“The election is the jumping-off point of the show, but it’s really about the rise of a cult of personality,” the showrunner told reporters Friday following a press screening of the first three episodes of season seven.
This season of the FX drama has been described as a “true American horror story,” with Murphy noting it would tackle the “national conversation and both the euphoria and the fear” surrounding the election. But it will not feature a single point of view, the noted Democrat has said in the past about season seven of his game-changing drama. AHS regulars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters star as Ally Mayfair-Richards and Kai Anderson, respectively. Paulson’s character, who is married to Ivy Mayfair-Richards (played by franchise newcomer Alison Pill), suffers from multiple phobias, including coulrophobia, or a fear of clowns. The first three episodes, which were screened for reporters Friday, revealed that the election serves as a trigger for Paulson’s Ally.
Cult opens on election night 2016 and features the reaction from Clinton supporters (Paulson and Pill), as well as the Trump camp (Peters, who this season plays cult leaders Kai, Charles Manson, David Koresh, Andy Warhol and Jim Jones). Murphy repeatedly stressed that “pro or con, everyone can relate to the feelings” portrayed on the show on election night. “Part of being an artist is being able to write about the world you live in. But we’ve tried very careful to be fair,” he noted. “We’re not burning people in effigy or anything extreme.”
In crafting season seven, Murphy explained that he was originally drawn to the idea of cults and had tried for many seasons before to explore the world of Manson. However, in designing this season and facing the challenges of exploring Manson, he quickly realized that the presidential election would instead serve as a better entry point to the story he wanted to explore. “We’re trying to understand how someone who is very charismatic in the culture can rise up and become a leader. We’re not going to say we hate Trump,” said Murphy. “What did Trump tap into? We’re interested in his rise and how that happened.”
The showrunner — who also has American Crime Story and Feud at FX, as well as Fox’s upcoming 9-1-1 procedural and other shows in the works — ultimately hopes that Cult starts a conversation about what’s going on in America today. “Everybody lost their shit after the election, and people are still losing their shit, and there is no real discussion, and everyone is still at each other’s throats,” he said. “The world we’re living in is ridiculous, so a sense of humor is needed.”
Murphy, who remains plugged into the social media conversation surrounding Cult, had some advice to viewers who have said they plan to check out of the franchise because of its political theme this year. “The great thing about a TV set is it can be turned on and off, if people don’t feel like they’re going to learn anything from it,” he said.
“I do think politics has become entertainment, in a weird way,” Murphy said, noting that the discussion in the show’s writers room after the election shifted to focus almost entirely on politics, versus the more lighthearted banter (like Bravo programming, he joked) before November.
The Cult cast also includes Teen Wolf alum Colton Haynes (who plays a police officer), Scream Queens grad Billie Lourd (who has ties to Peters’ character) and Lena Dunham, who guest-stars as Valerie Solanas, also known as the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Billy on the Street‘s Billy Eichner recurs; Adina Porter, Cheyenne Jackson (who will play a therapist), Frances Conroy, Mare Winningham and Emma Roberts round out the cast. As for AHS original leading lady Jessica Lange, Murphy said he’s “sure she will come back to the show” one day (with the same being true for other stars, like Kathy Bates, who are taking this season off).
American Horror Story: Cult premieres Sept. 5 on FX and will consist of 11 episodes.