When the idea first emerged of doing an estrogen-heavy horror comedy called Scream Queens, it did not take long for creator Brad Falchuk and the team from American Horror Story to arrive at a sorority as a setting.
“With horror that has a lot of female characters, it’s a question of where do women gather around that can be fun and is both ripe for comedy and horror,” he says, “and a sorority is the most obvious place for that.”
Falchuk had spent a lot of time in other writer’s rooms, like Glee and various American Horror Story seasons, watching clips from films like Sorority House Massacre and guffawing at how awesome they were. It became a minor obsession. The third season of AHS, centered on a coven of witches, came close to going Greek—the struggle to be Supreme is like the desire to be head of the sorority–but it wasn’t quite the same. But the concept of Scream Queens lent itself so well to the sisterhood that setting season one there was a no-brainer.
The show features American Horror Story vet Emma Roberts as an entitled, toxic student who squares off against OG scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis’s dean. Both have skeletons in their closets, while real skeletons begin to accumulate, thanks to a campus killer who dresses up like the literal devil. As the second episode of Scream Queens rolls out tonight at 9 p.m. on Fox, Co.Create talked with Falchuk about the unlikely inspiration for the show, and exactly why sororities make such a sweet spot for slaying.
One character on the premiere episode says it best: “Sororities [seem like] bastions of beautiful sisterhood, but once you pull back the veneer, it’s Game of Thrones.” Sorority sisters, at least in films, have no problem stabbing each other in the back, which lends itself to a situation where people literally stab each other in the back.
“With a show like this, you need a real structure, and a sorority provides that both in individuals’ lives who are actually joining them, but also for the show, it provides a real structure in terms of a setting and in terms of the hierarchy,” Falchuk says. “What happens when a structure is set up in which it’s every man for himself and then what’s placed into that every-man-for-himself structure is that the horror movie trope of when you go off alone you’re in danger of being killed, literally killed. So the people that have the best ability to survive in those situations are the ones that are the most willing to be ruthless and brutal but also the ones that gang up.”
There’s a latent animosity toward sorority sisters in American culture—perhaps partially fueled by jealousy—that gives audiences a bit of schadenfreude at their comeuppance.
“There was that email from that one sorority president about how pledges should behave that came out a few years ago that ended up going viral, and more recently there was some recruitment video from some sorority in Texas or Alabama that also made people have . . . some emotions about it when they saw it. And I don’t know why exactly that is, but people get upset,” Falchuk says.
“I think it’s the same for fraternities, I think it’s the same for athletic teams. I think that when any group of people get together, the binding principle that binds them together is something that comes from their basic instincts and not their best selves. And so any community that does that is gonna face a lot of projected anger from other people. I think it’s because they see themselves in it. It’s like they’re seeing their own weakness and their own desire to have all of those things. And that’s the key to this show, I think, is that you want the characters to be brutally unsympathetic. To me, it’s like they can be as unsympathetic as possible as long as they remain likable. So our job is to try and make them as likable as possible, at the same time pushing them as far as we can towards unsympathetic.”
Pledging is a modern tribal ritual, and it brings out something primal in people.
“Remember that first season of Survivor?” Falchuk says. “The guy that won was smart from the beginning. The people who are gonna survive are the ones that can bring people close enough to them to make them safer. And the reality is that that’s true in any community, but certainly a community that thrives on backstabbing and on ruthlessness, even before a killer is on the loose. It’s all a game and then suddenly it’s like, ‘Oh we’ve got to throw the rules out the window, but at the same time our sense of self is dependent upon this hierarchy. And if that hierarchy gets screwed up, then our sense of self gets killed and we’re willing to get physically killed in order to maintain that sense of self,’ and you see the sisters doing that.”
Even more so than other horror movies.
“The people that tend to get the best break in a horror movie are the virgins. That seems to always be the case,” Falchuk says. “But besides that, I think in terms of horror movies, nobody is safe. Obviously, you always know in those old ’80s movies that Jamie Lee Curtis was going to survive because she’s awesome and badass. But you just don’t know in a sorority. It’s usually the rich, spoiled, hot one in a horror movie that gets killed first a lot of the times, and in a sorority, they’re everywhere—so even on a weekly series, they’re basically cannon fodder.”