In 2011, the first season of hit US TV show American Horror Story crept into our houses and scared the hell out of us for the very first time. Five years and five terrifying seasons later, the AHS franchise is now one of the biggest US TV creations thanks to showrunners Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy.
Undoubtedly, its best selling point is its ability to reinvent itself. American Horror Story is an anthology series; every season brings a completely new range of settings, plots and horrors to entertain/traumatize us, even though the central cast usually remains the same.
Since AHS: Murder House, we’ve jumped to Asylum in 2012 and then Coven, Freak Show and Hotel in 2013, 2014 and 2015. With each season the show has grown in strength and popularity, and attracted some major guest stars (Naomi Campbell! Stevie Nicks! Lady Gaga! NAOMI CAMPBELL!). Throughout them all, it’s the characters that have drawn us in more than anything else – where else would you see crazed nuns, demented clowns and vampire hotel owners in one show?
So many incredible characters have come and gone (usually in the most gruesome ways imaginable) – and some have even popped up in more than one season. Here, we’ve narrowed down the extensive list to the very best 15.
15. Madison Montgomery (Coven)
Madison Montgomery, Hollywood starlet and officially the bitchiest witch you’ll ever see. Fame obsessed and having not fully come to terms with the face that her acting career is over, the talented Emma Roberts‘ character joins Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies and quickly establishes herself as top-dog.
AHS: Coven sees a brutal game of power and politics surround the selection of the next Supreme (the head witch, basically). Madison shows early magical potential to fill this role, which – of course – gets her murdered by jealous but totally cool witch Fiona Goode (played by the legendary Jessica Lange). The first time is bad enough, but it’s not the last time Madison is killed; she ultimately meets her end at the hands of her Frankenstein’s-Monster-type boyfriend.
Madison’s character is so brilliant because Roberts balances the mix of evil and funny brilliantly. If anything, she deserves to be on this list for this line alone: “Welcome to the revolution carrot-top. As the next Supreme, I’m going to drag this coven out of the dark ages. Crotchless panties for everyone!”
14. Aileen Wuornos (Hotel)
Lily Rabe is a phenomenal actor and one of AHS’s greatest assets. She has appeared in every season in some form, but it’s her portrayal as the ghost of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in Hotel that earns Rabe her first appearance on our list.
In American Horror Story: Hotel, original owner James Patrick March (more on that monster later) hosts annual get-togethers for a few of his friends – which sounds perfectly lovely enough, until you learn that his closest acquaintances are some of the most brutal killers in history. Among them is retro man-slayer Aileen Wuornos who, between 1989 and 1990, murdered seven men in around the Florida area of the US.
While this version of Wuornos is heavily fictionalised, Lily Rabe’s portrayal of the killer deserves all of the awards. Alongside a picture-perfect costume and drawling accent, she nails the behavioral ticks that make videos of the real Wuornos so chilling.
13. Delphine LaLaurie (Coven)
Here we have one of the nastiest of Murphy’s and Fulchuk’s characters. Marie Delphine LaLaurie starts her story as a popular New Orleans socialite in the 1800s, but behind her high-society facade LaLaurie is possibly one of the most evil AHS creations.
Her grand soirees are always rounded off by taking her guests to visit her attic, where she keeps a selection of her slaves in chains, ready to torture and humiliate as she wishes. One unlucky slave has even had a bull’s head sewed around his own (Delphine admiringly refers to him as her Minotaur).
LaLaurie gets her just desserts when her house is raided and her family murdered, while she herself is cursed with immortality and buried alive. What makes LaLaurie even more terrifying is that she was based on a real-life slave-owner Delphine LaLaurie nee Macarty, who murdered her slaves thoughtlessly in the 1830s.
12. James Patrick March (Hotel)
Another one of AHS’s more hardcore horrors, but one we can’t help but find charming and ever so slightly dashing. In AHS: Hotel, March oversaw the creation of the Hotel Cortez (that season’s principal setting) as a hunting ground in which he could pick his victims at his leisure. Even the walls of the hotel he left hollow, all the better for him to move quickly around the building and snatch victims through the secret doors and hatches in the many rooms.
Killed in a joint suicide with his equally-as-twisted maid, James Patrick March now stalks the corridors of the Hotel Cortez as one of its many ghosts. During the season, March grooms detective John Lowe as his protege while dealing with his ex-wife’s (Lady Gaga’s The Countess) string of new lovers. March’s and The Countess’ scenes are some of the best of the season – especially during their fortnightly dinners.
11. The Angel of Death (Asylum)
Despite only appearing in a few episodes of American Horror Story’s second and critically acclaimed second season, Frances Conroy’s (who, it has to be said, is one hell of an actor) portrayal of Shachath (we have no idea how to pronounce it either), the benevolent Angel of Death.
During AHS: Asylum, the Angel of Death appears to those who are close to death or seriously want to die. Not exactly the talkative type, the bulk of this performance from Conroy is all about how she looks and how she holds herself. Elegant and imperious, Shachath appears in funeral-appropriate 1930s dress, complete with a killer fishnet veil over her eyes. The Angel of Death brings death to her charges with a simple kiss – and with a pair of large, angelic black wings fanning out as she does so.
Glamorous and haunting, mysterious and fantastical, everything about this character is exquisite. The only way we could love her more is if she was featured more!
10. Dr. Oliver Thredson (Asylum)
In 2012’s AHS: Asylum, Oliver Thredson was hired into the titular mad house to oversee the morality of the treatments taking place. This Jekyll and Hyde character was, on one hand, kind and professional, but it is revealed that he is in fact notorious murderer “Bloody Face”. You can imagine how he got that name…
As the season progresses, we learn that Bloody Face has a tormented fixation on women – specifically women with good skin (a feature he relates to his mother). His victims with the best complexion get skinned and upholstered over the chairs and tables. Nice.
Thredson is a menacing, very realistic character. The scenes that take place in the torture-room of his house are the most nerve-wracking in the season, as there is always the sense that, despite his soft speaking voice and gentle manner, you’re just a wrong word away from being turned into a lampshade.
9. Moira the Maid (Murder House)
American Horror Story’s first season, titled Murder House, often gets a lot of flack for being less impressive than its successors. However, it would be a ginormous mistake to ignore the first-born child of this particularly gruesome family.
AHS: Murder House is centered around – well – a house, which has seen A LOT of murders take place inside over the years. The only constant in the house is its resident collection of ghosts, one of which is the maid, Moira O’Hara. Again portrayed by Frances Conroy (her first role in the anthology), Moira was murdered by her former employer when she was discovered in a compromising position with the man of the house.
Now a ghost, Moira is able to switch between an older and a younger version of herself, which she uses to her advantage to charm the male occupants that the house has had. Conroy’s performance really gets across just how world-weary the ancient ghost is.
8. The Countess (Hotel)
From the first season to its newest, showrunner Ryan Murphy promised a more glamorous setting for AHS’s fifth cycle – and boy did he and Brad Falchuk deliver. Find a premise more glamorous than Lady Gaga playing a fashionista vampire who owns a hotel. We dare you.
There was a lot of scepticism when it was revealed that the pop star would be featuring in the show, but it’s safe to say that Gaga proved the haters wrong – her performance as Elizabeth, better known as the Countess, earned her her first Golden Globe award!
The Countess is a vampire, transformed at the height of the starry Hollywood scene of the 1920s. She has had a string of lovers and husbands but, after half a century of lavish living, the Countess finds her fortune is wearing thin. So what does she do? Marry and kill a rich guy, obviously!
Gaga depicts the Countess as an apathetic, nonchalant killer, but manages to show shades of compassion and love towards the last third of the season, especially towards her friend and “fondest creation”, Liz Taylor.
7. Dandy Mott (Freak Show)
Psychotic mummy’s-boy Dandy Mott was a high-point in AHS: Freak Show, which is generally seen as one of the franchise’s weaker offerings. Spoilt and over-indulged by his mother, Dandy becomes bored by her countless gifts and attempts to entertain him – so he decides to apprentice himself to the local serial killer, Twisty the Clown, which is totally normal and not something to worry about at all.
Skillfully portrayed by Horror Story newbie Finn Wittrock, Dandy murders a grand total of twenty people throughout the season, including a pretty damn gripping scene in which the baby-faced killer works his way through the travelling circus, slaughtering the freaks one by one. However, this being television, no bad deed goes unpunished. In the final episode of the season, Dandy is caught by the remaining members of the freak show and drowned in a Houdini-esque water tank.
6. Misty Day (Coven)
Introducing everybody’s favourite witch, Misty Day! This character quickly became a fan-favourite during her time in American Horror Story: Coven in 2013. Like every witch, she had a special ability unique to her; Misty could bring back the souls of the dead, effectively bringing people back to life.
It’s ironic then that Misty meets her (heartbreaking) demise during a test in which she has to travel to and from the nether realm. Unable to return, and stuck inside one of her worst memories for all time, she crumbles to ash and dies.
Lily Rabe’s performance as this hippie witch from the swamps conveys a delicate nature to Misty, who was all about peace and happiness and her special mud, which apparently did wonders for the skin. This rejuvenating dirt is a pivotal plot device throughout the series, and helps resurrect many major characters (sometimes a little too conveniently, but we digress…).
5. Pepper (Coven and Freak Show)
For all the stabbing, lynching, shooting, decapitating, drowning, butchering, strangling, beating and general not-niceness of American Horror Story, it may surprise people to learn that it does emotional stories like this one so – damn – well.
Pepper first appears in Asylum as a model inmate of the Briarcliffe Manor. For a secondary character, her story in that season is far from mundane – she is abducted by aliens half-way through and returns to the asylum with genius-level intelligence and charged with looking after another inmate pregnant with alien kids. Wow.
We next see Pepper in AHS: Freak Show, set some time before the character’s permanent incarceration in Briarcliffe. In this season, Pepper is eventually taken to live with her sister after the death of her performance partner in the Freak Show. The unjust and just-plain-depressing circumstances surrounding Pepper’s admission to the asylum is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the season.
4. Lana Winters (Asylum)
Possibly one of American Horror Story’s greatest protagonists, we are introduced to ambitious journalist Lana Winters at the beginning of AHS: Asylum. Having heard about the various horrors that take place within the walls of Briarcliffe Manor, Lana infiltrates the institute determined to get the scoop of the decade and reveal the truth to the world.
Things don’t turn out exactly to plan for this plucky reporter, however; she is falsely imprisoned by the cruel asylum manager Sister Jude and subjected to electroshock therapy and all sorts of other forms of abuse disguised as medical procedures.
Played by AHS supremo Sarah Paulson – who has appeared in every season of the show, usually in major roles – Winters’ story is tumultuous to say the least. After escaping the asylum and surviving the mass murderer Bloody Face, Lana goes on to earn global fame in later life for her critically-acclaimed expose.
3. Liz Taylor (Hotel)
Back to the glamorous (if a little blood-stained) interior of AHS: Hotel now, and it’s difficult to pick one favorite character out of that entire season, but Dennis O’Hare’s portrayal of Liz Taylor manages to stand out just a fraction more than the others.
Liz Taylor started life as mundane businessman Nick Pryor, who kept the secret of dressing up in women’s clothing for years before his arrival at the Hotel Cortez. It was within its dark corridors however that, with the help of Lady Gaga’s The Countess, Nick transitions into the queen that is Liz Taylor. Special mention goes to this scene; overlaid with Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes”, we see The Countess whisper words of beautiful encouragement, urging him to be his true self. “It’s not beauty you lack,” she purrs in one of the sweetest scenes in the season, “it’s commitment.”
Liz’s demise is just as sweet; she allows The Countess to kill her so that she can stay in the hotel forever as a ghost.
2. Tate (Murder House)
Another stand-out star of Murder House‘s much maligned time on our screens was
sex on legs god of everything Evan Peters. His portrayal as broody teen Tate Langdon remains a fan favorite, despite his murderous past and questionable behaviour.
American Horror Story creates those types of characters perfectly – we can’t help but love characters who are shown to have done the most horrendous things we’ve seen on television. Tate is a ghost who was shot by police after stalking around his high school, shooting any student he passed and yet, when he falls in love with the daughter of his psychiatrist, we can’t help but fall in love with him too. What does this mean?!
But it’s a love story that doesn’t last forever. When his sweetheart discovers that she herself is also a ghost, she can’t bring herself to forgive him for not telling her. It’s like Romeo and Juliet, isn’t it…
1. Sister Jude (Asylum)
American Horror Story: Asylum is often credited with really rocketing the franchise into the rafters of brilliant TV. And, just like she was the helm of Briarcliffe Manor, the cruel and authoritarian Sister Jude was most definitely at the helm of the second season of FX’s hit show.
At the beginning of the second cycle, Sister Jude was a strict nun feared throughout the asylum. We learn later on, however, that Jude is just as troubled as the patients she manages. Having killed a child in a car accident many years previously, and subsequently battling alcohol addiction, Jude is thrown into even more torment when things take an even darker turn throughout the season, leading to her own incarceration at Briarcliffe.
TV royalty Jessica Lange portrayed Sister Jude perfectly, an excellent mix of cruel and – at times – compassionate. Jude finds some solace towards the end of her long life when she is taken in by one of her former inmates and leads a happy life until she is kissed by the Angel of Death.