Murder House, Asylum, and Coven have long been fan favorites, but just where do they stand on our list ranking every season of American Horror Story's 10 installments? Hint: Jessica Lange sure helps.
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In EW's 2016 profile of Ryan Murphy, co-creator of American Horror Story, its spin-off American Crime Story, and yes, even Glee, our writer observed that "Murphy's shows are often just like him: flashy, dramatic, emotional, darkly funny, and occasionally polarizing… but, more than any other current showrunner, Murphy's work has truly transformed the TV landscape." 

That's as true today as it was over a decade ago when American Horror Story first proved that audiences would rally behind anthologies even with the caveat of all-new stories and new cast members each season (though we all wish Jessica Lange could be a constant always). But more importantly, it showed that horror could be just as effective on television as in film.

Please put your hands together for a show that is often as gruesome as it is polarizing (and, let's just admit it: inconsistent) while reimagining many American histories: exploring lost colonies, unregulated asylums, witch trial burnings, the legacies of slavery, the collapsing two-party system, and the haunted spaces that exist all around us. It's about time we did a good, old-fashioned ranking of which chapters came out on top and why. So without further ado, here's our list of every American Horror Story season, ranked from worst to best.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: CULT Episode: Pilot Pictured: Sarah Paulson as Ally Mayfair-Richards.
Credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

10. Season 7: Cult (2017)

Let's be clear: Cult is utter chaos. It may be the best example of the trap Murphy-Falchuk collaborations too often fall into, being writers conjuring plot points like arbitrary numbers from a bingo machine (we're looking at you, final seasons of Glee). Add in Cult's attempts at political satire that are about as articulate as your far-right uncle's Facebook posts, and you've got an anthology deep in an identity crisis. 

Are we meant to focus on Sarah Paulson's phobias being exacerbated by Hillary's loss, the tribe of killer clowns running suburban Michigan like the mafia, or Evan Peters' incel caricature rising to power in a local election? Paulson as the ever-paranoid Ally believes all of these headscratchers are part of a Trumpian conspiracy that's out to get her, but audiences were left struggling to connect the dots.

In the grand scheme of artistic social criticism made during the Trump administration, Cult is at the very bottom of the bucket — and this list. If Paulson's meltdown about Merrick Garland wasn't cringey enough, Peters coating his face in Cheeto dust and rattling off the President's worst one-liners sure was. A good rule of thumb for FX: stick to the horrors of worlds we're not currently living in, and leave the political commentary to American Crime Story (the new Impeachment season far surpasses this one). That said, Cult's chaos is somewhat enjoyable if you stop trying to understand it and simply indulge. But if you're an AHS superfan (or just prefer shows that make sense), you'll be sorely disappointed in Cult's clownery.

American Horror Story: Double Feature — Pictured: Lily Rabe as Amelia Earhart. CR: FX
Credit: FX

9. Season 10: Double Feature (2021)

While we're used to seeing AHS shake up its format (it is an anthology, after all), season 10's Double Feature is a complete departure from the series' norm. Like the back-to-back genre flicks in the days of drive-ins, this installment is split into two tales: Red Tide "by the sea" and Death Valley "by the land." But what could have been an intricate, interwoven storytelling feat is instead one season's worth of resources spread thin between separate and stale plotlines, much to the dismay of fans eager to see the season that Covid had delayed by a year. 

Red Tide initially showed promise as a Shining-meets-Faust story about a struggling writer (Finn Wittrock) who after relocating his family to an isolated coastal town, is offered a black pill that will bring him great creative success with terrifying side effects in the form of Salem's Lot-style creatures. But a premature ending from the shortened episode scope ultimately made this compelling narrative fall flat. 

To add insult to injury, Death Valley as a surface-level alien conspiracy in the Eisenhauer era is far less interesting from its onset and deeply unsatisfying, being riddled with inconsistencies at every turn. And with no concrete connection between the two stories (or alien-helmed fan-favorite Asylum, as the cryptic trailer led many to believe), why bother having a split season at all? While its predecessor had potential, Death Valley is an unquestionable dud for otherwise avid fans, bringing the entire Double Feature season down with it.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW "Massacres and Matinees"- Episode 402 (Airs Wednesday, October 15, 10:00 PM e/p) --Pictured: John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown. CR: Michele K. Short/FX
Credit: Michele K. Short/FX

8. Season 4: Freak Show (2014)

Though it surpassed the ratings of the three critically-acclaimed seasons before it, Freak Show starts strong but eventually loses steam. A not-so-subtle nod to the classic (and controversial) 1932 film Freaks — "Murphy and Falchuk pay homage to that movie while skillfully mixing fresh aspects with the familiar" says EW's critic — this season follows a ragtag group of "freak show" performers in 1950s Florida under the beck and call of a legless and domineering Jessica Lange in her final AHS lead role. Featuring Paulson as conjoined twins, Peters as a four-fingered "Lobster Boy," and Kathy Bates as a bearded lady, desperate times make the gang vulnerable to con men and corrupt cops, but John Carroll Lynch as Twisty the Clown represents a new threat entirely.

Though not the absolute worst the series has to offer (thanks to the failures of later seasons), Freak Show's stellar cast wasn't enough to save its flatlining plot, even with the reprisal of some Asylum characters. It's not overtly insensitive like its source material, but having disabilities teeter on being a horror device is never a good look. Most importantly, its story just doesn't stick out in the mind years later, with the exception of Twisty, who is among the more iconic villains in AHS' long, rich history of scares. One look at his mangled, toothy mask, and it's easy to see why. Side note: the silent killer's accidental bromance with Finn Wittrock as a spoiled man-child with a similarly sinister agenda also makes for fine horror-comedy — a balance that's no small feat, though not even to raise Freak Show's status on this list.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY -- "Flicker" Episode 507 (Airs Wednesday, November 18, 10:00 pm/ep) Pictured: (l-r) Lady Gaga as The Countess, Kathy Bates as Iris. CR: Prashant Gupta/FX
Credit: Prashant Gupta/FX

7. Season 5: Hotel (2015)

Even with a tried-and-true core cast featuring Paulson, Peters, Kathy Bates, and Denis O'Hare as a trans woman led by Lady Gaga, Hotel wins the superlative of being the first AHS anthology to go off the rails right at the onset. Though the series' quality had been mutilated by the underwhelming end of Freak Show the previous year, Hotel's complete lack of a narrative anchor was one more knife in AHS' chest. Based on L.A.'s infamous Cecil Hotel, which has hosted all things macabre and murder since its opening in 1924, this season may have taken its source material too seriously by touching on a great many violent mishaps instead of nurturing a core plot.

That's not to say it's completely directionless, though. At its (albeit, splayed) center is Gaga — who won a Golden Globe for her role — as a femme fatale vampiress with a thirst for revenge, along with the evasive Ten Commandments Killer, and Wes Bentley as a detective intent on piecing all of the hotel's evils together (even if the audience can't do the same). Still, the mid-season dinner party scene featuring the ghosts of famous serial killers remains one of the better creative liberties the show has ever taken. Because what student of the macabre could resist Richard Ramirez and Aileen Wuornos slow dancing to "Sweet Jane" as Jeffrey Dahmer enjoys (human) appetizers in the company of John Wayne Gacy?

AMERICAN HORROR STORY u0022Chapter 2u0022 Season 6, Episode 2 Air Date: September 21, 2016 Pictured (L-R): Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr.
Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX

6. Season 6: Roanoke (2016)

Inspired by the near-mythological lost colony of the same name, Roanoke divided even the most dedicated AHS fans upon its release in 2016. While EW's critic at the time lauded it as "one hell of an entertaining ride from its surprise mic-drop start," many viewers vehemently disagreed. Its cardinal sin: the writers biting off more than they could chew. Sound familiar? 

This time, the season begins as a married couple (Lily Rabe and André Holland) recounts the strange experience of living in a haunted farmhouse for a documentary series, complete with dramatic reenactments by Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr. as actors playing the aforementioned couple. It's an intriguing concept, but as is the Murphy-Falchuk curse, the story spirals out of focus when the fictional docuseries spawns a spin-off show within the show, crowding an already metatextual narrative now stuffed to the brim.

Some viewers were understandably left wondering just what the hell they were watching (or often re-watching for clues, and not in a Lynchian way, either). Still, you have to respect Roanoke for applying such an ambitious format to one of the greater American mysteries, regardless of whether you believe they pulled it off. And while many lauded this richly layered season and its final twist, even Paulson, an AHS mainstay, cites it as her least favorite installment, admitting "I just don't care about this season at all… I felt really kind of trapped by my responsibility and my contractual obligation to do [AHS]." If one of the show's greatest acting assets isn't enthused, it's hard to expect everyone else to be.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN Burn, Witch, Burn - Episode 305 (Airs Wednesday, November 6, 10:00 PM e/p) --Pictured: (L-R) Jamie Brewer as Nan, Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie, Taissa Farmiga as Zoe
Credit: Michele K. Short/FX

5. Season 3: Coven (2013)

Coven has its work cut out for itself. This highly-anticipated third installment follows two coveted seasons that rewrote the rules for horror television for the better, proving that TV could dish out anguish and gore just as well as film. And though Coven is not as impressive as the ever-celebrated Murder House and Asylum, it's still a fine season that plays a hefty role in the greater AHS canon.

We begin with Taissa Farmiga as Zoe, a girl who discovers she's a descendant of the Salem witch trials and is whisked away to a boarding school in modern-day New Orleans for guidance and protection. There, she joins other extra-ordinary women under the tutelage of headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Paulson), but when one of their own kind is burned at the stake, Jessica Lange as the "Supreme'' witch must step in, but not without everyone vying for her place. 

That brief description may sound like nothing more than a regurgitation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, but Coven is, at times, much more. First off, it's one of the tighter narratives the series has mustered, though there are still some things to be desired. The show's true horror lies in the realities of slavery in the American South, and while there's a meditation on the influence culture plays in defining "magic," the voodoo tropes definitely haven't aged well. Even so, we see stellar AHS debuts from talents like Gabourey Sidibe, Kathy Bates, and Angela Bassett. Come for some of the best actresses of our time as power-hungry witches, stay for Stevie Nicks' cameo as a real one.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: APOCALYPSE -- Pictured: Kathy Bates as Ms. Miriam Mead. CR: Kurt Iswarienko/FX
Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

4. Season 8: Apocalypse (2018)

After seven years of ups and downs for the series, season eight saw perhaps the biggest risk AHS has taken to date, and (dare we say) it paid off. Enter: Apocalypse, a creative, inter-season cross-over featuring characters and continued storylines from Murder House and Coven with whispers of Hotel. Allow us to explain — it all starts with Michael Landon (newcomer Cody Fern), the Antichrist born at the conclusion of season one, who now as a young man, brings about the end of the world through nuclear warfare. While he's safe in a shelter dubbed Outpost 3 with a dark history of its own, it's up to season three's council of witches to defeat him before the impending apocalypse takes hold. 

That may sound like a lot to take in because, well, it is. But it's also a rich treat for fanatics who have been following the show for years. Remember, Apocalypse trailed Cult and Roanoke, which are both widely considered among the worst anthologies. This season represents a redemption by literally returning to the show's roots, even if its connections are far-fetched at times. Still, with viewers once again as divided as critics, EW's Kristen Baldwin sings these praises: "I'm so glad I stuck it out…Apocalypse became the television equivalent of a classic-rock supergroup playing all your favorites in their farewell arena tour."

And given the way the series' writing tends to spiral out of control, it's almost a miracle that the showrunners sprang for an AHS television universe and didn't ruin the existing high points in the same swoop. Rather, we see closure for our beloved coven, mythos for the wider canon, and most importantly, the return of Jessica Lange as Michael's grandmother, Constance Langdon. Yes, she is that good, and she always has been.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: 1984 -- Pictured: Emma Roberts as Brooke Thompson. CR: Kurt Iswarienko FX
Credit: Kurt Iswarienko/FX

3. Season 9: 1984 (2019)

1984 is a homage to the giants whose shoulders the whole show stands on: slasher flicks from the age of Aqua Net — the films that attracted mainstream mass audiences to the genre with shock and awe. We're talking tributes to characters so iconic that we can refer to them as simply Freddy, Jason, and Michael (even if John Carpenter technically debuted the latter in '78). 

Set in the titular year at Camp Redwood (you can see where this is going…), Emma Roberts stars as Brooke, a not-so-bushy-tailed camp counselor who's rattled from a recent stint with the "Night Stalker," aka Richard Ramirez (who we briefly saw in season five). Of course, a summertime horror plot would be incomplete without an escaped murderer (John Carroll Lynch in all his type-cast glory) fresh out of the insane asylum and headed for camp, where everyone's personal histories will soon come to a reliably retro head.

As a sleepaway screamer, 1984 is delightfully campy (pun probably intended by the show's powers that be). Even if the plot is slightly predictable, there's no denying the inherent fun in watching a Stranger Things-esque time capsule tackle the genre's most hallmarked tropes with fresh eyes and a solid cast, including Billie Lourd, Leslie Grossman, and Zach Villa's creative reimagining of Ramirez as a killer down on his luck who can't seem to move on from camp. Oh, plus alternate universes and whatnot.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY Welcome to Briarcliff -- Episode 201 (Season Premiere, Wednesday, October 17, 10:00 pm e/p) -- Pictured: (center) Evan Peters as Kit -
Credit: Michael Yarish/FX

2. Season 2: Asylum (2012)

After Murder House proved prime-time audiences could stomach cable-curated horror, season two's Asylum fired on all cylinders: psychological horror from complete loss of autonomy, atmospheric frights from nearly every frame, and even body horror from a self-induced abortion and aversion therapy among other violent injustices. But worst of all is the knowledge that all of these terrors were trademarks of the asylums that stowed away the mentally ill (and the plainly defiant) well into the 20th century. 

Ours is Briarcliff Manor, an institution for the criminally insane run by a doctor reminiscent of Mengele (James Cromwell), a nun possessed by the Devil himself (Rabe), and a serial killer hiding in plain sight (you'll have to find out for yourself). Even more frightening is the plight of journalist Lana Winters (Paulson), who upon visiting the asylum for a story, is committed by Sister Jude, a sexually-repressed nun played expertly by Lange, due to her homosexuality. Yep, this season is not for the faint of heart, but while it's the most relentlessly brutal fixture on this list, there are no cheap shots throughout its entire 13-episode run. 

In an interview with EW just before Asylum ended in 2013, co-creator Ryan Murphy spoke to its intensity, explaining, "This season was so dark which I loved but I felt it was important in the finale to give a sense of kindness and peace and resolve whenever possible along with some really scary things." That "resolve," which he teased throughout the article but never outright revealed, turned out to be… aliens? As far as the best seasons of AHS go, Asylum and Murder House are neck and neck. But the finale's last-ditch plot twist that few saw coming (or, honestly, asked for) was just enough to resign Asylum to the second spot on our list, though not without a good fight.

AMERICAN HORROR STORY: Episode 10 - SMOLDERING CHILDREN (Airs December 7, 10:00 pm e/p). Pictured L-R: Dylan McDermott and Robber Man. CR: Lewis Jacobs / FX
Credit: Lewis Jacobs/FX

1. Season 1: Murder House (2011)

Even now, Ryan Murphy tells EW that Murder House remains the chapter nearest and dearest to his heart, saying, "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." Beyond those glass-ceiling superlatives, we're still left in awe of Murder House and all its haunted L.A. glory. 

It starts when couple Viviane and psychiatrist Dr. Ben Harmon (Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott) buy a discounted property to salvage their marriage after Viviane's miscarriage and Ben's subsequent affair. Meanwhile, their angsty and aloof teenage daughter (Taissa Farmiga) quickly makes an odd and potentially harmful friend in Tate (Evan Peters) within the confines of her new, creepy home. The family soon realizes that the ghosts of the previous tenants (and their victims) live on in the house, and not all of them have pure intentions, just as next-door neighbor Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange in an Emmy-winning performance) has an agenda of her own. And given that the setting is a Victorian home much like that of George Hodel, the sadistic doctor thought to be behind the infamous Black Dahlia's severed smile; Murder House is a more-than-apt title for this trailblazing, terrifying first season. 

And yes, the top two entries on our list are in chronological order, but that's because AHS started out sterling and gradually grew dimmer over time, even if it tapered off slowly at first (the difference in quality between Murder House and Asylum is minuscule compared to the woes of more recent seasons). Still, Murder House is the brilliant anthology that convinced us to keep coming back, even after that hunger later regressed into a false hope that newer seasons could satisfy the same craving.

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