Few series have conjured up more disturbing scenes than FX’s American Horror Story, a show that has gifted viewers with psychotic killers, multiple possessions and enough gore to make a splatterhouse monster gag.
For these reasons and so many more, it can be incredibly tough to watch at times. But don’t worry if you’re a newcomer checking in to American Horror Story for this year’s Hotel season, which kicks off at 10pm Wednesday, October 7 on FX. It’s everybody’s first visit, because every season is unlike every other season. Aren’t anthology series great?
Hotel continues the drama’s tradition of casting stars from previous tales in new roles, including core regulars Evan Peters, Denis O’Hare, Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates and Sarah Paulson. It also represents a number of firsts: Hotel stands as the first American Horror Story season without Jessica Lange, and the first to star Lady Gaga as The Countess, a blood-drinking owner of the Hotel Cortez, a mysterious Los Angeles establishment that has demons lurking behind every door.
Hotel happens to be the first season to return to a previous Horror Story locale – Los Angeles, home of season one’s Murder House – and the first season following the revelation that all of the stories are connected.
Again, you don’t have to have screamed your way through every hour prior season five to properly settle into American Horror Story: Hotel… but you’ll probably want to. With that in mind, here are ten episodes you definitely don’t want to sleep on.
PILOT (SEASON 1)
As series table-setters go, this introduction holds nothing back in terms of letting the audience know how weird things are going to get. In a single go, as the Harmon family moves into an L.A.-area house where a murder/suicide took place, we meet a milky-eyed old housekeeper who looks young and sexy to the father in the family; an apparition wearing a leather gimp suit; and a creature who lives in the basement. Oh, and a weird guy with a burned face pops into their lives too, along with an overly-imposing, bigoted neighbor played by Lange. Strap in – the fun has only just begun.
PIGGY PIGGY (SEASON 1)
Following a few unsettling incidents, the Murder House has put a strain on the Harmon family. Go figure! Ben (Dylan McDermott) and Vivien (Connie Britton) try to separate, but the house won’t let them go. At the same time their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) has discovered that her teen crush, Tate (Evan Peters) perpetuated a mass shooting at his school – and hasn’t been alive for some time. The title refers to the overwhelming power of fright, as one of Ben’s patients succumbs to his fear of an urban legend and Violet gives in to the house’s overpowering evil.
BIRTH (SEASON 1)
In the penultimate episode of season one, the house’s hunger becomes too much for the Harmons, and Vivien’s strange, supernatural pregnancy culminates in a horrifying birth as Violet realizes what her loneliness has wrought. Permeated more by tragedy than terror, this hour brutally demonstrates the balance this unique horror anthology series strikes between fright and pathos.
I AM ANNE FRANK PARTS 1&2 (SEASON 2)
The 1964-set Asylum season was certifiably bonkers, serving up laboratory monsters, Nazis, psychotic serial killers, at least one angel and…aliens? Yes, aliens. Asylum also went one step deeper, creating allegories of the time period’s battles on both the civil rights and women’s liberation fronts within its storylines. Lange comes back to the series as the iron-willed Sister Jude, alongside Lily Rabe as the corrupted nun Sister Mary Eunice. Peters returns as wrongfully accused murder suspect named Kit, and Paulson stars as Lana, a reporter who gets in over her head while investigating the dark mental institution known as Briarcliff Manor. This is also the season that introduces the microcephalic Pepper (Naomi Grossman), whose importance will be discussed later.
Here, the writers employ the effective horror film trick of seeming to get show’s heroine out of danger posed by Briarcliff, only to put her in an even more terrifying place as she discovers the true identity of one of Asylum’s deadly antagonists, Bloody Face. Other evils committed by Briarcliff’s staff came to light as well, culminating in a creepy cinematic sequence executed with a symphony’s harmonic precision.
THE ORIGINS OF MONSTROSITY (SEASON 2)
Showing how Briarcliff transformed from a church-sanctioned house of healing into a disturbing basement of horrors, this episode exposes all of the ungodly experiments done by Briarcliff’s mad Dr. Arden (James Cromwell). The evils at play here are both supernatural and man-made, as a possessed Sister Mary Eunice takes control of the asylum and Sister Jude is stripped of her power by a clueless Monsignor. Meanwhile, Lana must make nightmarish compromises to stay alive.
THE NAME GAME (SEASON 2)
With Arden’s experiments running wild, and the Angel of Death dispensing orders to a well-meaning but weak-willed Monsignor, how much crazier can this season get? The answer: A lot. The aliens land, a lost soul returns from the dead, and Jessica Lange leads the cast in a song-and-dance fantasy, as her freshly committed character Jude returns from electroshock therapy in a musical mood. This scene is the first of what would be many musical interludes in which American Horror Story would indulge.
MADNESS ENDS (SEASON 2)
Arguably the best AHS season finale to date, the resolutions granted to Lange’s character Jude and Peters’ Kit were as beautiful as they were heartbreaking, told in the present day from the perspective of Lana, who eventually becomes a bestselling author. A season-ending twist cold-cocked viewers with its surprising brutality, as Lana abruptly finishes the horror story she unwittingly played a part in extending for decades.
BURN, WITCH. BURN! (SEASON 3)
There were a lot of reasons to look forward to the Coven season, as Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett joined the cast to play modern-day versions of New Orleans legends Madame LaLaurie and voodoo queen Marie Laveau, while Lange, who went full-blown bitch as Fiona, ruled as the dying Supreme of a dwindling coven. With all of that superb casting going for it, Coven ended up being long on style and short on substance in comparison to the superior Asylum chapters.
Uneven as Coven was, this episode ameliorated a number of its shortcomings by giving viewers a zombie attack and a view into some of Madame LaLaurie’s most horrendous party tricks, wrapping things up with one of the most fashion-forward witch burnings in known history.
THE MAGICAL DELIGHTS OF STEVIE NICKS (SEASON 3)
Before Lady Gaga phoned Ryan Murphy to let him know she wanted to be in American Horror Story: Hotel, Murphy brought the legendary Fleetwood Mac vocalist aboard as the White Witch to Lange’s black-hearted Fiona. Beyond displaying the show’s power to attract glitzy guests, this also was the point at which witchcraft and voodoo joined forces to battle a common enemy.
ORPHANS (SEASON 4)
Aesthetically speaking, American Horror Story’s Freak Show season was colorful, ghoulish and campier than the rest, highlighted by a killer clown with a fang-filled visage that kept many viewers awake at night. This season also allowed Lange to flex her love of cabaret as sideshow owner Elsa Mars. But this particular hour confirms that all of the tales are connected via the heartbreaking story of dear, poor Pepper, for whom Fräulein Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities represented a place of belonging and family. Alas, when mistress Elsa tried to do the right thing by returning Pepper to her blood relatives in 1952, she instead ended up in Briarcliff (aka season two’s Asylum) more than a decade later. The horror…the horror.