Why American Horror Story: Asylum is TV's scariest show

From psychotic doctors to serial killers, the gruesome FX series offers more unnerving moments than anything else on the small screen

"American Horror Story: Asylum"
(Image credit: Michael Yarish/FX)

Just in time for Halloween, FX's grisly American Horror Story has returned — and critics are calling it scarier than ever. The series' second season, rebranded American Horror Story: Asylum, reboots the first season's contemporary haunted-house setting to an insane asylum during the 1960s — using the same actors, plus a few unfamiliar ones, to tell an entirely new story about malice, madness, and murder. (Watch a trailer for American Horror Story: Asylum below.) What makes American Horror Story: Asylum the scariest show on television? Here, 4 theories:

1. It's populated with terrifying beings

While the first season of American Horror Story centered on ghosts, Asylum ups the ante with aliens, serial killers, and flesh-eating monsters, says Crystal Bell at Celebuzz. Within the premiere's first five minutes, an unsuspecting character "gets his arm hacked off and bleeds out on the asylum floor" after encountering the aptly named Bloody Face, a killer who wears a mask made of his victims' skin. Given the hordes of extraterrestrials and monsters prowling the asylum, both the patients and the staff are continuously "straddling the line of sanity."

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2. And the human beings are creepy too

The scariest character of all might be Sister Jude, a "violent and manipulative" nun played by Jessica Lange, says Jef Rouner at the Houston Press. And then there's James Cromwell's Dr. Arden, a disturbing physician who gives off an unsettling "Josef Mengele vibe" as he kidnaps a patient and operates on him without anesthesia. Asylum's terrifying central villains give the series "the edge that so many horror movies lack these days."

3. Asylum pays homage to some of history's best horror films

"Bloody Face's mask of human flesh was a most obvious nod to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Leatherface," but other references to classic horror movies abound, says Rennie Dyball at People Magazine, noting subtle homages to A Clockwork Orange and Freaks. The men's ward in the asylum "may as well be Hannibal Lecter's lockup in The Silence of the Lambs." By drawing on some of the most iconic and unsettling moments in horror-movie history, Asylum makes familiar scenes scary all over again.

4. It raises unsettling moral questions

Like the best scary movies, American Horror Story: Asylum is not just pointless gore. It's about problems that haunt most humans, says Maureen Ryan at The Huffington Post: "The messy collision of fear and desire; the conflict between the need to be seen as 'good' and the inevitable tendency to rebel against conformity; the idea that the Devil is an intelligent charmer and ferociously committed opponent whose ways are as mysterious as God's; the idea that the contents of your mind are driving you mad or could be made to drive you crazy: all these things are laid out upon Asylum's grisly examining table" — and, as Asylum continues to explore these troubling questions, it will only get scarier.

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