Exactly a decade ago, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and FX Networks debuted American Horror Story, a spooky little series that ushered in a fresh era of horror on TV while also setting the scene for the newly-defined “anthology” series. Recycling a sprawling cast of recognizable Hollywood names to play brand new characters in a brand new story every year? Groundbreaking.
At its best, AHS could be exhilarating, whether delivering on true spooks as it did in its inaugural Murder House season or gleeful camp as it did in the recent 1984. Either way, the show’s success hinges on the talent of its cast (which helped the career resurgences of industry icons like Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, and Sarah Paulson), the cleverness of its writing (so many one-liners), and the sheer bizarreness of its plotting (you want someone with a literal killer sex drive to have a threesome with two ghosts, you’ve got it). The show has wavered in quality over time but has never fully lost audience attention, still showing signs of life ten years on. So in honor of Halloween (and the currently airing Double Feature), NYLON ranked all ten seasons of the hit.
10. Freak Show (Season 4, 2014)
Fittingly, American Horror Story’s first truly disappointing season still stands out as the franchise’s worst. After three increasingly popular installments, Murphy went full crazed with Freak Show, moving his talented cast to the circus to tell what was clearly meant to be a seriously poignant story about what it means to be an “outsider” desperate to fit in. Unfortunately, its politics continue to stick out for the wrong reasons — though Murphy did right by employing disabled actors, the decision to use them in roles where their disabilities were placed on display as evidence of their “scary” “freakdom” was questionable at best.
The season started off promising enough, making cult figures out of some of its characters — especially fan-favorite Twisty The Clown and his spoiled brat of an acolyte, Dandy Mott (who benefitted from being played by Finn Wittrock, at the time Murphy’s latest hunk of the moment). (And let us not forget Jessica Lange’s instantly-iconic renditions of “Life On Mars” and “Gods And Monsters.”) But by midpoint, the show had completely gone off the rails, crushed under the weight of its multitudinous storylines. Murphy obviously wanted Freak Show to “say” something, but it failed to deliver. Sure, Evan Peters using his lobster hands to bring sexually-deprived housewives a healthy dose of orgasmic pleasure told an effective story about the mutual benefits of consensual sex work. But did we need to broach this conversation quite like this?
9. Hotel (Season 5, 2015)
The thing about Hotel is...Lady Gaga. That’s all. That’s really it. As “The Countess,” the now Oscar-nominated actress (and Oscar-winning singer) was an electrifying presence in Hotel — arguably her most high-profile television appearance since her one-scene arc in The Sopranos. A bloodthirsty, impossibly horny hotelier, The Countess is still the most glamorous character to ever appear in an AHS season; her wardrobe of luxurious gowns and jewel-encrusted gloves was enviably chic, a not-so-subtle indicator of the expensive taste that could only be satisfied by some of the world’s most...decadent cravings. (She was a vampire, if you don’t get it by now.)
Unfortunately, any lasting intrigue Hotel might have had ended with the pop star, who still did manage to eke out a Golden Globe win for her memorable turn. Outside of that, Hotel’s most intriguing elements included Denis O’Hare’s surprisingly sensitive portrayal of a trans bartender who cites the titular hotel as a site of self-discovery and Angela Bassett’s revenge-hungry former Hollywood star. The rest of its story, about the mysterious and shady characters that frequent a mostly mysterious and shady Los Angeles hotel, simply could never compare.
8. Roanoke (Season 6, 2016)
After the back-to-back misfires that were Freak Show and Hotel, it only made sense that Murphy & Co. would go back to the drawing board for their next effort. What we got was Roanoke, which significantly benefited from its formal inventiveness. Fashioning itself as a true crime documentary, the installment split its storytelling in two: in one, a couple recount their experiences with the paranormal after moving into an old North Carolina house, while a pair of actors reenact their stories from a script; in the second, the aforementioned couple and actors return to the same house to film a reality show where...let’s just say all hell breaks loose.
The series welcomed the return of many classic Murphy suspects (including then-recent Golden Globe winner Lady Gaga), but it was the addition of talented new faces like Spirit Award winner André Holland (playing a hapless husband) and Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. (as the fame-hungry actor playing said husband) that really helped this direction-altering season. Also notable was its delivery of some truly shocking scares, effectively putting the “horror” back in American Horror Story. Unfortunately, doing so also made Roanoke one the franchise’s most muted efforts, toning down many of the splashy elements that has otherwise kept AHS top-of-mind for the past decade.
7. Double Feature (Season 10, 2021)
First, a note: At the time of writing, Double Feature, the tenth season of AHS, is still on air, preventing me from truly ranking it alongside other seasons that have been viewed in full. What’s been shown so far has been pretty fantastic. But given this season’s split-story structure (the first six episodes make up “Red Tide” while the final four comprise “Death Valley”), it’s hard to truly judge how effectively these two parts will eventually converge — something I think is necessary to know before ranking Double Feature any higher on this list.
That being said, Double Feature is already shining as one of AHS’ more dedicated entries, perhaps Murphy’s first earnest attempt at “elevated horror.” What starts as a vampire story soon peels back layers, eventually using its central conceit (of a family moving to Provincetown and discovering the horrifying history that lay beneath its queer-affirming veneer) to ask lofty questions about talent, success, and the American need to strive for unique forms of excellence. Vampiristic bloodsucking becomes a metaphor for the artistic tendency to feed off others while braindead zombies become physical manifestations of the “fear of being normal.” Typically, Murphy & Co. would have explored these ideas in clunky fashion, but here, it’s used to great effect.
6. Apocalypse (Season 8, 2018)
My admiration for Apocalypse is complicated, which is why it’s placed smack-dab in the middle of my rankings. On the one hand, it destroyed a legacy: up until this point, Murphy’s little horror child felt exciting precisely because the show reset each season, taking on a completely new story with a full set of new characters. There was nothing compelling ambivalent viewers to “catch up” on previous installments because nothing from one was meant to carry on to the next. By connecting past seasons together, Apocalypse blew up that central enjoyment; suddenly, characters from Murder House were interacting with members of Coven and all linking up at the Hotel. AHS, as a whole, was now just a giant mystery box waiting to be solved.
With that said, Apocalypse made solving this mystery box quite fun. There’s no need to ignore what Apocalypse was — pure fanservice — but who cares about ethics when it feels this good? Sure, it may have required a bit of background research for the uninitiated, but by 2018, the majority of people still tuning into AHS were diehard fans anyway. Its central story, of a group of wealthy elites riding out a nuclear disaster in a lush bunker until their plans are thwarted by the arrival of the literal Antichrist, is expectedly Murphyian, making for a classic season that seemingly gets more convoluted with each episode. But come on! We get Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters playing several different roles! Jessica Lange came back! I can’t help but fall for it.
5. Cult (Season 7, 2017)
I proudly stand in the minority when it comes to my appreciation of Cult, the only season of AHS that felt like a deliberate response to what was currently happening in the world. Coming out mere months after Donald Trump took his post in the White House, Cult focused on the rise of Kai Anderson (Murphy favorite Evan Peters), a basement-dwelling internet troll-cum-megacult leader whose far-right Nazi-like ideology quickly finds a huge following in a nation recently radicalized by a contentious election. (Yes, Trump.) Existing at the polar opposite is Ally Mayfair-Richards (other Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson), one-half of a lesbian couple who finds her sense of reality splintering when hints of Trumpism begin to show themselves around her.
There is no doubt that Cult featured multiple plotholes, jumping to weird conclusions and taking absurd turns of logic at more than a few junctures. But its dissection of the particular societal divisions that were then only beginning to show themselves still felt admirably ambitious. The decision to place Kai and Ally against each other was smart; both figures felt like unideal poles (Ally’s gungho Clinton liberalism is still woefully shortsighted), allowing for commentary that at least felt interesting, even if it also felt cloying coming so soon after the actual election. A year on from Trump’s White House removal, though, Cult feels almost prescient — many of the same things it was criticized for “predicting” have proven themselves completely plausible (not even murder is too far-fetched a concept when armed Trump supporters are willing to storm the Capitol). When reflecting on Trump-inspired art, Cult may stick out as one of the most daring efforts, predicting the demise of a world not yet ready to admit we had been taken under siege.
4. 1984 (Season 9, 2019)
As evidenced by the uproar surrounding the recently released trailer for the upcoming Scream reboot, American audiences love a dose of nostalgia-inflected horror. Maybe that’s why 1984 went down so smoothly. With its quintessentially 80s period setting, this quick-moving romp was a delightfully refreshing update on familiar tropes. Its tale of a group of horny, drug-addled 20-somethings cosplaying as summer camp counselors while two revenge-seeking serial killers track them down from a distance douses its slasher norms in the era’s trademark camp, evoking everything from Friday the 13th to Nightmare on Elm Street to Halloween as it spins storylines out of, amongst other things: would-be porn stars, wedding massacres, and threesomes gone wrong. Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, Cody Fern, Gus Kenworthy, Angelica Ross, and DeRon Horton are all clearly having oodles of fun embracing their inner Like a Virgin fantasies, and stylistically-speaking, 1984 is every bit the painstakingly curated ode to that glitzy decade of greed and Ronald Reagan. Aerobics and neon? What more could a girl ask for?
3. Murder House (Season 1, 2011)
Agh, where it all began! Back in 2011, nothing on TV felt like American Horror Story. Before Mike Flanagan decamped to Netflix to make hits like The Haunting of Hill House and Midnight Mass, when Bates Motel and The Purge were simply films (or references to them) and not serialized shows, Murder House posited that horror could enrapture audiences just as much on their couches as it does in movie theaters. The formula worked to surprising success, and for twelve weeks in winter 2011, seemingly all anyone could talk about was the Harmon family.
To date, Murder House is probably still AHS at its most focused. Its account of a family that move from Boston to sunny LA is creepy in a good way, couching a deep and often moving narrative about inherited family trauma into a sheeny ghost story peppered with delightfully eccentric characters (played, for the first time, by soon-to-be Murphy mainstays, such as Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare, Frances Conroy, Sarah Paulson, and of course, Jessica Lange). AHS would soon give in to its more ridiculous instincts, but even here, peaks of Murphy’s more adventurous storytelling desires began to peak out. (The entire “horny shape-shifting ghost maid” thing would have been crazy enough, even without the addition of the Rubber Man bondage suit.) Murder House made space for real horror on TV, but in the process, it also revolutionized horror as a larger genre. Let’s make scary movies hornier, shall we?
2. Coven (Season 3, 2013)
Coven’s only shortcoming was that it went woefully short on the “horror” of the show’s title. Luckily, however, that formula worked way better than it should have. Arguably the most fun, quotable entry to the AHS catalogue — “Surprise, bitch. I bet you thought you’d seen the last of me,” and “BALENCIAGA,” just to name a few — the third AHS season went for full unapologetic camp, stuffing its thirteen episodes with enough pop culture references to fuel an entire season of SNL. Whether you were picking your jaw up from the floor after that Stevie Nicks cameo or gagging over Frances Conroy’s perfect impression of former Vogue creative director Grace Coddington, it was impossible to escape this witchy delight. The show was funnier than it was scary, but its expectedly talented cast was so committed, and its Southern Gothic sense of place so established (with all the sociopolitcal and racial tensions that encompasses), that it never really seemed to matter. Horror? No. Enjoyable. Hell yes.
By this time, Murphy had already established AHS as a reliable employer of talented but underappreciated actresses, but season three significantly revved up the stakes, adding in industry legends like Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, and Kathy Bates to act alongside MVPs Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson. Along with younger talent like Emma Roberts, Taissa Farmiga, and Gabourey Sidibe, this primarily female cast helped usher in a new wave of witch-obsessed culture. Bloody vampires? It’s time to pack your bags and go home before I cast a spell on you.
1. Asylum (Season 2, 2012)
Was there any other choice for #1? Riding high off the critical and commercial success of its breakout inaugural season, AHS had some big expectations to live up to during its sophomore run. Luckily, by swapping out the effective but overly familiar locale of a “murder house” for the eery barebones sterilty of a haunted asylum, this next installment was up for the task.
Asylum was a delightful followup for a number of reasons: its genuinely creepy atmosphere, its effective blending of quasi real-world history with made-for-TV soapy dramatics, and of course, the impossible-to-shake bop that is “The Name Game.” But years on, I remember it most for its performances. Almost a decade later, Asylum is still the most “serious” season of AHS — tackling things like homophobia, mental illness, and religious doctrine — and thus it’s no surprise that it also offered its uniformly committed cast some of the franchise’s meatiest material. The performances delivered by Sarah Paulson (as an intrepid journalist who’s unfairly committed by the institution she’s attempting to investigate) and Jessica Lange (as the twisted, homophobic head nun hiding a dark secret), especially, stand out. (To me, it was here where both actresses solidified their statuses as Murphy MVPs. That neither won an Emmy for their work — despite being nominated — is still one of Hollywood’s most egregious crimes.)
While American Horror Story would later develop a reputation for its bold silliness, Asylum caught Murphy still operating in true “prestige” mode. As such, this intricately-woven season of dark horror stands out not only as the best of this franchise, but as one of the best things the superproducer has ever helped create — and given how prolific this creator is, that’s saying a lot.