Believe it or not, the title of FX's new series American Horror Story is an understatement. Grotesque, terrifying, brutal and kinky, American Horror Story makes The Shining look like The Waltons.
"It's really amazing to me that this is on television and not on film," says horror expert Marina Levina, an assistant professor in the department of communication at the University of Memphis. "I've been really surprised at how far they've been able to take things. In the first episode, they killed children, which is shocking."
The plot revolves around the Harmons, a fractured couple. Psychiatrist Ben and Vivien (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton) move with their teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga), from Boston to Los Angeles for a fresh start after she had a miscarriage and he had an affair.
Turns out they got a good price on that rambling Victorian for a reason: It's the featured stop on L.A.'s popular "Murder Tour."
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The real estate agent didn't see fit to tell the Harmons that everyone who has ever lived there met a violent end. They had to find that out from Constance (Jessica Lange), the spooky Blanche DuBois type who lives next door.
With the housing market in the dumps, the Harmons can't unload their chamber of horrors.
Soon, they're besieged by the emotionally disturbed, the developmentally disabled, the physically disfigured and other creatures that defy explanation.
There is, for example, a figure sheathed head to toe in a shiny black bondage suit. We're pretty sure he/it has impregnated Vivien. Don't even get us started on the hideous monstrosity in the basement.
Even the most benign-seeming characters carry wickedly toxic luggage. And in this vile villa, it's impossible to tell the living from the dead, the haunted from the haunting.
The series carries a "mature audiences only" rating, and each episode carries an additional warning for two or more of the following: indecent language, explicit sexual activity and graphic violence.
Faced with this sick spectacle, viewers have two options: shield their eyes and reach for the remote, or fasten their seat belts. Increasingly, they are harnessing in for the ride.
Last week's episode saw viewership jump 15 percent to 3 million.
Precisely what is it that they're experiencing in this series produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk?
"It's all the horror of being in a relationship and being in a family and being in a marriage," star McDermott says. "It's a metaphor."
Hmm, interesting theory. Anyone else?
"It's the haunted-house genre taken to an extreme," ventures Levina. "Everything is coming at them from inside the house. It's terror internalized.
"We've seen these type of stories in films since 9/11. We're living with terror that you simply can't solve, in an America where things are going terribly wrong."
If you have the stomach for it, American Horror Story works pretty well as pure entertainment. (On Monday, FX gave AHS an early renewal for next season.)
"It's a very well-done, even innovative way to tell a scary story on TV," Ken Tucker, editor at large at Entertainment Weekly, said via email. "On the other hand, it's one of the creepiest, most depressing shows to come along since The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
"Jessica Lange has the tone down best, and when Jessica Lange is your barometer of emoting, you know the show might go over the top at any moment."
Over the top is the specialty of the house for producer Murphy. His TV creations have veered from the catty and funny high school soap Popular to the emphatically outrageous adult plastic- surgery drama Nip/Tuck to the high school show choir sensation Glee to the gnarly, envelope-tearing American Horror Story.
Not an easy guy to pigeonhole.
"Ryan gets bored easily," says Dylan Walsh, who starred in Nip/Tuck. "Before he's done, he will have created some of the most unforgettable series in TV history. And they'll all be different."
Calling American Horror Story "different" — that's definitely an understatement.