Ryan Murphy reveals his favorite American Horror Story episodes of all time
The co-creator of AHS takes us through his stand-out picks in honor of the 100th episode.
Once upon a time, there was a creepy ghost teen in a rubber suit…
This week, American Horror Story will air its 100th episode on FX with the latest installment of AHS: 1984.
To celebrate the grand (Guignol?) occasion, EW asked Ryan Murphy, who co-created the series with Brad Falchuk, to share his favorite episodes of all time.
Here they are in Murphy’s own words:
1) MURDER HOUSE, “PILOT”
The first, and always number one in my heart, for several reasons. One, Brad and I spent so long on it…years on the pitch, years on the script, until [FX CEO] John Landgraf and [co-head of 20th Century Fox TV] Dana Walden and Brad and I got it to where we wanted. From rough idea to day one of filming took four years. It was a huge risk at the time, creatively and financially. Dana Walden has said to me several times it was one of the most out of the box ideas in the history of modern television, and I think she’s right. I remember John saying to me when I gave him the final pitch, “Wait a minute…you’re going to burn down the sets every year and start over every season?” I said, “Yes.” He paused and then said “This scares me…but excites me, too. Let’s do it.” That first season sort of reinvented the anthological storytelling space that I loved as a kid and has ushered in a whole new way of MAKING television (creatively and economically) and I’m very proud of that.
Also, there’s the cast. My first time with Jessica, Connie, Dylan. Jessica was an idol growing up, and on our first day I am sure she thought I was from outer space. It was such a privilege working with her, I spent hours with her in her trailer on her look, movement, that hairstyle. We loved talking to each other, the creation of that, and we still do almost ten years later. By the end of the first day she said something to me like, “This is insane, but I trust you.” She kissed my cheek and we were off. I remember Brad and Connie and Jessica and I were constantly saying to each other, “This is so strange. What are we doing here?” We were always taking the script apart and redoing it. It was like this great thrill ride, that we found in the filming. The only person who never wavered ever was Dylan McDermott. Always grinning, always so in the part and willing to go anywhere. I remember on the day I had to direct him masturbating and crying I said after the first take “I know this is odd—are you OK?” And he smiled and said, “I’m good.” I said, “How can you be good? This is so weird.” He smiled and said, “Because this thing is gonna be a f***ing hit.” And he was right.
2) ASYLUM, EPISODE 8, “THE NAME GAME”
This is the fandom’s favorite for sure I think, and I know it is Sarah Paulson and Lady Lange’s favorite season. But not mine (today as I think about, it’s Cult, but my favorite changes every year.). But I did love it and this whole episode happened because three episodes into shooting it Jessica said to me “Oh Ryaaaaaan, I can’t keep moping around here, it’s so dark and so hard and so brutal, can’t I have a musical number?” She said it as a joke, but the IDEA fit what we had planned perfectly. I’ve never seen an actor be happier on set. Jessica was reborn and we shot this number all day long. I remember doing it like 45 times, and Sarah and I and Evan were exhausted and we just kept going and laughing because Jessica was SO into it. She never wavered and in fact, asked to keep going. I said to her, “Lady, take off the bouffant wig and the blue dress—tomorrow you are back in the nun’s habit.” We had a ball that day. It was pure creatively and we laughed for 14 hours straight.
3) HOTEL, EPISODE 1, “CHECKING IN”
I love this episode for so many reasons, most of them Gaga. I loved working with her so much then, and now. I am so proud of where she’s gone as an actress, but she always had chops, right from the minute she stepped on the set. She is a born actress. My favorite sequence in the episode was the vampire stalking with her and Matt Bomer, underneath the genius song “She Wants Revenge.” Gaga’s idea, by the way. It was like making a ten-minute silent movie, all the shots were very planned and choreographed. I would do countless takes just to get the train of Gaga’s red dress to move right. We shot a huge chunk of it in The Hollywood Forever cemetery, and I remember Gaga and Matt and I went wondering between the takes looking at all the beautiful and haunting tombstones. And I loved that we used Nosferatu, one of my favorite movies. Gaga and Matt were so fearless about the sex and all the bloodletting, they were pros about it and perfectionists. I think I enjoyed this so much because Gaga cares about IT ALL. We spent hours on the looks, the backstory of The Countess. She threw a “getting to know you” party at her house in Malibu right before filming this episode and I remember Kathy Bates and I having a moment looking at each other like, “Is this really happening? Did she dye the pool blood red?” Gaga never disappoints. She is incapable of disappointing.
4) APOCALYPSE, EPISODE 6, “RETURN TO MURDER HOUSE”
I love love love this episode, largely because I love love love Sarah Paulson so much. We’ve grown up together, and worked for the first time back in 2003 on Nip/Tuck. This was sort of the culmination of all things Sarah, meaning she could utilize all her gifts. I have always said to her since filming The People Vs OJ Simpson, “You should direct.” Because she is so on top of EVERYTHING: the props, the camera, her lines, everyone’s lines, the subtext. Sarah is just a machine of preparation and professionalism. Finally, I kept pushing her and she said, “OK.” This was a very hard episode because she was acting in this season too, but her work with the actors was so beautiful, and more impressive to me was the TECHNICAL stuff she did. The shot composition, the angles, the suspense building. That was all her. Everyone loved her and everyone rallied and it felt like the family got back together again. I loved being on set when Jessica made her grand return. She and Sarah have such a deep relationship and laugh so much. There is nothing more fun in the world than a dinner with Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange and a bottle of good red. Even more fun if you get a cameo appearance by Emma Roberts and Billy Porter. I felt Sarah really elevated this work, as she always did. I like to keep challenging her because I honestly think she can do anything. And she’s one of my best friends, and when one of your best friend’s knocks something out of the park…you just beam. I remember beaming through the screening of this episode the first thing, thinking, “She can really do it all.”
5) FREAK SHOW, EPISODE 1, “MONSTERS AMONG US”
I love this episode because Jessica and Evan and Sarah I and I were like a group of unleashed crazies, running ragged through New Orleans. It was so so hot, and we had many many amazing dinners to talk about it ALL. This was all Jessica’s idea. I HATED making it. It was 105 degrees every day and I was covered in bug bites, but it was like out of a dream. The sets, the clothes, the actors in the ensemble. Four amazing moments stick out for me: 1) Jessica singing Bowie, in that blue suit. That was a day. We dropped tons of glitter, it got in everyone’s eyes. Jessica loved this scene. 2) Working with John Carrol Lynch as Twisty, one of the greatest professionals of all time. The day we shot Twisty’s first killing it was in a swamp and 110 degrees, but everyone was so riveted and kept going because John was so so great. From the moment I saw Zodiac, I wanted to work with him and he said yes. Joy. 3) Sarah with those twin heads. It was very hard, but exciting technically. One day Sarah got so frustrated that something she wanted to perform wasn’t coming, something technical, and she broke down because she wanted to be perfect and we walked around to talk about it and fix it and I got a glimpse in a mirror of me and her and her second head and I thought “Ok, this is pretty amazing. This moment alone makes it all worth it.” 4) Finn Wittrock. Such a pro and always up for anything you throw at him. Dandy was one of my favorite characters we ever did. Specifically, Dandy in that Playroom.
6) CULT, EPISODE 11, “GREAT AGAIN”
This was my favorite season. I think Falchuk agrees. We both felt so passionately about the story, about the terrifying rise of Trump, of people falling under the spell of the cult of personality. I will never forget the filming on the day where Paulson (as Ally) is watching the returns and Trump wins and she falls to the floor in horror while drinking rosé. That happened to me, so we put it into the show. Many crew members were openly sobbing the day we shot that, months after the election. So many people still had PTSD. Other members of the crew, Trump voters for sure, were simply silent. I thought, “Well, this is the world now…..polarized.” Largely this episode is my favorite because the pairing of Paulson vs Evan Peters was my favorite antagonist/protagonist thing we have ever done. They are so close and really understand how to work with each other, and get underneath each other’s skin like brother and sister, so it really clicked. And is was satirical to boot, which I loved. I really loved Evan’s performance so much, and so did Sarah. We still talk about it. Like once a week about how good he is? Evan is CRIMINALLY underrated in this role. He really suffered while making it, it took him I don’t know…two years to recover? Evan and I and Emma and Sarah and Holland Taylor had Thanksgiving together that year right after filming, and I remember Sarah and I kept feeding Evan food, trying to nourish him and make him feel better. He was still feeling it, the darkness, while we were making Pose season one, it got under his skin in a really hard long way. I loved him in it. He and I talked after it, and we decided maybe it was time to do some comedy. But we spoke in the past month about him coming back to the show some year and I hope we will. I really admired the dedication and the discipline he delivered. And the cast this year was a murderer’s row of my favorite people in the world. Billie Lourd stunned me with the depth of her performance, I always knew she was fantastic but this season she really showed me how deep and complicated she could be. The craft Billie has, I think she can control which cheek a tear slides down, she is that good. LOVED Billy Eichner, and loved his pairing with my old friend Leslie Grossman, who is one of my besties, this was her first season too. Adina Porter was amazing, like Evan she really WENT there. Everyone was on fire this season, electric and tortured and combustible. Just like we all were that year after the 2016 election.
7) COVEN, EPISODE 12, “THE MAGICAL DELIGHTS OF STEVIE NICKS”
I honestly think Stevie Nicks saved my life when I was a teenager because I saw in her a way out, a way to be unique in the world and not give a S*** what anyone says or thinks about you. Just follow yourself. And your dreams. Wear platform boots and sling shawls around, be WHO YOU ARE because life is short. I got that from Stevie and her songs, so when I realized we wanted to do a season about witches I called and begged her to be in it. I knew her first from Glee, when she so graciously gave me any song I wanted from her catalog because she loved that show and how it introduced young people to music. She was the ONLY star who we used who sent flowers and gifts to the cast and crew! Pure magic and kindness. Stevie was unsure at first about Coven, and her role in it. She wanted to make sure the feminine power corralled was on the RIGHT side of the spectral spectrum. I remember we had several phone calls and I kept pitching her and we got to talk a lot about her career and her life and I was so gobsmacked. I remember Grace Slick always used to call Stevie “The White Witch,” meaning she used her powers for good! Stevie was a true collaborator, and when she showed up to film this episode we were all in shock that it actually happened. I love Lily Rabe so much, her character Misty was obsessed with Stevie and got her through many a hard time, just like Stevie did with me. Everyone cried the day Stevie first appeared, exactly how you wanted her to—with shawls galore and so much kindness. I loved Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates in this season too, it began my collaboration with these two powerhouses. They both just showed up, game and ready to go. The most indelible memory I have of this season happened when we finished shooting. “Seven Wonders” was a neglected Fleetwood Mac single, but as a kid I loved it the MOST. That’s why I used it in the show. Stevie told me that because we had used it, young people kept requesting it and buying the single online, it became a lucrative special thing for Fleetwood Mac. I went to a Fleetwood Mac concert right after the show had finished airing, and so many young people were there because Stevie was on AHS, they loved her on it. She loved that. Onstage she began “Seven Wonders” and right before she started to sing she said, “This is for Ryan.” I cried.
8) 1984, EPISODE 5, “RED DAWN”
I love this season, it’s been a true experiment and a BITCH to make. Hello, three months of night shoots. Everyone has lost their minds. It is the youngest cast we’ve ever had, and a real homage to when Brad and I were growing up in the ’80s. It is purposeful, we are really trying to send up that time and those movies. Falchuk is the ’80s king, he is a scholar about all of those horror films, so it’s been a blast to do. I love the women power in this season: I love Emma being the good girl for a change in my world, how understated and elegant she is; I love how unhinged and brilliant Billie Lourd is, she just keeps proving to me how talented she is. I’ve been so inspired by her performance, I’m writing a miniseries just for her! Top secret but it’s gonna be my tribute to her talent. Leslie Grossman! We have been friends since 19f***ing98. Popular. Leslie used to come over to my house that first year of Popular and we would watch the dailies on VHS tapes and eat BOWLS of Pirates Booty, we thought it was diet food! Ride or die friend. From that moment to this, where she gets to be dramatic and nuts and brilliant and unhinged and truly acting her heart out and killing it? I’m so proud of her. The scene where she destroys my fave Gus Kenworthy in a boat is really a masterclass on commitment. That was a rough night and Leslie really delivered a character so different from herself. And Angelica Ross! How great is she? Another actress who can do anything, any tone, any move. I love that she’s so so masterful on Pose AND AHS this year, and paving new paths and constantly informing me and making me more illuminated. And again my true character actor love John Carroll Lynch. Whenever he’s in a scene, I am just in awe. When I was making The Normal Heart, I spent 90 percent of my time talking to Mark Ruffalo about the making of Zodiac, and Mark kept saying about JCL, “He’s THE BEST.” I agree.
9) ROANOKE, EPISODE 6, “CHAPTER SIX”
I loved the form of this season, how it shook it all up. I loved this episode because it changed the format. It went from here’s a story about a haunted house to a story about a REALITY show set in this house. This season was very polarizing, but I loved it. I loved how the actors played multiple roles within a story telling a story, most of all Kathy Bates. This is one of her greatest roles for us, I think. I have never been more enthralled than when Kathy gets upset because of the Saturn Awards and the injustice of it all. She was so so brilliant in that. They all were. This was the season that made me think “Ok, this show can go for 20 years.” Because we can keep playing with the format, the form. It proved to me we didn’t have to have every season be a grand spectacle. We could be raw and rough and verité. It reinvigorated me in some way, after the operas we had done. This felt like an independent film approach. It felt like, “Ok…season 20? Bring it on.”
American Horror Story
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.