American Horror Story’s legacy begins and ends with its fan base. Initially premiering in 2011 on FX, the show was the first of its kind, a self-contained horror series with new plots cycling out every season. At the time, The Walking Dead was the only other hyped horror-related show on television, and with little competition in the genre, AHS certainly excelled. FX president John Landgraf told the Chicago Tribune that the early seasons were groundbreaking and trendsetting, while critics agreed that American Horror Story was one of a kind, with standout acting, costumes, and set design.
The inventive idea, which every season attracted a rotating ensemble of big names like Jessica Lange, Evan Peters, and Sarah Paulson, brought in over 7 million viewers an episode at its peak, with Coven and Freak Show the most lucrative, according to Deadline. In part, the fresh plots, familiar faces, and interwoven stories were what piqued viewers’ interest.
However, a vocal, rabid social-media presence is what kept the franchise afloat.
After a decade of building a loyal and organized fan base spanning cities, countries, and continents and dedicated to all things AHS, that same fan base is now boycotting the show. On July 25, the AHS Zone Twitter account announced it would go dark until series creator Ryan Murphy releases more information on the upcoming season. In the tweet, the leaders of the account spoke for the AHS community, outlining the frustration they feel in trying to attract a wider audience to a show they love without getting any help from Murphy. Pointing to the lack of confirmation from Murphy or the network on anything related to the 11th season’s premiere date, casting, or title announcements, AHS Zone formed something of a union with other fan accounts, including The AHS Zone, AHS Daily, AHS Source, Horror Story News, and AHS News Feed, banding together to call for a social-media blackout and refusing to promote the show until further notice. Mirroring Murphy’s own silence, the accounts claim they will no longer post starting August 1.
The strike defies the typical Hollywood fan protest, namely public outcry over the cancellation of programs, as with Sense8 or The OA. Instead, the AHS fan base is moving to push producers to give more to a beloved series that has amassed a huge following over ten years. People are using the #AHS11 hashtag on Twitter to discuss their concerns, while others refuse to back the blackout for the time being, upping the ante on both sides to discuss whether the protest is effective or foolish. Fan strikes are not unheard of — they happen all the time, and this is similar to the one currently happening over Black Panther — but the AHS strike is unique in the sheer magnitude of the fan accounts. Unlike protests in the industry, typically writers’ strikes (which are backed by a real union), the AHS strike is communicating its terms in marketing.
The internet is tired of scraping fan edits, piecing together news stories, and posting old shows, all for free, while the higher-ups fail to market the show outside of a kiosk touting phone backgrounds.
Early Tumblr users did the legwork to connect American Horror Story fans with one another. Murder House, season one of the series and arguably the strongest, thrived off low-grade GIFs of Evan Peters in skull makeup, while Asylum, season two, had lesbians screaming over Lana Winters. FX did a number on marketing, promoting the series through more progressive, insane ways, including wiping the show’s entire social-media feed save for a few clips of static ahead of season eight, Apocalypse. But nothing could beat the sheer magnitude of the AHS internet. Bringing together conspiracy theorists, fan-fiction fanatics, and GIF creators from every walk of life, it has long been the backbone keeping American Horror Story upright.
This isn’t the first time Murphy has upset fans. From spreading general confusion in the community over spinoffs to posting polls asking for audience participation with no follow-up, Murphy’s engagement with AHS fans ranges from disengaged to thinly veiled contempt. With Murphy’s most recent American Horror Stories episode turning the beloved Murder House on its head, fans on the forum wonder if his artfully placed devices are more mockery than anything else. The growing turmoil between the fan base and the producer, seemingly on the back burner for years, has finally started to boil over.
It’s illustrated in the reception to season ten, the disappointing Double Feature, the premiere of which was delayed a full year owing to the pandemic. Fans felt that more needed to be done this season outside of relying on the American Horror Story name to generate excitement. The creative decision to split Double Feature in two felt like an abrupt ending with no payoff, a toss-away to allow the team to focus on other projects. The producers’ choice to dabble with the format, similar to their adoption of documentary style in season six, Roanoke, and their commentary on real-life events during a tumultuous time with season seven, Cult, failed to impress critics and viewers alike. Whether because Double Feature abruptly shifted from Red Tide to Death Valley, leaving no real conclusion to either story, or whether it had a weaker cast and relegated Sarah Paulson to the role of a side character, the fans believe they deserve more.
Specifically, more American Horror Story from Murphy — not more from the growing Murphy-verse, which now includes Feud, American Horror Stories, American Crime Story, American Love Story, American Sports Story, and that Jeffrey Dahmer series.
Despite American Horror Story being renewed for three more seasons in 2020, there has been little news on when exactly season 11 will commence. Not only are fans being kept in the dark, but celebrities are too, with Angelica Ross wondering where she stands with the continuation of the series. Appearing on Scott McGlynn’s Celebrity Skin Talk on Instagram Live, Ross admitted that she didn’t know anything about season 11 and, to her knowledge, is not in it, reflecting the confusion that’s widespread in the AHS community on both the ground and the executive level. Mixed with Murphy’s outright blocking of accounts that demand more information on what’s to come, this points to deliberate actions being made to keep viewers in the dark. (Murphy and FX Networks did not respond to Vulture’s request for comment.)
Giving viewers just enough Easter eggs to piece together a through-line, Murphy has wisely managed to generate some interest by keeping audiences guessing and in a state of limbo. Fans hungrily chase after the nostalgia of American Horror Story, hoping to re-create the feeling they got when it first aired on FX, while Murphy capitalizes on the enthusiasm, nourishing the conversation with enough subtext to keep people on their toes. Although the show has managed to reach a wide audience, it has become more of a spectacle, relying on flashy celebrities and chaotic plotlines that are left up to its fan base to tie together. Peeling back the grandeur of illusion, viewers are growing tired of old gimmicks and are seeing past the smoke and mirrors Murphy has managed to use for over a decade.
Now it’s a question of whether he cares enough about the show that launched an empire to say anything at all.
As the machine runs low on steam, viewers wonder how much work they’ll have to shoulder to keep the series alive. With so much discord in the community, it’s a question of how long American Horror Story will survive on the love and dedication of its fan base alone, especially as this audience demands more from those in power. One thing’s for certain: With the premiere of season 11 looming, FX will have to bring something to the table that leaves internet forums talking for a long time.