Our managing editor Jess Cagle weighs in on why ''American Horror Story,'' and the TV horror genre is so satisfying

By Jess Cagle
August 31, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

For this week’s cover story, EW’s Tim Stack journeyed to the set of American Horror Story: Asylum in Los Angeles and brought back lots of details about TV’s most fascinating experiment — a terrifying anthology series using a formidable repertory company of actors from season to season. Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, and a few other actors are returning for season 2 of AHS, but this time they play different characters, and the new setting is an insane asylum with — even by insane-asylum standards — a rich and disturbing history. Lange is a sadistic nun, Quinto a psychiatrist, and Joseph Fiennes a seductive priest. There are also Nazis, aliens, and a serial killer named Bloody Face. As co-creator Ryan Murphy tells Tim, ”I don’t think people tune in to the show because they want My Dinner With Andre.” But here’s the shocker: Last month AHS received 17 Emmy nominations — though the Emmy voters usually shy away from genre stuff. It’s a sign that TV horror is back from the dead. In his essay in this issue, EW’s James Hibberd says the success of AHS, True Blood, Grimm, and The Walking Dead has bred several new shows this season, including Hannibal (as in Lecter) and 666 Park Avenue, starring Vanessa Williams and Terry O’Quinn as the devilish owners of a Manhattan apartment building. Speaking of O’Quinn: Eight years ago Lost reminded viewers and the industry just how satisfying a show can be when it’s both scary and profound. The trouble is that horror — as movie audiences know — almost always sucks. Hibberd says that’s why the genre went missing on TV for so long; it’s hard to sustain, and Stephen King tells James that networks are often just too squeamish when it comes to showing the requisite gore. But I’m optimistic about this new crop of shows. When I was a kid, I lived for Friday nights when Kolchak: The Night Stalker was on TV. Yes, it usually sucked, but the prospect of a good scare kept me coming back. Great horror doesn’t just make you hide your eyes. It’s about life and death. It shines a flashlight into the basement of your mind, and speaks the language of your demons.