If there's one show that has had its ups and downs, it's American Horror Story. No one can deny the show has earned great acclaim in the past, earning nominations for Emmys and Golden Globes left and right. Its continuing success has spawned a spin-off series, American Horror Stories, currently streaming on Hulu.
As consistently good as AHS has been in the past, like any horror anthology series, some seasons are inevitably going to be better than others. With AHS‘s newest season, Double Feature, set to air on August 25, and with FX renewing the show for three more seasons, we thought we'd take a look back at the past nine seasons of American Horror Story, and rank them worst to best.
Although a serious case can be made for ranking any of the first three seasons as definitively “the best,” for our money, Coven earns that prestigious title. Having to follow up on the critical success of Asylum and Murder House was no doubt going to be difficult, but Coven pulled it off.
Featuring the best cast the show has ever had, including fantastic newcomers like Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, and Emma Roberts, Coven did a wonderful job taking advantage of the dark history of its setting (New Orleans) and mixing in such supernatural elements as witches, voodoo practitioners, centuries-old witch-hunting guilds, resurrected ax murderers based on real-life serial killers, and Stevie Nicks.
Detractors can argue that Coven’s main storyline, like Murder House and Asylum, went out more with a whimper than it did with a bang, Coven still has arguably the most satisfying ending out of the first few seasons of AHS. It's an endlessly entertaining entry in the American Horror Story canon, and, in our opinion, the show's best season.
If Murder House established AHS as one of the best new series to watch, Asylum helped cement the series place as one of the most original horror TV shows of its time.
Featuring a fantastic cast–with particularly strong performances from Lange, Paulson, Lily Rabe, and Zachary Quinto — Asylum was full of terrifying horror themes and several interlocked storylines that all complemented one another. Like Murder House before it, Asylum did a fantastic job of developing its plot and the various mystery elements, only to deliver a somewhat disappointing ending.
It also features way too many horror elements for its own good, such as its inclusion of aliens, serial killers, mad science experiments/zombies, biblical figures, demons, and so on. Simply put, Asylum just had too much crammed into one season, leading it to feel somewhat bloated. That overpacking resulted in dissatisfying conclusions to some of these plotlines (such as Kit's storyline with the aliens, Dr. Arden's genetic experiments, and even Sister Mary Eunice's possession), demonstrating that sometimes less might be better than more.
3. Murder House
AHS‘s first season helped establish the series as one of the new, exciting shows on FX. Earning high ratings and notable acclaim from critics (it also earned nominations for a Golden Globe and over a dozen Emmys), Murder House told a horror story unlike anything else on TV. Dark, twisted, and depressing, Murder House interweaved the story of a broken family who learns to grow close, namely through coping with shared trauma and coming to terms with their problems, while staying in the haunted mansion they've just moved into.
As it would for the next few seasons, Murder House featured an incredibly strong cast, and its engaging storyline and air of mystery helped differentiate AHS from other horror series at the time. However well Murder House developed the central mysteries and initial storylines in the first half of the season, though, the show somewhat fizzled out after the midseason point, coming to an “okay” ending rather than a “Wow, that was amazing” conclusion.
4. Freak Show
In all honesty, Freak Show might have been the beginning of the end for AHS. Freak Show itself had plenty to enjoy, with the entire concept of the 1950s' carnival and “freak show” life a great choice for the show to explore. On the other hand, boring storylines mired the season, with the only true notable story that caught everyone’s interest — “Twisty,” the tragic clown turned psychotic killer — ending after the midseason point.
Though it featured a fantastic cast delivering decent performances, Freak Show had some of the weakest characters the main actors played throughout the initial four seasons. The supernatural elements of horror were also notably dialed back in Freak Show compared to the earlier seasons, focusing more on plot-based murders and manipulations among the main characters. That more closely aligns the season to crime thrillers rather than horror.
If the showrunners had only decided to hold off on the great supernatural horror elements like the zombies, demons, aliens, and biblical figures in Asylum that could’ve been included and fleshed out more in Freak Show, this season would have been much, much better.
AHS has made a name for itself by targetting preexisting horror cliches and settings and using them almost to the point of parody–the mental hospital in Asylum, the carnival in Freakshow, the mansion in Murder House, etc. Based on its past homages, an '80s slasher plot should be right up AHS‘s alley. Unfortunately, 1984‘s choice to spoof slashers seemed a little too obvious, slashers having been done to a much better degree in slasher parodies like the Scream movies and The Final Girls.
Probably looking to cash in on the current '80s nostalgia prevalent in pop culture at the moment (Stranger Things, It, the “San Junipero” episode Black Mirror, GLOW, Everybody Wants Some!!, Halt and Catch Fire), 1984 still offered an entertaining enough entry in AHS, although it also suffered from a lack of talented actors that the show has heavily relied on in the past, with notable absences from regular cast members like Evan Peters and Sarah Paulson.
6. Double Feature
Even when compared to previous seasons of AHS, Double Feature feels experimental. Divided into two succinct stories, Double Feature takes two aspects of the AHS previously touched upon in Hotel (vampires) and Asylum (aliens) and fuses them together into two entertaining narratives.
In Part 1: Red Tide, Murphy crafts a story that’s as foreboding as any other entry in AHS, relying on psychological horror, budding suspense, and a prevalent mystery resonating throughout. In Part 2: Death Valley, he accomplishes the same thing, albeit in an different manner, presenting the '50s sci-fi film in a terrifying (and entertaining) new manner. A welcome direction for the show to take, it’s a shame Murphy couldn’t capitalize on Double Feature, reverting back to another disappointing outing with his most recent NYC.
Modern movies and TV shows love crossover storylines. Just like superheroes going head to head in the MCU and DCEU, Apocalypse went all-in, pitting the witches of Coven against the Antichrist teased at the end of Murder House, thus tying two of the show's most popular seasons into one huge season.
On paper, the idea sounds great, and Apocalypse more than delivered on the promising concept. Murphy showed his ambition in the concept, which ultimately worked out well. The season used plenty of callbacks to Murder House and Coven, featuring some of the show's fan-favorite characters and the actors that embodied them, including the grand return of Jessica Lange.
AHS tried to experiment with this season and go in a completely different direction. Instead of using the standard television format and style, showrunner Ryan Murphy and team — maybe feeling they needed a “fresh start” after the lukewarm reception of Hotel — opted to go for something very unique, and boy, did they deliver.
Speculation about season six ran rampant throughout the summer leading up to release, with Murphy deciding not to reveal the show's “theme” until the first episode aired. The mystery behind the new season worked wonders in piquing fans' interest, although the eventual reception to this season was, like Hotel, mixed at best. The “documentary”-type approach taken with Roanoke was certainly very different, allowing Roanoke to utilize a vast cast of characters within the documentary (it's all very meta and somewhat hard to explain).
However, Roanoke’s somewhat all-over-the-place narrative format — with the first half of the season being a straight “documentary,” complete with interviews and reenactment footage, and the second half composed of “found footage” — left viewers somewhat confused. In the end, like Roanoke or dislike it, this season was more about style than it was about substance.
Cult wasn't a bad season, per se–like everything after Freak Show, though, it didn't quite live up to the acclaim of the four earlier seasons of AHS. Exploring the concept of cults gave the show an interesting direction, especially by interweaving several real-life cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson into the show.
The series did also boast some strong performances from Paulson and Evan Peters, who have carried AHS since Lange’s departure. The two also demonstrated (along with some of Cult’s cast) some of the most over-the-top acting ever seen on the show.
Given its subject matter, Cult also became a little too hung-up on true crime rather than the supernatural horror that made Murder House, Asylum, and Coven so good in the first place. Cult felt more like a crime thriller series than a horror show akin to the first three seasons.
Like any city, New York has its fair share of odious qualities, something that both attracts people to it and repels dozens of others. Knowing that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Murphy chose New York as the main setting for an entire season of AHS. Unfortunately, NYC falls into the same pitfalls as other, more lewd entries in AHS history, like Hotel or Cult, relying far more on style over substance.
As with those two respective seasons, NYC has plenty of style, but the finished story simply doesn't work. Next to the superior, fully realized Double Feature, NYC feels half-baked. It contains plenty of great ideas buried beneath the season’s lurid subject matter that Murphy felt the need to throw in simply to be edgy. Sadly, even though series regulars like Billie Lourd, Zachary Quinto, and Denis O’Hare try their best to hold it together, the whole season completely crumbles by the second episode.
Coming off the success of the earlier four seasons of AHS, all of which had won notable acclaim from critics and devoted fans, AHS redefined the horror anthology series in a way never seen before. Because of the past four seasons’ earlier success, Hotel had a lot to live up to.
Unfortunately, with the departure of ostensible star Jessica Lange after Freak Show, Hotel got off to a rocky start from the get-go. Lady Gaga was a nice addition to the cast, but didn't quite live up to the hole Lange had left behind, with Sarah Paulson and Denis O’Hare carrying most of show's dramatic weight.
The overall storyline for Hotel's paled in comparison to the earlier seasons, having exhausted the entire “haunted setting” the show had already relied on for Murder House. The vampire storyline that Hotel explored failed to catch audiences’ full attention the way witches had in Coven or ghosts had in Murder House.