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American Horror Story: Cult - Election Night - Review: "The Fear Factor"

Coulrophobia is arguably a fear many of us experience, yet have no specific name for; it's the fear of clowns. The last twelve months, particularly in America, have been plagued with what some would call an epidemic of clowns - from the "2016 clown sightings", as Wikipedia refers to them, to the announcement of a remake of Stephen King's chilling tale IT. Oh and of course, who could forget the clownish tweets and behaviour of the President over the past few months as well.

The latter brings us to American Horror Story: Cult (we'll get back to the clowns later - I know everyone's dying to think about them again!). The latest incarnation of the thrilling anthology series is, as creator Ryan Murphy noted to The Hollywood Reporter, "a true American horror story", opening with a montage of real life clips from the 2016 presidential race. I think SpoilerTV's own Max Conte, our AHS previewer, summed up well by commenting that it's "more grounded in reality than any previous season". Forget the ghosts, witches and aliens which have featured in previous seasons, because season seven is about the here and now. It's about cold, hard reality; the fears which so painfully plagued Americans in 2016, and continue to this very day. Cult attempts to illuminate on either side of the spectrum; we have Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) who represents the psyche of  (some of) Trump's disciples, alongside Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), a liberal who feels as though the world is erupting into chaos. 


Peters' Kai is a terrifying personification of the dark side of the election. He feels empowered by the new administration, thrilled at the prospect of a revolution. In itself this should be a good thing, politics inspiring people, particularly youth, yet this is Trump's America and so Kai's revolution isn't for everyone. His vision for power is far from rosy; in one scene he taunts a group of Hispanic men, eventually throwing a urine filled condom at them. He wants chaos to erupt, and fear to prevail, because this is a way for certain people to gain power. No doubt this aim also provides him with a sense of power as well. His interactions with sister Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd) illustrate such, as the twisted individual evidently enjoys holding power over others; smirking when she reveals she is most terrified of him. Yes, Kai is the stereotypical, media-portrayed Trump supporter - almost as if he's been written by Lena Dunham herself; subtle the show is not!

Paulson takes her place as the show's leading lady
Unlike the empowered Kai, Paulson's Ally appears to be the opposite. She epitomises fear, with a list of phobias longer than Clinton's celebrity endorsements; fear of clowns, holes, and small spaces to name a few. Conversing with her therapist, the protagonist explains how these fears have intensified since election night, and although once empowered by her love for Ivy, Ally now wallows in fear over the possibilities of the Trump administration's power. Ivy had once helped her out of a dark time in her life, yet now, as evident in the episode's opening scenes in which the fears of the LGBTQ+ community are briefly suggested, the relationship between the two women has become, in a twisted way, a spectre over them. Ally unfortunately does not provide hope and she instead represents a defeatist and almost proudly-victimised response to the election. Don't be fooled though, with Paulson's track record in the anthology, it's likely Ally will conquer her fears and come out on top. Give it time and she'll find hope and a light at the end of the tunnel, I would expect. We know there's a glimmer of fight within her, at least, because when harassed in a supermarket, Ally attempts to fight back, albeit poorly.

The two leads in many respects represent the good and bad that can come from an election. Kai shows empowerment (which in general should be a good thing), whilst Ally shows suffering. Of course, in American Horror Story, nothing is ever simple, and so both sides are certainly horror in this case. With only one brief scene together in the episode, it's likely the pair will have some memorable moments together this season - could they ever get along? The show as always is far from about two leads though, and so a host of supporting characters play a part in the unfolding of the election. Firstly, there's the likeable Ivy Mayfair-Richards (Alison Pill), who is unfortunately overshadowed by her anxious wife, Ally, throughout the first episode. I suspect her role will increase in the coming episodes though, as the relationship between the couple can only continue to become more tense; it will interesting to see how the pair navigate the differences in their political views, as well as Ally's (possible) hallucinations. Rounding off the Pilot's primary foursome is Winter. Whilst her brother Kai may be terrifying, Winter herself is creepy, arguably the most intriguing of the show's characters. Managing to secure herself a job as Ally and Ivy's babysitter, a child-fearing Winter is not ideal; on her first shift she inappropriately questions the child about which of his mother's carried him and introduces the young boy to videos of murders on the dark web. Yep, Laurie Strode she is not (though similarly they both have disturbing brothers). Lourd's performance is unnerving yet captivating at the same time, though unfortunately, she seems to be playing her Scream Queen's character. This isn't solely due to Lourd's performance and is in part due to the writing and characterisation of Winter. Despite this, Lourd clearly can act (a certain role) very well, and so her addition to the cast is likely one many fans of the series will welcome.

The Political Allegories

Now, onto the intense stuff. Murphy loves using allegories and hidden meanings, and so there's clearly much to be read into this season, in particular. Although after its first announcement I suspected the season would be overtly pro-liberal, as the rumours began to make their way through news outlets and social media, I began to feel some hope for the season. Even in February, before the rumour-mill had really begun, Ryan Murphy had this to say to The Hollywood Reporter following a question about his responsibility throughout the Trump administration:
"What I’m interested in doing is not just the obvious, single-minded point of view but rather express all sides of that equation. What needs to happen in our country now is for people to listen to each other – we may not always agree with each other and we may be horrified by what the other side is doing but we have to move toward understanding. So that’s one example of what I’m going to do".
In all honesty, I found his above comment refreshing. As someone outside of the States, it was terrible to see the American public dividing themselves - and in many cases, they did it without Trump. I'm talking about real people, in the real world, doing damage to national unity and such. Similarly to the "Brexit" referendum here in Britain, the 2016 election seemed to be a victory for those in power who wanted to divide the nation. And my one hope, for both political changes, was that people would come together. Even recently, I heard a story of a couple separating because they voted differently; where is the unity in the world? What struck me more so, and disappointed me, was the separatist nature of both sides. Those supporting Clinton (and similarly "in" during our Brexit referendum) hurled abuse online at the opposing side - terms along the lines of 'uneducated' and 'racist' became commonplace somewhat. And of course, the Republican side were just as bad, if not worse, often justifying such phrases. In my opinion though, the election illustrated the problem, yet nobody was listening - and that in itself, ironically, is the problem. Each side has been so wrapped up in their own motivations and beliefs, that in many ways they've forgotten to try and understand where the other is coming from (and truly that's the only way to move forward). Had Trump supporter X ever thought about how a immigrant lesbian might be affected in the aftermath? Had Clinton supporter X considered that a significant amount of Trump supporters feel isolated and let down by governments, and that by calling them "uneducated", they're only going to feel isolated further? Perhaps Murphy would be able to provide an objective story revolving around the election after all, and in some way help unify all voters. He might make people think a little more about all the dynamics. Hopefully he could even somewhat represent all voters, or at least try. The result, Cult, seems balanced enough, but certainly leaned in favour of Clinton- liberalism.

On the surface the Pilot criticises and exploits the weaknesses of both Trump supporters (represented by Kai) and his liberal opponents (with Ally being our vessel for this side of the political spectrum). Kai is an electrifying and troubled young man, whilst Ally is overly sensitive and constantly a victim of the world around her. If we delve a little below these allegories though, as exposed around half-way through the episode, the show actually aligns the two characters; Ally may be anti-Trump but she's certainly not pro-Clinton. Confessing to her wife about voting, she remarks of how "as much as I hate him, I didn't trust her". What the show actually appears to primarily be doing, in my opinion, is criticising and satirising those who 'allowed' or chose for Trump to become president; the Trump supporters of course, but also those who did not vote for Clinton (cause apparently not voting for someone is the same as voting for the opposition). Even in the first few minutes, Marilyn is chastised by her husband for not voting for Clinton. And later on, Ally mentions needing forgiveness from her wife for casting a protest vote. This isn't to say that Clinton supporters go without their own criticisms in the Pilot. Lourd's character is satirised even during her first scene. In some ways though, Winter is actually a critique and satire of youth. Murphy continually did this through Scream Queens, but now that's axed, Winter is his go-to stereotypical and easily mocked millennial. She wants a trigger warning on the Presidential announcement, and amongst her first thoughts on election night is where she'll now have an abortion. She may be pro-Clinton, but I doubt she even remotely represents a good satire of most Clinton supporters.

AHS newcomer Lourd is a fantastic addition
It will of course be interesting to see where the season takes these three characters, as well as Ivy, who herself may illustrate a significant satirical avenue. Despite my critiques, the episode does a fantastic job of not really allowing anyone to go unscathed by some form of critique, though some more so than others. Additionally, as a fan of Susan Sarandon, a recent collaborator of Murphy's in FX's Feud, I was in many ways excited and surprised to see the show portray Paulson's protagonist as nonsupporting of both Trump and Clinton. It was often a forgotten aspect of the election; that someone could want neither to gain power. So much so that Sarandon was hounded by "liberals", many of whom she likely shares beliefs with, over her failure to endorse Clinton. One can be liberal and not support Clinton, and Ally perfectly encapsulates this.

Is She Insane?

American Horror Story is at its best when there's some mystery or twist. If season seven had a question, at least from the first episode, it would be "is Ally hallucinating or being manipulated?". I wonder if the case is in fact both. If Murphy is so keen to be objective, then perhaps the protagonist will be the victim but also causing her own destruction. Maybe someone, or some people, are exploiting her, yet she's giving in to her fears. I feel as though it's too early to speculate too much. What I will say though is that fiction has a great way of pushing the boundaries of reliable narrators and such, and Ally is no different. The question of whether we trust her is constantly looming and no doubt will only intensify throughout the season. Not only Ally though, but also several other characters - the show itself, ultimately. The episode's conclusion involves two different viewpoints of a shared experience; do we believe Winter or Ally's son? Or, should we instead be asking why or how the young boy can see something different to his babysitter? So many questions. That's American Horror Story for you though.

Those Pesky Clowns

Peters as you've never seen him before

Unfortunately, yes, now is the time to discuss the clowns. While Peters and Paulson may be AHS regulars, it was the return of John Carroll Lynch which was arguably most exciting tonight. Fans will remember Lynch's Twisty the Clown from Freak Show, and he finally made a long-awaited returned. The psychotic killer clown made a meta comeback, as the subject of a comic book which ultimately terrorised coulrophobic Ally. Lynch may have no lines, but that's part of the terror of clowns. That silent threat, and the juxtaposition; they are supposed to be almost joyful, yet many of us see them as twisted. It's unclear whether Twisty will make further appearances this season, but it would be hard to deny he doesn't epitomise horror, and therefore I hope it's not the last we've seen of him. His appearance as a comic could mean that Ally, if she is hallucinating, could see Twisty herself sometime. Of course, as illustrated through the publicity and promo for the season, he's far from the only clown making an appearance this season. Scattered throughout the Pilot are a number of creepy clowns, constantly taunting Ally as well as her son. The scene in the supermarket was not only terrifying, but also very surreal; and that's part of its power. It's out of the ordinary, yet plausible, to an extent. Though she is most likely hallucinating, as I've said previously, nobody can be entirely sure she is. It almost felt like The Purge meets The Strangers, perhaps simply due to masked lunatics running bedlam, but also in an anarchist and social-chaos sense. What these clowns represent is unknown at this point but I would bet they hold some metaphorical significance. Perhaps they represent fear itself, manifesting greater towards those who indulge, or maybe they're even an allegory for something political. For now though, let's all just admit they're the stuff of nightmares.

Final Thoughts 

The episode reminded me of last season's opening, which unfortunately turned me off season six (though I intended to finally binge watch the season once Netflix finally add it). It feels different in its production than some of the early seasons, and perhaps in part due to its move to try and be a more realistic horror story. This opening certainly hasn't turned me off, and I have to admit I'm pretty intrigued and excited to see where the season goes, but in terms of previous seasons, I can't imagine this would be someone's favourite - though of course it's far too early to tell! I worry that the season is too close to home / reality, which as I expressed early should work to its advantage, but I fear it might end up feeling like a PSA or a political propaganda somewhere along the lines - whereas stories set in the past, have always felt like just that a story. Overall, it was a strong start to a highly anticipated season, and the cast were fantastic as always. Say what you want about Murphy but he certainly knows how to think of a creative idea and cast stellar actors in his roles.

If there's one thing I'm waiting and hoping for, it would be more cult references and scenes. It's been rumoured that Peters will be portraying various cult leaders this season, such as Charles Manson and Jim Jones, and I really do hope this is true (even if Peters isn't playing them). I personally love when American Horror Story features historical individuals and this season gives the show a fair amount of scope to be a wild and interesting in terms of real life characters. Only time will tell though ...

American Horror Story: Cult continues next Tuesday on FOX, and will be begin this Friday on FX UK. In the mean time, feel free to let me know your thoughts on the episode in the comments section below. The review is just my immediate opinion, and so I'm intrigued to find out what allegories and interpretation you all found in the episode, as well as general opinions.