Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology has dominated the horror genre for over a decade. AHS has had its ups and downs, but which season takes the top spot?
American Horror Story has blossomed from an obscure FX series to a full-blown franchise with 11 seasons of the main show under its belt, but some are still better than others. Created by the enigmatic Ryan Murphy, the series premiered in 2011 and has released a new season nearly every year since. The conclusion of the latest season, American Horror Story: NYC has prompted a revisit to the previous entrants, which are here ranked from worst to best.
The anthology horror series, American Horror Story is known for recycling its stellar ensemble cast into a new storyline with each season. Some seasons achieve this better than others, and while most are beloved by the fans, a few have received a mixed reception. More recent seasons have signaled a return to form, which bodes well for the further two seasons expected in the coming years. Here are all of the currently released seasons ranked from worst to best.
American Horror Story: 1984 truly suffered the loss of major, long-running cast members, with the weakest season ensemble so far. Though Billie Lourd and Emma Roberts valiantly attempted to pick up the slack, the absence of Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson was too great to overcome. The season, which was set at a summer camp akin to Camp Crystal Lake from Friday the 13th, was based on 1980s slasher movies, lifting tropes from the genre and decade. While certain aspects worked well, the style of AHS is so idiosyncratic, the workout montage sequence didn't feel like an 80s tribute, as much as it did American Horror Story in spandex.
The previous parade of beautiful men Ryan Murphy has centered shows around have at least been aptly cast. Cody Fern's Michael Langdon was compelling, but Fern was woefully miscast as the silken-haired antichrist. He is completely lacking enough semblance of the sinister to warrant an entire season dedicated to him. Where other seasons refocused attention on more successful characters, American Horror Story: Apocalypse doesn't and stays concentrated on Langdon, with its few saving graces fitted around this central performance.
The season later integrates the witches from AHS: Coven who carry the latter half of the season. AHS: Apocalypse is worth watching just to enjoy these characters returning, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to explore more Satanic themes. The season's high point is undoubtedly the return of cast alum Jessica Lange as season 1's Constance Langdon, which unfortunately is all too brief to save the meandering and divergent storylines.
Though the format of American Horror Story: Roanoke is superficially interesting, the season is let down by repeating classic elements from previous seasons. Although American Horror Story seasons are all connected, one does not expect scenes from other seasons to be rehashed. The doc-drama and reality TV format is fun but splits the narrative up too much for the season to feel cohesive. Overall, AHS: Roanoke is entertaining, but certainly not as ground-breaking as previous incarnations.
American Horror Story: Double Feature hindered its own ability to fully explore two stories. The first half felt rushed while the second half felt too drawn out. The season was aided enormously by newcomer Macaulay Culkin alongside a fine selection of cast alumni. AHS: Double Feature's ending felt somewhat rushed, but tonally the season is captivating. The return of Finn Wittrock to the main cast is also particularly enjoyable, but not enough to overcome the hurried and wasted storylines.
American Horror Story: NYC is a return to form for the series. While a far cry from the classic seasons, it is much more enjoyable than some later entrants. Billie Lourd is great, and the incorporation of real-life events is much smoother and more seamless than in other seasons. The scope of the season is quite broad, but allows for newer story avenues, avoiding the potential of repeated horrors. It also provides a much-needed LGBTQ presence in the horror genre, which Murphy is becoming synonymous with.
American Horror Story: Freak Show has possibly the strongest ending from any American Horror Story season, but this is not enough to compensate for the slightly underwhelming plot. A promising start soon unravels into a story more drama than horror. The tragic death of Meep in AHS: Freak Show is a great example of this. The season is essentially a 14-hour remake of the classic film The Freaks, which itself is featured in the season. Freak Show features the last season-long performance from Lange, and rather stale but lovable Evan Peters as Jimmy Darling, living up to his namesake. The season is much more tragic than horrifying, focussing more on the evil in humanity. And scary clowns.
A slightly misguided opening cluster of episodes hindered American Horror Story: Hotel. The inclusion of three identical dark-haired men was confusing while Lady Gaga taking on a lead role failed to compensate for the loss of Jessica Lange. Evan Peters is great as James March, based on a real-life killer, while Kathy Bates and Dennis O'Hare quite rightly become the focus of AHS: Hotel by halfway. The pair enjoy one of the most compelling dynamics to occur in American Horror Story history. It takes a while to find its feet, but overall the season is great.
Though somewhat disregarded by many fans for incorporating politics and steering away from non-human horrors, American Horror Story: Cult holds up much better than other seasons. Paulson's character is difficult to relate to initially, and if anything is quite annoying, but her triumph is surprisingly enthralling. The latter portion of the season is much more enjoyable for this reason, not to mention that Evan Peters as Andy Warhol alongside a slew of real-life cult leaders, is absolutely mesmerizing.
Often considered the fan-favorite, there is much to love about American Horror Story: Coven, particularly the iconic performances which ooze with sass and potent feminism. The season features a cast at its peak, now complete with new members Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates joining AHS: Coven's Fiona and Cordelia (played by Paulson and Lange). The season is let down by the anticlimactic ending which mercilessly disposed of its characters just to reach a conclusion. AHS: Coven also claims the first American Horror Story appearance of the late legend Leslie Jordan
The original American Horror Story is very nearly perfect and certainly the purest form of the show. Every character is so well-rounded and fleshed out that they each become beautifully tragic. The season feels less focussed than later seasons, but also less forced. It allows events to unfold gradually, to breathe, and build slowly a tone that becomes excruciating by the end. It is later confirmed that the Murder House is a portal to Hell in AHS: Apocalypse which somewhat undermines the revelation that Tate is the center of the house's evil. As per usual, Lange's performance steals the show and almost certainly led to the show's second season and continued longevity.
American Horror Story: Asylum effortlessly takes the top spot as the best season. It features the finest cast ensemble, each delivering a compelling and disturbing performance. Frances Conroy's brief cameo as the Angel of Death is sublime, while Lily Rabe as the Devil-possessed nun, Sister Mary Eunice, is dazzling enough to distract from the unnecessary alien plot. AHS: Asylum also boasts Lange in a leading role for the first time, allowing the Queen of AHS to lead the way as the terrifying and tragic Sister Jude. The design and tone of the season are perfectly balanced making for a visual feast if you manage to look away from the cast.
American Horror Story is due to continue for at least two more seasons. The latest releases have suggested a return to form, while sister-series American Horror Stories also continues to delight and terrify. The entire AHS franchise is a cultural phenomenon, that has rewritten horror television, and promises to continue to do so for years to come.
NEXT: What Happened To Theo In American Horror Story: NYC? (Is He Dead?)
Richard Craig is musician and writer from the UK. Currently studying an MA degree, his main areas of interests are film soundtracks and horror.