A diverse horror anthology show spanning over a decade, American Horror Story has never been a program to shy away from the gruesome.
As you’re anxiously awaiting creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck’s latest invention, American Horror Story: Double Feature—set to premiere on FX starting on August 25th—it’s as good a time as any to take a trip down this very monstrous memory lane. From the campy to the bloody to the confusingly poignant and potentially exploitative, here is a list of some of the best, scariest episodes of American Horror Story.
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11. “Camp Redwood,” 1984: Episode 1
This take on the classic summer camp slasher gets off to a flawless, campy start. So much lingers in the air during this first episode: a promiscuous blood bath, a zingy 80s aesthetic, Matthew Morrison’s comically large mustache. This season is self-consciously comical. Intermixed in all of the satire is an unsettling undercurrent of chaos. This episode begins with a flashback to a massacre at the campground where most of the rest will be set. After this gruesome, somewhat cryptic entry, the audience is introduced to the group (including Emma Roberts, Billie Lourd, and Cody Fern) that makes the ill-fated decision to return to the camp fourteen years later. What’s most frightening about this episode is maybe the fact that even as it sets up all of the standard horror-comedy tropes in such fabulous detail, it already begins to demonstrate how unstable they are, making the viewer nervous to laugh too freely.
10. “Piggy Piggy,” Murder House: Episode 6
While there are many scenes in the show that are heavily embedded in its created gothic environments, sometimes the most frightening moments are when this aesthetic collides with the commonplace. This episode opens with a flashback to Tate (Evan Peters) committing a mass shooting at his high school, information that leads Violet (Taissa Farmiga) to consult a medium through whom she learns Tate doesn’t know he is dead. With the show so often dealing with over-the-top subject matter, sequences like the school shooting offer a sense of scale. Frightening for its brutal realism, this episode definitely ranks as one of the most memorable episodes of American Horror Story and paves the way for all of Peters’s future appearances in the series.
9. “Monsters Among Us,” Freak Show: Episode 1
Oh, the premiere episodes of American Horror Story seasons. Multiple will wind up on this list, and for good reason. As entry points of each installment of the show, these opening scenes set the tone from which the rest of the story will evolve. In Freak Show, the audience is told right away to expect the worst. The episode opens with a milkman walking into an old woman’s house and finding her dead on the floor and something, at first unseen, in the closet. It isn’t until later, when the narrative has moved on to the hospital, that the audience learns what he found: Sarah Paulson as a pair of conjoined twins. While much of the series plays with aesthetics of the carnivalesque—that is, a celebration of that which is bodily and disturbing—this season takes this to the extreme. Its macabre celebration of destructive whimsy is clear from the moment Twisty the Clown joins a slow, romantic picnic scene with a bloodsoaked face of circus paint.
8. “Chapter 9,” Roanoke: Season 9
While the entire second half of Roanoke sets off onto a whole new cascade of horror, this episode in particular is noteworthy for its meta turn toward found-footage inside of a season about documented historical horrors. In this episode, three teens that are obsessed fans of My Roanoke Nightmare, the series of documenting hauntings that the season is based around, head into the forest to try to film the ghosts for themselves. Of course, they get more than they bargained for. Featuring shaky forest camera angles that are great for viewers nostalgic for The Blair Witch Project, “Chapter 9” is an easily-missed gem of this installment that raises questions regarding the anxiety of narrative stability, capture, and the blurred lines between the past and the present, all themes that the show seeks to tackle from many different angles.
7. “Bitchcraft,” Coven: Episode 1
American Horror Story certainly knows how to ground a new installment in a particular aesthetic, and that’s certainly true of Coven. This season opens with an introduction to four witches learning to understand their powers at a boarding school. Flashbacks involve some truly horrifying, exploitative rituals employed for everlasting life. While it’s possible that Kathy Bates would be scary doing anything really, it’s hard to argue with the fact that methodically smearing blood on her face while looking straight into a mirror ranks up there with one of the more disturbing actions she could perform. At least, a viewer would be forgiven for thinking this before watching the rest of the season.
6. “Welcome to Briarcliff,” Asylum: Episode 1
One of the defining characteristics of American Horror Story is its willingness to experiment with narrative form. This starts off right away in the Asylum season when the audience watches a couple of horror fans (Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan Tatum) film themselves at what used to be the grounds of Briarcliff, the asylum featured throughout the rest of the season. Beginning with this contemporary introduction to the space before turning to 1964, where the majority of the plot takes place, highlights the haunting presence of the institution as an atrocity that lives outside of time, its legacy continuing to torment those unlucky individuals that cross its path.
5. “True Killers,” 1984: Episode 4
Speaking of the instability of tropes and characters… In the fourth episode of 1984, the audience gets some insight into why Montana (Billie Lourd) is at the camp. Like all good twists, her malicious intentions fully line up with the odd turns of phrase and hesitations that she has displayed throughout the season. Still, the planting of clues regarding Montana’s two-faced nature almost makes her reveal more concerning. Once the audience realizes Ryan Murphy is once again playing cloak-and-dagger with every seemingly trustable character, the amorality of the season really comes into focus.
4. “Neighbors From Hell,” Cult: Episode 3
There are few things as claustrophobic as immediately beginning an episode with someone being buried alive. As the story progresses, nothing actually loosens. Instead, after leaving a successful therapy appointment where she confronted her fear of being locked in a coffin, a woman finds herself attacked in her own home by a host of masked strangers there to seal both her and her husband into caskets. The attackers leave behind a marking—something of a red smiley face with a strange dash across its face—which will come to haunt each of the other characters and the audience in turn.
3. “Checking In,” Hotel: Episode 1
This list has already demonstrated the terrifying place that premiere episodes hold in the American Horror Story oeuvre, and the beginning of Hotel is no exception. When it comes to playing on American horror tropes, there are few places as pre-determined with spookiness as the hotel. Like houses, hotels have long been associated with misfortune and torment. Indeed, in the beginning, when two tourists arrive at the hotel and ask for a refund on their deposit so they can pay to stay elsewhere, the manager Iris (Bates) denies them their money back, saying “welcome to America.” From here, all of the different specters that occupy Hotel Cortez introduce themselves in a characteristically unsettling fashion.
2. “I Am Anne Frank Part 1,” Asylum: Episode 4
Asylum is one of those seasons of AHS that just keeps ramping up, getting more chaotic and messy with every passing episode. It weaves interlocking threads involving gay conversion therapy, sexual violence, medical experimentation, and historical trauma. In “I Am Anne Frank Part 1,” this reaches a fever pitch. Throughout the previous episodes, there is some mystery surrounding the amount of abuse Shelly (Chloë Sevigny) is facing through brutal experimentation conducted by Nazi war criminal Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). The most terrifying aspect of this episode comes near the end when a stark reveal of the mounting body horror will either have viewers skipping the intro to get to the next episode faster or shutting off the show entirely.
1. “Return to Murder House,” Apocalpyse: Episode 6
This episode tops the list not just because it is objectively terrifying, but because it beautifully connects larger arcs from the first season to its dramatization of the end of the world. It is grotesquely nostalgic, bringing back the ghosts of characters that fans of the show will find familiar. A witch and a warlock (Roberts and Billy Porter) purchase the original Murder House and then cast a spell that will allow them to see, hear, and interact with all of the ghosts that still reside there. Along the way, they gain disturbing insight into Apocalypse’s main antagonist while also providing a sense of poetic closure for spirits like Moira O’Hara (Frances Conroy and Alexandra Breckenridge).
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