If you thought American Horror Story's Murder House was spooky, just wait until you experience Briarcliff Manor, the insane asylum at the center of the FX drama's second season, aptly subtitled Asylum. But while there are plenty of tangible scares — a vicious serial killer named Bloody Face, a Nazi doctor whose failed experiments roam the woods just beyond the Manor's boundaries and... aliens — it's the psychological terror co-creator Ryan Murphy has added that will send you running for the hills.
While Season 1 was about adultery, Season 2 is certainly about sanity. And before you assume those in charge of the asylum are sane and the inmates aren't... well, don't. The whole premise of the season is to flip that idea on its head. "The scariest thing is knowing that those who are incarcerated may be more sane than the people running it," new cast member Joseph Fiennes tells TVGuide.com. Adds fellow Season 2 addition Lizzie Brocheré: "What's sane? What's not sane? It's the question of the whole season."
This season is set in the 1960s and Briarcliff Manor is home to inmates who are actually insane, who are wrongly accused or who are deemed crazy based on "ailments" such as sexuality. Heading up the asylum are Fiennes' Monsignor Timothy Howard, who Fiennes describes as "a lovely Catholic priest that just wants to help lost souls," and Sister Jude (returning star Jessica Lange), whose battle for control of the asylum takes center stage this year.
While Lange's Season 1 character Constance was dastardly and in control, Jude struggles in an era during which it wasn't easy for women to gain power. "Because of where it's set, because of the time, because of the different characters, I think it's more psychologically intricate," Lange says. "I think it's a much fuller story than last year."
Jude will go head-to-head with James Cromwell's Arthur Arden, the doctor who uses the inmates in his medical experiments. The cruel treatment of patients may drive audiences to the brink of insanity themselves, but Cromwell insist the show is being true to history. "Most of these things that you see in the show actually happened in the '60s," he says. "We didn't see the horror of psychiatry and lobotomies and Thorozine. They had any number of procedures that they prescribed for people, which they now know were really torturous. But they believed what they were doing was right because they had blinders and don't see the bigger picture."
Among the inmates who will feel Arden's wrath are Brocheré's Grace, who seems to actually be the most sane person at Briarcliff. Grace introduces the audience to the other side of the asylum, as she befriends new inmates Kit Walker (Evan Peters) and Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) — whose incarcerations are questionable at best. While Kit is possibly wrongly accused of being a serial killer, Lana is an investigative journalist who is locked up for digging into what actually goes down in the asylum.
Paulson says her Season 2 character has different motivations than those of psychic Billie Dean in Season 1. "Billie Dean was a person who was really mostly interested in her own self-advancement," Paulson says. "Lana is interested in that as well, but [it has] less to do with being recognized and celebrated, and more to do with being taken seriously." (In that regard, Lana and Jude have something in common.)
Being taken seriously is also a challenge for young Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto), a forward-thinking psychiatrist who's committed to the truth and the well-being of his patients. The debate between spiritual and physical will be the cause of much strife between Thredson and Sister Jude. "I don't think he's buying what she's selling," Quinto says.
But the premiere does offer some semblance of hope. Running concurrently to the main storyline is a tale of two newlyweds (Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who in present day venture on their honeymoon to the condemned asylum. So, are the horrors of Briarcliff only temporary? "Rather like Murder House in Season 1, it's a character within itself, so those we step across the threshold may implode, but the institute itself remains," Fiennes says. "Its source of energy, however dark, remains intact." And folks, that's not a good thing.