The 7 Steps to Write a Ryan Murphy Horror

Provocative opening? Under-utilised guest star? Loads of crawling? Let us walk you through the reliable formula of the most successful horror TV producer of the last decade.
October 28, 2020, 9:30am
Ratched Netflix 2020
Image: Netflix

Show me a person who has felt satisfied with a season finale of American Horror Story and I will show you a liar. Even so, the show has made a killing from its star-studded returning casts, queer storylines and making nerds think those “Normal People Scare Me” T-shirts you can buy in Camden Market are acceptable. Its insane popularity (the show has racked up 94 Emmy nominations! 94!!!) has also inspired a new generation of horror programming, like Lovecraft Country and The Haunting of Bly Manor.

Meanwhile, producer Ryan Murphy has gone on to make a name for himself pumping out serialised thrillers like Ratched – Netflix’s most viewed debut of the year – and the recently announced Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. As his work on American Horror Story and Ratched has shown, Murphy’s brand of horror is addictive, formulaic and absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, destined to fall flat on its face at the final hurdle. Whether it’s Gabourey Sidibe fucking a minotaur, or basically the entire cast getting killed off, each production will follow a narrative pattern that typically results in an ending that has nothing to do with anything.

Which makes you wonder how, exactly, Murphy’s reliable approach will transplant onto a biopic about Jeffrey Dahmer. How does one take a true story and fuck it up? Whatever route the show takes, it’s sure to follow the now-formulaic plots of a Murphy-produced horror series, which are as follows:


Sarah Paulson American Horror Story

Sarah Paulson in 'American Horror Story'

Enter: Lady Gaga having an orgy, a mass murder of multiple priests or some other shock value scene. Sarah Paulson has two heads? Why wouldn’t she! Expect a scene with no explanation that is instantly engaging and tricks you into thinking that maybe, maybe, some kind of narrative cohesion will follow (it won’t).


Rubberman American Horror Story

'American Horror Story'

Pick a black haired, blue eyed man from the Ryan Murphy sexy man lead line-up. He is, inevitably, going to be having a gay love affair. While no homoerotic sex scene on TV is gratuitous, there will be plenty of them in any given season of American Horror Story.

If this isn’t the case (it will be, though), the sex will be some kind of weird kink instead. This has been a common set up since the first season’s Rubberman: Tate’s alter ego, who wore a fitted black latex suit to hide his identity and shag Violet’s mother. But the best one so far is Evan Peters fingering housewives with a lobster claw hand in the AHS: Freakshow series.

If we’re especially lucky, there may be some kind of sapphic sexual scenes included, too. Remember Lady Gaga and Angela Bassett in AHS: Hotel? My clit does.


Jessica Lange and Stevie Nicks in American Horror Story

Jesisca Lange and Stevie Nicks in 'American Horror Story'

Tell me how you can murder Naomi Campbell on your TV show and it not be an incredible piece of pop culture history. If you are Ryan Murphy, the answer is: by seriously misusing big name stars.

This is a repeated mistake in Murphy’s shows. See: Sharon Stone playing an heiress on Ratched, Stevie Nicks playing herself in AHS: Coven and Lady Gaga returning to play a mud witch for 0.03 seconds in AHS: Roanoke. Instead of giving these ladies fleshed out roles or writing them into critical scenes, the wow factor is, essentially, just the fact that they’re in the show.


American Horror Story

'American Horror Story'

Gross-out murders are a necessity for any horror, I get it, but what makes them different in this instance is that the murders literally do not matter. Murders are used neither for plot advancement nor to actually kill a character, as in most of Murphy’s horror series a murdered character can come back to life at any point in the following episodes.

As annoying as this was in AHS: Coven, it did give us that incredible GIF of Emma Roberts spinning around and saying, “Surprise bitch, I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me,” which changed meme culture forever. These murder sprees often hit halfway through a season to make sure audiences stick around to watch the rest.


While Murphy is no doubt one of the most inclusive TV producers of our times, I do wonder if the man has some kind of amputee fetish. Ratched featured a quadriplegic Brandon Flynn and American Horror Story has had a host of limbless characters, including Chloe Sevigny in Asylum, Kathy Bates in Coven and Jessica Lange in Freakshow.

The use of disability in horror has been questionable since the genre started, but that doesn’t mean Murphy should be utilising it either. It makes the AHS: Freakshow title feel like less of a knowing wink, and more of a straight up slur.


Ratched 2020


There’s always some kind of creepy crawling in a Murphy horror, which is fair game as a common horror trope. But, as tied in with the above point, the person crawling is also always mutilated in some way.

Chloe Sevigny doing the worm as a Nazi experiment victim in AHS: Asylum is burned into my memory forever. More recently, Ratched had a detective boiled alive in a “water therapy” bath, before escaping and sliding himself along the linoleum floor for a full five-minute scene.

Like many concepts in Murphy’s work, this one is often revisited, and once you notice that he stans a slither, you’ll notice it in every season you watch.


Finishing a show with 5,000 loose ends is a speciality of American Horror Story, so much so that it now feels deliberate.

AHS: Apocalypse, which is meant to bring together all of the seasons, exemplifies this beautifully. What Murphy does is: get all the favourites from previous stories in one room and, instead of thinking up a plausible ending that makes all the previous inconsistencies add up, uses time travel to save characters from themselves and make the entire Apocalypse series fully pointless, as well as render plot points in previous seasons completely nonsensical. Amazing!

Murphy takes “losing the plot” literally, and there’s a kind of comfort in knowing his horrors are produced for pure entertainment value and not to inspire smarmy incel YouTube videos about “plot holes”. At this point, if you’re watching a Ryan Murphy horror for the plot, that’s a you problem.