Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story has gone through various, mostly self-contained, dramatic stories that are each its own nightmare to someone out there watching. Ahead of the premiere of AHS: NYC this October, we’re taking a look back at previous seasons. Here’s a countdown to the scariest of them all!
American Horror Story is soon returning to FX (and subsequently streaming on Hulu) on Oct. 19 with its eleventh season, recently revealed to be “NYC.” The anthology series has provided entertaining thrills for over 10 years now, and even with returning cast members, each new season brings a fresh setting vividly to life with standout characters. While certain stories rise above the rest, every season has its own captivation with scares corresponding to its past or modern-day atmosphere. Here’s our ranking of the scariest American Horror Story seasons!
10.) 1984 – Season 9
AHS took years to come out with its rendition of a classic slasher film, but 1984 finally arrived in 2019. Emma Roberts is the highlighted good girl protagonist Brooke Thompson, a switch up from her previous mean girl character Madison Montgomery in seasons three and eight. She’s a new counselor for Camp Redwood accompanied by four friends, two of which are played by frequent AHS actors Billie Lourd and Cody Fern. For this season, picture Friday the 13th for premise and atmosphere, mixed in with real serial killer Richard Ramirez and ghosts of everyone who dies on campgrounds. With a strong build-up and premise, the season had a lot of potential — and is still rather enjoyable — though with at least three established antagonists, plus all the revenge-seeking ghosts, episodes nearing the end start to lose focus. Nevertheless, emulating the somewhat ridiculousness of the 80s slasher (and tons of sequels following suit), this season is meant to be cheesy and compared to others on this list, it feels the most fitting for a center stage on comedy. 1984 makes for a great nine-episode season to binge-watch with some friends over a chill October weekend, combining slasher tropes with AHS’ typical twists. A little predictable at times and a satire on the genre, the ninth season is sure to bring more laughs than screams.
9.) Apocalypse – Season 8
Connecting season one’s Murder House and season three’s Coven (and a little bit of season five’s Hotel) was genius and showed a lot of promise. The crossover has actors reprising some of their famed AHS roles while simultaneously playing new ones. There’s a lot of juggling between the cast and respective characters, the different avenues of stories, and multiple settings. The theme of Apocalypse can have a lot of ideas going for it and could’ve played out in so many ways on screen, but its individuality got lost in crossover familiarity. So because a lot of the key players are known to returning viewers, that takes away a lot of the mysterious suspense that aids the horror genre. Cody Fern is definitely the highlight of this season as the literal Antichrist, AKA Michael Langdon, whose Satanism is the inevitable downfall of the world, which the Coven witches try to undo. The season is enjoyable to watch in a camp way (as with all AHS) and many of the actors provide a lot of comedic relief, like Emma Roberts’ return as witch Madison Montgomery or Evan Peters’ Mr. Gallant. The dark humor and campiness of it all add to the feel of fantasy horror that this season brings, though the word horror is used lightly. On the audience’s part, there’s a lot of thinking involved with all the plots happening that overshadows much of the thrills it was going for.
8.) Coven – Season 3
If this was an overall ranking of the seasons, Coven would be at the top of the list. With characters, story, and just about everything in between, the third season is a standout, except in horror aspects. The actresses this season, both returning and new, give stellar performances in their coven of witches. AHS keeps up its implementation of the supernatural element, but when it comes to witches and the strong personalities of each woman, it makes for an entertaining drama that’s not actually all that scary. In fact, the interactions and charisma with one another, added with the occasional level of absurdity — though to be fair, AHS in general is very camp — contributes to the humor effect the show produces. There may be demons and bloodletting here, but Coven mainly explores the witches’ relationships with each other and the power dynamic struggles, making it weak in terms of scares. It finds itself most disturbing in flashback scenes of more historical times, with some gore, and tons of freakiness going on, but any creepiness is ultimately outweighed. Regardless, it’s an overall compelling season to indulge in.
7.) Double Feature – Season 10
Double Feature is the only season split into two stories: the first called “Red Tide,” taking place in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and the second called “Death Valley.” The first part really has great elements of atmospheric horror and mystery about the desolate beach town. There’s great tension upon the arrival of newcomers, the Gardner family, who instantly start experiencing creepy occurrences from the town’s weird occupants. Everything about living in a ghost town of a new location is haunting here, and the actors of its inhabitants really bring that edge to life, amidst the vampire-like freaks and magic creative pills. While this half has something special going in terms of hair-raising moments, it’s fully cut short with the slap in the face of aliens with “Death Valley,” which is more comedic than anything. The story is told only in four out of 10 episodes, showing in black and white 1950s and 60s presidents (mainly Eisenhower) dealing with alien abductions. That story is paralleled with present-day students and their experience with alien experimentation after traveling out to the same desert. A lot of part two is cheesy and brings down the season as a whole when it comes to scares. There are human-alien hybrid babies in this one and includes men getting pregnant, which is nothing short of bizarre and head-scratching. What really hurts this season are the shortened versions of the stories, particularly “Red Tide” which could’ve done with more episodes for a fleshed-out portrayal. They had a good premise going, but the complete shift to the balance of past vs. present set in the desert felt off-putting to the pacing, a full 180.
6.) Murder House – Season 1
The early seasons of AHS are arguably the best in terms of characters and storylines, and you can’t get more quintessential than its debut with Murder House. An element that makes horror so scary is how much it’s based on reality and how that’s reflective of the audience’s real life. Much of this season is instead more fictionally scary, a key feature being the haunted house and its accompanying ghosts that have built up over the years. Honestly, it’s still the nightmare of any unsuspecting family wishing for a fresh start with a move into a new house, the thought popularized by countless horrors depicting supernatural possessions. What feels more real in this season is the crumbling Harmon family — wife and mother Vivien (Connie Britton), psychiatrist husband and father Ben (Dylan McDermott), and teen daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) — riddled by adultery, a miscarriage, and as the season unfolds, the newfound house ghosts. Every character in Murder House really has a purposeful role to play in the telling of a gripping dramatic story. There are a bunch of jump scares here, but memorable moments like Tate (Evan Peters) showing up to school with a gun and the scenes that follow really sell the horror impact of this season. The first season isn’t all that scary at the end of the day, but it’s emotional and tense with lots of shock value.
5.) Hotel – Season 5
While all of AHS seasons involve some amount of gore, Hotel is probably its best contender when it comes to amped-up levels. For this season, think of the hauntings and ghosts similar to season one’s Murder House, only now set on a larger scale in a hotel. What makes this setup truly horrifying is the context of the real-life Los Angeles location it’s based on, the Cecil Hotel. It was the spot of the infamous and mysterious Elisa Lam disappearance, who was later found dead in the rooftop water tank. There’s more to the Cecil’s dark history that the show’s counterpart Hotel Cortez tries to recreate in its own rendition of spirits, vampires, and killers alike wandering the halls. Another real-life inspiration was those of infamous serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, John Wayne Gacy, the Night Stalker, and the Zodiac Killer, who make their “appearance” this season alongside the show’s fictionalized Ten Commandments Killer and the highlighted violence of founder James March (Evan Peters). Any time an instance of true crime is brought into the picture, the horrors of realism enter, and the season balances these types of scares well with surrealism. This was the first season with veteran actresses Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy, so Lady Gaga’s lead role as the resident vampire Countess had a lot to live up to, and it surely met expectations. Gaga and Peters, as well as a slew of talented supporting actors, effectively brought drama and thrills to the hotel’s halls.
4.) Roanoke – Season 6
As a fake paranormal documentary style fit with sit-down interviews and dramatic reenactments, Roanoke has a different feel from the other seasons. The idea was inspired by the 16th-century real-life mystery disappearance of the Roanoke colony in North Carolina. The story follows a married couple’s relocation to the area as strange events start happening in their new home, and later the season presents itself as found footage from the haunted production. It’s every new home buyer’s worst nightmare, and the crossover with actual American history speculation places an emphasis on the show’s titular name. It really delves into that imagination aspect of ‘What’s really happening and hiding here?’ which can be a scary answer to unfold. There’s a lot of eeriness mixed with some melancholic moments during the beginning of the season, certainly setting up the tone of dread. Roanoke was a pretty fresh take for the series and it paid off as it’s one of the more disturbing ones. While the presentation of a documentary should seem scary because of the realism, it oddly takes the viewer out of the authenticity of the scares. Season six takes to the likes of ghost-haunting TV shows and The Blair Witch Project film. That’s why the more present-day times of the season’s second half make that part way scarier than the first. There are tons of jump scares here, some cheap but overall effective. The season isn’t the strongest in terms of plot, but it’s very grotesque and strikes plenty of nightmares, adding a strong contender of genuine fear-worthy moments.
3.) Freak Show – Season 4
In moments of reflecting on the fourth season — and honestly, maybe the whole series — a constant returning thought is the face of Freak Show’s deformed killer clown Twisty (John Carroll Lynch). With fears of clowns, you might run for the hills on this one, but in terms of overall scares, the season is not all too bad. A lot of AHS involves gore, and this one is no exception, so if that’s something that gets you, you may also want to look away. Additionally, amidst all the “freaks” of the “show,” this season brought perhaps one of the scariest of the series: Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). Rivaling Twisty the Clown, Dandy is a rich 20-something-year-old brat with homicidal tendencies — the true American horror. Twisty instantly grabs you in (or scares you off) with his visual looks and mysterious silence, but Dandy is more hidden in plain sight terror. His violent outbursts are similar to those of a child’s temper tantrums, formed by the confines of his home life and relationship with his mother Gloria (Frances Conroy), making him wildly unpredictable. Freak Show dwindles in traction a bit, but plenty of moments are enough to get under your skin and still hold this season up as one of the better ones.
2.) Asylum – Season 2
The show’s sophomore season had much to live up to after Murder House, and Asylum surely knocks it out of the park. This season has everything: a highly religious mental institution, alien abductions, and a serial killer. All of this and everything in between might seem like it would get muddled, but it’s interwoven perfectly into a chilling story with spectacular performances — particularly from Jessica Lange as Sister Jude and Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice. Returning actors completely transformed from their roles, like Evan Peters going from crazy Tate Langdon to a protagonist the viewer can root for like Asylum’s kind innocent Kit Walker, truly setting in that anthology precedent. The setting of the looming 1960s Briarcliff Manor, housing both the criminally insane and patients who are unjustly institutionalized, is the perfect landscape for scares. There’s plenty of unsettling treatments going around the hospital that often bear the likes of torture. When journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) makes it her mission to investigate and expose their practices, it’s a touch of reality that makes the audience painstakingly worry about the inevitability of the character as she goes undercover as a patient. This psychological thriller will mess with your mind in a visually frightening way.
1.) Cult – Season 7
In the context of this 2017 release, AHS: Cult was a tumultuous time for the country following the presidential election. The story may take place in a fictional Michigan town, but the main villain Kai Anderson — one of Evan Peters best performances — feels very real. His character is someone modern-day times have seen far more frequently, which makes the creepy grossness you feel watching his madness even scarier. The authenticity adds to the horror, and this whole season feels like it was ripped out of real times. The slow unraveling of Sarah Paulson’s character Ally’s mental stability during these stressful times to the growing distrust of those around her feels relatable. Her traumas and phobias are similar experiences to many, adding further layers of realistic horror. The season really does a good job depicting the horrors of political scheming and the insincere, egotistical politician behind it, everybody’s real-world nightmare. Cult is also the show’s first time not implementing supernatural elements into the plot, showing its basis in realism certainly pays off in effectiveness. Grounded in the influence and power of cult leaders that are very real, as seen in history, Kai is the image of someone everyone knows in daily life, and that’s a terrifying thought.
You can catch all seasons of American Horror Story on Hulu and FX!