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Over eight years and nine seasons, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s American Horror Story have dominated the horror television genre. The show’s irresistible blend of Gothic and camp has earned it a string of prestigious accolades, from Emmys to Golden Globes. With high-profile guest appearances from the likes of Lady Gaga, Stevie Nicks, and Naomi Campbell, AHS is not only a show that promises entertainment but one that stars are queuing up to be part of. AHS’s recycling of Gothic and horror conventions demonstrate the producers’ encyclopaedic knowledge of the genres and daring attitude in creating TV drama. The ninth season, AHS: 1984, has recently concluded and is yet to hit Netflix, so we’ll have to wait a bit longer to dissect this one. In the meantime, let’s take a moment to revisit the highs and low of seasons 1-8, ranked worst to best.
8. Cult (season 7)
The focus on Trump and the aftermath of the 2016 election was the downfall of this season. The cult is such an interesting concept with so much potential, but the result was disappointing. The political satire felt clumsy and on the nose. It lacked the escapism and enjoyment of previous seasons because dealing with such a recent and cataclysmic political event in a horror narrative feels too heavy, too real, and too soon. Cult isn’t the first season to reference real-life events, but others do this in a far more sophisticated way.
The season experiments with tackling political themes and I respect Murphy and Falchuk for trying something different. However, sometimes watching Lady Gaga serve some epic looks in Hotel, or listening to Jessica Lange pull out another savage insult in Coven is just the tonic we need.
7. Freak Show (season 4)
One of the main issues with season 4, Freak Show, is that it doesn’t seem to know its genre, whereas seasons 1-3 had a very distinct and consistent tone whether it’s horror or teen drama. What’s more, the characters are weaker in comparison to other seasons, which isn’t helped by them also being extremely unlikeable, even the ones that are supposed to be the heroes. One big problematic elephant in the room in Freak Show is its choice of the cast: a mix of disabled and able-bodied actors playing disabled characters. As the seasons progress, the able-bodied actors take precedence to the point where the disabled actors become more like extras.
The only standout character is Jessica Lange’s Marlene Dietrich-esque Elsa Mars, who is the best thing about the season.
6. Roanoke (season 6)
Roanoke’s meta documentary-style premise and historical choice of the locale are great concepts that feel novel and exciting after seasons 1-5. However, neither are well sustained because the season eventually descends into a conventional haunted house narrative that fails to live up to Murder House. The uniqueness of the location fades into the background of the plot; if they set the season somewhere that wasn’t in Roanoke, it would probably be the same.
That said, Roanoke’s take on reality TV is smart and satirical. The Big Brother-esque’ Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell’ demonstrates an awareness of how dark and exploitative reality TV shows can be.
5. Apocalypse (season 8)
The season opens with a plot that’s so obscure it took me four episodes and the Wikipedia page to understand it. When it returns to the Coven narrative, it finally starts making sense and becomes an enjoyable watch. The season brings back old favourites who died in Coven and introduced new characters into the mix – Michael Langdon, the Antichrist, is a great addition to the show. Oddly, the Apocalypse barely features in the season and seems to be used as a framing device for the witches vs Antichrist narrative.
Apocalypse is like a second season of Coven rather than its season of AHS.
4. Hotel (season 5)
Hotel is unapologetically stylish and the most visually stunning season thus far. Lady Gaga as the vampiric Countess fits right in and the narrative’s preoccupation with Hollywood brilliantly complements the season’s glamorous tone. However, it often prioritises this glamour over a sturdy plot and borders on style over substance. At times, it could do with being less conceptual.
Thank goodness for Iris (Kathy Bates) and Liz (Dennis O’Hare) who provide essential wit and vitality to a plot that is otherwise moody, abstract, and takes itself a little too seriously.
3. Asylum (season 2)
Serial killers, demons, and aliens…it shouldn’t work, but it does. The season’s 1960’s setting allows for this bizarre combination of tropes because they are either happening in the news or feature strongly in popular culture. Sister Jude is Jessica Lange’s best role by far; her character is complex, layered, suffers, and has genuine redemption. Where this season falls is in its unnecessary shock value. It tackles troubling issues ranging from conversion therapy to abortion, some of which make sense in the context of the 1960’s asylum narrative. Others, however, go a bit too far and border on bad taste, like the inclusion of Anne Frank as a patient in the asylum.
This season is particularly dark, but I commend it for daring to explore the topic of the asylum in horror TV – many shows have shied away from this.
2. Coven (season 3)
Who doesn’t love witches? If Coven was its own series, I’d watch the hell out of it. This season has some of the best characters in the whole of AHS, not to mention fierce female characters – Marie Laveau and Myrtle Snow to name but a few. It’s campy and fun, which is refreshing after the first two seasons. Its choice of genre, inspired by supernatural teen drama, suits the theme perfectly.
I can see why Coven was chosen for a crossover later in the series because it has so much potential beyond one season. The Stevie Nicks cameo is the cherry on top.
1. Murder House (season 1)
Murder House stands out because it sticks closely to the horror film brief. Some seasons rely too heavily on shock and disgust to create horror, whereas Murder House is much more controlled and uses conventions of the haunted house film to create some genuinely creepy moments. It’s a very horror-literate season; there are recognisable references to a haunted house and domestic horror narratives. The choice of theme works so well because it’s universal, meaning that the narrative isn’t restricted by time, location, and culture – unlike the freak show or the asylum.
The show never forgets that the house is consistently the central focus. It is the most well-constructed character with a complex and compelling history, personality, and desire that overshadows the rest of the cast.