It would be simplistic to assume the Season 7 premiere of American Horror Story is merely an attack on right-wing populism. Instead, ‘Election Night’ set an appropriately dark tone for a story that promises to be more than just petty political drama. To achieve this, Ryan Murphy dug deep into the everyday insecurities of life in an increasingly divided, distrustful society.
But the biggest shift from previous seasons of American Horror Story is not even the political subject matter. Where the show used to draw fear from trapping ordinary people within extraordinary, supernatural situations, this time the fear comes from within the paranoid minds of regular humans. There are no ghosts or vampires in AHS: Cult—just the obsessive terror of living in a society where the enemy could live right around the corner.
This trepidation manifests itself most prominently in our leading lady of the season: Ally, played by AHS alumni Sarah Paulson. The anxious, phobia-ridden mother is portrayed as our central protagonist, but she is also a distortion of the stereotypical “triggered” left-winger. Simply the sight of a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat is enough to send her into a full-blown panic attack.
Playing opposite Paulson, we have Evan Peters as Kai—the volatile, nutty Trump supporter, who is similarly a caricature of right-wing populism. Loud, bombastic, and driven by a desire to spark anarchy, Kai displays an unhealthy obsession with psychological manipulation.
“What’s the thing that scares you the most?”
And then there are the clowns. Teased so heavily in the promotional material for this season, the imagery is heavily reminiscent of political horror movies such as The Purge, as well as the infamous clown sightings of 2016. We even get a Twisty cameo, as it is revealed that his legacy has inspired a terrifying comic book series in the modern-day.
The strange thing about clowns is that there is nothing about them that is immediately threatening. It is in their painted smiles and their unpredictable behaviour that deeply unsettling feelings are aroused, implying they are hiding something dangerous. This makes them a perfect symbol for the distrust of neighbours that AHS: Cult is aiming to evoke this season.
Finally, the cult itself. Or to be more specific, the cult of personality that gathers followers behind a single-minded ideology. People who feel disenfranchised group together, and this is no more obvious than in the populist movement responsible for Trump’s victory. How this will unfold in episodes to come is a mystery, but at this point it appears as though Kai is recruiting people to join an anonymous sect of populists who intend to breed fear and harass/murder left-wing elites.
Simply due to the fact he is being moulded into the role of the antagonist so early on, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that Kai will eventually be fleshed out into a more three-dimensional character. I will even go so far as to guess that the roles will be flipped entirely, and the enigmatic underdog Winter may end up being the villainous mastermind. There is certainly more to her than meets the eye.
‘Election Night’ is a strong opening to a season destined to be racked with controversy. The wounds from the 2016 election are still raw, and tackling such heavy subject matter is a huge gamble for the writers. Episode 1 has all the trademarks of an American Horror Story premiere, refusing to reveal too much early on. But it also plays with convention just enough to promise us an unpredictable, terrifying story arc that might hit a little too close to home.
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