8. American Horror Story: Freak Show
Last and certainly least, is Freak Show. It’s not that the fourth season was without its pros—the villains were truly terrifying, and we’ll never complain about a surprise reappearance from Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe). But the rest of the season was misstep after misstep after misstep.
Related: The Murder of Lobster Boy
A strong season opener introduces us to Bette and Dot (Sarah Paulson), a pair of conjoined twins with nowhere to go in the wake of their mother’s murder. Their deformity unfairly lands them on the suspect list, but it also earns them a spot in Elsa Mars’ (played by Jessica Lange) 1950s carnival. Elsa is convinced Bette and Dot will revive her failing show and bring her the stardom for which she’s longed. But although the twins, “Lobster Boy” (Evan Peters), and his bearded mother (Kathy Bates) make a formidable lineup, their only fan seems to be the psychopathic Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock). Dandy loves Elsa’s “freaks” almost as much as he loves Twisty the Clown, who launches a bloody rampage across the area. As drama breaks out within the troupe, and they’re blamed for the recurring violence, Dandy begins taking cues from his creepy idol...The results, though sometimes scary, are mostly dull and exhausting. Even musical numbers from Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange couldn’t save this one.
7. American Horror Story: Hotel
Sure, Lady Gaga knocked it out of the park as the blood-consuming Countess. And sure, portrayals of real-life serial killers like Richard Ramirez, John Wayne Gacy, and Aileen Wuornos tickled our inner true crime junkies. But on the heels of a disappointing fourth season, Hotel made us wonder if our once-favorite show had officially lost its way.
The namesake hotel is basically a revolving door for the villains and outsiders of Los Angeles, both alive and dead. This includes several recognizable serial killers, all of whom gather for an eventful Devil’s Night dinner. Vampires are also among Hotel Cortez’s frequent guests (portrayed by Lady Gaga, Matt Bomer, and Finn Wittrock) as is a scene-stealing Elizabeth Taylor in drag (played by Denis O’Hare). There’s also lots of blood—and we mean lots of it—combined with weird sex stuff we’d rather not think about.
But of all the things the fifth season does have, it lacks entirely in depth and focus. More than that, Hotel took the show’s unique approach to storytelling one step too far—as if it was a competition among the creators: What else could we do to shock viewers? How much could we get away with? Well, they certainly shocked us, but we’re not sure they got away with it.
6. American Horror Story: Cult
Cult is a tough season to rank because, on the one hand, we can appreciate what Murphy was trying to do here. On the other hand, it was often kinda... boring.
The season opens on election night 2016, and the reactions to Donald Trump’s newly-won presidency vary. Sarah Paulson’s character, Ally—a lesbian wife and mother who voted for Jill Stein—shrieks in horror. His victory exacerbates the crippling anxiety she experiences every day, including a phobia of clowns. Meanwhile, the deranged Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) is overjoyed at the announcement of Trump as the 45th U.S. President. He now has the perfect opportunity to prey upon people’s fears, unleash his cult of murderous clowns, and persuade others to join in his ranks.
There was a lot to love in season seven: The clowns were scary, the satirical humor was on-point, and Ally’s eventual empowerment gave us some Lana Winters-style #feels. But there was something about Cult that didn’t fully come together for us, earning it the sixth spot on our list.
5. American Horror Story: Apocalypse
When we learned Apocolypse was a crossover season between Coven and Murder House, we counted down the days until its premiere. But while we enjoyed the return of OG characters like Vivan Harmon (Connie Britton) and Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange), the final product didn’t live up to the hype.
After nuclear bombs lay waste to the world, a shadowy organization called “The Cooperative” offers salvation to survivors—but only if they meet certain genetic requirements. By the whims of fate, billionaire Coco St. Pieree Vanderbilt (Leslie Grossman), her assistant (Billie Lourde), her hairdresser (Evan Peters), and her hairdresser’s grandmother (Jacki Weaver) find themselves taken in by one of the Cooperative’s outposts. Far from the haven they expect it to be, Outpost #3 is a miserable prison led by the power-drunk Ms. Wilhemina Venable and Ms. Miriam Mead (Sarah Paulson and Kathy Bates). But much to Venable and Mead’s frustration, both women must defer to Cooperative agent Michael Langdon (Cody Fern), a man who decides who among them lives and dies. Chaos, death, and the return of Rubber Man ensue—until Coven’s witches are all, “Surprise b*tch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of us,” and try to save the day.
We really enjoyed venturing back to the Murder House ‘verse to learn more about Michael Langdon’s origins. But even with these fun surprises, Apocalypse’s jam-packed episodes were often headaches we didn’t feel like suffering through every week.
4. American Horror Story: Coven
Throw in some witches, and we’re on board. So it’s not surprising that American Horror Story: Coven ranks pretty highly on our list—we’ll always love Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) crying, “Balenciaga!” in her final moments.
Set in New Orleans, this season sees Supreme Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and her daughter (Sarah Paulson) guide a group of wayward witches at Miss Robichaux’s Academy (Taissa Farmiga, Emma Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe to name a few). Each girl aims to properly harness her newfound powers and to arm herself against the rising anti-witch movement. But while some students excel, others struggle to keep up, and internal strife becomes just as dangerous as the external threat of witch hunters, Voodoo Queens (Angela Bassett), and the decapitated head of a 19th-century murderess (Kathy Bates). Cue a race to become the next Supreme... much to the dismay of the reigning Supreme herself.
Bonus points go to Misty Day (Lily Rabe), whose boho-chic witch rekindled our love for Stevie Nicks. But for a season about witches, it didn’t have as many “female empowerment” vibes as we hoped for—and the glossing over of racial issues knocks this one down a peg.
3. American Horror Story: Murder House
When Murder House first premiered in 2011, there hadn’t been a show like it. It wasn’t just scary, it was unabashedly insane—Rubber Man, anyone?—in a way that made it seem revolutionary.
Murder House follows the newest owners of a haunted L.A. mansion—Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton), and their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga)—as the property’s dark history wreaks havoc on their present-day lives. Their neighbor (Jessica Lange) helps speed their downfall along, as does Violet’s otherworldly love interest, Tate (Evan Peters). Like the best seasons of AHS, Murder House gives us multi-dimensional characters we can’t help but love. Who can forget the flashbacks to Tate’s criminal past, or Violet’s crushing revelation in the tenth episode? These emotionally-charged moments proved AHS not only delivered shocks and scares, but could also tug—however briefly—at our heartstrings. That’s why Murder House is in our top three.
2. American Horror Story: Roanoke
This ranking is probably an unpopular opinion, but hear us out: After a few lackluster seasons, Roanoke felt like a return to the “realism” of Murder House while also delivering something entirely fresh. For the first time in a long time, the show used its inherent weirdness to tell a story that was fun to watch—rather than simply serving up “shock factor” entertainment.
The first half of Roanoke is styled as My Roanoke Nightmare, a documentary that chronicles the freaky goings-on of a North Carolina farmhouse. It’s a story within a story within a story: We have the real haunting victims—whom we see in direct-to-camera asides—and the actors portraying them in dramatizations. So as Lily Rabe’s Shelby tells us how she and her husband (Andre Holland) discovered their home’s murderous past and its connection to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, we get to see it all unfold through their actor counterparts (Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr., respectively). Teeth fall from the sky. Strange human sacrifices occur in the woods. Kathy Bates is more insane than ever. The first part of Roanoke has quality scares, tolerable amounts of cheesiness...
...And it gets even better in episode six. By then, years have passed and My Roanoke Nightmare has become a horror classic. Now both actor and victim must reunite at the very place that brought them fame—and still brings them terror—for a major television event. And that’s where the real fun begins! Roanoke quickly evolves into a shaky found footage film called Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell, culminating in a lot of death, quite a bit of silliness, and the return of one of our most beloved characters.
1. American Horror Story: Asylum
American Horror Story certainly didn’t suffer from a sophomore slump. Asylum was wildly different from Murder House and sealed the series as one that will always color outside the lines.
Asylum uses one of the show’s most favorite devices—a dual timeline—to jump back and forth between 2012 and the 1960s. In the present day, a couple’s exploration of an abandoned insane asylum places them in the path of a long-running killer named Bloody Face. In the past, doctors at that same asylum suspect that their newest inmate, Kit Walker (Evan Peters), is Bloody Face himself. Meanwhile, journalist Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) is also at Briarcliff Manor, hoping to expose the staff’s mistreatment of patients. But her undercover quest quickly backfires when, after clashing with homophobic nun Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), Lana becomes trapped right alongside Kit. Will she ever escape? And if Kit is innocent like he says, who is truly behind the Bloody Face murders of the 1960s and 2010s?
Asylum is a bleak season with memorable moments of unexpected levity, like and Sister Mary Eunice’s (played by Lily Rabe) rendition of “You Don’t Own Me.” But its strongest asset is Sarah Paulson who, after a minor role in Murder House, shines as the Barbara-Walters-by-way-of-Nellie-Bly investigative journalist Lana Winters. Her final showdown with Bloody Face was so satisfying, we were cheering at the TV.
Do you agree with our list? Angrily disagree? Where you do you think American Horror Story: 1984 will fit into this list? Let us know in the comment section below!
Featured still of 'American Horror Story: Asylum' via FX.