How the American Horror Stories’ Production Designer Created a Modern World of Terror: Eve McCarney on Symbolism and Avoiding Tropes in the New Anthology Show

Written by Malin Evita

Stream American Horror Stories now on Hulu (U.S.) and on Disney+ Star (U.K) from September 8th.

“I love horror. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid, and my mom loves it – it’s kind of a family thing!” Eve laughs. Originally a graphics artist for a daily newspaper, Eve McCarney started walking down a different path a few years ago – a path of Production Design. It was a profession that combined so many things she loved; art, collaboration, and bringing stories to life. Now, she is a member of the Art Director’s Guild and has worked as a production designer on projects including A24’s The Ballad of Lefty Brown (2017, dir. Jared Moshe) and two Hulu horror anthology shows: Into the Dark season two and Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Stories. AHS is, of course, an American Horror Story spin-off with a focus on introducing a new generation of horror fans to the widely admired franchise.

The production design is the visual world-building of a film or TV show. The value, care, and eye for detail are essential in creating an authentic and engaging story. And perhaps particularly so for the horror genre, where a matter of setting could decide whether a scare makes you shiver till 4 AM or makes you chuckle mockingly.

“In the last, I would say, maybe ten years, the quality of design in horror films has really gone through the roof. I feel like the first film where I was really like, holy crap! was the first Conjuring. It was beautiful!” Eve says, adding, “For me, the challenge is always, how can I make this look amazing and what can I do to make it a little different maybe than the standard tropes? You know you’ve always got the jumpscares and, like, creeping-out-of-a-closet; things that are very standard. A lot of basement scenes, right? Flick of the lights…”

A very certain look has been ascribed and associated with the horror genre, so breaking it and exploring it on a deeper level takes skill and precision. “So I always try to think of ways to tell the story – or that scare or whatever moment it is – that might be a little unique. It’s tricky because horror is the genre, and, you know, it’s been around for a long time,” the production designer explains. Horror Stories consists of seven episodes – all of which are available now on Hulu. This anthology structure used provided her with a PD’s dream.

“Because each story is different, it gives me a lot of room to play and to really explore different ways to tell these stories and show these characters in these environments.”

“Our first two episodes, we were back at Murder House. So we are locked into what that was – which was a great start. But the most fun I had was changing Violet’s room into Scarlett’s room. To really show an evolution there for that character,” she says, “I found this amazing black wallpaper that had these circles and faces, and [Scarlett] has this emerging bondage fantasy – and she’s also becoming a killer – and it just felt like the right thing to, kind of, foreshadow that.”

“We also did a lot with butterflies – you know, transformation and metamorphosis – so she was a butterfly collector. We had some really great shots of her with this translucent butterfly,” she says. Eve also designed a bathroom for that episode, but by far, the most exciting set for the “Rubber(wo)man” episodes was the Halloween Carnival. “It was supposed to be this high school dance, and then we get word three weeks out that it’s now the hottest haunt in L.A. And I’m like, alrighty! Cool… So we couldn’t do games like apple-bopping; we couldn’t do anything like that! That was a directive from Ryan Murphy himself, like, I don’t wanna do any of that stuff. So what do we do?” Eve says. After the sudden turn, she and her team looked back at the past seasons of the original AHS – and there it was. Freak Show. “Let’s do freaks, let’s do sideshows! But then we couldn’t repeat any of them, so we had to come up with new ones.”

FX: American Horror Stories

“So I’m pitching all of these ideas, and then I’m designing all of these little vignettes they perform in,” she says, and in three days, they put the new set together. “We set up this thirty-foot cage, and we put fire-breathers in it – it was wild. And we had these stilt walkers, which was really cool, and like masks and tenderly things,” she says. With setting up the rigging and putting everything in its place in a park with limited hours, and of course, a creeping deadline, the intensity of the situation couldn’t be understated. “It was very very challenging. But it came together in the nick of time and everybody was super happy,” she adds.

“In season one of American Horror Story, when they are in Murder House, there’s this ashtray. It’s a pretty significant prop, and the prop master and I came up with the idea to easter egg that ashtray in every single episode of Horror Stories,” Eve reveals, “it’s just a subtle tie-in, and the thing was, we couldn’t find [the original]. It didn’t exist in assets anywhere.” So instead, they painted a look-a-like. Throughout the season, the homage elusively appeared in several scenes.

Creating a world for a show that is inherently associated with another show which has reached an audience for over a decade and yet still wanted to remain separate – to be a fresh take for a new wave of viewers, presented an exciting challenge. Eve explains that the creative team wanted Stories to be different and distinguishable from Story. The storylines were meant to resonate with the life circumstances of a younger generation, not necessarily the demographic AHS had acquired over the years. So while small homages were present, creating something entirely new was the main focus.

FX: American Horror Stories

For example, the episode “The Naughty List” surrounds four influencers in a content house who are desperate to regain their floundering fame. It was loosely inspired by the obnoxious TikToker Bryce Hall, who had his water and power shut off after throwing influencer parties during the height of the pandemic. “I’m not on TikTok,” Eve says, “I had to spend hours just watching videos of these guys doing stupid stuff.” This research, however painful, was essential to understanding what kind of people these influencers are, and in turn, what their environment looks like.

“I actually quite enjoyed it; it ended up being pretty funny, I thought. But it’s interesting because you’ve got your hardcore fans that I think were thinking it was another American Horror Story and, I mean the fifth episode skewered a bit more mature and the [sixth] does as well so we will see how they react to that, but it’s different. It’s different. It’s supposed to be a new brand of horror.”

“I am a huge fan of the flagship series, and it’s a lot to live up to,” Eve says, “But it was a lot of fun. I had a really good team, they were so good, so crucial to the success of the show. I mean there were curveballs daily […], my team just rolled with it, which was so great because it can go the other way; it can be quite difficult. So everybody was so fantastic and talented and creative and hardworking. I really owe my success to them.”

Listen to our full conversation with production designer Eve McCarney for more on her career journey, craft, and other projects. Available now on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts!

Written by Malin Evita

Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently finished studying Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.

Website: | IG: @malinevita

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