Thursday 6 February 2020

Cult Cinema #24: The Atrocity Tour, Part 4

American Horror Story: Cult (2017)

The premise of American Horror Story is simple enough. Each season, a fairly consistent ensemble of actors stars in a serialised long-form tale of terror, which is complete in about eleven episodes, and which deals with one of the big tropes of American horror: a malevolently haunted house, an asylum, a coven of witches, the backwoods, a freak show, the Apocalypse. Occasionally references are made to characters and events in other seasons, but the stories stand alone, and (with the exception of Apocalypse) you can watch any one season of AHS on its own and not miss anything. The seventh season, then, is the Cult season, and since it's explicitly called a horror story in the title, and since AHS is heavily invested in using classic tropes, we know from the beginning that we're going to be approaching the great cult atrocities.

And we do.

Spoilers, all of them, as usual.

AHS: Cult, as it's styled, approaches as many of the famous American cult atrocity stories as it can, and around them it co-opts other movements and other myths, as if to say, maybe they're cults too. It makes no attempt to approach the events as they were, only the mythology of them, and the stories are relayed to us by more than one unreliable narrator. There are times when these stories threaten to get out of hand, when their unreliability, although at times literally pointed out in dialogue, isn't as clear as it could be. And there's one, which becomes important later in the season, which is almost calculated to infuriate.

Cult is the first season of AHS that has no supernatural elements. It attempts social commentary, beginning on that night in November 2016 when, by a narrow Electoral College margin, the Americans elected the worst basic asshole imaginable to their highest office.

We focus on two nonstandard families. We meet liberal restaurateur Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), her younger wife Ivy (Alison Pill) and their precocious son Ozymandias (child actor Cooper Dodson). On election night, the expectation that Hilary would win dissolves into fear and recriminations as Ivy seems to blame Ally for the literal state of the nation, since Ally voted for Jill Stein. It's ridiculous, of course, but it reveals a fault line in an already fragile marriage, made even more precarious by what they fear the administration will do (accurately, although this was made before things got quote as bad as they have).
Meanwhile, elsewhere, while jaded hipster goth Winter Anderson (Billie Lourd) feels bleak despair (“Why couldn't CNN give us a trigger warning?” she laments), her blue-haired brother Kai (Evan Peters) paints his face with the dust of crushed Cheetos and shoves her loss in her face.

Kai is the central vector of nearly every horror in AHS: Cult, because it is his journey from internet troll to charismatic leader of a murderous death-cult that sits at the centre of everything that happens. And, without even really trying, Ally becomes his prime target, as everyone she knows, from her psychiatrist Dr Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson), to neighbours Meadow and Harrison (Billy Eichner and Leslie Grossman), to the white supremacist and closeted gay police detective (Colston Haynes), to Gary the awful incel guy from the supermarket (Chaz Bono), to local news reporter Beverly Hope (Adina Porter), to Ivy herself, becomes implicated in the ensuing horrors. Kai's group grows and changes as Kai gains more power and confidence, and becomes more unhinged.

Initially the cult tries to make local people scared. Black vans motor around town, its occupants poisoning local birds. A group of crazed killers dressed as evil clowns engage in gory public murders, even killing off Beverly's main newsroom rivals on camera. Beverly herself begins to sow terror with sensationalist, fearmongering news items. And Kai runs for local office, winding up as a city councillor with an eye on the senate and a literal army of intimidating alt-right followers. Soon, they're calling him Divine Ruler.
For most of the season, Kai has everything sewn up. More than once, we'll see what looks like a setback or a warning, and then, right at the end of the episode, it is revealed that it was a thing he orchestrated. A cult member escapes and tries to assassinate Kai at a rally before turning the gun on herself; Kai convinced her to do it to make him look like a hero. A member of a rival cult convinces the women to perform acts of terror against their fellows; Kai and she are in cahoots. It suits him that the cultists kill each other when differences arise, and they readily do, dropping like flies as the story progresses.Eventually, nearly all of the original members are dead at each other's hand, and the cult has metamorphosed from a band of clown-masked thrill-killers to a paramilitary army of blue-uniformed fascists.

Kai is a chessmaster, whose charismatic control over his followers extends to the point of death. Over and over again, he convinces one of his followers to die: he tells them that they will be with him forever, that their sacrifice will be eternally remembered. And then they serve his purpose, and sacrifice themselves, and they're never mentioned again.

But how does he develop this grasp? How does he control people so absolutely?

Right from the beginning, Kai does this thing, this trivial, almost childish ritual, where he sits across the table from the people he's exerting his powers on, and they both put their elbows on the table and hook their pinkies, and they have to tell the truth. Nothing else. Only the truth. And this moment of vulnerability changes people. It turns them around. Because when he knows what people are scared of, or what they want, or what they need, he uses that.
How Kai turns from a basic Internet shitposter into a cult leader is fairly comprehensively explained, but why this happens is not, really. Two rationales are given later in the season, but it's really just an excuse to embed more short-form horror stories in discrete episodes, the first where the Anderson parents murder-suicide and the siblings hide the bodies in the upstairs bedroom, and the second where a younger Kai and Winter find themselves in a Judgement House, which is a thing that actually exists – and I only know this because back when I was with the evangelicals, that abusive pastor I used to work for involved me in a harebrained and thankfully abortive plan to set one up here in Swansea. A Judgement House is like a Halloween Horror House, with horrible, disturbing tableaux that you walk through, room to room, only it's supposed to scare people with the consequences of sin and hell into converting to Christ. Of course, this is an American thing, and in an episode of American Horror Story, the evangelical pastor who runs it is of course actually torturing and murdering people in his Judgement House, and although the younger Kai and Winter defeat him and rescue his victims, Kai is so disturbed by what he has seen that he turns nihilist. And OK, at least it's an attempt at a rationale, but I find myself wondering if in fact that dilutes one of the big themes of AHS: Cult – the way that alt-right radicalisation just steals the minds of young men – for the service of a gory horrorshow.

Essentially, because this is explicitly flagged as a horror story, and an American one, the horror comes first before the political and social subtext, and while it approaches American history (which is not an uncommon theme across all the seasons of American Horror Story), it has to make that history horror history. Even if it really isn't. And that goes for the way Kai's group grows and changes, which probably felt more organic if you were watching each episode with a week's space between this one and its predecessor, but which, binging it on Netflix, transforms at a dizzying rate.
The same goes for the stories of cult atrocities. These are unreliably told, and although we see them in flashback, we have Kai's in character voiceover telling us the tale, and, more importantly, we have Evan Peters playing each of the cult leaders, one by one. He is Charles Manson, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh and Jim Jones. We're clearly supposed to see his take on things as twisted, as a version that a kid could see through. So David Koresh's followers commit suicide in his version rather than being massacred by the Federal authorities. Jim Jones's followers drink the Kool Aid freely. Marshall Applewhite's group, well, that actually was a mass suicide, so that one doesn't need any distortion. When Kai talks about Jesus (also Peters) descending from Heaven and resurrecting Jim Jones and everyone who followed him with a touch, the kid does actually see through it. These are the versions that serve a cult leader. These are the versions that we've heard, versions that get propagated on TV and film all the time (see The Sacrament, for example, or, better, please do not).

The problem here is that these are the accepted versions of the atrocity stories in public discourse. Yeah, a kid could could see through them, and does, but if you don't already know what actually happened at Jonestown and Waco, why should you challenge it? The script is subtle, but I don't think the facts are well-known enough for that point to land as heavily as it should. So we just get a dramatised version of what we thought we knew already.
This particularly comes strongly into our sights in the episode where Bébé Babbitt (Frances Conroy), an elderly cigar-smoking woman in a green velvet cloak, approaches Beverly, Ivy and Winter, and tells them the story of Valerie Solanas (portrayed in flashback by Lena Dunham), her lover and guru. Valerie Solanas, as real as Bébé is fictional, was of course the radical feminist activist who wrote the SCUM Manifesto, which is one of those important documents that I'm literally not permitted, ethically speaking, to critique. But Valerie Solanas is also unfortunately best known as the psychiatrically ill attempted assassin of Andy Warhol (again portrayed in AHS: Cult by Peters), who she shot in 1968, resulting in her being committed to an institution. (Note: An interesting postscript to this is that Lou Reed apparently believed that it was Solanas's bullet that did for Warhol in the end, since he eventually died of an infection around the spot where she shot him. So maybe she got him after all.)

In American Horror Story, Solanas's SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) is a cult, and is ascribed responsibility for the Zodiac murders. And OK, the mask drops a bit when Bébé describes Valerie's death, because we see Valerie dying alone in a locked room, taunted by the ghost of Andy Warhol, and lamenting that Warhol (played by Evan Peters, remember) has stolen her legacy, which in structural terms is a neat foreshadowing of what actually happens, as Kai indeed steals Bébé's version of the SCUM methodology. But it's the classic locked room story that has beset narrative history for literally thousands of years, going right back to when Plutarch told the story of how Cleopatra and all her maids committed suicide in a locked room, last words and all, with no survivors: if no one is there but the dead, how do we know what was said?

All the cult stories in AHS: Cult, then, are in some way diegetically bullshit, told to further the agendas of characters in the story. But it's one thing to bring up an attempted murder of a legendary but divisive artist by Solanas, a talented woman tormented by frustration, rage and paranoia, and it's quite another to suggest that Solanas – a real person! – was the – real! – Zodiac killer, even if that story is framed ambiguously enough that it is impossible to be true.
The biggest problem with AHS: Cult is tied up with its entire point, and there's nothing that can be done to save it: that real people's stories are prone to distortion and misrepresentation for the sake of agendas driven by selfishness and fear. But in order to get this point across, the season distorts real people's stories – deliberately, with enough clues to let you know that it's distorting them – in the service of its own agenda. Which is of course fear.

Ally is as much a vehicle of fear as Kai is. Ally is afraid of clowns, and holes, and of what will happen to her son, and of her wife. Ally is afraid that the government will kill her. Sarah Paulson has been a wonderfully brittle performer in all sorts of drama, and has been owning horror and thrillers for going on 25 years (I first noticed her as the ghostly Merlyn Temple in the underrated 1995 series American Gothic). I think because her CV is so very varied, she's not thought of as a horror legend, but in my book she's up there with the greatest of the scream queens. She is almost always the best thing about American Horror Story, and in AHS: Cult, she is as much at the centre of things as Peters is. Between the two of them, they carry the season.

Ally is a great character, a mirror and parallel to Kai, whose fears, both in terms of personal phobias and in her status as a gay woman, in the wider context of a hostile America are consuming. Eventually, Ivy conspires with the cult to drive her off the rails, and she's institutionalised for a while. When she comes back, she has faced her fears and synthesised them, and although it takes a while for that shoe to drop, she embarks on a revenge plot fully as complex and murderous as Kai's own, and although we don't realise it until nearly the end, it's Kai who is now Ally's patsy.
The moral of the story, inasmuch as an American horror story can have one, is that to beat a cult, you make one of your own, which is what Ally does. In the final reveal, she dons the green robes of Bébé's SCUM, and now the Nasty Women are going to fight back against the Bad Hombres, and unlike the way things turned out in the real world, they will win by adopting their methods. It's remarkably bleak: all that is left are agendas, to which our stories are subordinate.

Or at least AHS: Cult reaches towards that moral. But the horror story comes first, and the moral only exists in that context. What AHS: Cult wants to do is to shine a light on how the worship of the 45th American President is cultic, and how the radicalisation of young white men into the hard right, into the hatred of women and black people and anyone who isn't a straight white man, is brainwashing. And it is! It's exactly the sort of social control that modifies behaviour and drives some – but only some – to terrible acts. But here, AHS: Cult bottles out. Having not actually needed to have gone all that far to draw horror from woman-hating alt-righters, who appear more or less as they are, only with their wishes for violence fulfilled, it then says, “But wait! Radical feminists can be just as bad!” 

But in order to find a radical feminist horror story, AHS: Cult has to make up some insane shit about Valerie Solanas being behind the Zodiac killer. To suggest that even the myths about Solanas or a slavishly literal reading of the SCUM Manifesto might put her on a par with Koresh, Jones, Applewhite or Manson is ridiculous, a manifestation of that hardwired liberal failing to see the difference between activism punching up and activism punching down. It's a classic example of the unbalancing effect of an erroneous desire for balance, which undermines any political message of the story. But then, this perhaps is the real point. For all of the stories are turned to the only agenda that we can have here: the telling of an American horror story, and nothing really more than that.