Whatever one may think of Ryan Murphy as a creator, there’s no doubt that he’s proven himself quite capable of tapping into the most troubling and terrifying aspects of the collective psyche with his anthology series, American Horror Story. Time and again, the show has forced viewers to look at the dark side of American society, whether that be in the confines of the home or in the troubled spaces of society —the psychiatric hospital, the “freak show,” or the hotel.
However, not every season is equally scary, so it’s sometimes useful to see which ones managed to capture the horror of the title most successfully. And it’s worth noting that a season’s scariness doesn’t necessarily correlate to its quality.
Updated on November 4, 2021 by Kevin Pantoja: The momentum of American Horror Story continues on and loyal fans keep gearing up for more. Most recently, the series wrapped up its tenth season and it might have been the most unique so far since it split the episodes into two totally different stories, making it even more difficult to pick out the scariest AHS season. Some fans have even gone back and watched through the entire series again on Hulu and it has helped them answer the difficult question of which season is most terrifying.
10 Season 3 – Coven
Coven is hands down the least scary season. Sure, it has witches and demons and such — and of course, the usual bloodletting — but it’s not nearly as disturbing as the rest of the show, in part because it focuses so much on the maneuvering among the various witches for the power that they all want.
It ends up being much more of a melodrama (and a very confusing AHS season) than a horror, though that certainly doesn’t mean that it isn’t enjoyable. There’s also the fact that it has some oddly comedic aspects in later episodes like the severed head of Delphine LaLaurie being forced to watch Roots.
9 Season 10 – Double Feature
Season 10 is such a difficult season to pinpoint because of its two wildly different stories. The first half was subtitled “Red Tide” and focused on a plot where creative minds became successful vampires and those without talent became gruesome vamps with no personality. The second half, “Death Valley,” surrounded an alien invasion of Earth.
“Red Tide” was decently scary with some unsettling scenes of vampires and young Alma Garnder being as ruthless as they come. “Death Valley” lacked a bit in scares outside of the invaders possessing a few characters. Most of the scenes in “Death Valley” were more odd than they were frightening.
8 Season 5 – Hotel
There’s a lot to love about this particular season of the show, starting with the introduction of Lady Gaga as the Countess. Once again, there are some genuinely disturbing moments, but in this case, the season really leans into the gothic nature of its story, with gorgeous cinematography, settings, and costumes.
Hotel is more about characters who struggle with the fact that they are losing their mental faculties. It also includes fictionalized versions of real-life serial killers, plus famed actor Rudolph Valentino, which is just one part of AHS: Hotel that doesn’t make sense. However, the end result is an entertaining season but not the scariest in the horror anthology.
7 Season 4 – Freak Show
Like so many other seasons, Freak Show explores an aspect of American society that was once prominent but has now (thankfully) fallen out of favor: the unfortunately titled “freak show.” However, the season goes out of its way to show that it’s not the “freaks” who are monstrous but, instead, the supposedly “normal” characters — most notably, Dandy Mott (Finn Wittrock).
It has to be said that there are some times when this season leans into the ridiculous just a bit too much, which means that there are large parts that just aren’t that frightening. It does, however, have some very great characters.
6 Season 9 – 1984
Season 9 was a bit of an outlier, in part because it didn’t feature either Sarah Paulson in one of her AHS characters or Evan Peters, which made 1984 feel like a totally different show at times. It’s also a throwback to the slasher films that were such a popular part of the cultural landscape in the 1980s.
There are quite a few twists and turns in this baroque plot — this is a Ryan Murphy show, after all — but somehow it manages to keep a tight hold on its core group of characters. Despite the fact that there’s a lot of murder and mayhem and ghosts trapped on the grounds of a summer camp, it ends up not being as scary as other seasons.
5 Season 1 – Murder House
Season 1 was also one of AHS‘s most disturbing. For one thing, it focuses on the home, which is supposed to be a source of safety and solace for families. In this case, unfortunately, the home becomes a prison for those who happen to die there, and their vengeful spirits end up doing all sorts of horrible things to the living.
It’s a ghost story with a sharp edge, and this helps to push it into more frightening territory than some of the subsequent seasons. Plus, since it was the inaugural season, audiences had no idea what to expect as any tropes had yet to be established.
4 Season 2 – Asylum
It can be argued that Asylum is the best American Horror Story season. The writing is tight, the acting is absolutely superb — the crackling enmity between Jessica Lange’s and Sarah Paulson’s characters is palpable — and there are few things more terrifying than the thought of being trapped in a psychiatric hospital.
Though it ends on a happy note, there’s quite a lot that viewers — and characters — must endure to get to that point. It’s rare that a show can balance a serial killer, demonic possession, body mutilation, aliens, and more, but Asylum did it well.
3 Season 7 – Cult
This was one of those seasons that, for many reasons, cut a bit too close to the bone. For one thing, it takes place in then-present day, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
It’s more than that, though. The main villain, the cult leader Kai, is terrifying because he seems so realistic, and it’s easy to see how the cycle of murder, mayhem, and terror depicted in this series could very well end up happening in the real world. Cult also has many twists that keep viewers on edge. In a show that features the supernatural and things that don’t exist, this was so scary because it could legitimately happen.
2 Season 6 – Roanoke
This season explored one of America’s most enduring mysteries: what happened at the lost colony of Roanoke? In the series’ telling of events, the colonists are currently ghosts that return to a plot of land to receive the blood sacrifice of anyone who happens to be living there at the time.
This season makes some bold choices when it comes to storytelling, nesting the various narrative strands inside of one another— though it’s true that some plot elements of Roanoke don’t make sense). The most horrifying thing about it, though, is that it ends with yet another cycle of bloodshed getting ready to take place, suggesting that there is no escape from it.
1 Season 8 – Apocalypse
Apocalypse was a bit of a strange one since it purported to depict the literal end of the world and the rise of the Antichrist, the child from season 1. And it didn’t stop there. There was time travel, murder, and even an appearance by the famous Romanov family.
Ultimately, of course, Michael Langdon is defeated. However, that’s not quite the end of the story, and the season ends with the implication that a new Antichrist has been born, and that the dreadful cycle will begin all over again, suggesting once again that history repeats itself. It’s this strange turn that makes it one of the best American Horror Story seasons in addition to the scariest. The combination of characters from two seasons and the downer of a storyline made it terrifying.
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