With inclement weather wreaking havoc all over the world, not to mention political instabilities, the real world is too often scary enough that fiction doesn’t seem to come close. However, despite the real dangers we face, our human brains can’t help but invent terror. An early traumatic experience and misfires of brain chemicals can combine to produce fears that seem more urgent than the threats of a faraway dictator.
That’s the world we find ourselves in as the new series of American Horror Story begins. This time, the subtitle is Cult and while we get only the barest glimpse of one of those, we do get the horror. The episode begins, as the title indicates, on last year’s American presidential election night. We see reactions to the results from two different people, Ally (Sarah Paulson), a stereotypical white liberal, and Kai (Evan Peters), an…enthusiastic Trump supporter. He’s so enthusiastic, in fact, that he grinds some Cheetos into a fine powder, which he then smoothes onto his face, the better to look like his idol. This is after he humps his television in joy. Ally, on the other hand, is bereft and her viewing party is all shades of the Dave Chappelle/Chris Rock election night skit on last season’s SNL.
Ally is no better after election night. Her old fears, most notably coulrophobia and trypophobia, have come roaring back. The trypophobia mostly just makes her uncomfortable, but the coulrophobia—hoo, boy. She’s seeing menacing clowns everywhere. Coulrophobia isn’t that uncommon—stay tuned for Matthew’s review’s of It, a commonly cited cause of the phobia—but most people who are afraid of clowns don’t hallucinate them, as far as I know. And I don’t actually know if Ally is hallucinating them, but no one else seems to see them.
That includes her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), with whom she shares a son, Oz (Cooper Dodson), and a restaurant, The Butchery on Main. The clown incidents really put a strain on their marriage, as it is more than a little difficult to cope when your partner is screaming that clowns were fornicating in the produce section. Or when she thinks that the perfectly nice dinner you prepared at your restaurant is a crumpet oozing blood.
At least Ivy’s gotten her to go to the restaurant, though. That involved hiring a babysitter and they choose Winter (Billie Lourd), a college student who says all the right liberal things in her interview. They don’t know that she’s under the thrall of her brother, Kai, who’s enlisted her as the first member of his cult.
Meanwhile, he’s quite the busy little bee himself, as he makes an appearance at a city council meeting chaired by Ivy and Ally’s friend, Mr. Chang (Tim Kang), to argue against placing security at threatened Jewish community centers. Instead, he thinks that the city should allow the centers to be blown up. When he’s predictably rebuffed, he wanders away, telling Chang that “[T]here’s nothing more dangerous in this world than a humiliated man.” He also provokes a beating from a group of Latino men, which someone—Winter?—films on a phone. It’s not hard to imagine the optics of that or the headlines—Innocent Man Beaten by Thugs will likely be one of the milder choices. I’m sure whoever was filming cut out the part where Kai lobbed a urine-filled condom at the men.
Meanwhile, Winter is at work at the Mayfair-Richards home, attempting to inoculate Oz to violence by showing him graphic videos on the internet. Having found his childish version of contraband—a Twisty the Clown comic that is not doing wonders for his mom’s mental health—she encourages the idea of the scary killer clown as well. (John Carroll Lynch also reprises his role as Twisty, seen in a recreation of a storyline from the comic taking out an unlucky lover’s lane couple.)
Then the clowns come. Piling out of an ice cream truck, a coterie of scary clowns enters the Changs’ home across the street. Winter takes Oz over there and gives him a boost to the window, where he sees his neighbors being slaughtered. Or does he? Winter dismisses his claims to his moms as hysteria brought on by the illicit comic book, but we know that she’s not on the up and up. Then again, no one else has seen the clowns but Ally. So whom do we believe? It seems unlikely that there’s a crew of murdering clowns out there, but then again, less than a month ago, a protest by a gathering of clean-cut young men toting backyard party lights devolved into chaos that ended in a death. And that was real life. So why should we expect less from fiction?
8/10 – This was a pretty strong debut for this season, especially the city council scene. Although parts of it were mired in silliness—see also: Cheetos facial—as is typical of AHS, it’ll be fun to watch them play with horror movie tropes this season, especially with the real life issues they’re injecting. Then again, as real life offers no lack of horror stories these days, it’ll also be interesting to see how they try to make fiction scarier.