How the new American Horror Story spin-off could save the series

American Horror Stories, a new anthology series from Ryan Murphy, is a format fit to revive a flagging franchise.

Emma Roberts in American Horror Story: 1984

by: Jo Berry

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After nine seasons and a 10th in pre-production (like many other shows, it’s delayed by the current COVID-19 pandemic), producer Ryan Murphy has just announced that his hit series American Horror Story (AHS) is getting a spin-off: American Horror Stories.

Instead of a story spread (sometimes thinly) over a series of episodes like the original AHS, each hour-long episode of American Horror Stories will be self-contained, like anthology series such as Inside No 9, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror or The Twilight Zone.

It’s a smart move from Murphy, as the quality of recent seasons of AHS has been somewhat erratic – and that’s being polite.

While the first few seasons, Murder House, Asylum and Coven, mixed horror tropes with clever plotting and scripts, and superb performances from Murphy’s ensemble casts, things started to wobble with 2014’s Freak Show, which was as weird as you’d expect but, surprisingly, not that interesting after the initial shock of seeing Kathy Bates as a bearded lady and Sarah Paulson as conjoined twins.

And Murphy’s follow-up, 2015’s Hotel, would be completely forgettable if it wasn’t for the casting of Lady Gaga as a vampire, as the wafer-thin plot set at the not-very-spooky Hotel Cortez in Los Angeles was stretched to breaking point over 12 episodes when it would have worked better with half that number.

American Horror Story: Hotel
American Horror Story: Hotel
FX

Cult (the Donald Trump one) seemed to just go on, and on, and on (is it over yet? we may have nodded off), and even the return of beloved characters from Murder House and Coven (plus Dame Joan Collins!) couldn’t quite sustain the confusing antichrist story in Apocalypse for 10 whole episodes.

In fact, with the exception of 2016’s deliciously bananas Roanoke, which morphed from faux documentary to mad slasher movie halfway through the season, all of the later seasons of AHS would have been tighter, tenser and so much more enjoyable if they had been only six instalments long.

These later seasons often feel like Murphy and his team have a great initial idea – hey, let’s make a series spoofing the Friday the 13th-style horror movies of the 1980s! (last year’s 1984) – but don’t spend enough time thinking about how they will keep the story, and our interest, going for 10 or 12 hours.  Hey guys, we know it’s all going to end in a bloodbath – can we get to it already?

Mr. Jingles in American Horror Story: 1984
FX

This new American Horror Stories, though, could easily ditch the waffling storylines and instead be a series of sharp, succinct, and hopefully scary one-off episodes. (And there’s the added bonus that if you miss one, you can still watch the next and understand what’s going on as it will have a completely different story – miss an episode of AHS and you’re lost forever.)

There have certainly been some terrific horror anthology series in the past for Murphy and his writers to emulate, all of which prove you can scare the pants off someone very effectively in under an hour.

For starters, there’s 2005’s Masters Of Horror, in which acclaimed horror directors such as Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, Joe Dante and Dario Argento contributed individual one hour movies, including the shocking Imprint from Takashi Miike that remains one of the toughest hours of TV you’re ever likely to sit through.

Rod Serling of Twilight Zone fame tried his hand at a horror anthology too – the creepy 1970-1973 series Night Gallery – as did Alfred Hitchcock with his chilling series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1950s and 1960s, while Back To The Future director Robert Zemeckis cast actors including Imedla Staunton, Brad Pitt, Tim Roth and Tom Hanks in the fun ’90s horror series he produced, Tales From The Crypt, with each stand alone episode presented by the hilariously rotting Crypt Keeper.

american-horror-story

Meanwhile, British viewers over a certain age will remember being deeply traumatised by the 1980 series Hammer House Of Horror, that covered cannibalism, witches and even experiments on humans in its 13 episodes – just mention The House That Bled To Death to anyone old enough to have seen it when it was first broadcast on ITV and watch the colour drain from their face.

It actually wouldn’t be a bad idea for Murphy to sneakily remake some of those episodes for a new audience as they are pretty terrifying even now, but we’re in no doubt he and his writers are capable of coming up with frights aplenty on their own, especially in such a taut format.

And even better, in the Instagram post that announced American Horror Stories, Murphy shared a screenshot of an AHS catch-up he was having with his actors, which hints that many of our favourite AHS performers may return for the spin-off, too, including Kathy Bates, Sarah Paulson, Jessica Lange, Angela Bassett, Billie Lourd, Dylan McDermott and Finn Wittrock.

So pop American Horror Story season 10 on the backburner, Mr Murphy, and instead hurry up and bring us some short, sharp shocks and ghoulish laughs with your multi-talented cast.

We’ll be hiding behind the sofa, ready and waiting…

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