Shock value has always been a specialty of American Horror Story (AHS) creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Continuously pushing the limits of cable television censorship, FX’s AHS has been a cult favourite for six seasons. Structured as an anthology, the series takes a different horror premise with each iteration, casting the same actors in different roles from season to season. Now entering its seventh installment, the show is taking that cult mentality literally. Using the United States’ severe political divide as a provocative starting point, the season begins on the night of Nov. 8, 2016—the date of the most recent American election. Unfortunately, rather than achieving poignancy, this effort to remain relevant and scandalous comes across as exploiting Americans’ political anxiety for profit.
The difference between Cult and its preceding seasons is that few have taken place in modern times or incorporated real-life events. Season three’s the Axeman of New Orleans and the first season’s Black Dahlia of Los Angeles come to mind, but most of these “real world” events are often ghost stories or urban legends that have never been confirmed truths. This season, however, is taking AHS into unexplored territory by placing their characters and plot lines within fresh memories for its viewers.
Finding an entertaining yet accurate depiction of the 2016 election is a challenge, and one that Murphy and Falchuk were unable to meet. By taking the radical personas from both ends of the American bipartisan system, AHS parodies a political environment that is becoming increasingly threatening and overwhelming. While villainizing many Donald Trump supporters, AHS also manages to awkwardly polarize liberal voters.
When learning of Trump’s victory, Winter (Billie Lourd) blasts CNN for not issuing a trigger warning before announcing the election results and then asks herself with a somber urgency, “What happens if I get pregnant? Where do I get an abortion?” Satirizing extreme liberal sensitivity while simultaneously voicing legitimate fears in Trump’s America, the tonal balancing act strove for poignancy but fell somewhere in a decidedly cringey middle ground.
While I’m always one to enjoy horror movies and shows, the current state of American politics is arguably scarier than the witches, ghosts, and mutants that have previously been the focus of AHS. When we reduce television to its most basic form, it often serves as a sort of escapism for its viewers. By focusing on such a controversial topic AHS no longer fulfills this purpose. The show appears to go on a tangent to entice viewers and portray more relevant plots, but after experiencing such success in previous seasons, the unnecessary change serves to confuse rather than intrigue.
Looking deeper into the origin of the horror genre, it’s understandable why AHS’s new theme drastically missed the mark. People love fear because after the initial shock or scream, viewers have the privilege of reminding themselves that they’re safe and it’s just entertainment. The ideologies that are currently crawling out of the shadows due to the Trump’s encouragement; real-life horror rather than Hollywood entertainment.
Mixing horror and social issues can be a delicate balance, but poignant when executed properly. David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows’s allusion to STIs or the compelling take on feminism in Robert Eggers’ The Witch are examples of how a nuanced approach to deeper social discussions can be highlighted through horror. Murphy and Falchuk refuse to be silenced on their opinions of Trump and his administration. While admirable, the platform for which they’ve chosen to display their commentary leaves no room for interpretation. It’s also important to acknowledge that the American election took place nine months before the AHS: Cult premiere date. By exhibiting polarizing reactions to Trump’s victory months later, the show delivers zero fresh insight to the issues that it so desperately wants to address.
The real American horror story is that we are only less than one year into Trump’s term and the administration has been continuously working to invalidate the freedoms of its citizens. By spending millions of dollars to produce entertainment based on fictional characters living in Trump’s America, the seriousness of current issues and the people they affect are being diminished. The show’s viewers tune in every Tuesday to entertain themselves with fears of fictitious ghosts, demons, and killers. Trump’s America, unfortunately, is just too real and scary to be used as entertainment.