by Rita Aresta
“Send in the clowns…”
October 16th, Greenville, South Carolina. Patient zero, a little boy, runs back to his mum, telling her he has just seen two brightly dressed clowns in the woods, trying to lure him into an abandoned house. Could it just be a child’s overactive imagination? No, says mum; the clowns also hit at her door with chains before running off into the woods, she says. And so the scary-clown-sighting epidemic began; something new come reality, blended in with mystery, surrounding the USA as yet another fundamental slice of what has been feeding the average American citizen’s brain since the beginning of (their) time: no, not key lime pie. Fear. It’s fear itself that provides the main catalyst for what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have prepared to dish out for the seventh series of American Horror Story. (Okay, I’ll stop with the food analogies now.)
It seems ridiculously redundant to talk about fear as the prime material of a series whose purpose is to tell horror stories. And yet, Cult’s fear element doesn’t descend from some supernatural realm, but from real, rusty urban gears, grinding slowly but steadily, building up to a state of paranoia and panic. As expected, this season’s title doesn’t dwell on the theology of a cult, but rather on how metaphorical that very perspective can be; the only thing worse than the manifestation of evil itself, is the amount of people willing to follow it.
The clown attacks that took place all around the USA served as inspiration for the creation of the dramaturgical backdrop. The electoral campaign of Trump v Clinton provides the trigger for a dormant situation that was ready to explode. It’s through drawing on this election that Cult takes the chance to display partisanship as a unique reference to that convoluted moment. The season premiere toys with the allegory of forced bi-partisan positioning, making a point of showing us the two sides of this coin in bitter satire. There’s an overwhelming amount of exaggeration in how Trump’s supporters celebrate their victory, but also in how the other side reacts to it. Exaggeration is invariably the most dangerous by-product of a response to fear.
The new season’s story begins on the very night Trump was announced as president-elect, a moment as frightening for some as it was cathartic for others. Watching the election results at home with her Democrat friends, Ally (Sarah Paulson) completely breaks down – coincidentally doing what Paulson does best in every single season of AHS, ie. wail and cry. A lot. She’s the perfect stereotype of a Clinton voter: gay, proud of the rights achieved in the Obama era, married, with one son, successful, urban, politicised and engaged in her candidate’s campaign. On the other side, there’s Kai (Evan Peters), a young man, watching the same news story, but with a very different outlook (dry humping the TV, as you do). For him, the revolution has just begun and, like Ally, he believes the world is on the verge on collapse. The difference is he rejoices in chaos, whereas she is terrified of stepping out of her comfort zone.
From that point onwards, a very clear dynamic is established. Kai reads the moment of Trump’s election as a trigger to explore (and exploit) fear as his favourite tool to provoke chaos. Ally is irrevocably losing control of her own defence mechanisms, and the enemy’s victory is the key to reopen the door to all the phobias she has been carrying: fear of tight spaces, small holes, geometric shapes, clowns… While Kai proceeds to start spreading fear on the streets, Ally lets her fears and anxieties swallow her whole, in a rather effective representation of what rules American culture: paranoia. Chased by clowns that everyone around her say are imaginary (…are they?), she’s well on her way to self-destruction.
Contrary to popular belief, Cult isn’t an anti-Trump campaign. However, without his victory, chances are that the story – which Murphy claimed would remain the same even if Hillary had won – wouldn’t have the same impact. The stereotypical preoccupations of Hillary-supporting Americans are present in Ally’s lines in an exquisite way that is almost satirical, composing this mocking scenario in a way that reinforces that what is essential to this story isn’t the source of fear itself, but the way in which it annihilates urban routine.
In its first episode, Cult brings us what might well be one of the more organised AHS premieres. After the inexplicable (and inexcusable) Roanoke, we’re back to the hallmark theme song, this time with some new musical intricacies. The title, too, is presented as “AHS”, in yet another reference to the role of social media in this modern day drama. Paulson and Peters, as always, give their characters 100%. Billie Lourd, although reasonably competent (and with mad eyeliner skills), struggles to escape from the monotone voice she adopted in Scream Queens, which still follows her equally dark character. Winter, the babysitter she portrays, presumably Kai’s sister (purely based on the fact that they share the same surname), is the bridge between Kai and Ally, which probably signifies the presence of some secret as to how the two plotlines interconnect.
Without forgetting to mention the horror, with a decent amount of blood and gore, and even Freak Show’s Twisty’s (so far unexplained) appearance, Cult’s premiere’s summit is best seen when an impeccably dressed, man-bun-wearing Kai is trying to convince the authorities that the human being is moved by fear; craves it, in fact. He staunchly believes that fear can improve society’s gears by making it an organism desperate for security, even willing to do anything to get it back. Frightened, humankind is then ready to accept any form of control, and that’s exactly when it becomes docile, submissive, and ready to be moulded, like the only way to get relief from the anxieties of modern life is to give in to fear’s orders. Amidst all the guts and the screams, there is the rise of a questionable and bloody philosophy that can become an empire. We’ve seen it happen before.
The world is no longer a safe and pleasant place for double-barrelled-surname Ally, her wife and son – the holy trinity of white privilege – and therefore it’s unpleasant for the audience as well. The use of phobias as the great analogy to the USA’s political fractures makes Cult a good metaphor of the 21st century’s ideological confinement, disgusted by ultra-violence, yet sympathetic to it.
Claustrophic, fast paced and reasonably self-assured, the seventh season of AHS premiered on the 5th September, and is telling us that it could be one of the more intense seasons we’ve seen in recent years. After spending a few years resorting to basic formulae to induce fear, this season will hopefully try to show us how far can we go to avoid them.