Ryan Murphy’s blockbuster anthology series American Horror Story is finally back on our screens with its seventh season, Cult. This year the show has been given an infusion of current-day politics, a decision that is bound to cause some controversy online. Cult takes place immediately after the election of President Donald Trump, and plays on the political horror story that has caused outbreaks of chaos and hate crimes across the United States. The main motif of this season seems to be clowns, clowns and even more clowns, drawing inspiration from the underused character of Twisty the Clown from Freakshow (2014-15).
There’s been a bit of a shake-up in the cast for Cult, with fan favourites Kathy Bates and Angela Bassett bowing out of the show. Unsurprisingly, series regulars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters take on Cult’s biggest roles. Paulson plays Ally, an unstable woman struggling to deal with her crippling anxiety following the election debacle. Peters plays Kai, an aggressive and erratic Trump fanatic looking to achieve his twisted view of a perfect society. New additions include Alison Pill as Ivy, Ally’s concerned and frustrated wife, and Scream Queens star Billie Lourd as Winter, Kai’s meek sister.
In the opening episode, we are introduced to Ally, her wife Ivy, and their son Oz. Ally is distressed by Trump’s election, though is later criticised by Ivy for voting for Jill Stein as opposed to Hillary Clinton. Ally’s mental health begins to deteriorate rapidly, resulting in a number of clown sightings that are attributed to her intense anxiety attacks. However, as this is American Horror Story, it seems unlikely that this is all in her head. Meanwhile, Trump enthusiast Kai gets humiliated at a town hall meeting, sending him into a rage. He later throws coffee at Ally and Ivy, as well as a urine-filled condom at a group of Hispanic men. For reasons unknown, he has forced his sister Winter to infiltrate Ally and Ivy’s home as a nanny to groom their son.
This season’s subtitle seems to have a more allegorical meaning than previous seasons, feeling a lot more conceptual than previous seasons. The Cult subtitle refers to Trump’s horde of devoted followers, but also his distinct cult of personality, often seen in how he uses social media to spread his views like a disease. His tweets make a brief appearance in the first episode, as Ally echoes the sentiments of the entire world when she asks “Why won’t he just stop tweeting?” Of course, Trump has been referred to as a clown since he first launched his presidential bid, so representing the dismayed Democrats through Ally’s coulrophobia makes perfect sense for the show, though the idea does lack subtlety.
Some moments in this episode are utterly ridiculous. Having Kai smear blended Cheetos across his face to emulate Trump’s trademark tangerine skin is completely absurd, though amusing to watch. The clown sex in a supermarket aisle was probably intended to be creepy, but ended up more laughable than anything else. Billie Lourd’s character Winter is supposed to provide comic relief, but so far has done little to impress. Her character seems to be a carbon copy of her role as Chanel #3 from Scream Queens, albeit with the occasional display of emotions this time. I sincerely hope she has more to offer as Cult progresses.
I have my doubts about how terrifying this season will be. In my opinion, only Asylum and Roanoke were genuinely scary, so it remains to be seen whether Cult can deliver on the fear factor. Clearly, clowns are going to be the focus of the season, and unless you are a bonafide coulrophobe, this could get old quite quickly. I don’t really have any problem with the clowns, but like Ally, I suffer from trypophobia, a fear of small holes. This is another specific phobia being explored this season, suggesting that Cult will highlight some more uncommon fears. It’s been confirmed that this season will contain no supernatural elements, so it remains to be seen how else Ally and her family can be terrorised, apart from the usual psychological hijinks.
The truly disturbing thing about the first episode of Cult isn’t the clowns or the murder – it’s Ally’s debilitating anxiety. Although taken to the absolute extreme by the show, her fear for the future of her family and her country is an emotion shared by millions across the world during this dark time. The Trump campaign and subsequent election is a true ‘American Horror Story’, so I’m intrigued to see how this will mesh with the typical AHS style of exaggerated horror as this new season progresses.
Ready for more? Check out the trailer for next week’s episode ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’.