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The untold truth of American Horror Story

A common format in the early days of television with classic shows like The Twilight Zone, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's American Horror Story is the first major anthology series in decades, with each season telling a complete, standalone story. Things are not always as they seem, however, as the show's eighth installment, Apocalypse, shook up that notion by linking almost every previous season together. Each of the stories — including Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Hotel, and Cult — is absolutely terrifying and deeply unsettling. At the same time, the show remains stylish, thoughtful, provocative, sensual, and hilarious.

Mainstream awards often overlook even the finest of horror television, but American Horror Story is so well made, and has such an impressive pedigree of talent, that Emmy voters bestow it with accolades year after year. Much of this success is certainly thanks to its cast, which includes such recurring repertory players as Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Kathy Bates, Evan Peters, Angela Bassett, Emma Roberts, and Frances Conroy.

Here's a look behind the scenes into what it takes to bring a massive project like American Horror Story to the small screen.

A Glee-ful origin

Before American Horror Story debuted in 2011, co-creator Ryan Murphy was best known as one of the minds behind Glee, a show so happy and positive that it was literally about a bunch of high school kids gaining self esteem by singing and dancing to familiar pop songs. Murphy then went directly from his high school musical to a house full of murder, ghosts, suicide, and a Rubber Man. What happened to Murphy that he could make such a switch? 

"I was like, 'I can't write any more nice speeches for these Glee kids about love and tolerance and togetherness,'" he later said in an interview with Elle. To that end, he wrote a show about sex, murder, and depravity instead. American Horror Story also allowed Murphy to right a Glee wrong. He'd wanted Sarah Paulson to play Emma Pillsbury, the OCD-stricken high school guidance counselor eventually portrayed by Jayma Mays. Paulson was unable because she was starring in a Broadway play at the time. Murphy finally found a place for Paulson as medium Billie Dean Howard, the first of many memorable AHS roles she would step into.

Oh, what a relief it is

While occasionally campy and darkly funny, most every season of American Horror Story gets pretty bleak. Playing murderers — and murder victims — can really get under the skin of the actors, so a few tried to lighten the mood and relieve the tension when necessary.

Zachary Quinto took on a major role in Asylum as Oliver Thredson. Another role he accepted: on-set music therapist. "I play my banjo on set a lot because it sort of livens up the mood," Quinto said. "And at first I was a little bit nervous about doing that and then people were like 'thank you for doing that, it makes it so much easier to work.'" Lily Rabe plays guitar in real life, and she'd play to provide "musical breaks" on tough days.

Jessica Lange, the grande dame of American Horror Story, convinced Ryan Murphy to put one of these melodic palette cleansers into the show itself. After a flashback revealed that her Asylum character had once been a singer in a band, Lange suggested a full-on fantasy musical sequence in the middle of a psychiatric institution — set to the classic '60s novelty song "The Name Game" — if only "because everything we do is so grim," as she told Vulture.

Some actors just weren't horror-able

In addition to legendary Oscar winners like Lange and Bates, American Horror Story has made stars out of up-and-comers like Emma Roberts and Evan Peters, and proved to the world long before A Star is Born that Lady Gaga could act. It's hard to believe that some performers couldn't or didn't want to be involved with the top-rated show. Chris Zylka (The Leftovers) booked a two-episode stint on Asylum as a deaf man, but a few months later, he exited because he didn't want to have to shave his head, a requirement of the role.

Ryan Murphy has also dutifully pursued a few dream cast members, albeit unsuccessfully. Among the targets he has revealed: Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Chiklis, and Reese Witherspoon. "I wanted her to play something really twisted and f***ed up," Murphy said about Witherspoon to Entertainment Weekly. "But she's always booked."

Neil Patrick Harris and his husband, David Burtka, appeared in Freak Show, although Murphy earlier pursued the couple for Murder House — he wanted them to portray the bickering pair ultimately played by Zachary Quinto and Teddy Sears. "We had just played ourselves as a couple not getting along," Harris told Rolling Stone, referring to A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. "I thought, 'It just seems weird to do that twice, as individual actors to play a couple that hate each other twice. So I said 'no,' that we shouldn't do it."

Send in the clowns

Lots of people are afflicted with a fear of clowns, known as coulrophobia. It must be something about their frozen, exaggerated, and untrustworthy grins, or how their identity is concealed under white face paint. American Horror Story aptly exploited those fears in its Freak Show season, featuring John Carroll Lynch as the monstrous Twisty the Clown, who isn't so much a children's party entertainer as he is a guy who kills people with scissors and locks kids in an old school bus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this subplot upset some real-life clowns. "Hollywood makes money sensationalizing the norm," Clowns of America president Glenn Kohlberger (a.k.a. "Clyde D. Scope") said in response to Freak Show in 2014. "They can take any situation no matter how good or pure and turn it into a nightmare. We do not support in any way, shape, or form any medium that sensationalizes or adds to coulrophobia." 

The protests flared up again in 2017, when American Horror Story: Cult once again featured evil clowns. "The role of a clown persona, regardless of their style of clowning, is meant to bring joy and laughter, to bring humor to a hurting world," World Clown Association president Pam Moody (a.k.a. "Sparky," the firefighting clown) told the Detroit Free Press.

Sarah Paulson put in twice the effort to play twins

"It's absolutely the most challenging thing I've ever seen any actor do ever," Ryan Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter, regarding Sarah Paulson's portrayal of Bette and Dot Tattler. The dual role found Paulson playing conjoined twins with two heads and one body, living among a traveling sideshow on American Horror Story: Freak Show. It was also one of the most challenging things the show's special effects artists ever had to attempt. It required a lot of old-fashioned trickery, labor, and digital manipulation for Paulson to convincingly play both characters. 

First, the effects team took a mold of Paulson's own head and used it to build two sophisticated prosthetic heads: a Bette (to be used when Paulson portrayed Dot), and a Dot (for when Paulson acted as Bette). "So when Sarah is doing her coverage where she's Dot, she has on a fake head to her left, which is Bette, and it moves," Murphy said. "She literally has to do scenes with herself." Those scenes took as long as 15 hours to shoot (five times the Freak Show average), because everything with the Tattlers had to be filmed for close-up, in medium shots, for effects, and from various angles...twice.

A spin-off series? Nah, "Queen"

One of Ryan Murphy's other shows, Scream Queens, is the place where the horror and blood of his American Horror Story meets the comedy of Glee. The show's first season concerns an unknown killer in a latex suit, not unlike AHS: Murder House's Rubber Man. But reminiscent of Glee's school setting, the victims and others in their orbit are self-absorbed sorority girls and dumb frat guys on a college campus. It's also laced with references to classic slasher movies, such as the presence of Halloween's Jamie Lee Curtis in a major role. 

Scream Queens nearly had a whole lot more in common with American Horror Story, having evolved out of an idea for a spin-off of Coven, the AHS season set at a school for young witches in New Orleans. Murphy changed his mind after a lunch with Fox executives. "We were talking about things that we loved that were not on the air, things that we loved growing up, movies that we loved watching," Murphy said. Once the subject of slasher movies came up, Scream Queens' own unique identity began to take shape.

Behind the "freaky" music

American Horror Story: Freak Show takes place in Florida among the denizens of one of few remaining "Cabinet of Curiosities" shows in 1952. A highlight of the season — albeit a jarring one — is the recurring motif of anachronistic music, meaning characters set in the show's world of the early '50s sing very famous songs recorded decades later. Evan Peters sings Kurt Cobain's Nirvana tune "Come As You Are," Jessica Lange takes a stab at both David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" and Lana Del Rey's "Gods and Monsters," Kathy Bates takes on Hole's "Doll Parts" (a la Courtney Love) and Sarah Paulson croons Fiona Apple's "Criminal." 

Ryan Murphy explained that the songs were carefully selected for Freak Show, and for good reason. "We decided we only were going to highlight musical artists who at some point in their career had identified themselves as feeling like freaks or misfits or outcasts, which our people are going through," Murphy explained.

Trailer made for subterfuge

Extremely popular shows operate under tight on-set secrecy in the name of keeping plot details from leaking. In fact, it's not uncommon for show runners to film fake scenes to throw off any loose-lipped crew members, paparazzi, or spoiler-hunters. The sixth season of American Horror Story in 2016 marks one of the few times that a project was actually advertised with fake footage. 

In the months before the show premiered, FX released more than 20 teasers for that iteration of American Horror Story. "One of them is accurate," FX CEO John Landgraf said at a Television Critics Association event. "The others are misdirects." All of them were creepy, weird, and a little unsettling, perhaps none more so than one of a nun using some hedge clippers on wind chimes made from human teeth. Turns out that was the real trailer, as that imagery figures into American Horror Story: Roanoke. 

In a way, though, all of the fake trailers were "real." That season of the show explored the notions of "real" and "fake," as the plot centered on a couple who lived in a haunted house near the lost colony of Roanoke, and a TV show's re-creations of the events they endured.

The Hotel Cortez is not such a lovely place

In American Horror Story: Hotel, Evan Peters portrayed Mr. March, who turned out to be arguably the most purely evil character in the show's long list of purely evil characters, trapping, torturing, and murdering people in the Hotel Cortez. It's quite upsetting that, according to Ryan Murphy in Entertainment Weekly, Mr. March is based on a real person, "perhaps the worst human being to have ever lived." 

That individual is H.H. Holmes, who, during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, opened and utilized a "hotel of horrors." Visitors to the great exposition who tragically chose to board at Holmes' hotel would find their rooms soundproof and windowless, all the better for Holmes to murder them via gassing or other means. Secret passageways allowed him to remove bodies without detection to the basement, where he'd destroy the evidence in a furnace. He was caught in 1894, and executed two years later.

Roll credits (the terrifying, clue-filled credits)

The sinister-sounding, postmodern opening sequence for American Horror Story seems tailor-made for the show, a combination of spooky, forbidding, and hypnotic musical themes punctuated by jarring jump-scare sounds. Surprisingly, the bulk of it comes from a 20-year-old class project. Back in 1998, César Dávila-Irizarry was a sophomore at the University of Puerto Rico. For a music history class, he created a primitive digital audio track, using Cool Edit 96 on his Windows 98 computer, stretching, mixing and combining various sounds with white noise. For example, the song's first dissonant moment comes from a clip of Dávila-Irizarry dropping wire hangers on a tile floor.

When he was done, Dávila-Irizarry gave it to his friend, Gabriel Diaz, who went on to work as a video editor on the first season of American Horror Story. He used Dávila-Irizarry's track as a placeholder, but producers liked it so much they decided to keep it. For technical and legal reasons, show composer Charlie Clouser of Nine Inch Nails recreated and spruced it up with Dávila-Irizarry's blessing.