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TV Takes on Horror

Maija Gustin | Sunday, October 30, 2011

Not sure what to spend your Halloween doing? Try catching up with FX’s new hit show, “American Horror Story.”

“Horror Story,” developed by “Glee” creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, is a little different in tone than their Fox-based musical hit. In fact, it just might be the complete opposite.

“Horror Story” follows Vivien (Connie Britton) and Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) as they move from Boston to Los Angeles after Vivien suffers a miscarriage and catches Ben having an affair.They find a beautiful old home at a reasonable price and move in immediately. It doesn’t take long, though, to learn that their home is commonly known as “Murder House” thanks to a string of violent events in its history.

“American Horror Story” does something that has been attempted often yet accomplished rarely on television ⎯ it scares its audience. In fact, it stands up against some of the best horror movies around in its ability to send chills down your spine and make you jump out of your seat.

The scares, though, are wrapped in a rich world of televisual storytelling replete with compelling characters, fascinating plot lines and a detailed story world.

In fact, it is the combination of great horror and great storytelling that makes “American Horror Story” one of the most interesting shows on TV this season. Many viewers looking to replace the complex mythology of “Lost” have looked to shows such as “Terra Nova” and “Once Upon a Time” to consume their minds with complicated theories and twisted storytelling, but “American Horror Story” might be the real solution. Four episodes in, it already has a dense Wikipedia page and is ripe for fan theorizing.

If you love being scared, then you’ll probably like, maybe even love “American Horror Story.” But even if horror isn’t really your thing, “American Horror Story” is the kind of storytelling that sucks you in so completely that it might not even matter. It’s scary, but the scares are thrilling, pushing along a fast-paced plot that has twists at every turn.

Scary movies are perfect, though, because they are contained to two hours. In two hours, some people show up, scary things happen and then it’s all over. The scares come to an end and there isn’t enough time to bother with simple questions like, “Why don’t you just move out of your house?” or “Why don’t you just bring in an exorcist?”

“American Horror Story” deals with these issues and is all the better for it.

Addressing why the family can’t just move out of their house, for example, adds an element of realism to the series that many scary movies lack, making it even scarier in a way. You can’t just write this show off as a bunch of people without enough common sense to get them out of this situation, something that gives you a sense of comfort as a viewer because that would never happen to you. You’re too smart.

The Harmons are stuck in this horrible situation (and horrible it is) not because they lack sense or because they asked for it ⎯ they’re just unlucky, really unlucky, because what happens to them in “American Horror Story” really is horrifying.

This isn’t a show that passes itself as slightly horrifying because it features zombies or serial killers ⎯ the things that happen to this family are twisted and horrifying. This stuff, from home invasions and scary babies to a man in a black rubber suit and a doctor with a penchant for sewing things together, shouldn’t even be on TV. But it is, and Murphy and Falchuk show the same kind of flair they showed for presenting the predicaments of a bunch of high school misfits who like to sing in their crafting of this hauntingly engaging TV show.

So give it a chance on Halloween. You’ll get the thrills of any good scary movie, but with it you’ll get a fantastically-crafted show with all the qualities of the best television and a hook that will keep you coming back for more.

Even if the pilot doesn’t sell you, give it a chance. Each episode is full of action and suspense, but the show only gets better as the characters develop and the mythology deepens. Brace yourself for thrills and chills that will extend well past Halloween and prep yourself for this week’s, “Halloween: Part 2,” with a viewing of the first four episodes of “American Horror Story.”

Contact Maija Gustin at mgustin@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.