Horror movies hold a special place in our cultural lexicon but, for the longest time, television shows didn’t really touch the genre until an explosion in the mid-2000s. Before that, networks had dabbled with scary shows such as Scooby Doo, The Twilight Zone, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Goosebumps, but beyond Saturday morning cartoons and good, clean fun horror didn’t have a place in a family home. That changed with Masters of Horror, which aired on Showtime from 2005-2007, and continued on as TV gave into the untouched genre. In the years that followed, television exploded with horror shows: Supernatural, Scream, Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, Bates Motel, Hannibal, Scream Queens, True Blood, and Ash vs. Evil Dead. From a giant list of possibilities, two shows stand out for failure and success—Fear Itself and American Horror Story.
Fear Itself began airing in the summer of 2008 on NBC, one of the first horror shows to air on a major network, but went on hiatus mid-season due to the Olympics. It was created by the same team behind Masters of Horror, and each episode of the show was directed by a different person, starred a different cast, and told a different story. The episodes ranged from vampires to witches with cannibals, creepy communities, and serial killers thrown into the mix. I began watching midway through the season and this show is what really got me into horror. However, the show didn’t continue airing after the Olympics were over and it wasn’t slotted for NBC’s fall shows. It was cancelled.
American Horror Story filled the void. Starting its first season in 2011, Ryan Murphy’s powerhouse show was something entirely new to television at the time. Telling a single story in each season, but using the same actors, it seemed as if Murphy was conducting a theater troupe through a collection of macabre plays. While it enjoyed moderate success at first, after the second season American Horror Story became wildly popular and even more criticized for its gratuitous violence, sex, and content. It seemed that the fans loved to complain about the show even as they couldn’t stop watching. With six seasons and counting, it doesn’t seem as if the horror will end anytime soon.
So why did Fear Itself fail while American Horror Story succeeded?
Part of the blame is obviously on timing the show with the Olympics, but there may also be something to say about the individual versus continual plotlines of both series. Each episode of Fear Itself was self-contained whereas American Horror Story had an ongoing plot that demanded viewers return for the next episode. If viewers didn’t like an episode of Fear Itself or weren’t intrigued by the preview for the next week then they didn’t watch, and there wasn’t a large reason to. The differing directors, stories, and actors all delivered changing qualities in the show. Even with some of the best directors in the business, Fear Itself couldn’t deliver a cohesive whole and fell apart.
American Horror Story, on the other hand, knows its gimmick. It knows that its audience wants to see sex, violence, and blood in mass quantity while still engaging in a compelling story with excellent cinematography, acting, and music. Another hook of the series is the use of ‘themes’ for each season, along with a tie-in type of human sin, so that each season is different and distinguishable. The order of themes goes Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show, Hotel, and Roanoke. Until season four each series was separate, but Ryan Murphy revealed that they take place in the same world, share common characters at times, and that there’s a bigger picture story at play. By always keeping viewers on their toes, American Horror Story keeps its audience.
There are highs and lows of both shows, equally up for personal debate, and I’d like to share my loves and hates. The best episodes of Fear Itself are “New Year’s Day”, “Skin & Bones”, and “Eater.” The worst would be “The Sacrifice” and “Family Man.” The others fall somewhere in between and are moderately enjoyable. American Horror Story’s best and worst seasons are a subject of hot debate between fans, but most will agree that Murder House has never been beat in terms of story and suspense. I found Asylum a letdown when it premiered, but have since come around and call it one of my favorites. I’m mixed on Hotel and Roanoke (which just began three weeks ago), and was not overly fond of Coven and Freak Show. However, I’ve found things to enjoy about each season and there’s definitely something to be said about Ryan Murphy’s ability to make glamorous gore never get old.
Fear Itself could have been great—a decent time slot on a major network—but the lack of cohesion and tone created an unsalvageable mess. FX took a risk on American Horror Story that has since paid for itself in spades. There are more choices in horror-related television than there were before 2000, but I would recommend adding both of these in your October viewing schedule. If you need a small hit of horror in your day then put away the film reel and tune in to television.