[Note: This post was originally written in October 2017 and at that time only ranked American Horror Story Seasons 1–7, since then it has been updated to include the title sequence from 2018’s Apocalypse, and later 2019’s 1984.]
I have a love/hate relationship with American Horror Story. On the one hand, it has legitimized horror and has helped bring the genre to the small screen. But, on the other hand, I’ve tried watching it a few times, and it hasn’t yet drawn me in. So, while I’m not a ravenous fan, I do appreciate its existence, and I dig its style. Especially, its title sequences.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know I am a fan of title sequences. For years, I’ve been a Patreon supporter of Art of the Title—a site dedicated to the art form. (They do good work, and you should support them.) So, it will come as no surprise that I unabashedly love AHS main title sequence. Part of its draw is that it changes. It’s different each season. There are connections between each, most notably the amazing AHS theme music—the heavy notes remain constant as do the harsh buzzes that rasp as players get introduced. As a set, they’re remarkable, and a few stand out as truly great. Since it’s the month of Halloween, I figured it would be fun to rank the American Horror Story title sequences. Let’s start at the bottom.
9. Roanoke (Season 6)
Of course, this will be rated dead last. Roanoke had no title sequence. In her piece American Horror Story: 7 Seasons of Title Design for Art of the Title, Alexandra West asks AHS Executive Producer Alexis Martin Woodall and Title Designer Kyle Cooper why it was missing. (Go read the article. It’s good.) Their answer is interesting and valid, but since this is a list ranking sequences, Roanoke will remain an aberration and at the bottom of the list.
8. 1984 (Season 9)
Nostalgia packs a wallop—the right song, the right visual, the right “hey, I remember that” can be a significant driver of interest. These days, horror is in love with the 80s (It, Stranger Things, Mandy), and you can see that reflected here as well. The title sequence for 1984 wants to be included in that conversation. It’s desperate for it. But, in the end, this feels like pandering—nostalgia as marketing, the product of focus groups, not a vision with something to say. It’s evident in the titles. The synth-pop rendition of the theme doesn’t carry menace and becomes clownish. The visuals are weak. The points of nostalgia are mere thin. Regan! Breakdancing! Roller skates! Remember tapes!? Whereas Cult mixed the metaphor of politics with horror with 1984 we see only nostalgic clips, an occasional slasher-flick mimic, and blood dropping across the screen. I’m a child of the 80s, I’m a sucker for the VHS effect, but in the neon-soaked 80s-nostalgia race that is 2019, this comes across as tired. There’s no intent. It’s forgettable. But, hey… at least those credit cards are nice.
7. Hotel (Season 5)
Hotel lacks subtlety. It’s brash and over the top. It comes across as silly, and to me, it doesn’t set the mood the way other sequences do. The heavy-handed neon Ten Commandments do not help, although they are a neat visual juxtaposition. However, it’s the repeated thing-in-the-mattress motif that loses me. It’s creepy at first, but its impact falters after the third, fourth, or fifth flash. And it doesn’t stop; it’s used at least nine times.
6. Cult (Season 7)
In 2017 AHS returned with Cult, and it doesn’t improve on Hotel’s failings. Americana interplays with odd and sometimes violent scenes that are common in the series. This, however, is less horror and more gore. Modern political instability is channeled and rightly so, and the classic AHS music mixes with a fife and drum sound that is reminiscent of national anthems. It’s a nice touch, which lifts it higher than Hotel.
5. Asylum (Season 2)
Building off the success of the first season, Asylum took the style from Murder House and turned it up a notch. It’s darker, it’s grittier, but it’s less nuanced. Some of the impacts from Season 1 are lost, and it feels a little samey. Murder House works so well because it was unexpected. Especially for television. Horror isn’t about the “thing”; it’s the emotions and the anticipation, and I had anticipated Asylum’s title sequence well in advance.
4. Freakshow (Season 4)
The stop-motion stylization was a nice change of pace, and I think it sets the tone well for a series involving an evil circus. There is an evocation of a corrupted childhood at play here, toys behaving in a way that is unexpected which puts the viewer on edge. It’s was an excellent choice to move in a different direction, and it helped Freakshow stand out.
3. Apocalypse (Season 8)
Many of the trappings are here (as well as some reused visuals) but the interplay between two similar but distinct themes works rather well. The combination of visuals from a Biblical Apocalypse featuring the expected woodcuts and iconography is woven through images of a nuclear apocalypse with gas masks, test footage, and mushroom clouds. It all works rather well. The melting candle motif might be important to the plot but it comes across a bit hamfisted. That said, Apocalypse is one of the stronger title sequences AHS has had for some time and it’s nice to see the series return to form.
2. Murder House (Season 1)
The first opening title sequence for AHS channels a raw homemade style that works perfectly. I’ve never had high hopes for television horror, but this was a welcome surprise. Cesar Davila-Irizarry’s theme music stunned me and instantly became one of the most memorable themes. The visuals hint at the underlying concepts of the show without revealing too much, and it really nailed the mood.
1. Coven (Season 3)
Mood and tone abound in the season three opener: gritty black and white shots, strangely animated woodcuts, weird stop-motion, and the creepy hooded figures! (Which yes, totally remind me of the gargoyles from my Bell Forging Cycle.) A good story doesn’t ignore tropes. Instead, it bends them in new and exciting ways. You see that at play in Coven’s title sequences: all the expected visuals are there, but things are unusually bent. The quick cuts to uncomfortably close shots introduce story elements in a way that adds to the sequence: the revelations only help to enhance instead of detracting. I will admit that my design sensibilities lean in a similar direction, and there is a bit of bias. But to me, Coven is the gold standard, the perfected AHS title sequence.
It’s great to see a series play so much with the opening title sequence and elevate the art. I know that the fans appreciate it, as well. (The reactions to Roanoke’s missing sequence were…uh, vocal.) So! Now that I’ve finished my list, why not tell me what you think? How would you rank the AHS title sequences? What did I get wrong? What did I get right? The comments are open! Let me know!
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