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Sarah Paulson's American Horror Story roles, ranked

By Sara Century
Sarah Paulson in American Horror Story

No one does horror tropes quite like American Horror Story, and the longer the series goes, the more time it has to pull out all the stops. To do so, it has relied upon its truly stellar cast of actors, who show up season after season to take on new challenges. But today we're here to discuss one of our AHS favorites: Sarah Paulson. Paulson has repeatedly thrown down on a cast of characters so varied that it would be enough to give a lesser actor whiplash.

While all actors on AHS are incredible, Sarah Paulson has been around long enough to become one of the definitive faces of the show. We’re not trying to divide the fandom — we love of her roles equally. We just love a few of them a little more equally than others, so this is how things ranked for us.

Sarah Paulson as Susan Atkins in AHS: Cult

09. Susan Atkins

This is the last on the list, not because Paulson didn’t do a great job and not because we aren’t thoroughly horrified by the real Susan Atkins’ crimes (we definitely are), but because her screen time in AHS: Cult was sparse enough that if you blinked, you missed it. Still, there is something to be said for how truly frightening the whole Manson family was. When you evoke the name Susan Atkins, you’re definitely opening a whole can of worms with its own horrifying real-world backstory, and who better to portray that than Sarah Paulson?

In the real world, Atkins would eventually become a born-again Christian who passed away in jail after being denied probation many times, but in AHS, we saw her in all her acid-drenched, knife-wielding horror. "Charles (Manson) In Charge" might not be the easiest episode to watch, but it definitely leaves an impression.

Sarah Paulson as Shelby Miller/Audrey Tindall in AHS: Roanoke

08. Shelby Miller/Audrey Tindall

You know, life really just did not work out the way Shelby Miller wanted it to. In the beginning, we had high hopes that she might make it out of AHS relatively unscathed, but that was not the case. Shelby met her husband-to-be, Matt, at a yoga class in Los Angeles. A perfect love story! Things seemed to be going great until an act of senseless violence left Matt injured. Fearing city violence, the couple relocated to Matt’s home state, North Carolina, in hopes of finding peace. Of course, this is AHS, and that is... not what happened.

Shelby tells her terrifying tale to the TV show My Roanoke Nightmare. Actor Audrey Tindall (Paulson) appears as her in the reenactment footage. Even with this layer of distance between Shelby and her trauma, she still gets pulled all the way back in when she later returns to Roanoke. This season sees her terrorized by people in pig masks, cheated on by her husband, gaslit by the police, and yet somehow that still isn’t the worst thing that happens to her. Her story ends pretty terribly, but listen. She was put in a tough spot, and she did what she could. Shelby might not have been the most compelling character, but she sure didn’t deserve Roanoke levels of misery.

Sarah Paulson as Wilhemina Venable in AHS: Apocalypse

07. Wilhemina Venable

This is a rough character to rank, because we hate everything she does but we love her as a villain. After portraying a slew of relatively sympathetic characters, Paulson’s turn as the completely irredeemable Venable in Apocalypse came as a bit of a welcome surprise for audiences. Venable doesn’t play around, and even in her very first scenes, we realize that she is not a force to be trifled with. Indeed, any woman attempting to appeal to her sense of sisterhood is likely to find themselves rapidly murdered.

Defined by her repression and her cruelty, there isn’t too much more to say about Venable other than she does look amazing in purple and definitely never falls into the trope that all women can be redeemed through love. When things returned to their 2015 pre-apocalyptic status quo at the end of Apocalypse, that turn of events left Venable alive if not well, so we may still see her again. Paulson did triple time this season, portraying not just Venable but returning in the recurring roles of Cordelia Goode and Billie Dean Howard. Though both of those characters rated higher on this list, we still have a soft, possibly kink-related spot in our hearts for the merciless matriarch of Outpost 3.

Sarah Paulson as Ally Mayfair-Richards in AHS: Cult

06. Ally Mayfair-Richards

AHS is anything but apolitical through its many seasons, but nowhere is a political lean more evident than in Cult. In the beginning, Ally is a fairly liberal queer woman in a longterm relationship with a woman named Ivy, with whom she has a son. Ally is plagued by phobias, some of them unreasonable, but some very much rooted in anxiety around the unfortunately not-at-all-fictional Trump administration. As the season progresses, a series of bizarre (apparent) accidents cause Ally to lose control of her life and become consumed by a desire for revenge.

Ally is a relatable but misguided character, and her story is equally humorous and disturbing, addressing the fears of liberal white queers. Through her, we see how easily a person can flip their entire belief system under pressure. To give Ally some credit, though, it does take a lot of pressure to get her to that point. She is attacked by murderous clowns, terrorized by neighbors, and loses her relationship with Ivy after realizing that Ivy has resented her since she voted for Jill Stein in 2016 and thus felt justified to terrorize and gaslight her. Ally is at first a victim, then becomes just as violent and malicious as anyone else on the show, making her one of AHS's greatest heel-turns.

Sarah Paulson as Cordelia Goode in AHS: Coven

05. Cordelia Goode

Cordelia begins Coven as the rebellious child of matriarch Fiona Goode, blinded by acid when she was just a child by one of her mother's many enemies. Initially at odds with her legacy, she spends most of the season stepping into her role as Supreme, leader of the coven, and a powerful witch in her own right.

Coven is remembered as being one of the better seasons of AHS, and one need look no further than its witchy focus and incredible cast to see why. Yet, even among these many great characters, Cordelia stands out. While her mother kept the coven in the shadows, Cordelia immediately steps into the light and opens up the academy to witches around the world. It's just that kind of leadership and solidarity that went on to define her character. Though she began her arc a bit unsure and at odds with herself, when she shows up in later seasons like Apocalypse, she is more centered and in control than ever.

Sarah Paulson as Bette and Dot Tattler in AHS: Freak Show

04. Bette and Dot Tattler

Every season of AHS draws on real-world events for their subject matter, and Freak Show is no different. Set in the early 1950s, well after the U.S.'s cultural obsession with freak shows had begun to wane, this season introduced us to a series of characters struggling to hang on to what had proven to be their only viable livelihood in a changing world. Among these characters are Bette and Dot Tattler, whose mother was brutally murdered, leaving them at the behest of strangers.

Bette and Dot are conjoined twins, but their personalities and desires couldn't be more different. While Bette is friendly and interested in people, Dot is retreating and prefers to spend time alone. When it is discovered that Dot is an incredible singer, Bette is jealous of the attention she receives. Elsa, who runs the freak show, uses their difference of personality as a tool to drive them apart. Still, the two of them do ultimately work things out, and, for AHS characters, they have a pretty happy ending.

Sarah Paulson as Sally McKenna in AHS: Hotel

03. Sally McKenna

Hotel saw the series turn to the classic "haunted hotel" trope, and, as such, most of the characters were ghosts that had died tragically on the grounds and couldn't seem to move on. Among them, we have Sally McKenna, a drug enthusiast who had been pushed out a window, falling several stories to her death back in the '90s. In love with the extremely toxic detective-turned-killer John, Sally haunts the halls of the hotel and punishes those suffering from drug addiction as a bizarre manifestation of her own malicious self-loathing.

While Sally spends much of Hotel behaving like an absolute monster, she isn't exactly in an environment that lends itself to healing, so we can forgive and forget. She actually gets a relatively happy ending when Iris, the woman who pushed her to her death, gives her an iPhone in an attempt to make amends for their many years of bad blood. Sally finds a supportive online community and becomes a happy ghost! What more can any of us hope for?

Sarah Paulson as Billie Dean Howard in AHS: Murder House

02. Billie Dean Howard

Paulson's first role on AHS was that of professional psychic Billie Dean Howard in Murder House. She is found by Constance, one of the season's main characters, through an ad on Craigslist. Howard doesn't get a ton of screen time in this season, but she's still one of the breakout characters. Though she is self-serving, she also does the work, and she helps the teenage Violet a lot in navigating the perils of living in, well... a literal murder house.

And if Howard is also a little bit of an opportunist, who are we to judge? She has a great sense of style and a lot of incredible one-liners, and that's more than a lot of people get in this life. She returns in Hotel and Apocalypse, and we see she has risen to the top of the world of celebrity psychics. It couldn't have happened to a nicer Paulson.

Sarah Paulson as Lana Winters in AHS: Asylum

01. Lana Winters

No character on this list had it easy, but dear god, does Lana Winters have a terrible time. Though she starts out in Asylum as a plucky young reporter attempting to investigate accusations of torture at the "mental institution" Briarcliff, she quickly becomes a "patient" at said asylum when her girlfriend agrees to sign off on her being committed. This season takes place during the 1960s, so all it takes to be locked away is for someone to call her out for lesbianism. As such, Lana's story begins with her being sold out by her own girlfriend, only to be held captive by sadists. Not great!

Through her own resilience, Lana survives her ordeal at Briarcliff. She ultimately returns and exposes them for their crimes, which launches her into stardom as a celebrity journalist. If there's anything we love, it's a "local queer makes good" story. She only had to be tortured relentlessly and return to the scene of her greatest trauma for that to happen! Lana has returned several times throughout AHS, and she is always the absolute greatest.