From the first minutes of Murder House through the latest episode of Freak Show, American Horror Story is responsible for countless nightmares thanks to its weekly doses of disturbing moments. Co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (and their writers) consistently outdo themselves when it comes to grisly killings, brutal sex scenes, and creepy characters, campily intermingling supernatural tropes with terrors that are grounded in reality. Here are AHS’s craziest, most distressing scenes. (Spoilers follow, obviously.)
39. Lana Revisits Briarcliff (Asylum)
Lana’s (Sarah Paulson) exposé on the her former home sees her go back to the horribly understaffed asylum with a camera crew. Their footage — lo-fi, grainy film stock — underscores the creepy, sad images of feces-covered inmates living in almost total darkness. The footage is a veritable remake of Geraldo Rivera’s Peabody-winning report about a Staten Island hospital, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, which can be partially seen in the disturbing documentary Cropsey.
38. The Robot Spider (Asylum)
As if losing your wife to an alien abduction and then getting committed to an asylum for murders you didn’t commit wasn’t bad enough, Kit Walker (Evan Peters) is forced to undergo the experiments of Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), the Nazi who helps run Briarcliff Mental Institution. Poking around Kip’s neck, the demented doc discovers a microchip that suddenly sprouts six legs and tries to scurry away. What’s even creepier is that we never find out what this little E.T. robot is after.
37. A Smart Meal (Murder House)
Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) is so concerned for her unborn child that she’ll do anything to make sure it arrives healthy — including eat brains, as suggested by housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy). Watching Vivien push through her plate of raw, bloody brain is one of series’ more gag-worthy moments.
36. Sad Strokes (Murder House)
Early in the series pilot, recently unfaithful husband Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) decides to wax his carrot while looking out his bedroom window, only to break down in tears over his past dalliances. He then spots Larry (Denis O’Hare), a man with horrible burn scars, standing on his lawn and watching.
35. Delphine LaLaurie’s Singing Head (Coven)
After getting decapitated, immortal slave-torturer Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) is forced by Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) to watch Roots. With her head plopped atop a tray table, LaLaurie pleads, “Not that jungle music!” Then, resigned to her fate, starts singing the 19th-century southern anthem “Dixie” to drown out the TV. It’d be funnier if it weren’t for the pieces of LaLaurie’s roughly severed neck that move along to her wails.
34. Cordelia and the Shears (Coven)
First Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) gets blinded with acid, then gets new eyes thanks to the unwilling donations of two other witches. While blind, she develops a powerful ability to “see” the past, though the transplants somehow take it away. When a potion fails to bring back her second sight, she heads to the school shed and stabs her eyes out with garden shears. Simple and effective.
33. Jimmy Darling’s Side Gig (Freak Show)
Born with the fused-digit condition known as syndactyly, Jimmy Darling (Peters) has hands that resemble long claws. When not at the circus, the “Lobster Boy” makes a few extra bucks working parties for unsatisfied housewives with his natural gift. Leaving little to the imagination, the showrunners decided to show Jimmy shoving his malformed hand up a customer’s skirt, then smiling broadly as she cries out with pleasure.
32. Night Drive (Asylum)
Any fan of Lost knows that the appearance of William Mapother, the actor who played murderous Other Ethan Rom, is a bad omen. On AHS, Mapother played a motorist who rescues Lana, only to start ranting against his unfaithful wife and women in general. The relief of Lana’s safety quickly gives way to fright and the driver shoots himself in the head, wrecking the car and landing Lana back in Briarcliff.
31. The Death of Marie Laveau (Coven)
The feud between Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) and LaLaurie eventually ends with the voodoo priestess getting hacked up by the socialite and her still-alive head being buried apart from the rest of her body. She eventually dies, as she’s unable to fulfill one of those standard “make a human sacrifice once a year in order to remain immortal” contracts with the devilish spirit Papa Legba (Lance Reddick).
30. Delphine’s Skin-care Regimen (Coven)
Delphine tries to remain youthful-looking with a nightly makeup ritual of blood that includes, at one point, the blood of her husband’s illegitimate son.
29. Luke’s Mom (Coven)
The attractive, sweet neighbor-boy is made all the more endearing when he makes it obvious that he’d rather spend time with Nan (Jamie Brewer), the kind witch with Down syndrome, over actress Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts). His devout Christian mom Joan (Patti LuPone), however, declares him sinful inside and out for associating with the coven, and tries to cleanse his soul with a bleach enema. After Luke is smothered by his dear mother, Nan gets the ultimate revenge, using mind control to force Joan to drink her own bleach and die.
28. Kyle’s Mom’s (Coven)
As if it’s not screwed-up enough that frat bro Kyle (Peters) got torn apart in a bus crash, then brought back to life in piecemeal Frankenstein fashion, AHS had to make it even more revolting by revealing that Kyle’s mom had been sexually abusing him. Then they turn the screw even farther by showing her doing it again with his undead body. It’s almost a relief to have this story line end with Kyle bludgeoning her to death with a trophy.
27. The Raspers (Asylum)
Arden’s woods-dwelling experiments gone wrong are first glimpsed feeding on human body parts, then they start coming out of their hiding spaces to show off their deformities and flesh-devouring skills.
26. A Particular Taste (Asylum)
Both Thredsons – father Oliver (Zachary Quinto) and son Johnny (McDermott) — commit some horrible acts throughout Asylum. Their share plenty of dysfunctions, so we’ll say that their thirst for breast milk from, respectively, Lana and a prostitute, is the least freaky of the bunch. Honorable mention goes to the scene where the elder Thredson kisses a corpse that reminds him of his mother while he’s a medical student.
25. Spalding’s Tongue (Coven)
Loyal Robichaux School servant Spalding (O’Hare) is mute. In flashbacks, it’s revealed that the longtime butler removed his tongue so he wouldn’t be forced to the truth about a murder committed by his beloved, coven Supreme Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). The sight of his bottom-to-top straight-razor slicing is thankfully brief.
24. The Undead Threesome (Coven)
In the AHS universe, even dead teens have hormones and questionable decision-making skills. Here, resurrected Madison and pieced-together Kyle have found a mutual attraction. Zoe, still reeling from the fact that she kills people by having sex with them, is shocked to interrupt her undead pals getting busy. But rather than run away, she readily joins in the fun when Madison points out that her killer lady-parts don’t matter when her partners are already kaput.
23. The Deathly Blow Job (Murder House)
Undead maid Moira doesn’t want the Harmons to sell their haunted house, so she seduces real-estate agent Joe Escandarian, bringing him down to the basement for a bit of naughty fun. But, of course, things take a turn for the worse when, while going down on him, Moira bites Joe’s penis off, blood covering her chin as he realizes what happened to him. Then Larry and neighbor Constance (Lange) strangle him to death.
22. Killer Santa (Asylum)
In one night, Leigh Emerson (Ian McShane) kills 18 people while dressed as a psychotic St. Nick. Of course, he gets a chance to tack on a few more victims in Briarcliff, caning and attempting to rape Sister Jude (Lange), then crucifying the asylum’s head priest, Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), before escaping and murdering seven nuns. Murphy and Falchuk love taking iconic images and messing with them.
21. Sexy Freaks (Freak Show)
While trying to save her dying freak circus, Elsa Mars (Lange) sneaks her way into a hospital to meet conjoined twins Bette and Dot Tattler (Paulson) by kidnapping a candy striper. When the young nurse sobers up, she confronts Elsa and threatens to blow the whistle on the plot, only to find out that it was all much more harrowing than she realized — in the form of a movie that depicts her taking place in a freak orgy. Even after you’re used to the freaks’ abnormalities, the drugged-out look on the nurse’s face as the freaks wait their turn is one of the new season’s most chilling moments.
20. Sex As Death (Coven)
If only Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) knew she was a witch with particular powers, she might not have killed boyfriend Charlie with her witch vagina. Seeing Charlie bleed all over the place inspired millions of people to think, Well, at least my first time wasn’t that bad.
19. The Secret Son (Murder House)
Children’s toys are always a guaranteed way to scare viewers, and AHS used that to full advantage with the unseen ghost’s fondness for playing with a rubber ball in the darkest ares of the Harmon house. It’s even more disturbing once you first get your glimpse of the tragically deformed spirit and learn he was Constance’s son Beau, chained in the attic and smothered by Larry.
18. Lana’s Therapy (Asylum)
The 1964 setting of Asylum adds in the element of homosexuality being a punishable crime. During her incarceration, Lana willingly undergoes aversion therapy to try to “cure” her lesbianism. The unflinching scene involves her vomiting while looking at a nude photo of her now-murdered ex-girlfriend and masturbating while touching a nude male inmate, only to throw up again.
17. The Ultrasound (Murder House)
Vivien gets a big warning sign after she realizes her baby is developing far too rapidly and a technician faints during the ultrasound. Later, the hysterical tech says she saw the antichrist in Vivien’s womb. Like in Rosemary’s Baby, the film it is referencing, the unborn devil’s features are left up to the viewer’s imagination.
16. Spalding’s Dolls (Coven)
A tongueless old man having formal tea parties with dozens of dolls is one thing, but AHS ramped up the oddness when it showed Spalding adding the corpse of Madison to his collection. It only gets worse when we see him trying to remove her from a box, only to have her arm come loose from her rotten body.
15. The Massacre (Murder House)
From Columbine on, school shootings have been an all-too-regular American occurrence. Yet even given our familiarity with these tragedies (or perhaps because there have been so many), the rampage of Harmon neighbor Tate (Peters) is excruciating to watch. Tate dons skeleton makeup and kills 15 people, picking off his classmates before escaping to his home and getting killed by police.
14. The Frat House (Coven)
You don’t show a frat party these days unless there’s going to be some form of sexual violence. With those expectations in mind, the tension builds and builds as it becomes apparent that some of the bros are planning to take advantage of movie-star Madison. At every moment, viewers hope she’ll be able to use her powers to figure out what they have in store or hold them off, or that Zoe will somehow come to the rescue, but the help arrives too late. Some frat brothers rape Madison while others look on and film it with their phones. For a show that can be full of supernatural nonsense, this most real and common nightmare is one of the most disturbing of all.
13. A Bloody Honeymoon (Asylum)
It’s obvious something terrible is going to happen to Adam Levine and his new bride as they break into the supposedly haunted ruins of Briarcliff in the opening scenes of Asylum. And so it does — Levine’s arm gets ripped off, and their honeymoon goes south. The greatest shock arrives at the first glimpse of serial killer Bloody Face — who is so named because he wears a mask made up of his victims’ skin and teeth. Even Leatherface might get a little queasy at this knockoff.
12. The Minotaur Sex Scene (Coven)
Somehow, between his death in the 1800s and the present, Bastien goes from slave wearing a bull’s head to an actual minotaur, kept alive by Marie. So when he comes to the Academy to murder Delphine, Queenie decides that the best solution to the problem is to seduce the beast. The flaw in the logic becomes apparent soon into their rough tryst when the minotaur somehow rips Queenie’s stomach open, almost killing her.
11. Lana’s Coat-Hanger Abortion (Asylum)
When you’re pregnant with the baby of a serial-killer rapist and the only people you can turn to are unsympathetic nuns, you might take extreme measures. Lana attempts to terminate her pregnancy with a coat hanger, and blood pours out onto the floor in one of the starkest abortion scenes to ever appear on TV.
10. Violet Discovers the Truth (Murder House)
No matter how tired you are of Sixth Sense–style “they were dead the whole time!” plot twists, finding out that Violet had, in fact, killed herself was still a shocker in the first season. The reveal was even better — the audience and Violet get confirmation of her fate when she sees her own bug-ridden corpse hidden in the house’s crawlspace.
9. Delphine’s Attic of Horrors (Coven)
A bunch of legends surround the real-life Madame LaLaurie, but really, it was discovered that she had tortured her slaves, supposedly mutilating some of them in her attic. The fictional version features all sorts of torture cages and iron restraints, but the minotaur scene is probably the most wretched. After finding one of her daughters with the slave Bastien, LaLaurie beats him, chains him in the attic, and places a hollowed-out bull’s head on top of his.
8. Elsa’s Past (Freak Show)
Prior to the second part of Freak Show’s Halloween episode, all we really knew about Elsa was that she is a German woman, missing the bottom halves of her legs, who desperately wants to be a star performer. But then we learned about how she originally got a taste of the spotlight — as the biggest attraction at an anything-goes sex club in 1932 Weimar. Rather than fornicate with her clients, she was actually a top-billed dominatrix whose methods of humiliation and torture included making a German soldier act like a schnauzer and, when he needed to use the bathroom, sit on a toilet with spikes in the seat. Her act became so popular that she attracted an audience to watch her inflict this suffering, and some of those fans gave her one ghastly star moment — as the focus of a snuff film, where she was drugged and had her legs cut off by a chainsaw.
7. Necrophile (Asylum)
At long last, Dr. Thredson’s secrets are exposed, and he’ll be going to jail or the electric chair, but he has one more sick surprise for Lana: the fate of her girlfriend Wendy’s body. He reveals he burned it, but not before using it for some sexual practice. The writers could have left it there, but then they had to go and show Thredson trying to do the deed with the corpse, only succeeding after he turned her over to avoid seeing her lifeless face. It’s a classic AHS move: start with a fucked-up situation, and take at least two steps further.
6. The Poker (Murder House)
Donning the Rubber Man suit, Tate murders gay couple Chad and Patrick, drowning the former in an apple-bobbing bin and beating the latter to the brink of death before sodomizing him with a fireplace poker, hook and all. Out of all the unnecessary acts of violence on AHS, this one takes the cake.
5. Schoolyard Shocker (Asylum)
Nymphomaniac Shelley (Chloë Sevigny) becomes the most gruesome of Arden’s test subjects after he attempts to rape her but can’t due to his deformed penis. He amputates her legs and gives her injections that rapidly turn her into a Rasper, but it’s how she’s discovered that is truly twisted. Sister Mary dumps her in an elementary schoolyard, where a little girl finds her trying to crawl up some stairs.
4. The Infantata (Murder House)
The basement creature was scary enough before we knew what it was — a baby that was dismembered by an angry beau in retaliation for an abortion that his doctor father performed on a young woman. The doc goes crazy with guilt and tries to rebuild his son, Thaddeus, from all the parts, which were mailed back to their house in jars, and the heart of another fetus.
3. The Clown (Freak Show)
Twisty (John Carroll Lynch) is one of the most disturbing characters we’ve seen on AHS. There are a few seconds where you think that, just maybe, he won’t hurt that couple in the first episode. Then he bashes them with his bowling pins and stabs the boyfriend on their picnic blanket, a scene reminiscent of the unflinching lakeside murder in Zodiac. (Which also starred Lynch.) If Twisty’s backstory didn’t invoke some sympathy and have a sort-of happy ending, the scene where he talks to Edward Mordrake (Wes Bentley) through the remnants of the mouth he destroyed with a self-inflicted shotgun blast would be even more nightmarish.
2. The Rubber Man and Vivien (Murder House)
The original promos for American Horror Story made the Rubber Man look like some sort of insect ghost who just happened wear a latex BDSM outfit. It didn’t quite pan out that way, and the scene where the Rubber Man comes into Vivien’s room pretending to be Ben, and rapes her is the series’ first “Whoa, they are really going there, aren’t they?” moment. At that point, you have no idea if he’s a ghost or just a perv living in the attic, but you know for sure that AHS is going to take you on one fucked-up ride.
1. Thresdon’s Horror Home (Asylum)
Throughout Asylum, there was always a sense that something had to be wrong with Dr. Thredson. It all becomes clear when he helps Lana escape from Briarcliff and brings her back to his home. As Lana notices a lampshade made out of what appears to be human skin and a candy bowl that resembles a piece of skull, it slowly dawns on her and the audience that Thredson is none other than Bloodyface. She discovers his “hobby” room and falls through a trapdoor into his basement, where the dead body of her girlfriend Wendy is laying on the floor. Of all the moments in three-plus seasons on AHS, every one in that basement — the rape, the breastfeeding, the skins — you want to block out of your memory.