All of the American Horror Story Seasons, Ranked

Ranking the first 9 seasons and the spin-off, American Horror Stories

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20th Television / FX

Ryan Murphy has been lauded as the most powerful man in all of television, thanks in part to his work on genre-sampling series like Glee and Pose. Although he’s often praised for his more cheerful works, Murphy’s forays into horror have been laudable as well. The debut of American Horror Story in 2011 may retroactively represent a huge shift not only in the horror genre, but in TV storytelling itself: the anthology format—in which each season tells a self-contained story, using a core group of actors playing different roles each time—is starkly different from the serialized format we’re more used to on the small screen.

Now in its 10th season, AHS is currently switching up its normal formula by telling two stories at once. The first few episodes of American Horror Story: Double Feature started with a narrative titled “Red Tide” and will somehow transition into a second tale, titled “Death Valley.” The extent to which these narratives are intertwined will only be unravelled as the show progresses.

But even for AHS mega-fans, the show’s run has been a real uneven ride. Because each season introduces a whole new cast of characters and entirely different aesthetics, it’s fun to compare and contrast the quality across the board. While we don’t quite know yet where “Double Feature” will land, here’s our definitive list of American Horror Story seasons, ranked.

Warning: Spoilers throughout!

10. Hotel

Although gagged by the stunt-casting of Lady Gaga as some kind of art deco vampire queen, AHS fans were largely let down by this totally incoherent season. Matt Bomer’s dreadfully bad acting alongside the notorious pop singer really degraded the whole show—even Chloe Sevigny and Kathy Bates couldn’t save them. But the performances weren’t nearly as large of a problem as the plot itself: ghosts that become social media influencers, excessive and gratuitous rape scenes, and bizarre flashbacks to serial killers of yesteryear made for an abundance of storylines that barely resolved and never really made sense anyway. And how dare they kill off Gabourey Sidibe so heartlessly? Hotel’s only saving grace was the set design, which was equal parts post-modern nightclub and haunted speakeasy. Otherwise, let housekeeping take this iteration away with the rest of the trash. 

Ostensibly, the fifth season of AHS told the story of the Cortez Hotel, a highly haunted establishment designed by a mad psychopath. Guests inevitably disappeared under mysterious circumstances—and those who did survive were met with encounters from perverted demons, undead junkies, and a plethora of other sociopathic phantoms. It’s possible that all the specters, spooks and succubi metaphorically represented the power of addiction, but whatever symbolism was attempted wound up totally impossible to follow, as it was drowned out by the sound of numerous nauseating and unnecessary scenes of sexual violence. This was quite obviously the series’ weakest season—and only the staunchest of Gaga stans could disagree.

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9. 1984

1984 was nowhere near as awful as Hotel, but there’s a reason most summer camp slasher movies are only an hour and a half. Stretching out a classic horror set-up over almost 10 hours meant that it was easy to get very tired of the premise, and by episode 5, audiences were ready for something else. Weird, Satanic sub-plots provided a few fun twists, but simply couldn’t save the premise from becoming a bit stale. The acting was fine throughout the season (Cody Fern and Angelica Ross were unsurprisingly wonderful standouts) and the setting was fun enough, but no amount of bloodshed could save this retro fantasy. That 80s synthwave remix of the original theme song is still a bop, though.

1984 starts off as a by-the-book, Final Girl-type situation, but Murphy lays on sub-plot after sub-plot in his idiosyncratic more-is-more approach. Mr. Jingles, Murphy’s Jason Vorhees analogue, starts as the Big Bad but winds up in a supernatural battle with real life serial killer Richard Ramirez, who has been brought back from the dead by Satan himself. If it sounds silly, that’s because it is. The season’s final episodes flash forward to a music festival on the haunted campgrounds many years later, oddly leaving behind the year 1984 entirely. It’s easily the stupidest season of the show, but at least it never was trying to be anything else.

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8. Cult

Evan Peters as a manosphere cult leader raising an army of right-wing misogynists bent on national takeover was perhaps the series’ most frightening sub-plot, reflecting an ever growing fear amongst liberals in the United States who saw the election of Donald Trump as the harbinger of an anti-feminst future. In fact, certain scenes in Cult actually had to be edited out after events in the show started uncannily resembling real world crimes: the 2017 Las Vegas shooting occurred concurrently with the show’s run, forcing FX to cut out some more explicit shots of armed carnage. Was it prescient or just kind of sickening that Murphy seemed to understand something about our contemporary culture and the paranoia that permeates it? Either way, Sarah Paulson’s phobic protagonist was far too tedious to remain interesting—and almost every storyline seemed to fizzle out long before the finale aired. If Cult had provided a more satisfying conclusion, perhaps it’d rank higher on this list.

Although Murphy is at this point a critically adored showrunner, thanks in part to the melodrama of American Crime Story, his political takes aren’t exactly sophisticated. That’s probably why the show failed to really capitalize on its truly horrific premise: Murphy doesn’t actually have that many interesting things to say about what’s happening in America.

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7. Apocalypse

American Horror Story had at first presented itself as a series of discrete and separate stories, but after several iterations, fans began formulating theories that all the seasons were actually connected. Whether this was planned from the start or retconned into a kind of semi-coherence, we’ll never actually know, but Apocalypse attempted to tie a bunch of knots out of disparate narrative threads from earlier in the franchise. It worked—kind of—if you had been following along and paying attention since the show’s start. If you hadn’t, the whole thing’s a mess. 

Apocalypse’s first episode, which depicted a nuclear crisis, was definitely unnerving. And the proceeding madness that ensued inside a post-doomsday bunker was strange enough to keep audiences’ interest, but as the show transformed into some kind of superhero-adjacent misadventure with Coven’s witches fighting Satan, Apocalypse went from scary to just plain silly. That being said, it never stopped being fun—and returning characters from earlier seasons (including Jessica Lange!) kept things interesting. But by the time Coven’s witches were casting spells to save the world, we were firmly in Marvel Comics territory, leaving some wondering if the show had anything to do with horror anymore.

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6. Stories

American Horror Stories has a strange place in the franchise’s canonicity: although it is a distinctly separate show from American Horror Story, it also takes place in the same universe. In fact, the show’s first two-part episode (and the first season’s final episode) all take place in Murder House (the setting of AHS season 1). Each episode is its own little self-contained horror movie. They’re all extremely fun—and extremely vapid. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of self-referential horror, but the quality of the writing is so uneven that it’s hard to get attached to anything in the spin-off. The post-modern twist of the first season finale (which told the story of a video game created by an American Horror Story superfan) was a last straw for many fans, who vowed to never return to the franchise. But experimentations with the show’s sometimes formulaic structuring kept things fresh—and the new opening credit sequences for every episode were some of the show’s most clever moments.

High points of the spin-off included Danny Trejo as a murderous Santa Claus (has Trejo ever done anything wrong?) and the BDSM-inflected psychodrama of teenage lesbian lovers in the second part of the opener. But an episode about feral monsters hiding in America’s national parks was an obvious weak spot. That being said, at least every little narrative had a fun ending that actually came to a real conclusion; Murphy sometimes can’t accomplish that when given 10 or more episodes to tell a story.

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5. Roanoke

Roanoke is often thought of by fans as the show’s least beloved season—even Sarah Paulson said she regretted signing on for this misadventure. While Roanoke probably didn’t need a full 10 episodes, the mystery that shrouded the season before its debut kept excitement high following the disappointments of Hotel

Roanoke starts as a faux-documentary about a couple moving into a haunted house in North Carolina. Spectral hijinks ensue as ghosts from another era swarm the young family, wreaking havoc and sparking violence. Things seemed like a pretty standard AHS season, until in episode 6 it is revealed that what we were watching was in fact a dramatic reenactment and that My Roanoke Nightmare was actually a show-within-a-show. It was a pretty clever post-modern twist that wasn’t exactly easy to see coming: but the plot really amped up when a reality TV producer brings back the haunted house’s victims to live with the actors who played them inside the phantom-infested territory once again. 

The cast list for this under-appreciated season is shockingly impressive, Lady Gaga returned for a small role as a forest witch, alongside Cuba Gooding Jr., Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates. To see such esteemed thespians taking a horror series seriously is a joy for genre die-hards.

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4. Freak Show

Jessica Lange’s grand farewell to the series that re-invigorated her career gave her the acting opportunity of a lifetime. Playing Elsa Mars, the ringleader at a travelling circus filled with society’s rejects, Lange performed some stunningly strange musical numbers against a season filled with emotional pathos and plenty of ultra-violence. The set and costume designs are absolutely beautiful throughout—including the season’s deeply nightmarish, stop-motion opening credits sequence.

Lange brought a surprising amount of emotion to a role that easily could have been dismissed as camp trash. Episode 10, which explores the history of the character Pepper (a microcephalic played semi-silently by the uber-talented Naomi Grossman), is one of the series’ strongest and almost functions as a stand alone short story that explores the vicious ostracization faced by the disabled. It’s a breathtakingly emotional moment in a show that often prioritizes shock, awe and excess. 

On the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum is Dandy Mott (played by the disturbingly handsome Finn Wittrock), an emotionally infantile, hyper-wealthy man-child who develops a taste for murder. Wittrock doesn’t exactly give the character emotional depth, but he’s absolutely frightening nonetheless.

Freak Show suffers from the same problems that plague the franchise as a whole: too many stories going on at once and almost nothing gets resolved. But there was a heart to this iteration that later seasons lacked.

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3. Coven

Surprise, bitch. Despite being a fan-favorite, Coven comes in at #3 on our list. Coven marked a major tonal shift for American Horror Story; the previous two seasons of which had been absurdly bloody gothic thrillers. Suddenly the show was filled with fashionable teenagers casting spells in a demented Hogwarts in New Orleans. Coven was just as sanguine as the seasons before it, but deadpan humor and over-the-top melodrama defined its aesthetic more than gore. 

Emma Roberts was the surprise hit of Coven, playing the pyrokinetic Madison Montgomery, a spoiled brat attempting a magical coup after being recruited into a sisterhood of witches. Jessica Lange played the occultic coterie’s leader, delivering delightfully haughty bitchiness in every episode. Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates made their AHS debuts here as well, both lending an unexpected esteem to a seemingly frivolous project.

While it may lack maturity and depth, Coven was filled with hilarious one-liners, iconic characters, and a darkly whimsical storyline that seemed like a great entrypoint into a rather interesting fantasy world with its own rules and logic. Tailor made for diva-worship, this season charted a new direction for the show.

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2. Asylum

After season one of AHS achieved instant cult success, it seemed almost impossible to recapture the magic of Murder House. Murphy came pretty close with Asylum, which moved the setting from suburban Los Angeles to rural Massachusetts. And while Murder House explored the terror of a nuclear family’s implosion, Asylum had a much more gut wrenching message: when fictional journalist Lana Winters is condemned to the eponymous psychiatric hospital as her lesbianism is discovered by authorities, she becomes a victim of inhumane tortures at the hands of sadistic nuns and doctors; the entire show was actually a highly dramatized history lesson on the hideous treatment of both homosexuals and the mentally ill in America’s past.

Of course, it was a bit hard to see the season’s heartfelt political message amidst a million other sub-plots including side stories about a demon possessed nun, an escaped Nazi scientist, and more than one alien abduction. Nonetheless, even the most bonkers plot points were executed with excellence: Lily Rabe, Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, and especially Jessica Lange performed extraordinarily in roles that might have seemed totally insane on paper. Lange as the cruel Sister Jude was at first comically villainous but her face turn in the show’s final episodes is jaw-droppingly moving. Even the season’s occasional musical numbers were somehow oddly magical.

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1. Murder House

Part of what made Murder House so shocking was how absolutely fresh it was when it aired in 2011: a horror TV series had rarely been attempted previously—especially one so psycho-dramatic and downright bloody. The editing style of Murder House was wholly original in its quick, frenetic pacing and the storytelling was Taratino-esque in its hyper-stylization. The visuals were often hypnotic, and intertextual references to the history of horror gave cute winks to cinephiles. The series at this point wasn’t aiming for camp, although the high drama story created some zany moments. Despite the occasional slip into melodrama, the plot of Murder House remains surprisingly dark in comparison to the lighter fare, PG-13 horror we more frequently see on TV these days: Murder House featured sub-plots about traumatic rapes, suicides, BDSM, and school shootings. 

Connie Britton (one of the few actresses who has never returned to AHS, oddly enough) starred as Vivien Harmon, who moves into a haunted house with her cheating husband (Dylan McDermott) and moody daughter (Taissa Farmiga). Plagued by spectral incidents—and their pesky neighbor, Jessica Lange—the family undergoes a series of supernatural tortures leading to their deaths. As their souls become trapped in the house, Vivien realizes she’s pregnant with something from another world. Evan Peters is a real standout playing Tate, an endearingly Jokerfied teen who stalks the Harmon family in their own home. 

Maybe saying the first season was the best is the lazy equivalent of music reviewers claiming a band’s first album was their true masterpiece, but Murder House remains both the scariest and most interesting the show has ever been.

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