Roanoke, the previous iteration of the long-running American Horror Story franchise, teased and misdirected audiences for months up until its debut where its premise was finally revealed. The newest season, Cult, has not been secretive about its intentions, promising killer clowns, a maniacal Evan Peters, and real-life footage of Donald Trump. Now that the September 5th debut of this latest season has aired, it can be safely said that all of these reveals have spoiled nothing. Cult is as bizarre and crazed as its clown-heavy promos have promised, and moreso.
The debut introduces us to series mainstay Sarah Paulson, who portrays Ally Mayfair-Richards – a well-to-do liberal whose various neurosis and phobias begin flaring out of control when she finds herself traumatized on election night by the presidential ascension of Donald Trump. Series newcomer Alison Pill portrays Ally’s long-suffering wife Ivy who struggles to keep both their family and the restaurant they co-own afloat as Ally buckles under the weight of her issues. Contrasting them are AHS stalwart Evan Peters, who is likewise paired with newcomer Billie Lourd, as a manic Trump follower who takes his hero’s election as an opportunity to act upon his own insidious ambitions.
The real-world political tensions that form Cult’s foundation are presented in way as to be frightening enough no matter one’s position on the political spectrum. But it wouldn’t be American Horror Story if things didn’t take an immediate turn for the weird. The only thing Ally seems to fear more than Donald Trump are clowns, and she is really, really afraid of clowns. Her coulrophobia is so extreme that a metafictional shout-out to American Horror Story: Freak Show is enough to incapacitate her and begin eroding her marriage. Needless to say, when clowns that only she can see begin stalking her, assaulting her, and engaging in sex acts in front of her, she doesn’t handle it well. Any longtime viewer of AHS knows that Paulson can engage in masterful histrionics and Cult wisely lets her shine. The various moments of clown mayhem may not be terrifying, but they are certainly entertaining.
The genuinely frightening moments of ugliness come from Peters and Lourd whose characters are truly insidious. It’s clear to see that if a “cult” is going to emerge from anywhere, it’s going to be from them. The producers did well in pairing Lourd with Peters as she provides the right subdued menace to ground his ghoulish theatrics.
Roanoke was a bold change in direction for a series that is defined by its endless reinvention of itself. Cult, while adhering (so far) to a more conventional style of storytelling, is no less bold. The real-world political backdrop might might be unappealing for some, but it lets the series explore personal and psychological ugliness in a different way than before. The obvious nod to the mysterious clown sightings of 2016 add to the surreal feel. With Cult, AHS will likely continue to be as divisive within the horror community as it ever as, but it is unlikely to be dull.