Over the course of five seasons of American Horror Story, one thing has become abundantly clear: Ryan Murphy isn’t content to just scare viewers — no, he wants to put them through the emotional wringer, as well. He accomplishes this by taking beloved (and even some not-so-beloved) characters and putting them through unimaginable physical and psychological torment. As such, we’ve ranked the top 25 most tragic characters in the American Horror universe in time for the premiere of season six. Just be glad it’s them and not us.
25. “Dora” (Patti LaBelle) — Season Four, Freak Show
While Dora was a relatively minor player in the grand scheme of things, having to put up with Dandy Mott’s sh*t for his entire, wretched life only to get her throat slashed… Well, that was probably actually a better outcome than continuing to have to put up with Dandy Mott. Still pretty crappy, though.
24. “Bette and Dot Tattler” (Sarah Paulson) — Season Four, Freak Show
On one hand, Bette and Dot were tragic in that they were considered to be abominations by their mother and hidden away for most of their lives. And for awhile, it seemed like the best possible outcome for them was to be gawked at by patrons at a freak show. On the other hand, they were also cold-blooded killers who never had to face any repercussions for their actions and ended up with a pretty happy ending, all things considered.
23. “Liz Taylor” (Denis O’Hare) — Season Five, Hotel
Okay, so things worked out pretty well for Liz in the end, having reconnected with her son and eventually spending eternity with her one true love. But the fact of the matter is that she had to abandon her family back in Topeka to finally become her true self, and you know that had to have weighed pretty heavily upon her heart.
22. “‘Hypodermic’ Sally McKenna” (Sarah Paulson) — Season Five, Hotel
It’s hard to feel too much sympathy for a junkie who kind of ended up getting what was coming to her, after being responsible for the deaths of other junkies. The root of her addiction, however, was the product of mental illness and abandonment issues, which sabotaged her promising career as a musician. The ’90s were a rough time, man.
21. “Nora Montgomery” (Lily Rabe) — Season One, Murder House
In life, Nora Montgomery may have been a spoiled, greedy socialite. But in death — after having committed murder-suicide, killing herself and her husband Charles Montgomery after he turned their only son into a soulless, undead monster — she became a confused, sad ghost condemned to her home forever.
20. “Derrick” (Eric Stonestreet) — Season One, Murder House
Derrick only appeared in one episode of American Horror Story, season one’s “Piggy, Piggy,” in which he played a man whose life was paralyzed in fear by the urban legend of the “Piggy Man.” After seeing Dr. Ben Harmon to work through his fears, Derrick finally is able to start resuming a normal life, and is even able to confront his fears by calling for the Piggy Man in his bathroom mirror. Unfortunately, a robber is hiding behind the shower curtain and puts a bullet in his head. Messed up.
19. “The Countess” (Lady Gaga) — Season Five, Hotel
Okay, so The Countess (a.k.a. “Elizabeth”) was a pretty selfish bloodsucker, but let’s not forget that she only became a vampire in the first place to spend eternity with her one true love, Rudolph Valentino, who “mysteriously” disappears when her sadistic husband James March seals him and his wife away in a wing of the hotel. When she’s finally reunited with her love nearly 100 years later, one of her other boyfriends promptly kills him. Then she is killed and is forced to spend eternity in the hotel with the awful first husband.
18. “Jimmy Darling” (Evan Peters) — Season Four, Freak Show
Jimmy Darling was a misunderstood “freak” with lobster hands, an inadequacy complex, and daddy issues. It didn’t help that he also inherited chest-puffing and alcoholism from his father, so despite the physical deformity, a lot of Jimmy’s problems tended to be self-perpetuated.
17. “Sister Mary Eunice” (Lily Rabe) — Season Two, Asylum
Sister Mary Eunice had good intentions. She really did! Then she got possessed by the devil who used her body to rape and murder, and then she died. Too bad, so sad.
16. “Elsa Mars” (Jessica Lange) — Season Four, Freak Show
A cut-throat performer seemingly out only for herself in the present day, the root of Elsa’s motivations become clear when it’s learned that she lost her leg as the victim of a Nazi snuff film. While it doesn’t absolve her of wrongdoing, it, at least, makes her thirst somewhat comprehensible.
15. “Iris” (Kathy Bates) — Season Five, Hotel
Maybe Iris was an enabler to her self-absorbed son Donovan, but can you blame a mother for wanting to protect her son? She even became a vampire for him! And did he ever appreciate any of it? Of course not.
14. “Vivien Harmon” (Connie Britton) — Season One, Murder House
Vivien Harmon moved across the dang country to try to get a fresh start with her adulterous husband and teenage daughter, only to move into a haunted house, have her husband’s mistress stalk them, and get knocked up by her daughter’s psychotic, serial killer ghost boyfriend. They tried to paint it as a happy ending, but after everything that happened, she just ended up having to spend eternity in the same house as her husband and his mistress. Some ending.
13. “Scarlett Lowe” (Shree Crooks) — Season Five, Hotel
God, this kid. Her mother never really loved her because she was too busy being creepily obsessed with her brother Holden, then spends years mourning his disappearance before becoming a vampire along with her son so they can spend eternity together. Oh, and her dad isn’t much better, because he turns out to be a serial killer who gets himself killed, making her an orphan. At least, they sent her to a nice boarding school?
12. “Queenie” (Gabourey Sidibe) — Season Three, Coven / Season Five, Hotel
After bouncing around the system growing up as an orphan (Ryan Murphy loves orphans), Queenie was working a thankless job at a fast food joint where she was routinely abused by customers shortly before Cordelia Foxx took her into the coven of witches. Following the series of events in Coven, Queenie became a boss-ass b*tch on the witch council, but then makes the mistake of coming to Los Angeles to cheat on The Price is Right, where she ends up getting murdered by James March to become vampire food for Ramona Royale. To make matters worse, her death was completely in vain because Ramona ended up not even needing her blood to kill The Countess because John Lowe got to her first.
11. “Penny” (Grace Gummer) — Season Four, Freak Show
Her dad holds her down while his friend tattoos her face and physically mutilates her. Which is tragic, but it also makes her look like a Goomba from the Mario Bros. movie, so…
10. “Ethel Darling” (Kathy Bates) — Season Four, Freak Show
Poor Ethel. The only man who ever “loved” her only wanted her for her luxurious beard because he was a closet homosexual. Then she had to raise their freak baby by herself and eventually was diagnosed with a terminal illness. She never succumbed to the cancer, however, because Elsa’s knife found her first. Having said that, I think we can all agree that Ethel’s accent was most tragic thing of all about her.
9. “Ma Petite” (Jyoti Amge) — Season Four, Freak Show
She just thought the nice man was giving her a new dress! Now Ma Petite will forever spend her days ensconced in glass at the
Mütter Museum — I mean, “American Morbidity Museum.”
8. “Sister Jude Martin” (Jessica Lange) — Season Two, Asylum
Much like The Countess and Elsa Mars before her, Sister Jude is one of those complicated, strong, morally ambiguous female characters Ryan Murphy likes so much. Jude started off the season as a Nurse Ratched-esque villain you loved to hate, but as the season wore on and you got an understanding of her backstory (an alcoholic who lived wracked with guilt thinking she killed someone driving impaired), she became more of a sympathetic character. Unfortunately, by the time she saw error in her ways, it was too late, and ended up becoming a mental patient in the very asylum she once saw over — making viewers actually feel sorry for her. That’s quite a feat.
7. “Violet Harmon” (Taissa Farmiga) — Season One, Murder House
Violet Harmon was the quintessential picture of teenage angst, although can you really blame her? Her parents were on the verge of divorce and her boyfriend was the ghost of a Columbine-style mass murderer. But that scene where Violet discovers her own body following a successful suicide attempt might still be the most shocking in American Horror Story history.
6. “Lana Winters” (Sarah Paulson) — Season Two, Asylum
- Gets wrongfully committed to a mental institution for being a lesbian.
- Serial killer murders her girlfriend, then rapes her.
- Gets pregnant and gives birth to serial killer’s child.
- Child grows up to become a serial killer himself, hunts her down.
- She is forced to kill her own child.
The only reason Lana isn’t ranked higher on this list is because even taking all of that into consideration, she wasn’t a terribly likable character.
5. “Kit Walker” (Evan Peters) — Season Two, Asylum
This poor sucker was essentially framed for being a serial killer after his wife, Alma, was abducted by aliens, and he was subsequently thrown into an insane asylum to rot. While committed, he meets another woman, Grace, who unbeknownst to him becomes pregnant and gets abducted by aliens after getting shot trying to protect him. When the real killer is caught, Kit is exonerated along with Grace and their child, who was returned to Earth after giving birth to their child.
They arrive home to find that Alma was also returned, along with Kit’s other baby she had given birth to with the aliens. The three decide to live in a poly-amorous relationship which you’d think would be great for Kit — but not so much because Alma eventually kills Grace with an axe and then gets sent to Briarcliff herself. So, in a nutshell, this guy’s life pretty much got completely ruined by aliens. Thanks, aliens.
4. “Meep” (Ben Woolf) — Season Four, Freak Show
Although we don’t know much about his backstory, Meep was a performer in Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities. A simpleton who would harm no one (unless you happen to be a chicken, because his talent involved biting their heads off), Meep is arrested for murder and thrown, terrified, into a group jail cell with a bunch of freak-hating actual violent offenders. Suffice to say, Meep did not last long in the public correctional system. His onscreen death was given an added gut punch when Ben Woolf, the actor who played Meep, was killed just a few months after Freak Show aired.
3. “Kyle Spencer” (Evan Peters) — Season Three, Coven
Okay, let’s see here: Frat boy with good intentions has a crush on a witch, intervenes in the rape of witch’s friend and get blown apart as his reward. Witch and witch’s friend reanimate him using the various body parts of his deceased friends, turning him into a horribly tortured and tormented Frankenstein’s monster. Oh! And it turns out that his mother who he had been taking care of was also sexually abusing him, and she found out the hard way that he was no longer her son when his genitals didn’t match up… and then he gruesomely kills her. Then he goes back to the witches who use him as a human sex doll. Eventually, he gets “fixed,” but in the end, the best possible outcome for Kyle is that he becomes a boyfriend butler in a house of witches. Relatively speaking, we guess it was a happy ending?
2. “Twisty the Clown” (John Carroll Lynch) — Season Four, Freak Show
Twisty the Clown was completely terrifying until he really wasn’t. To recap Twisty’s horrendously depressing backstory: At one point, Twisty — who was “slow” because he was dropped on his head by his alcoholic mother as a baby — was a beloved performer who loved the children, until some freak show dwarfs started spreading rumors that he love loved children. Ostracized from the carnival, he returned home to Jupiter to his mother, only to find that she had died. He then tried making his own toys, but no one wanted to buy toys from a dirty trash clown and possible pedophile.
With nowhere left to turn, Twisty then tried to end his own life, but only succeeded in blowing his mouth apart, or as he said, “I’m so dumb, I can’t even kill myself.” Somehow, this all led poor Twisty on a misguided killing spree. But even taking all that murder into consideration? When Twisty says, “I’m a good clown,” your stupid heart will burst open and you’ll have nothing but sympathy for him.
1. “Pepper” (Naomi Grossman) — Season Two, Asylum / Season Four, Freak Show
As sad as the life of Twisty the Clown was, no other character in the American Horror Story universe has a story quite as depressing as Pepper. When we first meet Pepper in Asylum, she is serving out a life sentence at Briarcliff Manor for murder, the details of which are unknown.
But before all that, Pepper was the first troupe member of Elsa’s Cabinet of Curiosities, after Elsa rescued her from a horrible, horrible orphanage childhood. The years at the freak show were the happiest of Pepper’s life. She even found love with a fellow pinhead, the aptly named Salty, and the two blissfully celebrated their wedding among their fellow freaks.
Unfortunately, shortly after their wedding, Salty died of a cerebrovascular hemorrhage in his sleep. When Pepper, forlorn over her husband’s death, would no longer perform, Elsa took her to live with her horrible, horrible, sister Rita and Rita’s husband Larry. There, Pepper once again found happiness caring for her sister’s deformed baby, until Larry killed the baby and framed Pepper for the murder, which is how she ended up at Briarcliff. The last we see of Pepper in Freak Show, she’s looking wistfully at a picture of the now rich and famous Elsa on a magazine cover, as if to fully rub the salt in the wound.
All we can say is, dayum, Ryan Murphy.
(Editor’s Note: This post ran originally on February 1, 2016)