Monday , 8 August 2022

Send in the Clowns! – AHS: Cult – review

Coulrophobia [kool-ruhfoh-bee-uh] (n) – an abnormal fear of clowns

We’ve been haunted at houses and hotels, tormented at an asylum, terrorized by witches and cults, and creeped out at a freakshow. Now, television mainstay, American Horror Story, returns for a very timely seventh season. By combining two of the most frightening things to many Americans – clowns and the election of one to the highest office in the land, the show is attempting to help us cope with and make sense of these very dark and unsettling times, while scaring us even more in the process. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and ghouls, welcome to AHS: Cult.

For the vast majority of Americans, what happened last November represented the ultimate in horror when a narcissistic, misogynistic, racist, incompetent fool was awarded the presidency due to an antiquated system that was originally formed to placate slave owners. Any hopes that what we saw leading up to the election would not be representative afterwards have been dashed as all our worries have only been reinforced in the succeeding months. This frightening scenario is used as the jumping off point for AHS: Cult, which begins on Election Night. AHS regular Sarah Paulson plays Ally, whose family life with wife, Ivy (Alison Pill) and son, Oz, is threatened when the election doesn’t go as expected. Being someone who is modern, progressive and enlightened, her fears over someone in charge who is anything but are well-founded. Adding to her problems, Ally seems to be scared of practically everything, as she tells her therapist – confined spaces, blood, particles in the air, the dark, and maybe most of all, clowns, which seem to be popping up everywhere, from the comics her son reads to the aisles in the supermarket. When the neighbors start turning up dead, are we to believe these clowns are only in her head, or might they be real after all?

“I’m just so scared now.” “Everyone is.”

American Horror Story is known for using a revolving repertoire of actors that appear in different seasons, generally in different parts. Employing Oscar-winning actresses like Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates to pop superstars like Lady Gaga in meaty roles has no doubt been a big reason why such a disturbing and gory show has garnered so much attention by the Emmys, while the equally violent, and certainly equal in quality, if not moreso, The Walking Dead, has consistently been ignored by the voters. Give credit to creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk in keeping the emphasis on strong female characters to lead the way most seasons (especially season 3’s Coven). One actress who has especially shined, and one of the few to appear in every season of AHS, gathering 4 Emmy nominations to her credit (while actually winning for another Murphy/Falchuk production, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson) is Sarah Paulson. In the past she has been a journalist locked up in Asylum and played both heads of a two-headed woman in Freak Show. Here, as mentioned earlier, she plays the terrorized Ally, around who the show revolves. Another AHS player who has had a role each season is Evan Peters, who has previously been cast as a murdering sociopath to a freak show performer with lobster claws for hands. Here, he plays the polar opposite of Paulson’s character, Kai Anderson, a disturbed loner whose elated over the election result which he hopes will bring about the chaos and fear he so desperately wants America’s streets to be filled with. Other AHS returnees are Cheyenne Jackson as Ally’s therapist and John Carroll Lynch as the evil Twisty the Clown from the 4th season’s Freak Show. Newcomers include Alison Pill (The Newsroom) as Ivy, Billie Lourd (Scream Queens) as Kai’s sister, Winter, Colton Haynes (Teen Wolf) as Det. Samuels,  and yet to be seen, Billy “on the Street”Eichner and Girls’ Lena Dunham. Also set to appear during the season is another AHS vet, Emma Roberts.

“What’s the thing that scares you the most?”

While past AHS seasons have dealt with the supernatural, Cult is the first one that plans to stay firmly rooted in reality, using actual world events to catapult its storyline. Showing Ally and Kai as two exaggerated ends of the political spectrum, AHS is not being subtle in what it is trying to say. On the one hand, you have a forward-thinking liberal who is self-centered and always looking for someone else to blame for their own mistakes. And on the other hand, you have a right-wing racist hellbent on taking out his anger on those he sees as threats. As Kai says, “nothing is more dangerous than a humiliated man.”  One can’t help but think of the Nazissist-in-chief whose inflated ego constantly needs stroking like a shark that needs to keep swimming to allow oxygen to pass through its gills, with any perceived sleight, be it from a late night comedy skit or the words of a foreign leader, manifesting itself into angry tweets or worse. When one suffers from paranoid delusions, like imagining immense crowds that aren’t there, or seeing clowns at a supermarket, it is a sign of mental illness. It also doesn’t take much to draw a comparison to the prevalence of clowns in this season of AHS to the clowns currently running the show in America.

It will be interesting to see where AHS: Cult takes us this season. The show has the ability to twist and turn, as evidenced by last year’s Roanoke. While the first episode was pointed, biting and slicing in its post-election commentary, it will most likely veer away from the political aspect, at least somewhat, as it explores the dangers that can erupt, and do, as we saw in Charlottesville, when a person in power validates the worst instincts in people. When certain individuals or groups see others who differ from them by their religion, skin color, ancestry or sexual orientation, and instead of embracing and learning from those distinctions, come to fear and hate them, violence can result. Such close-minded people are weak-minded as well, and it’s easy for someone to stoke their fears by making ridiculous promises they can’t realistically keep. It’s also why these scared, fragile people are the ones mostly arming themselves with guns and other weaponry. They stockpile weapons, ready for any intruders who might attempt to enter their home, or when they’re not too afraid to leave the confines of their abode, carry a weapon with them. Yes, it’s a scary world out there, but it’s not immigrants, women or the LGBT community that are the root of it. It’s those in power taking advantage of the fear of fools to further their agenda.

One last thing to bring up is the omnipresence of clowns in today’s world. We have the clown motif in this season of American Horror Story. We have the evil Pennywise in the just released adaptation of Stephen King’s It. And we have a clown in the White House, at least for the time being. Clowns were also in the news last year, being sighted near woods and schools from South Carolina to California and beyond. Aren’t clowns supposed to be fun, goofy-looking characters with oversized shoes and red noses, delighting children at circuses and parades? Apparently, a lot of people find clowns rather terrifying and AHS looks to tap into that in this decidedly divisive season. American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesday nights on FX. Bee warned.

— review by Brian de Castro