Stephen King once explained the difference between terror and horror this way: Terror is the suspenseful buildup to the moment when you see the monster. Horror is seeing the monster.
By that definition, "American Horror Story" couldn't be more true to its name. It reveals monsters with a relentlessness never before seen on television, and rarely seen in films — but sometimes at the expense of terror. It's already quite watchable, but will be a great show if it shifts the balance.
Also read: 'American Horror Story' Haunted by Redheads
King explains the difference between horror and terror like this in his 1981 book, "Danse Macabre": "I recognize terror as the finest emotion and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find that I cannot terrify, I will try to horrify, and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud."
Neither is "American Horror Story." But then, as a viewer, neither am I. I'd rather be terrified, horrified, or grossed-out than proud. And the series, from "Glee" co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, proves they have plenty of grotesque ideas left over from "Nip/Tuck," their last FX series.
It's tough to complain about any story that sets out to scare and genuinely does — and "American Horror Story" does. It's far superior to the slew of supposed horror movies that offer only clockwork decapitations. But some of its scares sell themselves short by appearing so fast.
The barrage of horrors include the surprise appearance of a full-body bondage suit, a burn victim with a milky eye, an evil creature in a basement, and jars of fetuses, in that same basement. Only a few minutes pass in Wednesday night's pilot episode before the show breaks one of the unwritten rules of horror movies, No Harm Shall Befall a Child — also in the basement.
But for all the shocks, I'd like to be more invested in what becomes of the characters. After watching two episodes, the only one who really matters to me is Vivien Harmon, played by the wonderfully cast Connie Britton. Some of my empathy comes from an appreciation of her great work on "Friday Night Lights." The rest is situational.
Vivien, who has recently suffered a miscarriage, moves with psychiatrist husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and teenage daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) after Ben's affair back in Boston threatens to break up his family.
The Harmons move into a house heavily discounted because it hosted a murder-suicide. (It turns out to be the site of murders as well.) They soon meet a creepy cadre of people who include Jessica Lange as Constance, their Southern belle ex-actress neighbor, who can't keep her daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), who has Down Syndrome, from slipping into their house.
They also hire a housekeeper who most people see as mature and prim (as played by Frances Conroy) but who Ben sees as young, gorgeous, and sexually voracious (as played by Alexandra Breckenridge, pictured). Evan Peters plays Tate, a teenage patient of Ben's with fantasies about school shootings and designs on Ben's daughter. He also has a habit of lurking around the house, as does burn victim Larry (Denis O’Hare)
Providing one hope that all the scares will add up to something deeper is the hair color of most of the actresses. Yes, the hair color. Conroy, Breckenridge, Britton, and some kids who die early on are all redheads — though Britton's is lighter than the rest — and Murphy told TheWrap in August that red hair will be a plot point in future episodes. (Spoiler alert: It has to do with Ben's childhood.)
The long-term plan suggests all of these horrific moments aren't just horrific for their own sake, and will lead to some much bigger monster, yet to be revealed. Here's hoping the buildup is long and terrifying.
"American Horror Story" airs at 10/9c on FX.