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'American Horror Story: Cult': Gratuitous Spectacle in the Trump Era

Evan Peters in American Horror Story: Cult

Admittedly, the premise of American Horror Story: Cult is more than a little intriguing. Back in February, creator Ryan Murphy teased that the seventh season of his horror anthology series would deal with the 2016 presidential election, later clarifying that it would do so only obliquely. No Trump monsters or Hillary zombies; no bloody alternative history of the 2016 campaign.

Trump’s candidacy was built on fearmongering and conspiracy theories, and the months since his inauguration have been characterized by anger and anxiety. That’s just the kind of heady mix that makes for great tales of terror. Still, addressing real world events that are still so fresh for many of us is a ballsy move for a series like American Horror Story.

Here’s what no one was expecting from Murphy, even after The People vs. OJ: a nuanced take on the fear and anxiety of the Trump era and the real life consequences of the administration’s haphazard, ill-informed, and often nakedly spiteful policies. That’s not why people watch American Horror Story. They come for the camp and the grotesque, and that’s exactly what Cult delivers.

The season revolves primarily around a white, liberal lesbian couple (Sarah Paulson and Allison Pill) and a basement-dwelling, blue haired Trump fanatic (Evan Peters), and, to paraphrase the president, there are lunatics on many sides, on many sides. Paulson’s Ally is a cartoonish liberal snowflake, beset by phobias and paranoia; Peters’ Kai is a dead-eyed, wannabe demagogue. Neither character illuminates anything about the white women who couldn’t seem to bring themselves to vote for Clinton or the disaffected white men whose sense of grievance Trump rode all the way to the White House. (After watching the four episodes FX made available to critics, it remains to be seen whether the show’s focus on white folks is a purposeful decision or not.)

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AHS: Cult does a decent job of turning the pervasive unease, the sense of imminent threat that many of us experience on a daily basis in Trump’s America, into slasher flick paranoia and spectacle. But it doesn’t engage in any meaningful way with the causes of that unease.

And this is where I part company with the critics who are content to ride Murphy’s rollercoaster for the gruesome, escapist thrill of it. Call me a liberal killjoy, but I question whether satirizing what can fairly be described as a national crisis is at all useful, particularly when the satire in question is so facile.

Look, I get it: We all need a release valve these days, and horror in particular often serves as a form of catharsis, while also reflecting the prevailing anxieties of the time. The tension builds until you experience that giddy relief after a jump-scare. But my fear is that Cult, with its murderous clowns and hysterical feminists, will simply confirm to Americans of all political stripes that the world has gone mad. They’ll chuckle to themselves at the familiar sense that all sides are crazy. They’ll roll their eyes, throw up their hands and go back to watching Fox News and MSNBC, to clicking links to Breitbart and The Raw Story on Facebook, instead of engaging in rational political discourse.

I was hesitant to even write this particular hot take. Maybe I should lighten up. After all, it’s only American Horror Story! But after seeing this season’s first four episodes, I’m unconvinced that Murphy and co. are taking our political and cultural moment seriously enough. With terror on the streets of Charlottesville; with an increasingly defiant, nuclear-armed North Korea launching missile tests on a weekly basis; with a climate change denier in charge of the EPA even as unprecedented storms bear down on the southern coast; and with the president of the United States himself blithely chipping away at the institutional norms that undergird American democracy, American Horror Story: Cult looks like little more than gratuitous spectacle. So far, the show doesn’t reflect our anxieties so much as exploit them.

But maybe that’s just my fear talking.