With every new season of American Horror Story, I decide to give it another chance, hoping maybe this time I’ll be able to make it through whatever convoluted tale Ryan Murphy’s long-running FX series has in store. But despite my waning interest by the end of each year, I persevere because ultimately, American Horror Story is an inviting mess that’s a ton of fun. And credit where credit’s due, the series is groundbreaking, bringing horror to a larger audience than ever before and employing a compelling anthology format. From murderous clowns to vampire-filled hotels, American Horror Story has tried it all.
While we wait for American Horror Story: Double Feature, let’s break down a quick ranking of the series’ first nine seasons (which are currently streaming on Hulu, Netflix, and Amazon Prime).
All corners of the media were trying to reckon with the election of President Trump in 2017, and that’s the through-line of AHS’s most political season, Cult. This season is ill-conceived at best and tacky and boring at worst. I can’t say I made it through more than a few episodes of Cult, and when Episode 1 featured Evan Peters smearing pulverized Cheeto dust on his face, I knew this season just wasn’t for me. One thing’s for sure: Ryan Murphy has never been known for his subtlety.
Yet another ghost story, Roanoke is simply fine. It follows a couple moving into a haunted house in North Carolina, who recount their experiences with the Roanoke ghosts to a documentary crew. Their story is later turned into a reenactment film, starring Sarah Paulson’s character. If you had any doubts about the season, Paulson recently described “feeling trapped” by her contractural agreements to participate in this season of AHS. While not a terrible season of television, it’s not nearly as fun as the others and takes far fewer risks.
Receiving the show’s most mixed reviews at the time, Hotel was indeed a mixed bag, but at least it introduced us to Lady Gaga’s The Countess, a glamorous vampire living in the Cortez Hotel. Taking inspiration from the real Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles, where numerous people have died, Hotel is an intense and dark season featuring a few too many real killers, including The Night Stalker Richard Ramirez (also a key player in 1984), John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos, and Jeffery Dahmer all in an episode titled “Devil’s Night.” Indicative of my problems with AHS as a whole, this season falls apart trying to trace too many stories. It’s a visually beautiful season but is all style with no substance—and certainly no real scares.
The last season to feature Jessica Lange in a primary role, Freak Show was a turning point for American Horror Story. Taking place in the early 1950s, Freak Show follows Elsa (Lange) and her traveling circus show, and inappropriately equates disability with horror at times. Taking clear inspiration from the 1932 film Freaks, disabled actors joined the cast, including Rose Siggins, Jyoti Amge, and Mat Fraser. The season received mixed reviews and was controversial in terms of its representation, with disabled writers coming out both in support of and against the season. Alongside the circus, this season also featured one of AHS’s most iconic foes, Twisty the Clown, a brutal performer with a penchant for violence.
Taking place at a summer camp and openly basing itself on a litany of horror tropes, 1984 is a messy, chaotic season that—in true AHS fashion—bites off more than it can chew. Like most seasons, it loses its focus by the final few episodes, but the slasher scares will excite any fans of classic horror movies like Sleepaway Camp and Friday the 13th. Joining the recurring cast in Season 7, Billie Lourd’s role as Montana in 1984 is a proudly horny, coked-up maniac—and the season highlight.
One of the series’ best recurring actors, Sarah Paulson is always a high point in every season of AHS, and Season 3’s Cordelia is one of her best roles. Leading a coven of witches based in New Orleans, Cordelia is a sweet-natured mother figure to a group of young, lost girls all searching for a sense of connection in one another. In addition to Cordelia and the rest of her Coven, Lily Rabe’s Misty Day, Angela Bassett as Voodoo queen Marie Laveau, and a cameo from real-life-witch Stevie Nicks make this season a celebration of female power. (Side note: it also gifted us with this endlessly quotable meme.)
This might be this list’s hottest take, but I find Apocalypse one of the more fun and engaging seasons of American Horror Story. After years of promising to connect the previous seven seasons, Apocalypse finally brought together some of AHS’s most iconic characters and histories. When the Antichrist birthed in Murder House incites a nuclear war and only a handful of survivors remain, it’s up to Cordelia and the other witches from Coven to stop him. Silly and campy, this season is less horrific than others, but ultimately, that works in its favor by providing fans with fun inter-season connections instead of chill-inducing scares.
Asylum is absolutely off the rails—and I mean that as a compliment for the most part. Jessica Lange leads the season as Sister Jude, a stifling and controlling nun tasked with running Briarcliff Manor, a horrific institution housing a range of “criminally insane” patients. Bouncing between the present-day investigations into what occurred at the facility and the ‘60s when it was still actively accepting patients, Asylum features AHS’s most classic scares, including serial killer Bloody Face and James Cromwell’s chilling Dr. Arden. Asylum also emphasizes Murphy’s willingness to take things to the extreme in bizarre ways that don’t always work out but are daring and (usually) entertaining regardless.
The one that started it all. Introducing us to Tate and Constance Langdon, Violet Harmon, and just a whole lotta ghosts, Murder House is American Horror Story at its best. More than just a haunted house, this season explores decades of trauma all set in the gorgeous Los Angeles home with a vivid history of bloodshed. This show started off with a bang and the terrifying (and sometimes heartbreaking) highs reached in this season have yet to be eclipsed by any of the subsequent eight seasons.
Kristen Reid is a culture writer and TV intern for Paste Magazine. She’s been known to spend too much time rewatching her favorite sitcoms, yelling at her friends to watch more TV, and falling in love with fictional characters. You can follow her on Twitter @kreidd for late-night thoughts on whatever she’s bingeing now.
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