If there's one show that has had its fair share of ups and downs, it's American Horror Story. There's no denying the show has earned great acclaim in the past, consistently being nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes left and right. Its continuing success is also apparent through its subsequent spin-off series, American Horror Stories, currently streaming on Hulu.
Every American Horror Story Season Ranked
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.
Coming off the success of the earlier four seasons of AHS, all of which had won notable acclaim from critics and praise from fans, AHS was a juggernaut, redefining and reshaping the horror anthology series in a way nobody had really seen before. Because of the past four seasons’ earlier success, Hotel had a lot to live up to.
However, with the departure of star Jessica Lange — who could arguably be called the closest thing to a “star” the show had, given her prominent roles in the first four seasons — after Freak Show, Hotel was 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 the weight in terms of acting for this season.
The overall storyline for Hotel's was also somewhat less than thrilling compared 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 was all right, but failed to catch audiences’ full attention the way witches had in Coven or ghosts had in Murder House.
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 was an interesting direction for the show to turn, especially for interweaving several real-life cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh, Marshall Applewhite, and Charles Manson into the show.
Additionally, the series did also boast some strong performances from Paulson and Evan Peters, who have frankly been carrying AHS since Lange’s departure — although the two did demonstrate (along with some of Cult’s cast) some of the most over-the-top acting that has ever been seen on AHS, evident from the season’s opening scene alone.
Given its subject matter, Cult also became a little too hung-up on true crime rather than an abundance of supernatural horror that made Murder House, Asylum, and Coven so good in the first place, leaving Cult to feel more like a crime thriller series than a straight horror show in the same vein as the first three seasons.
AHS tried hard 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 was running rampant throughout the summer, 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 huge cast of characters playing actors 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 being composed of “found footage” — left viewers somewhat confused. In the end, whether you like Roanoke or dislike it, as unique as the approach was, it may be fair to say this season was more about style than it was about substance.
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. From its past homages and carefully chosen settings, you'd think an '80s slasher would be right up AHS‘s alley. Unfortunately, 1984‘s choice to spoof slashers seemed a little too obvious, slashers being low-hanging fruit at this point in the horror genre, 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 greatly 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.
In all honesty, Freak Show might have been the beginning of the end for AHS. Not that the later seasons weren't any good, they just weren't up to par with the earlier three seasons, in our opinion. Freak Show itself was an enjoyable season, with the entire concept of the 1950s' carnival and “freak show” life a great choice for the show to explore. The season, though, was mired by somewhat boring storylines, with the only true notable story that caught everyone’s interest — “Twisty,” the tragic clown turned psychotic killer — ending after the midseason point and being replaced by plots that never really captured anybody’s attention.
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 itself to crime thrillers than it does to horror.
However, that is a fault we personally attribute to the show's initial seasons — most especially the frankly overstuffed Asylum. 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.
Crossovers are a staple of modern movies and TV shows. Just like superheroes going head to head in the MCU and DCEU and the continuing easter eggs establishing that the stories of AHS all took place in a shared universe, 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 directly into one huge season.
On paper, the idea sounds great, and Apocalypse more than delivered on the promising concept. It was an ambitious move by Murphy, and ultimately worked out incredibly well, delivering a thoroughly satisfying season with 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‘s first season helped establish the series as one of the new, exciting shows on FX. Earning consistently high ratings and notable acclaim from critics (it also earned nominations for a Golden Globe and over a dozen Emmys), Murder House was 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 than a “Wow, that was amazing” conclusion.
If Murder House was responsible for establishing 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 brilliantly complemented one another. As impressive as this season was, like Murder House before it, Asylum did a fantastic job of developing its plot and the various mystery elements the show introduces, only to deliver a somewhat disappointing ending.
It also introduces 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 and overpacked, resulting 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) proving that sometimes less might be better than more.
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 unbelievably.
Featuring by far 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.
While an argument can be made 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, easily the show's best season hands down.
If you were to look for a horror anthology series that offered plenty of scares, crossover characters, strong performances, and wonderful homages to pretty much every facet of horror there is (including ghosts, witches, vampires, zombies, serial killers, cults, and demons), you'd be hard-pressed to find a better show than American Horror Story.
Throughout its nine (soon to be 10) season run, AHS has offered great contributions not just to the horror genre, but to current television programming in general, offering a continuously fresh take on the traditional horror series that few shows rival.
American Horror Story: Double Feature is currently streaming on Hulu, with new episodes weekly on FX. Every season of American Horror Story can be found streaming on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime Video.