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Hulu’s The Act is true crime, but it needed a horror hand

By Caitlin Busch
The Act

In recent years, true crime has proven a juggernaut in all its forms. Documentaries, feature films, TV, podcasts — name the viral crime, and you're more than likely to find a retelling on screen. The latest true crime offering comes in the form of Hulu's The Act, co-created by horror writer and producer Nick Antosca.

"I think we live in a weird, complicated, scary time... we're always wondering what is going on next door," Antosca told SYFY WIRE ahead of The Act's premiere. "Your neighbor's house might look like the best house on the block, but inside that house, you don't know. And one of the most fascinating things about this story is how they were hiding in plain sight. For almost a decade, they lived in this house and their neighbors knew them and they saw them every day. And there was a grotesque and heartbreaking tragedy going on and nobody could see."

Antosca's résumé — ranging from writing for MTV's Teen Wolf to producing NBC's Hannibal to creating SYFY's Channel Zero — is far more geared toward horror, making him seem at first like an odd choice to adapt true crime. The events depicted in The Act, though, speak to a distinct kind of psychological horror and horror, he points out, is as subjective a genre as they come.

The Act tells the true story of Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose, played onscreen by Patricia Arquette and Joey King, respectively. From the outside, Dee Dee and Gypsy appeared to be an us-against-the-world mother/daughter duo stalked by misfortune. After losing their house in Hurricane Katrina, they moved to Springfield, Missouri, where they lived in a bubblegum-pink home built by Habitat for Humanity.

Maybe they were a bit co-dependent, maybe Dee Dee hovered and Gypsy seemed shy, but that was to be expected. After all, Gypsy had lived with a number of severe medical problems since birth, including muscular dystrophy, chromosomal defects, epilepsy, debilitating asthma; she had to use a wheelchair and ate most of her meals via a feeding tube in her stomach — the list goes on.

Or so it seemed. In reality, the only illness Gypsy really lived with from a young age was Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a mental health problem in which a caregiver makes up or even causes illnesses in a dependent. If you want the full reported story, look no further than the 8,000-word BuzzFeed News report by Michelle Dean that went viral in August 2016, "Dee Dee Wanted Her Daughter To Be Sick, Gypsy Wanted Her Mom Murdered." Through a series of interviews with neighbors, friends, doctors, and law enforcement officials, Dean wove a painfully true tale of deception, manipulation, and eventual murder.

Just weeks after publication, the story was optioned by Britton Rizzio and Gregory Shephard, Antosca's managers and now executive producers for the series. Like the "six other million people" who read Dean's original story, Antosca says he found himself darkly fascinated by Gypsy's struggle and Dee Dee's machinations. "It's nominally a true crime story, but it's a story about a mother/daughter relationship that is so strange and a coming of age story that I couldn't stop thinking about," he says. Antosca teamed up with Dean, the reporter behind the BuzzFeed story and now The Act's other co-creator, to write a pilot and eventually sold the series to Universal Content Productions.

"This is true crime, but the things that kind of served as the creative templates for it were Boys Don't Cry, Heavenly Creatures, In Cold Blood — stories that have a lurid headline or a tabloid hook, but when you dig deeper under the surface, there is a deeply human story," Antosca says. "What we said from the very beginning was, this is not a story about a murder. It's a story about the people behind the murder. It's a story about the relationship, where the mother/daughter love became so deformed that it led to a murder.

"What was it like for [Gypsy]?" he continues. "What was it like for her to live in that house for all those years, in this atmosphere of lies, in this cage of deception that her mom created for her and still love her mom? You go to a very dark and complicated place, and the vocabulary of horror storytelling applies to that."

The Act, Hulu

Subgenres have subgenres within horror, so to create a hard line, to say, "No, this isn't horror," is az sort of odd game to play. Create that hard line, and you lose endless options. That's why it made sense, Antosca says, to make The Act a multi-faceted show. "I think it would be perfectly fine to characterize The Act as a horror show. It's also a thriller. It's also a coming of age story. It's also a character drama. It's true crime. You know, I find these labels very amorphous.

"I find horror the most elemental genre because you can externalize the internal," he adds. "It's a language for articulating our fears."

The Act premieres on Hulu on March 20.