The FX series American Horror Story often plays on our most basic fears, but for its seventh installment, American Horror Story: Cult, it’s taking things one step further and exploring the level of intense anxiety many have experienced after our most recent presidential election. No matter what side you’re on personally, it’s easy to relate to and sympathize with feeling lost or confused or afraid, and when that’s intentionally used to very effectively induce fear, then you might want to consider watching this season with the lights on.
After screening the first three episodes of the season, co-creator/showrunner/executive producer/writer/director Ryan Murphy took questions from the media during a Q&A at the Fox Lot, where he talked about the focus of this season, using the election as a jumping off point, the cult of personality, the satirical element, the setting, and how you can always turn off the TV, if the show is not for you. From that interview, we’ve put together 16 things that you should know about the upcoming season.
The first five seasons of American Horror Story were very operatic and big, and the sets were big. With Season 6, they wanted to strip everything away and deconstruct it. For Season 7, the actors, writers, crew and everybody has been able to express, as an artistic family and a community, what everybody is talking about in the world, pro and con. In the past year, politics has become entertainment in our country, and this plays into that a little bit.
- Although AHS: Cult begins on election night, that’s only one small aspect of the larger story. Said Murphy, “It’s not about Trump. It’s not about Clinton. It’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see what’s happening, and is using that to rise up, and using people’s vulnerabilities about how they’re afraid, they’re feeling vulnerable, and they don’t know where to turn. We’ve been very conscious of that in the writing, to make sure that that idea is central to the show.”
- For many seasons, the runner-up idea for the show has been Charles Manson and the Manson Family. With the 50th anniversary coming up, Murphy had been researching it, but didn’t know how to make the idea feel fresh. And then, when everybody was talking about the election and the two candidates, they decided to mix that with the idea of the cult of personality and somebody who rises within a disenfranchised community. There was so much passion, pro and con, over both candidates, that Murphy and the writers wanted to tap into that zeitgeist.
- The writers room started to break the season in December, and things that they were shooting in May have now come true, in the past six weeks. That’s been bizarre and emotional for the cast to experience. Murphy said, “Our feeling is that everybody lost their shit after the election, Republican and Democrat, and everybody is still losing their shit. Nobody has really figured out, from either side, where to put those feelings.”
- When it came to the satirical element of the season, the movie Network, which is Murphy’s favorite movie of all time, was their template, but the series has always had a certain sense of humor to it. It also always embraces pop culture.
- This season is set in Michigan because Murphy is from the Midwest. Explaining further, he said, “We’ve set the show in cities all over the map, but I think because that was the battleground state where there was so much at stake and it was so close, that community was so divided and Hillary Clinton was clearly predicted to win there, but didn’t. I just thought that that was a great jumping-off point because it was so polarized, so close and so heated.”
- Sarah Paulson’s character, Ally, developed out of the wild increase in anxiety that Murphy experienced after the election. No matter what side you’re on, there’s such a painful discourse going on, and everything seems to be at Mach 4 level. We’re on the brink of nuclear war, one week, and then, the next week, we’re on to something else equally extreme, so he wanted to lean into the escalation of fear in our culture, and Sarah’s character was the way to write about that. She has particular fears, including a fear of blood, a fear of coffins, and a fear of holes. Phobias can die down, and then ignite when something else is happening in your life.
- In the first episode, Paulson chases clowns with rosé, which came out of the fact that many people have turned to rosé a lot, in the past year. Since Murphy found himself turning to rosé, he decided that she was just going to chase the clowns with rosé. Adds Murphy, “The world we’re living in is ridiculous, so the show, in some ways, reflects the idea that nothing makes sense, and the only way to get through it is to try to have some degree of humor about it.”
- As the season goes on, Kai gets darker and darker and darker, as he rises to power. He goes from running for city council to ultimately running for the Senate.
- Along with playing the cult leader that we’ll see rise in this small town, Evan Peters will also play six different famous cult leaders, throughout the season, including Charles Manson, David Koresh and Jim Jones. Said Murphy, “We examine how those people rise to power and why people followed them, when we can look at what happened and they’re all such idiots. But for some reason, there was something going on in the culture, at that time, where people were so disenfranchised that they were like, ‘I’m going to follow you, Charles Manson, and I’m going to do whatever you say.’”
- Emma Roberts is back for one episode, this time as Michigan newscaster Serina Belinda. Her character is promoted above Adina’s Porter’s reporter character, simply because she’s much more superficial and willing to do what it takes to survive. The role evolved when Murphy asked Roberts what she’s always wanted to play, and they had joked about her being a newscaster.
- Twisty the Clown is also back, as one of the show’s mythological monsters. John Carroll Lynch was willing to return for a couple of episodes because he loves the character, so they included a meta idea that Twisty has his own comic book and is one of Ally’s phobias.
- Lena Dunham is playing Valerie Solanas, who attempted to shoot Andy Warhol because she felt denied into the cult of personality that was Warhol, in the Factory at the time. It’s an episode entitled, “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins, Scumbag.” That episode, which is Episode 7, is about the female rage then, and in the country now. Back then, Valerie Solanas created this thing called The Scum Manifesto, in which she told women to kill all men because that was the only way you could rise to power. In that episode, we also examine our female characters, as they’re trying to figure out a way that they can have equal power within this cult that Kai has started.
- There are no supernatural elements to this season. All of the horror is committed by humans against humans.
- While Murphy hopes that Trump has more important things to do than tweet about the show, he also knows that it’s something that could happen, with as obsessed as he is with the entertainment industry. If it were to happen, he doesn’t feel the need to respond because he thinks that the work speaks for itself.
- The season will be tough to watch, at times, especially with how closely viewers will be able to relate to its content, but the show will not include any trigger warnings. Instead, it will look at all the different sides of the equation. Said Murphy, “I think the great thing about a television set is that it can be turned on and off, and you don’t have to watch it, if you think it’s going to be something that you’re not going to like or learn from.”
American Horror Story: Cult premieres on FX on September 5th