It is a widely known fact that the designers of ‘American Horror Story’ are not shy when it comes to macabre imagery. The dark images that make the show stand out are like a car crash; you do not want to look, but cannot look away. In anticipation of the premiere of ‘American Horror Story: Cult,’ Todd Heughens, the senior VP of Print Design at FX Networks, gave an interview where he looked back on the art of past seasons and what makes it so memorable.
“It’s kind of awesome that we get to do art like this. You’re immediately drawn to it and repulsed by it at the same time.”
Fans may remember being hooked on Season One: ‘Murder House.’ With a vibe not quite like the traditional haunted house stories we’ve come to know, ‘Murder House’ saw a cast of frightening and interesting characters come and go. One, in particular, being Rubber Man. As Heughens recalled:
“All we had to go by was a conversation with [executive producer] Ryan Murphy and the script for the first episode. So the first piece of key art is the most literal. Rubber Man was a character in the show that season and the woman on the floor is representative of Connie Britton’s character that season. It hit all the points this brand has become … disturbing but sensual and beautiful and arresting.”
‘Asylum’ brought fans into a nightmare of a different kind during Season Two. With the fear of being wrongfully trapped in an insane asylum run by devils of a different kind becoming all too real for the characters, Heughens and the designers took a less literal approach to the season’s poster art:
“This represented a move away from the literal to the more thematic where we would look at the different characters and themes and bring two or three of them together to create a single iconic image. That season was about the Catholic Church, which ran this asylum. It was a corrupt institution. There were aliens. There was some mad scientist conducting experiments and one of them was based on Josef Mengele, who put ink in people’s eyes. This just represents the corruption of innocents framed by the ritualistic nature of the Catholic Church.”
“It was about New Orleans, witchcraft and voodoo, and sexuality. It was the most female season. It was about female power, female connections, female rivalry. So bringing that together with witchcraft and voodoo, I think you can see where this image comes from.”
‘Freakshow’ took Season Four on a more whimsical turn, with classic side show characters trying to navigate past failures, present horrors, and future dangers. Instead of using the impairments the characters displayed onscreen, Heughens and the show designers decided to use their imaginations:
“This is the one where we created several images as part of the main key art campaign. Instead of creating one single image, we thought it should be a campaign that almost feels like it’s promoting the freak show. We all knew we didn’t want to feature actual disabilities. It just felt awful and exploitative. So we decided to create our own freaks that were not real.”
As ‘American Horror Story: Hotel,’ Season Five took fans on a thrilling ride through a haunted hotel that held more secrets than most could keep up with. The poster art reflects the various storylines:
“There was a trans character, these living dead characters sewn into mattresses, and these parents who were tortured over the disappearance of their son. So we took those characters and combined the storylines.”
“Six seasons in, the discussions with Ryan Murphy were about injecting new excitement into the anthology. I’m not sure whose idea it was, originally, to keep it a secret, but we didn’t give the title or the theme of the season away until the night of the premiere. And the very first meeting it looked like the campaign was gonna be a billboard that said ‘American Horror Story Season 6.’ I was like, well, that’s a great idea for a campaign but kind of boring. So a contest was built around it online with one of the images hinting at themes and story lines in the coming season. If you guessed the right one, you could win a car. Somebody won. It was a Lexus or something.”
At last, we arrive at the upcoming season, ‘Cult.’ With the now confirmed rumors that this season would feature the 2016 US Presidential Election, Heughens and the designers put some serious thought into these creepy images”
“‘American Horror Story: Cult’ brings a lot of things to mind. We learned there were gonna be clowns and phobias addressed. The three main phobias are coulrophobia, [fear of clowns], hemophobia [fear of blood], and trypophobia, which is this fear of irregularly shaped holes that you would find in coral, stuff like that. We were given the first two or three scripts, and in one of them, you learn that the neighbors keep bees. We immediately knew that was a symbol for a cult. Bees have a hive mentality. A cult has a hive mentality. There’s a leader. There’s the queen. There’s the woman who has the trypophobia texture to her skin. She has bee eyes, and she has these manipulative hands coming up over her head, and that represents the cult leader and manipulation and control of the people in his cult. There’s the image of the woman wearing that mask with the holes in it. The holes are all hexagons, so that again pulls from the hive, but it also pulls from trypophobia and bees, the anonymity of the hive mind. You’re giving up your individuality.”
Whether you found yourself drawn into the lives of the performers in ‘Freakshow,’ or the girl-power vibe of ‘Coven,’ one thing remains the same: the art of ‘American Horror Story’ challenges viewers to look the unsettling in the face, for better or for worse.
Catch the premiere of ‘American Horror Story: Cult’ tonight on FX.