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American Horror Story: Roanoke had a secret code name

Fake titles, shredded scripts: How the producers of the FX series managed to keep season 6 a complete surprise

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FX

It certainly wasn’t easy keeping the theme of American Horror Story: Roanoke a surprise. Production on the series began in June under the cloak of secrecy. Script pages were shredded. Only a handful of execs, including 20th Century Fox CEO Dana Walden and FX president John Landgraf, knew the plot. “Usually when you do a television show you have very many copies of the scripts and they go wide and the cuts,” explains co-creator Ryan Murphy. “We had everybody in the writers room sign a blood oath. We had shredders in the office. I would go around the office three times a day looking for any clue. It was like f—ing Watergate.” Adds co-creator Brad Falchuk, “Anything that had the word ‘Roanoke’ in it was x’ed out.”

Fake plot descriptions were written under the name American Horror Story: Cul-de-Sac (script pages on the set were still marked with the code name well into episode 9 of the season). Actors and producers were forbidden to tweet or talk about the season. “I personally called all the actors,” says Murphy about the cone of silence. “We live in a world where actors don’t just act, they want to tweet. We all had to molecularly change. I like a good bit of publicity. And I love a newsmaking tweet! We just got rid of all of that. But everyday was a conversation, a security meeting. It was a big deal. It was hard.”

The marketing department also played a part releasing a broad swath of teasers that touched on all sorts of horror tropes without fully revealing the Roanoke plot. “We’ve always done 20-plus teasers on the show but they’ve always worked within the same theme, “ says FX marketing head Stephanie Gibbons. “It was a like ‘Let’s change it up. Let’s give you guys something else to have fun with.’” Adds Landgraf, “I think part of why people have enjoyed Stranger Things on Netflix, for example, is that it was unexpected. It wasn’t heavily hyped so they had the pleasure of discovering it. We wanted to figure out how to give the pleasure to give back to the fans and we thought a really fun way would be for them not to know.”

It all mostly worked until TMZ posted pictures of the set in August. “Somebody who I think was paid a lot of money, dressed up as one of our security guards and took photos and then sold them,” says Murphy. “But that didn’t really give everything away.”

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Murphy doesn’t know yet if he’ll employ the same Lemonade-style reveal for season 7 but he does know what the plot will be. “I have been mulling a couple of ideas and I wasn’t loving it,” he says. “Then, I literally sat up and bed and said, ‘That’s it!’ Whenever it happens it’s such a relief because it’s so much pressure. It’s also a narratively strange idea. I’ve already started to call people saying, ‘Put this on your calendar.’ It’s a good one.”