The current season of American Horror Story begins with a stomach-turning barrage of footage from the 2016 election. Not winking recreations or absurd exaggerations—actual news footage from the past year. With Cult, Ryan Murphy has admitted that real life has outdone his art. Nothing could be scarier than what is happening right here and right now. But this montage is just a prelude. The real nightmare begins on election night.
We meet this season’s characters as they watch the votes roll in. Sarah Paulson’s screams, usually reserved for watching someone being butchered, nevertheless seem like an all-too-real (and perhaps all-too-familiar) reaction to Donald Trump being elected.
This is the season where American Horror Story really lives up to its name.
The Trump administration has a lot in common with AHS, given its penchant for wealthy sociopaths, and characters driven by blind ambition or naked greed. Like Trump’s policies, AHS often combines the fears of queer people, poor people, black people, disabled people and women into an overwhelming cavalcade of nightmares. And while an episode of AHS can seem like three episodes of a regular show, a single week of Trump-era news can feel like a month’s worth of headlines.
This administration is a rollercoaster of outrages, a spinning teacups ride of horrors: We should be afraid of Russia! No, North Korea! No, wait, white supremacists! Does anyone even remember ISIS? Don’t forget, climate change will kill us all—but not before we lose our health care or get gunned down for minor traffic violations. It doesn’t end, and it’s all too fast. It’s overwhelming. It fills us up. And nothing captures that bloated and confused terror better than an episode of American Horror Story.
Maybe the most American thing about this show is its excess. Describing the elements of any given season sounds like a Stefon joke from Saturday Night Live: “This show has EVERYTHING: Racism, aliens, Catholicism, evil nuns, homophobia, circus freaks, nymphomania, corporal punishment, abuse of the mentally ill, human experiments, vivisection, blackmail, smallpox mutants, and the worst-named serial killer in history.” (That’s not even one season. That’s one episode.)
By contrast, Cult starts off uncharacteristically focused. Only a handful of characters are introduced. Only a couple of fears are explored. Unlike the other seasons, no hint of the supernatural has appeared thus far. Still, the show feels like it’s too much. It’s too soon. It’s too real. The Trump-fueled tension of the scenes is so stressful that a good, old-fashioned clown-murder scene feels as welcome and comforting as a big, fuzzy blanket. I’m looking forward to watching the rest of the season, but I’m a little worried my teeth might shatter.
So why would we want to watch AHS talk about the current administration? Why would we want more? In a word, catharsis. It’s the same reason we have, like, six versions of The Daily Show right now. If we do not laugh, we will never stop crying. If we do not scream, we will surely go mad.
In the show, Ally (Paulson) tells her therapist that this election has affected her the same way 9/11 did, and she’s not alone. Plenty of therapists have reported a spike in their clients’ anxieties since the election. For a large number of people in this country, Trump’s election is a trauma. All horror is about trauma—the fears it engenders, the way we fight through it. It cannot be buried, avoided or ignored. The only way out is through. So we work our way through it in the nightmare dream logic of horror. Horror has a long history of working out cultural fears through allegory and, Boy Howdy, are we dealing with some cultural fears right now. Like, all of them. The fears we once thought buried, the horrors we’ve too long ignored, they’ve all come back like Freddy Kruger.
Kai (Evan Peters), a blue-haired Trump supporter bent on becoming a one-man hate-crime wave, says in the premiere that America has chosen fear over freedom, and though that statement’s been true since 9/11, it’s gained power since Trump came on the scene. Trump appeals to the fears of his base: their fear of terrorism, their xenophobia, their fear of poverty, their fear of being passed over, forgotten, replaced. Likewise, Trump embodies the fears of his detractors: white supremacist, narcissist, sociopath, abuser, bully, spoiled child, senile old man, fascist dictator, everyone sees something different when they look at him but they all see something chilling. Trump has become a mirror of our own worst fears.
Kai is certain the country needs more fear, not less. He wants the country to descend into such panicked chaos that its population will be easily ruled by the “strong.” And so it’s gratifying to see Mr. Chang (Tim Kang) fight back against Kai. It’s heartening to see him say, “No, we will not be ruled by fear,” and tell Kai to get bent in no uncertain terms. But Mr Chang is also the first character to be killed off, so… not that heartening. Over the course of now seven seasons of AHS, Murphy has shown less and less interest in pulling punches. And Trump’s readiness to turn on those who speak against him is already well documented.
Not that I expect this season to be a carefully thought-out critique of our world. “Careful” and “thought-out” are words never used to describe AHS. In fact, I expect it to be scattershot, confusing, often absurd, and sometimes even a little dumb. But what is our current political climate if not confusing, absurd, and more than a little dumb?
Still, this season offers a chance to explore the reaches of our current fears. It may give us a connection to people with the same fears. It may give us a better understanding of our fears and how to face them. And, if we are very very lucky, it will give us some comfort.
The comfort that AHS gave us for a long time was that it would always have a happy ending. It baffled me when I first saw the first season, Murder House, but the longer I watched the show, the more satisfying Murphy’s Mega Happy Endings became. Roanoke threw that (and many other things) out the window, but I hope Murphy brings it back for this season. Not a lot of people survive a season of American Horror Story, but the ones that do usually get to live happily ever after. That seems like the best we can hope for from a Trump administration. Maybe a taste of that will give us strength for the fight ahead.
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.