every episode someone is going. It’s always somebody you least suspect or expect. The killer is on a reign of terror. It’s very much like Ten Little Indians. There’s a real tune-in factor because it’s like, Who’s going to be picked off this week? And also who is the killer? Every episode, you get clues as to who the killer is going to be and then all of these clues accumulate.
Is the killer mask a devil mask like in the teasers?
Yeah. Wallace University’s mascot is the Red Devil. So somebody has stolen the Red Devil costume and that’s what he or she wears when they commit the crimes. We spent five months working on the prototype for that devil outfit. I’m really happy with it. He or she uses everything [as weapons].
So will each season be a different conceit like American Horror Story?
It’s different than Horror Story. Jamie Lee and I were talking about that in horror movies, particularly in that era, there was always the last girl, the final girl. So we’re playing with that. Whoever survives—and there will be people who will survive—they will go on next season to a new location and a new terror. Unlike Horror Story, which completely reboots, this has some of the continuity in that some of the characters and some of the relationships continue into a new world.
Stay tuned for to EW.com for more of our Scream Queens reveal, including Lea Michele’s dramatic transformation!