Halloween comes early in prime time, with the return of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on Sunday and the Season 2 premiere of FX’s “American Horror Story” on Wednesday.
In two seasons, “The Walking Dead” (based on a comic book series) has grabbed viewers who never thought they would get hooked on a show about zombies. The secret has been in the characters, a tiny band of survivors of a zombie apocalypse just trying to find safety in a world of flesh-hungry “walkers.”
“American Horror Story,” from “Glee” executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, took almost exactly the opposite approach. Characters be damned; Season 1 was all about the scares.
Oh, viewers could sympathize with the Harmons (Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton), who took their troubled marriage to Los Angeles and lucked into a suspiciously inexpensive Victorian mansion. But from the opening credits, full of creepy children and body parts floating in jars, the clear intent was to grab our attention by scaring us silly.
That’s a time-honored technique, used to attract audiences as long as movies have been around. (George Melies’ “The Haunted Castle,” a silent short from 1896, makes most lists as the first horror movie.)
These days, with hundreds of TV channels competing for viewers’ attention, along with computers, games and every sort of distraction, it’s no surprise that producers would turn to scares in an attempt to keep us focused.
But it took cable networks, which can go after narrower, niche audiences, to make horror a prime-time success story. Showtime succeeded with the ultra-bloody serial killer drama “Dexter”; HBO scored with vampire-soap “True Blood.”
AMC followed in 2010 with “The Walking Dead,” which became its highest-rated original series, and FX jumped in last season with “American Horror Story,” one of FX’s biggest success stories.
(As a bit of trivia for the fans, the original house that the pilot was shot in is apparently up for sale. Murphy is honored to be tied to a piece of Americana, as he called it a “West coast version of the Bates Motel.” And for all the knocking the show did on the housing market, it’s nice to see that they’re doing their part. Perhaps the next location they haunt will be in your neighborhood!)