‘American Horror Story’ Seasons Ranked, from Worst to Best
However you feel about the American Horror Story franchise’s various installments, you cannot deny that Ryan Murphy and Co. are wildly creative when it comes to their yearly dish of blood-curdling terror. From the swanky digs of a haunted hotel to the tortuous backroom dealings of an insane asylum, the series has run the gamut. Season 7 was no different, offering a twisted look at the state of the country with “Cult.”
Now that we’ve experienced all that Cult has to offer, let’s take a look back at all seven AHS seasons, ranking them in order from worst to best. Each season has its own positives and negatives, so weigh in in the comments if you agree or disagree with Collider’s definitive ranking.
7) Season 5 - Hotel: The One with Vampires and Lady Gaga
Dramatic highs: Max Greenfield’s brief appearance was arguably the most disturbing thing AHS has ever done when his character met the Drilldo demon. Evan Peters’ appearance midway through the season was a fun surprise, especially since he was playing against his AHS type as the sadistic James March.
Dramatic lows: Um, everything else? The Ten Commandments Killer and the vampire stuff just were not executed well at all.
What was Feud’s immense gain was definitely American Horror Story’s loss when Jessica Lange departed the AHS franchise. Lady Gaga was brought in as the “headliner,” and while she was better than I thought she’d be, she definitely was no Lange.
That wasn’t the only problem, however. Hotel was kind of all over the map both thematically and storyline-wise, with the serial killer investigation falling flat and overdoing it on the vampire aspect. Sarah Paulson, a Murphy stalwart, was severely under-utilized as Hypodermic Sally — and I do realize that’s because she was busy simultaneously filming an incredible performance for American Crime Story, but it doesn’t change the fact that she should have either been a bigger player or just skipped this AHS season. She’s just too good to waste that way.
The style of the season was incredible — hats off to the set and costume designers. But this season ranks last because it often felt like it was favoring style over substance.
The one bright spot was Denis O’Hare’s Liz Taylor, but one amazing, sympathetic character does not a good season make.
6) Season 4 - Freak Show: The One with the Musical Numbers
Dramatic highs: Pepper’s (Naomi Grossman) backstory, with an appearance by Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice, was a definite highlight, as was the casting of real people with the appropriate physical states to portray the so-called “freaks.”
Dramatic lows: Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock) may have started out as an interesting villain, but the show quickly lost track of what to do with him, so his shooting rampage in the finale felt like cheap way to wrap things up.
This season had all the hallmarks of being one of the best — Paulson was allowed flex her considerable acting muscles as conjoined twins, Lange got her usual meaty material as Elsa Mars, champion of the downtrodden and cast aside and Michael Chiklis joined the ensemble for one season, which was a great get.
But the musical numbers were weirdly jarring, the plot was wildly unfocused and the season really lost steam as it came to a close. It’s a shame, because the supporting cast of “freaks” did some incredible work, and Dandy Mott (Wittrock) and Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) were two diametrically opposed villains — a handsome man who turns out to be a psychopath and a disfigured killer who is actually rather sympathetic — that made for an interesting juxtaposition.
But the strength of the cast and characters still could not overcome the haphazard storytelling.
5) Season 3 - Coven: Bizarro Hogwarts
Dramatic highs: For me, the final competition for the Supreme was a highlight. The Halloween two-parter, with a zombie attack and the appearance of Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy), was also really great.
Dramatic lows: For most fans, the test of the Seven Wonders was actually a lowlight of the season. Also, almost anything involving Delphine LaLaurie was a big misstep, which is a shame because Kathy Bates is a national treasure.
“Coven” is an interesting season, because the fan reaction seems to be among the most extreme — you either love it or you hate it. I loved it, but I do also acknowledge that it wasn’t as strong story-wise as some of the other seasons.
Season 3 was just a lot of fun, though, and that’s something lacking in a lot of AHS seasons. Yes, it is a horror TV series, but some of the best horror movies are punctuated with levity and it’s something I wish Murphy used more with this show.
The Stevie Nicks cameo was delightful, as was the use of New Orleans as the backdrop, and bringing in Angela Bassett and Bates added some heavy hitters to the cast so that Lange and Paulson weren’t shouldering that particular burden alone. I also thought Lily Rabe did some of her best AHS work in this season as swamp girl witch Misty Day — for me, Rabe is often the secret MVP of AHS seasons. She’s not as flashy as the other actresses, but she’s every bit as good.
The “Coven” finale could have been a lot better, which is why this season ranks as low as it does. However, I have my fingers crossed that Cult will maybe bring back some of dark humor that Coven employed so deftly.
4) Season 6 - Roanoke: Where Things Get Meta
Dramatic highs: The midseason twist of taking everyone involved in the Roanoke documentary and putting them back in the nightmare was an incredibly clever twist — and it still could have flopped, but AHS pulled it off really well.
Dramatic lows: The epilogue was entirely unnecessary, except maybe to get “Asylum’s” Lana Winters (Paulson) involved.
Found footage is a tricky framing device to pull off, but I thought “Roanoke” actually did it really well. The Blair Witch comparisons are inevitable, but there’s a reason that movie is so scary — the found footage style can convey an atmosphere and tension that regular filming cannot duplicate.
That trope aside, the “Roanoke” season also offered really coherent storytelling, with a tight plot that turned on a dime at the midpoint of the season. Unfortunately, the season should have been one episode shorter. The epilogue finale was kind of a waste of time. That is one thing AHS is guilty of in nearly every season — not knowing how to properly wrap things up.
3) Season 7 - Cult: The One That Gets Political
Dramatic highs: The performances of Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters were impeccable. Paulson is always impeccable on the show and Cult was no different, as she went from devastated “snowflake” on election night to terrorized woman being crazy to in-control puppetmaster and then possibly a cult leader herself. And Peters… well, it’s stunning he has never gotten an Emmy nomination for his work on the show, but Cult may just nab him one. He not only gave 110 percent for his Trump-like cult leader character, but he took on the personas of five other cult leaders, showing some incredible range within one season.
Also, the murderous clowns were super scary.
Dramatic lows: The Valerie Solanas episode was a weird diversion. I understand why it connected to the overall theme of female rage and empowerment, but having Solanas’ followers turn out to be the Zodiac killer was a bit much. Also, the “reveal” that Kai was doing Bebe’s bidding really muddied the storytelling waters, even if Frances Conroy’s appearance is always welcome on the show.
Still, I thought Cult had the right amount of terror, humor and commentary. It held up a mirror to the country (sometimes eerily coinciding with real-life events), and props must be given to doing so so soon after the 2016 election. That is a huge risk on the part of Ryan Murphy and Co., so never let it be said that American Horror Story is afraid to go, well, anywhere.
This season is surely polarizing, first because it was so political, but also because it was such a departure from what passes for normal for AHS. But I really liked it, and I think it was the show’s strongest season since Asylum.
2) Season 2 - Asylum: The One with Bloody Face
Dramatic highs: Um, nearly all of it? “Asylum” is a top-notch season, but if I have to pick one moment, it’s definitely the “Name Game” song, right? That was amazing.
Dramatic lows: The alien abductions. Completely unnecessary.
Some people will balk at this being in the No. 2 spot and I totally get that. I just have such affection for the original season that I can’t bump this one up, even if it is an excellent offering of AHS.
Asylum took on the idea of horror coming not only from other people but also horror coming from inside your own mind. It let Lange and Paulson absolutely sing in their respective roles, and it may be the season that is the absolute scariest — jump scares, gore scares and an overriding atmospheric tension and feeling of dread.
While “Asylum” did have a mostly cohesive story, the alien abduction subplot is what keeps this one from jumping “Murder House” in my rankings. Murphy and Co. don’t always need to throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, and “Asylum” could have benefitted from ditching the aliens.
1) Season 1 - Murder House: The One that Started It All
Dramatic highs: The school shooting and Violet realizing she’s been dead for weeks are definitely top of the list. Also, anything over at the Langdon house, from Addie’s closet of mirrors to the deformed Beau in the attic, was really well done. And Connie Britton was great; it’s a shame she never did any more AHS seasons.
Dramatic lows: Dylan McDermott cry-masterbating was super disturbing (and not in a fun AHS way).
It’ll be hard to top “Murder House” for me, maybe because I didn’t have any expectations for American Horror Story and therefore was just happy to enjoy the wild ride. But I love this season — I think it set a high bar that has yet to be cleared (though “Asylum” came very close).
I love the Harmons’ descent into madness in their terrifying haunted house; Lange and Peters are exceptionally good as mother and son Constance and Tate Langdon; and the Sixth Sense-like reveal for Violet in episode 10 was the first time I was really impressed by American Horror Story — maybe I should have seen it coming, but I definitely did not. Also, the school shooting flashback is hands down the scariest thing I have ever seen on screen. It was nauseating in its realism.
I even kind of dug the “Murder House” finale, which is more than I can say for a lot of AHS seasons. But I thought wrapping things up by having nearly every character succumb to the house’s evil and end up as a ghost was a fitting ending to the season.