American Horror Story is well-known for its campy and excessive approach, but what is somewhat less known is how it draws on real-life inspirations.
Ryan Murphy’s long-running horror anthology series American Horror Story is well-known for its campy and excessive approach to its genre, but what is somewhat less known is the extent to which it draws on real-life inspirations to ground its fantastical narratives. Both those seasons set in the past and the present often have one foot in the world of reality and one in the sideways world so commonly found in horror. Thus, the series has always excelled at tapping into the most frightening and disturbing aspects of American history to anchor its often bizarre plots.
These real-life inspirations help to ground American Horror Story throughout its various seasons. When viewers find themselves confronted with elements of the real world that they know, this gives the horror a bite, sometimes lacking in other similar series. Thus, beneath all the excess that so often characterizes this series and its approach to its stories, there is a substantive engagement with the truly terrifying things that have long haunted the American imagination and the nation’s history more generally.
Set in the house of the title, American Horror Story: Murder House focused on a variety of deaths and murders which took place over a series of years. Filled with ghosts and terrors, the series is made all the more unsettling by the basis of many of its stories in true history. One of the most notable of these is Evan Peters’ Tate Langdon, who, in Murder House, committed a mass shooting much like the one at Columbine High School. Other historical events in Murder House include the nurse murders and the Black Dahlia.
American Horror Story: Asylum is one of the strongest seasons, thanks to the stunningly chilling performance by Jessica Lange as Sister Jude and Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters. Set in an insane asylum, this season is inspired by numerous historical horrors. For example, Paulson’s intrepid journalist is based partly on the real Nellie Bly, who had committed herself so she could study conditions on the inside from a patient’s point of view. Also notable is James Cromwell’s nefarious Dr. Arden; with his Nazi connections, he is evocative of the monstrous Josef Mengele.
In American Horror Story: Coven, viewers encounter witches, magic, and voodoo, all set against the atmosphere of New Orleans. The past and the present often collide in this season, with real characters such as Delphine LaLaurie-infamous for torturing her slaves, and incidents depicted in the series-encountering fictional ones such as the grasping witch Fiona (played by Jessica Lange). Coven also draws on several figures within voodoo culture, particularly the “Voodoo Queen” Marie Leveau and the sinister figure Papa Legba.
American Horror Story: Freak Show shifts the series’ focus to the freak show of the title, which is run by Jessica Lange’s Elsa. The season is filled with sinister characters. One particularly notable Freak Show introduction is the murderous clown Twisty, clearly inspired by real-life serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who frequently dressed up as a clown. In addition to Gacy, the conjoined twins, Dot and Bette, both played by series stalwart Sarah Paulson–were inspired by Violet and Daisy Hilton, who were conjoined at the pelvis and were also performers in a show.
Taking place in a hotel in which many ghosts and a vampire have taken up abode, Hotel is also filled with numerous real inspirations. The name of Lady Gaga’s vampire villain, the Countess, is an allusion to the infamous Elizabeth Bathory, a Hungarian noble who murdered young women to use their blood. The season’s big bad, the nefarious James March, is inspired by Dr. H.H. Holmes, who similarly opened a hotel and murdered people there. It also includes numerous other references to the real world, including the actor Rudolph Valentino and the serial killers Aileen Wuornos and Jeffrey Dahmer.
American Horror Story: Roanoke is arguably the most historically grounded of all the series’ seasons. It focuses on a young couple who move to a remote house in North Carolina, not realizing until too late that it is haunted by the murderous and vengeful spirits of the Lost Colony of Roanoke. In real life, historians have no idea what happened to the colonists, though it is primarily assumed they were killed by either disease or by Native Americans. In the season, by contrast, they fell prey to their own darker impulses, and they were ultimately sentenced to haunt the land, claiming lives with each passing year.
Many seasons of American Horror Story take place in the past, but Cult is set very squarely in the present. Airing in 2017, it draws on the aftermath of the 2016 election, focusing in particular on a charismatic cult leader, Kai, who begins a reign of terror. In addition to evoking the election, it also uses several key historical inspirations. Kai is based on charismatic and murderous figures, as Charles Manson and Cult also features the appearance of Valerie Solanas, who was noted for attempting to assassinate the artist Andy Warhol.
Unlike most seasons of American Horror Story, which have at least a basis in reality, Apocalypse (and its revisiting of Murder House) takes a more straightforwardly supernatural tone, focusing as it does on the Antichrist and the titular apocalypse. Despite this, it still has several real inspirations which drive its story and characters. For example, a vital part of the season’s story is a nuclear apocalypse, which Michael Langdon instigates. Fears of an atomic Armageddon have long been a potent part of American culture in the real world, lending this particular season a particularly potent relationship to reality.
American Horror Story: 1984 (considered the worst in the series by many) is an homage to the slasher movies that were such a key part of the movies of the 1980s. Its most notable inspiration is the various movies in the Friday the 13th franchise. Unsurprisingly, it also has several links to real-world atrocities and murders. One of the season’s most sinister characters is Richard Ramirez. In real life, Ramirez was a noted serial killer and Satanist, so it is particularly disturbing to see him appear in a season of one of Ryan Murphy’s most notable series.
Unlike previous seasons, American Horror Story was split into two distinct sections, Red Tide and Death Valley. Death Valley, in particular, had many real-world inspirations, most notably the appearance of Dwight Eisenhower, who first made an agreement with the aliens who were trying to colonize Earth. Numerous other historical figures appear in the season, most connected to the extraterrestrials, including Amelia Earhart and Marilyn Monroe, the latter of whom is killed for knowing too much. The season even includes an allusion to the conspiracy theory that the moon landing was staged.
American Horror Story: NYC is arguably the most “real” of the series’ many seasons. Set in New York City during the 1980s, it focuses on a group of gay men who find their lives turned upside down by a serial killer haunting their community and an unnamed and unknown virus that seems to be disproportionately infecting them. These are clear allusions to the AIDS crisis, which swept through many gay communities, particularly in major urban centers like New York City, spreading terrible death and a significant amount of fear and panic in its wake. The character of Theo Graves is also clearly inspired by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.