Brow Beat

In American Horror Story: Cult, Scary Clowns, and a Much More Terrifying Real World

We all float down here.


In the near-year since Donald Trump was elected president, it has become a popular parlor game to see him and the larger cultural trends that elected him in our every fiction. I Spy Donald Trump in The Handmaid’s Tale. I Spy Donald Trump in Manchester by the Sea. I Spy Donald Trump in Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do.” I Spy Donald Trump everywhere. If it sometimes takes a magnifying glass or the will of a workaholic semiotician to espy the Donald’s trace, that dusting of orange, in every piece of entertainment, he is as easy to spot as a blenderful of Cheetos in American Horror Story: Cult, the seventh installment of FX’s gonzo camp anthology series. In the season’s opening moments, Cheetos are, in fact, blended and then smeared all over an antisocial basement dweller’s face, in homage to his newly elected hero.

Past seasons of AHS have featured serial killers, ghosts, aliens, exorcisms, the Holocaust, freaks, torture, witches, vampires, slavery, and clowns. With remarkable speed, Ryan Murphy has added MAGA to this rotation of terror, hip to the sentiment that Trump’s election is the horror story from which we cannot wake. The new president is a nightmare for Cult’s protagonist, well-heeled lesbian and all-around phobic Ally Mayfair-Richards (Murphy’s muse, Sarah Paulson), who cannot tell if she is hallucinating murderous clowns because the election has destabilized her or if murderous clowns are actually on the loose. (Guess which!)

Through the first four episodes, Cult forswears the large time jumps that have been a staple of the series, focusing on the election and the weeks before and after it. The season begins on election night in Michigan, juxtaposing the viewing party of Ally and her wife Ivy (Allison Pill) as they stare at the returns, emitting the common refrain, “Fuck you Nate Silver!” and that of Kai Anderson (Evan Peterson), a blue-haired, crazy-eyed Trump voter who reacts to the results by humping his flat screen.

Kai is not your average MAGA-er, but a wannabe ubermensch who believes, qua FDR, the only thing to fear is fear itself, and so, qua a maniac, opts to terrorize people. (He  puts his blue hair up in a man bun when he’s trying to be presentable: It works.) Kai wants chaos to reign, so that power is freely handed over to people like him. To achieve his goal, he attracts various furious and lonely people into his orbit, and incites them to violence. He also, just as an example, throws condoms full of urine at a group of Hispanic men, yells slurs at them, and then tapes the ensuing beatdown for the local news. “President Trump called them criminals and rapists and he was viciously attacked by PC police!” Kai says at the resulting press conference, in which he announces a run for city council.

Unsurprisingly, though, it is not Cult’s take on Trump voters that has any real frisson. Murphy doesn’t respect that point of view enough to make it sound like anything other than raving semi-philosophy. But the show is more scathing about liberals and Ally in particular. She and Ivy run a restaurant called The Butchery on Main and refer to our former president as “Barack.” Despite wailing “What about Merrick Garland!” on election eve, Ally voted for Jill Stein in the privacy of the voting booth—not a great ally, really. She finds herself aligning more and more with a MAGA worldview as her life comes apart Since Glee, Murphy has always saved his harshest insults for the characters he loves most, and he has a secondary character level at Ally the possibly accurate, identity politics–exploding dig, “Hello, lez, I think you are a horrible racist.”

Ally and Kai both believe the election proves they are especially attuned to America. He thinks it’s a sign it’s time for him to take power. She believes it proves she’s a barometer of America, her phobias a reflection of its rottenness. She tells her therapist that the election has left her vindicated: “My entire being was telling me the world is fucked up. The election made it worse.” They are both egoists. The election is all about them.

And where does that leave us, the audience? Horror, when it works, makes us scream and jerk and cover our eyes. When it’s over, we’re creeped out, worked up, rattled, and relieved. The bogeymen—the cults, the clowns, the serial killers, the blue man bun—retreat to a cathartic distance, even if it’s only outside our front door. But the scariest thing about American Horror Story, the world we are actually living in, remains even after you turn it off.