Ever since American Horror Story premiered in 2011, the FX anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk has provided more than enough material to inspire a lifetime of nightmares. Each of the show's nine seasons has its own quirks and tone, whether it's the deeply unsettling vibes of Asylum or the overt campiness of Coven and 1984. But none of them skimps on shock factor.
AHS is full of twists and turns that often take seasons in insane directions, and disturbing sequences that make certain episodes impossible to forget. While some of AHS' most shocking moments favor jaw drops over jump scares, they're in part what defines the whole anthology. Below, we've rounded up the ones that have stuck with us the most and will probably always haunt our dreams, ranked from pretty surprising to totally WTF.
Art of the Meal: Chloe Rose Makes Super Mario Bros Art With Hot Sauces
The not-so-white wedding
1984, Episode 2 Emma Robert's Brooke seemed poised from the beginning of AHS: 1984 to be the slasher movie-themed season's final girl. For a bit, it was unclear whether her good girl persona was for real or they were going to alter the final-girl trope by giving her a surprising secret identity -- and although it turned out that she was an innocent victim, her personal life was no less dramatic. As it turned out, she was single and new to Los Angeles because at her wedding her almost husband opened fire and shot himself and others after falsely suspecting she had an affair. The usage of Billy Idol's "White Wedding" over shots of her bloodied gown makes this scene hard to forget.
The weirdest attic there ever was
Coven, Episode 4 For much of Coven, Denis O'Hare's mute character Spalding seems like nothing more than an unsuspecting, devoted butler to Miss Robichaux's Academy. When he helps Fiona get rid of Madison's body, he absolutely proves to be unsuspecting because while the man comes off as creepy, he doesn't necessarily read as someone with a doll fetish. Instead of disposing her body, he takes her up to his attic where we see his extensive doll collection and discover he intends to turn her into a life-size toy. Ignorance is bliss.
The saddest death in the show's history
Freak Show, Episode 7 There are few characters on AHS ever that are completely good. The smallest woman in the world Jyoti Amge's character Ma Petite takes the cake for being one of the show's best, though -- so when they killed her off, they killed the joy inside many fans, too. It wasn't just upsetting that her friend the Strong Man, Dell (Michael Chiklis), was the one who did it, it was how somber it was. He regretfully squeezed her to death, making households around America yell, "No!" and he did it because Stanley (Denis O'Hare) blackmailed him into getting him a freak or sharing Dell's secret that he's gay. Tears all around.
Murder House, Episode 10 Not many fans would call AHS a tearjerker, but if there ever was a moment that induced sobs, it was when Tate (Evan Peters) revealed to Violet (Taissa Farmiga) that she's been dead nearly the entire time since she's lived in the Murder House. They dropped the clues all season long, but watching the teenaged girl try to escape her own prison and look at her own body -- by the very psychopath she thought was protecting her -- is nothing short of upsetting.
"Surprise, Bitch. I'd bet you thought you'd seen the last of me."
Coven, Episode 8 Emma Roberts' catty announcement to Jessica Lange that she rose from the dead and is not going anywhere in Coven has since been meme-ified and reached icon status, going down in AHS history as its most iconic one-liner ever. Madison Montgomery's resurrection maybe wasn't totally mind-blowing to the audience -- given few characters ever really die on this show full of the undead and supernatural rituals -- but Jessica Lange's aging Supreme Fiona was certifiably #shook. The scene is simply delicious.
How the lizard girl got her scales
Freak Show, Episode 7 Sometimes it feels like the side characters in AHS get the brunt of the beating. That's exactly the case when we find out Freak Show's resident scaley, split-tongued human lizard Penny (Grace Gummer) got her reptilian features because her father tattooed and mutilated her against her will when she said she wanted to run off with the circus. Daddy dearest? Not so much.
Queenie's romantic evening
Coven, Episode 3 AHS loves sex -- but not only that, AHS loves explicit, kinky sex scenes. And that's exactly what Coven delivers when Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) has an intimate moment with a minotaur. The half-man-half-bull may actually be one of Delphine LaLaurie's (Kathy Bates) abused slaves/lover of Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) who made him immortal as a creature, but that didn't excuse the uncomfort of watching the sort of beastiality scene get busy. And even worse, it ended in injury. (Gotta watch out for those horns! Yikes!)
Good riddance to Margaret Booth
1984, Episode 9 We love/hate to see AHS get creative with offing its villains. When Camp Redwood's terrorizer Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) finally gets her comeuppance in 1984, it's definitely not for the squeamish as the camp's ghosts plan to prevent her becoming a ghost too by… hurling her limbs one by one into a wood chipper. You may think watching the aggressive chops of each arm and leg, and then her torso, and then her head might get more bearable to watch, but this slasher sequence does not hold back.
The introduction to the Murder House infanta
Murder House, Episode 1 The premiere of AHS did not play around: It took us into that eerie basement and showed what was lurking down there right away. When Tate (Evan Peters) promises to help Violet (Taissa Farmiga) scare off the bully at her new school, she lures her over with the promise of drugs, and lets Tate give her a spook. Or, rather, lets the "infanta" ghastly dead baby creation of the original homeowner claw at her. Violet nor us expected that to come haunting, and leaving us wondering what else haunts the house into the remainder of the season. You may remember the bully later reveals her hair went white after the sight of "that thing"... yeah, us too.
Elsa Mars' run-in with an ax
Freak Show, Episode 4 One of the most exciting parts about AHS is the expanded universe that's unfolded because of it. While there were definitely subtle connections made between the Seasons 1-3, Freak Show was the first installment to make an explicit, cross-character tie to another AHS world. One of the season's crazy crossovers came to light when Elsa's (Jessica Lange) backstory as a dominatrix in WWII Germany was revealed, showing that one of our Season 2 enemies -- the sadistic Dr. Arden AKA Nazi doctor Hans Gruper -- cut off her legs while filming a gory porno. AHS may include just about as much sex as it does horror, but this was nowhere near a "fantasy."
RIP Mr. Guinea Pig
Cult, Episode 3 When there's a pet in a horror movie, you know the outlook for them can't be good. Cult, of course, takes that to the extreme when they sadistically kill off the little boy Ozzy's guinea pig, Mr. Guinea Pig, in a microwave. It's a kill the show only dared to tease back with Murder House when the ghost of Haden (Kate Mara) taunted Mrs. Harmon (Connie Britton) that that was the fate of her beloved dog. Come Cult, traumatizing a kid by forcing him to see his rodents innards is (unfortunately) on the table. Gross!
When Shelley became a creature feature
Asylum, Episode 4 Chloe Sevigny's character in Asylum, nymphomaniac Shelley, goes through it. And so do the school children she unintentionally traumatizes when they catch a glimpse of her after she escapes from Dr. Arden's torture. It's like a scene out of classic suburban horror movie, zeroing in on an innocent setting of a class at recess, and slowly watching as one little girl notices something coming from the bottom of the schoolyard stairs. What they find can only be explained as a monster, like the reveal of a creature feature. Poor Shelley.
Roanoke's cannibalistic sequence
Roanoke, Episode 8 AHS may explore the horrors of the supernatural, but Murphy is always one to touch on how terrifying human behavior can be, too. That's in part the function of the "backwoods" neighbors, the Polks, in Roanoke who help the Butcher (Kathy Bates) by offering her human sacrifices -- while also cashing in on the slaughter themselves since they're cannibals. (Because why not?) The scene that shows them really lean into their cannibalistic tendencies calls back gruesome moments from Texas Chainsaw Massacre as they taunt Lee and literally prepare her for supper after they abduct her. It's one of the most frightening moments of the season, not only because Lee is about to die in one of the most vile ways, but because her capturers are clearly bigots, calling her "it" and torturing her under the veil of a Confederate flag.
Briarcliff's brutal exorcism
Asylum, Episode 2 Sister Eunice's (Lily Rabe) self-righteous godliness looks right into the eyes of pure evil when they invite a supposedly possessed teenaged boy to Briarcliff to be exorcised. The shots of him eating livestock alive are a nice(?) touch, and there's callbacks to The Exorcist (which is one of the scariest movies of all time for a reason) as he's writhing and yelling heinous thoughts. Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) may write off the procedure, believing the young man needs science over religion, but what unfolds as they douse him in holy water can only be explained as the work of the Devil.
The first of the Ten Commandments murders
Hotel, Episode 1 Before detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley) even knows he's on the hunt for a killer set on carrying out murders inspired by the Ten Commandments, the first of the case that he's on certainly sets the graphic tone of the rest to come. Hotel (literally) started off with a bang, showing a couple dramatically assaulted while doing the deed, with the man still barely alive and forcibly stuck inside his lover. It's the kind of lewd sight that sticks with you well beyond the series, no matter how much you wish it wouldn't.
Apocalypse's heart-wrenching moment
Apocalypse, Episode 6 In order for the antichrist to take his rightful place on the hellish throne, there's a couple rituals the Church of Satan needs Michael Langdon (Cody Fern) to complete in Apocalypse -- one of those being that he has to consume a human heart. Obviously. It's terrifying enough watching the Church members kidnap a woman and tear her heart right out of her chest and then watching Michael eat it immediately after, bloody and all, un-phased was clearly more than enough to prove he was who they thought him to be. Hail Satan!
Death by nail gun
Cult, Episode 5 What's technically worse than one person committing murder? Group murder -- which is exactly how Kai (Evan Peters) makes his followers turn against one another in his cult and how they see to it that their failure of a member, R.J. (James Morosinni), goes. Instead of doing the deed quick and easy, though, everybody takes turns placing a nail gun against his skull, torturing him in agony. Mr. Guinea Pig may not have gone out gracefully, but this was the worst scene for the faint of heart in Cult by a long-run.
GoPro deaths in Roanoke
Roanoke, Episode 9 There's a lot of death on AHS. That's a given. But never did it hit as close to reality as the deaths of three millennial vloggers (including one played by fan favorite cast member Taissa Farminga) in Roanoke, shown from the perspective of their GoPro cameras. The found footage horror trope was definitely utilized to its utmost effect, watching as a possessed Lee (Adina Porter) ignores their pleads for mercy and kills them old-school style: set ablaze on a wooden stake. Sensitive content indeed.
Asylum, Episode 5 Satan may have a literal presence throughout AHS, but no character has been to Hell and back quite like Asylum's Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) who was convicted to Briarcliff for being gay. Every part of her "treatment" is more terrible than the last, especially her excruciating conversion therapy that is the most heartbreaking scene throughout the entire show to watch. It's not until she gets out of there, though, that she's forced to face the absolute worst. After Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) helps her escape, she realizes after a quick scan of his furniture-made-out-of-human-skin decorated home that she's in the presence of Bloody Face. It's all worth a good jaw-drop, but the real unflinching shock factor continues when he traps her in his basement lair where she finds her girlfriend's corpse and he rapes her. Taking cues from notorious serial killers, the heinous sequence plays on some of our biggest fears.
The worst AHS creation of all-time: The Addiction Demon
Hotel, Episode 1 There have been a lot of hellish creatures and sadistic characters throughout AHS, but none remain as out-right disturbing as Hotel Cortez's resident monster, the Addiction Demon. It's definitely hard to forget, even if it bears no features -- aside from its excessive drill bit strap-on(!) -- but this thing of the night's entrance is perhaps the hardest moment to watch. It's when the demon, known for punishing the addicts at the hotel for their sins, assaults and kills (yes, with the drill bit) Gabriel (Max Greenfield). While there have been many, "I know this show has an MA rating and airs on cable, but how did they get away with this?" moments through AHS history, but if there was ever a reigning champ of WTF, this was, and maybe always will be, it.
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Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist, and she's still waiting on her invite to Miss Robichaux's Academy.