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The 15 Most Unforgettable Scenes in American Horror Story History

Twisty the Clown. Photo: FX

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story is back for its 12th installment, subtitled “Delicate.” What craziness does the man who turned Lady Gaga into an immortal and Jessica Lange into a witch have up his sleeve? How could the show keep topping itself? We don’t know, except that we know it will — and given that this season stars Kim Kardashian, chances are season 12 won’t be lacking in craziness.

From its very first season, retroactively subtitled “Murder House,” American Horror Story has been earning headlines with its willingness to “go there” in ways that other shows never even consider. Murphy’s program has never quite gotten the credit it deserves in terms of craft and screenwriting, but it certainly gets a ton of attention on social media in the WTF department. Part of its success (maybe too big a part lately?) is dependent on shock value: What will AHS do to get people buzzing this week? It’s one of the reasons it’s still such a smash hit; you have to watch it live to know what everyone is talking about on your timeline, so you seek out the insanity every week.

After 11 seasons of chaos, it’s a good time to look back at 15 moments that shocked American Horror Story viewers, picking out some of our favorites, by which we mean “things that still haunt us in the middle of the night.”

15. “Asylum” — Santa Is Coming to Town

The second installment of American Horror Story is widely considered the best, blending three-dimensional characters with a truly insane narrative involving mad scientists and a skin-wearing serial killer. The chaotic setting also allowed the writers to do something truly nuts by casting Ian McShane as a murderous version of Santa Claus. The star of Deadwood plays a psychopath who murders a charity Santa with a gun, taking his costume and heading out to commit a twisted home invasion, in which he ties up, threatens, and murders a family. Santa has been turned into a villain in horror movies before, but never with so much malevolent glee as McShane finds in this bit part.

14. “Cult” – Ally Kills Ivy

A roller coaster of a season reaches its most unforgettable moment near the end in this riveting scene starring Sarah “Queen of AHS” Paulson and Alison Pill. Their characters, Ally and Ivy, first seem to have reconciled all their issues, but the conversation gets heated and ugly as the scene goes along. But what first looks like another domestic squabble in a season that had a few too many of those becomes much darker when Ivy coughs up blood. Ally has murdered her as vengeance for all the shit Ivy put her through all season. It may not have the bonkers imagery of rubber men or twisted clowns, but it’s a shocking scene nonetheless.

13. “Hotel” – Lady Gaga Goes Hunting

Murphy & Co. have a habit of introducing new characters in splashy, fascinating ways, but their best to date may still be in the premiere of “Hotel.” Well into the first episode, we finally meet the Countess (Lady Gaga) and Donovan (Matt Bomer) as they’re preparing to go hunting, finding a couple to swing with, and then murder, basically covering their naked bodies in the couple’s blood. It’s all brilliantly set to the great “Tear You Apart” by She Wants Revenge, a song so perfectly used that it sounds written for the scene. Quite a way to welcome people to “Hotel.”

12. “Double Feature” – Alma Kills Burleson

The pandemic led to an unusual tenth chapter of American Horror Story, a season split into two stories: “Red Tide” and “Death Valley.” The most shocking moment comes from the superior first half, a very Stephen King–esque tale (big Salem’s Lot vibes) about a family that moves to Provincetown off-season and discovers that something truly strange is going on there, and not just because Macauley Culkin is skulking around. Struggling author Harry (Finn Wittrock) realizes that there’s a pill floating around town that can help creative artists find their groove, but it also makes them crave human flesh. When his daughter Alma (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) takes it, her talent as a violinist finds its foundation, but she also becomes her own sort of monster, even turning on her mother eventually. Before that, a shocking moment lands in part due to how mundanely it’s handled. When AHS regular Adina Porter is spotted as Chief Burleson, it feels like she’ll play a major role, but in the third episode of the season, young Alma kills the officer, licking the blood off the knife after she pulls it from her neck. There’s something so bluntly shocking about the moment, not just the unexpected murder by a child but the realization that this young lady is probably going to eat her. It made it less shocking when she started nibbling on her baby brother’s leg shortly thereafter.

11. “Freak Show” – Everybody Loves a Clown

It’s hard to pick one WTF moment related to John Carroll Lynch’s clown named Twisty, a TV creation that’s so unsettling that he could scare even Pennywise. A solid case could be made for his origin story later in the season, in which we learn about how he tried to kill himself with a shotgun but only mutilated everything below his upper lip. But we’ll never forget the first sighting, when he attacks a young couple on a picnic, slicing up the man and kidnapping the woman. Twisty is one of the most, well, twisted creations in AHS history, and this scene is much of the reason why.

10. “1984” – Margaret Gets What’s Coming to Her

The truly bizarre ninth season of American Horror Story started as a riff on the slasher genre but became something less focused about how we immortalize serial killers, including even a real one like Richard Ramirez. The catalyst behind so much of the horror this year was the vile Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman), who not only was involved in the original massacre way back in 1970 but responsible for reopening the camp and leading to greater carnage. In the season’s most shocking moment, all of the ghosts who are stuck reliving the pain of life at Camp Redwood finally get to Margaret, torturing her and feeding her body parts into a wood chipper piece by piece so she can feel the pain for longer. It’s a brutal, gory end for a character who fans loved to hate.

9. “Murder House” – The Rubber Man Can

It all started here. It was a gentler, less daring time on TV when American Horror Story premiered on October 5, 2011, and viewers were instantly captivated by the weirdest show basic cable had ever produced — even if it is funny to consider how tame this season looks now compared to what Murphy & Co. had up their bloody sleeves for the seasons to come. In the series premiere, Connie Britton’s Vivien Harmon is startled to see a man in a rubber suit, thinking it’s her husband Ben. It was most definitely not, and the shock of it set the template for all the American Horror Story installments to come.

8. “Freak Show” – Elsa’s Background

There are no clips of this that can be posted online for a reason — it’s hard to believe it was even on television. Elsa, the David Bowie–singing ringmaster played by Jessica Lange, has one of the darkest backgrounds in the history of AHS, as we see in a flashback clip in episode four. It turns out that not only was Elsa a dominatrix in the past, but she lost her legs as a part of a torture-porn video in which they were amputated during a twisted, depraved film shoot. It’s a moment that’s hard to forget in the history of AHS, and actually was kind of a gross-out turning point for a lot of viewers — a scene that might’ve gone too far.

7. “NYC” – What Happened to Billy

The ambitious 11th season of American Horror Story went to New York City in the 1980s to tell intertwined stories of murder and the emergence of the AIDS crisis. It was an inconsistent season, but it also featured some of the most conceptually risky ideas in the history of the show, including how trauma can impact people differently. In the sixth episode, we discover that Patrick (Harry Treadaway), Sam (Zachary Quinto), and Whitely (Jeff Hiller) have a shared secret that binds and traumatizes them. In a flashback, we see the death of a young man named Billy (Danny Kornfeld). When, during a night of drug-induced sex, Sam and Patrick realize that Billy is dead, they call in the fixer Henry (Denis O’Hare) to cover it up. He brings Whitely, who begins the process of literally turning Billy into parts — the chopping sounds in this one are unforgettable. It’s made all the more painful when one realizes that Whitely being asked to grotesquely cover up Billy’s passing is what led to so much violence in his role as the Mai Tai Killer, hammering home a theme of the season, that everyone’s life matters and death can’t be ignored.

6. “Coven” – Minotaur Sex

The list of Oscar-nominated actresses who have had sex with a minotaur onscreen is comprised of exactly one: Gabourey Sidibe. You could pick an entire dozen WTF scenes from “Coven,” but the most unforgettable moment has to be when a mythical creature summoned by Marie Laveau encounters Sidibe’s Queenie, and, well, things get kinky. Honestly, this is one of those you-can’t-do-that-on-television moments in AHS history that feels a bit more designed for shock value than anything else (although that could really be said about almost all of “Coven,” a season that starts at 11 and never turns down the volume.)

5. “Asylum” – Shelley Becomes a Rasper

This might be the creepiest thing in the history of television. A child on a playground finds what remains of Shelly (Chloë Sevigny), the nymphomaniac who has been turned into a hideous creature known as a Rasper by the malevolent Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). Her first appearance, found by “Anne Frank” earlier in the season, is perhaps the most truly shocking, but something about putting this creature in a playground setting makes this scene more unforgettable. It’s in that child’s scream.

4. “Hotel” – Addiction Demon Gets His Fix

Before the season premiered, Ryan Murphy built excitement by claiming that they had filmed “the most disturbing scene we’ve ever done” for the season premiere. Anyone who saw “Asylum” and “Coven” immediately sat up in their chair, wondering how that was even possible. It turned out he was referring to a sequence from the premiere, in which an addict played by Max Greenfield visits the hotel and encounters what would become known as the Addiction Demon: a hideous riff on season one’s rubber man, faceless but with a sharp, violent dildo, which he then uses to rape his prey.

3. “Roanoke” – Going Viral

Widely considered the worst season of AHS simply because it was so wildly inconsistent — it often felt like they made it up as they went along — “Roanoke” still contains one of the most legitimately terrifying sequences in the history of the show. Taissa Farmiga’s Sophie Green is a fan of the “My Roanoke Nightmare” show-within-a-show and mounts Go Pros to her friends and herself to go investigate herself. The result is that we get to see her death from a first-person POV, including the image of someone looking down to see they are being set ablaze. It’s nightmare fuel.

2. “Murder House” – I See Dead People

One of the first truly shocking moments in AHS history is also one of its most heartbreaking as Taissa Farmiga’s Violet discovers the very hard way that she has something in common with Bruce Willis from The Sixth Sense. There’s a reason she hasn’t been able to leave the house … it’s because she’s dead, and the serial killer Tate proves it to her by taking her to the basement and revealing her own rotting body. Harsh and unforgettable.

1. “Asylum” – The Basement

“Asylum” peaks with the revelation that Zachary Quinto’s Dr. Thredson is actually the vicious, Leatherface-esque serial killer who has been lurking throughout the entire season, something we learn along with poor Sarah Paulson’s Lana, who has been kidnapped and locked in his basement. It’s bad enough that Thredson forced gay aversion therapy on her, but now he’s killed her girlfriend and is using her teeth as a part of his mask. It gets worse when it’s revealed that Thredson has been having sex with Wendy’s corpse, and then proceeds to rape Lana. Excuse us. We need to go take a shower just after writing that sentence.

The 15 Most Unforgettable American Horror Story Scenes