Some shows beget spin-offs, some become backpacks and board games, and others transform into the centerpiece event at major coastal theme parks.
Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise dipped a toe into uncharted gore last year at Universal Studios’ annual Halloween Horror Nights event when three seasons of the series were transformed into a mega-sized maze at both the Hollywood and Orlando locations of the park. Murphy played a key role in signing off on the inaugural experiment, which pulled from seasons 1 (Murder House), 4 (Freak Show) and 5 (Hotel), and the auteur was clearly thrilled enough with the well-received results to bring his bloody franchise back for another round this year (running Sept. 15 through Nov. 4).
This time, Hollywood’s Halloween Horror Nights has sharpened its focus and devoted its American Horror Story experience strictly to the show’s sixth season, Roanoke. The maze features a complete walk-through of the haunted house, backwoods, and catacombs where the season’s cannibals, ghosts, shirtless pig-headed men, and the demonic spirit of Kathy Bates (as Roanoke’s most memorable character, the Butcher) all walk and stalk. (The Orlando version, meanwhile, features an abridged three-parter again, pulling from Asylum, Coven, and Roanoke.)
“It amazes me how much work goes into this,” says Murphy, who paid a visit to the maze just before dusk on Sept. 22, joined by cast members Billy Eichner, Billie Lourd, Colton Haynes, Leslie Grossman, Alison Pill, and James Morosini from the show’s current seventh season, Cult. “It feels out of body, you know? We created all those characters and they all get to do their own thing with them. It’s really fun. I’m always amazed at how that show went from a pitch to a brand, and this is a part of that. Also, it’s amazing to see how the horror world has exploded since we created this show in 2011. It’s now such a big, big deal, and I never thought it would be.”
While the achievements of the year’s breakout movies It and Get Out signal a strong return to the horror genre on film, the American Horror Story franchise is credited with pushing the genre forward into prestige territory on television (and revitalizing the modern anthology format, too) with over 80 Emmy nominations, dozens of broken records for FX viewership, and a palpable seizure of the zeitgeist each time a new cast or concept is introduced. “A lot of the villains have become well-known — like Twisty is now a part of the lexicon — and I love that,” Murphy comments. Anecdotally speaking, last year’s maiden AHS voyage also proved a success on its own for Universal Studios Hollywood as the park’s most popular Horror Nights attraction — an accomplishment likely to happen again this time around.
While Murphy had a hand in the Roanoke maze, designed once more by the Hollywood park’s creative director John Murdy, having the cast along for the walk-through provided a glimpse into how regular parkgoers might experience the terror. “I got to clutch onto Leslie Grossman, one of my oldest friends who’s on the show this year, and she was super scared, so I got to see it through her eyes,” says Murphy. “I kind of knew what was happening because I was working with them when they were designing it. But I loved the Piggy Man. The actor playing the Piggy Man was very aggressive with me,” he laughs. “And I thought the Kathy Bates was great. Full of Kathy Bates aggression.” (“I love an amusement park,” Eichner adds. “I don’t know if I’m a ‘fright night’ type of person but I love a swirling teacup, if that’s an option.”)
Evidently, Murphy and the cast are already casting an eye forward toward how Cult’s spooky societal mirror might translate as a maze next season. “The thing about this year is the villains on the show are more reality-based. It doesn’t have a lot of supernatural stuff. So I think it’ll be a lot of clowns jumping out,” says Murphy. “And a lot of Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson impersonators.”