American Horror Story’s 10 Most Disturbing Episodes, Ranked

American Horror Story’s most disturbing episodes prove that the show is not short on truly shocking, upsetting scenes despite its campy side.

While American Horror Story can be a lot of campy fun, the show’s most disturbing episodes prove that the horror anthology series can also be unforgettably uncomfortable. American Horror Story has a tough tone to pin down. Like a lot of producer Ryan Murphy’s work, the horror anthology series features many funny, over-the-top supporting characters who provide solid comedic relief. American Horror Story also frequently plays host to absurd, unlikely storylines, meaning the series has a somewhat heightened, silly atmosphere. However, this is sometimes abandoned in favor of pure terror.

Even though American Horror Story seems to have a sense of humor, the anthology series occasionally ramps up its disturbing content and drops its self-aware comedic side entirely. While American Horror Story season 12 seems like it will inject a little more campiness back into the show, this is tough to predict. After all, the wild tonal shifts of the series mean that light-hearted episodes can end with a horrific moment of violence, or darker, gorier American Horror Story outings can suddenly cut to a playful subplot about the season’s sillier supporting stars.

10Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 13, “Curtain Call”

Dandy kills the performers in American Horror Story Freak Show

While a lot of American Horror Story’s nastiest shocks have felt sudden, few were quite as abrupt as the fate of season 4’s titular Freak Show. A few of the traveling show’s members were killed off throughout Freak Show’s tense story, only for a deranged serial killer to suddenly massacre almost all the surviving members in the opening scenes of the season finale. Dandy massacring the freaks in cold blood was both abrupt and horrific, but the scene hit even harder because of how much time viewers spent getting to know the cold-blooded killer’s victims.

91984, Season 9, Episode 4, “True Killers”

Emma Roberts as Brooke Thompson sitting in front of fire in American Horror Story 1984

After American Horror Story: Apocalypse proved a flop with fans and critics alike, season 9’s 1984 took things back to basics with a summer camp slasher. Things got convoluted in the season’s latter half, but it was episode 4 that provided this outing’s most disturbing fate. Xavier survived getting cooked alive in a giant oven, which was already gruesome. However, the character’s fate would have almost been less disturbing if he had died instantly. Instead, Xavier endured horrific burns only to eventually get killed soon after anyway.

8Coven, Season 3, Episode 3, “The Replacements”

Emma Roberts as Madison Montgomery from American Horror Story: Coven

American Horror Story season 3, Coven, was not short on nasty moments. However, for all of the season’s axe murderers and eye gouging, it was a much more mundane sort of trauma that made episode 3, “The Replacements,” so hard to watch. The revelation that Kyle’s mother was an incestuous predator was a particularly nasty twist that proved even the most minor character in the series could turn out to be an inhuman monster.

7Cult, Season 7, Episode 5, “Holes”

Kai surrounded by men in clown masks in American Horror Story Cult.

While Coven might have given viewers a tragically sympathetic Even Peters American Horror Story character, season 7’s Cult showed an entirely new side of the star. Peters played the unhinged cult leader Kai in this outing. By episode 5, Kai had amassed a sizable following of home-invading killers who dressed as clowns. The episode’s home invasions were the stuff of nightmares, but the nameless man in the gimp suit suffered one of the show’s nastiest fates when Kai casually murdered him. However, it was the drawn-out torture by nail gun that made this episode so memorably shocking.

6Roanoke, Season 6, Episode 4, “Chapter 4”

Ashley Gilbert looking back at someone in American Horror Story Roanoke.

American Horror Story season 6 was a mixed bag as Roanoke took on the ambitious task of melding a mockumentary format with a standard haunted house story. That said, Roanoke wasn’t short on moments that left viewers gasping. American Horror Story mainstay Leslie Jordan’s well-meaning medium Cricket earned arguably the worst fate of the show to date, and his disemboweling was strong stuff even for this infamous series.

5Coven, Season 3, Episode 1, “Bitchcraft”

Delphine LaLaurie smiling in AHS Coven

Starting as it meant to go on, Coven’s first episode began with a flashback that introduced viewers to the serial killing slave owner Delphine LaLaurie. The revelation of LaLaurie’s mistreatment of her slaves was horrifying but what made this particularly shocking was the fact that the appalling scenes arrived so early in the story. Viewers had no chance to steel themselves before this American Horror Story outing delved into its nastiest moments.

4Hotel, Season 5, Episode, “Checking In”

Denis O'Hare as Liz Taylor and Kathy Bates as Iris in the lobby in American Horror Story: Hotel

While Freak Show wasted its best guest stars, the next season was determined not to repeat this mistake. Hotel not only saw Lady Gaga join the cast of American Horror Story, but the outing also welcomed New Girl’s Max Greenfield to the cast. However, any celebrations were short-lived. Much like CovenHotel set out its intentions to shock early on as the Addiction Demon graphically assaulted Greenfield’s Gabriel. It was a seriously upsetting sight and a clear warning that this season would nastier than ever.

3Freak Show, Season 4, Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

Pepper and Ma Petite in American Horror Story: Freak Show

In “Test of Strength,” strongman Dell Toledo was tempted into betraying his fellow freaks with an opportunity to make untold riches. Few viewers thought that the character would go through with this amoral bargain but, as soon as he handed Ma Petite her prettiest dress, it was obvious where the scene was heading. Ma Petite’s death was as emotionally devastating as it was gruesome, with Dell selling his soul as one of Freak Show’s sweetest characters lost her life.

2Murder House, Season 1, Episode 6, “Piggy, Piggy”

While “Piggy, Piggy” ends with a bleakly comic punchline, the episode’s main plot is pure horror. As Ben talks to a new client, the disturbed patient shares his obsession with the urban legend of a serial killer named the Piggyman. A serial killer who butchered his victims, the Piggyman could be conjured up much like the classic horror movie villain Candyman. The killer is a terrifying creation, while Tate’s fantasies of shooting up his school make this episode a doubly disturbing endurance test for viewers.

1Asylum, Season 2, Episode 5, “I Am Anne Frank (Part 2)”

Zachary Quinto as Leather Face in American Horror Story: Asylum

With alien abductions, zombies, demonic possessions, two separate serial killers, and a haunting, Asylum was nothing if not ambitious. However, it is tough to fault this overstuffed approach when it resulted in the show’s most disturbing outing ever. Shelly being turned into a grotesque experimental zombie was one of the worst American Horror Story fates in the show’s history, while Lana’s encounter with Bloody Face was a more grounded and even scarier type of horror. Blending believable nightmares with sci-fi elements, American Horror Story season 2, episode 5 came up with a nightmare viewers would never forget.

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