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For several seasons now, the runner-up idea for American Horror Story was Charles Manson and his family of followers. But franchise mastermind Ryan Murphy never felt right about pulling the trigger to base an installment on the real-life cult leader and those who killed in his name.
“We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of that. I had been working on it and researching it three years in a row, but it never felt right because it’s been done a million times and I didn’t know how to make it fresh,” Murphy admitted during a Q&A session that followed a recent screening of the first three episodes of Season 7. “Every year I would discard it but kept being drawn back to an idea about the cult of personality.”
Murphy found himself debating the same concept conundrum last fall as he tried to plan Season 7, premiering Sept. 5 on FX. His self-imposed deadline to pick a plot was October 1, but he wound up not needing that long to land on Cult. And for that he has Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and the intense, bats**t 2016 presidential race to thank. “Last year at this time, everybody was talking about the election and those two candidates. [In] most writers’ rooms, you come in, have a cup of coffee, gossip, eat something, talk about your kids, what’s been on Bravo, what movie you’ve seen. This time last year, nobody in that group of 12 wanted to talk about anything other than that [election]. It was really interesting,” he said. “There was so much passion, pro and con, that I wanted to tap into that zeitgeist. Mixing the idea of the cult of personality and somebody who rises within a disenfranchised community took root.”
It led to kicking off the premiere episode with actual news footage from the campaign and introducing our main characters as they reacted to the presidential announcement on election night. “Everybody lost their s**t after the election — Republicans, Democrats — and everybody’s still losing their s**t. Nobody’s figured out from either side where to put those feelings,” Murphy said. “Everybody’s still at each other’s throats. Everything seemed to be at Mach 4 level. You can feel it in the news now. I personally experienced a wild increase in anxiety in my life. ”
But contrary to how many people are already interpreting images of the real-life candidates in the show’s opening credits, Murphy asserts that this season is not about Trump or Clinton. “People have the wrong idea already. A lot of that is because people know my politics. I’m an out gay man and I’ve always campaigned on the Democratic side,” he explained. “And yes, the jumping-off point is election night and the characters have very strong views about Trump and Clinton, but it really is not about them. It’s about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind, see what’s happening, and is using that to rise up and form power,” he said. “[People] feel like the world is on fire and they don’t know where to turn. [The main character played by Evan Peters] is using people’s vulnerabilities. They’re afraid. That idea is central to the show. We really examine how those people rise to power.”
And lest you think it will be a one-sided bashing, as many conservatives and Rust Belt fans have already accused on social media, Murphy had his response ready: “Every side gets it just as much on our show. The white privilege that Sarah [Paulson] and Alison [Pill] deal with is satirical as well. We’re trying to make a point, but not take it too seriously. I think that’s evident in the first episode where Sarah Paulson chases clowns with rosé. I think we’ve all turned to rosé a lot in the past year. I was doing that in my life. [AHS] has enough sense of humor about itself that it can have a gay couple having a huge argument [about one of them voting for Jill Stein]. Jill Stein as a deep plot point is always good.”
Murphy said that making this season has been “cathartic for all of us” and hopes it can be the same for fans. “Because it does have a certain degree of humor and it’s actors you love, they help lead you through something that could be very difficult,” he said.
Not that Murphy has totally exhaled. “I’m still drinking rosé. I don’t feel particularly calm. I don’t think anybody does. I felt really shocked by what happened, and yet, looking at it in the writing, I realized I shouldn’t have been,” he said. “That has been the great gift of the show. It’s made me look at all different sides of the equation and research more. I’ve enjoyed that, but some scenes are hard. I’m not going to make excuses for that, but the great thing about a television set is that it can be turned off if you think it’s going to be something that you’re not going to like or learn from. “
While you decide to tune in or turn off, here are five other details gleaned from the Q&A:
1. There will be clowns.
Anyone who has seen a teaser ad or the trailer for Season 7 is expecting these circus freaks. These, however, are not run-of-the-mill bozos. These killer clowns from outer suburbs drive around in an ancient ice cream truck and leave blood not balloon animals in their wake. “A lot of people have a fear of clowns, which I’ve always been so curious about. I get how they can be creepy, the John Wayne Gacy of it all, but it was a way to write about a growing sense of anxiety that we have. Their clown masks are hilarious and weird. How they made them is explained in a very interesting way,” Murphy teased.
But Pennywise panic is hardly all Murphy and company plan to throw at the audience. In the first three episodes, claustrophobia, hemophobia (fear of blood), trypophobia (fear of holes; yep, it’s a real thing), xenophobia, and a fear of coffins, the dark, and particles in the air are also tackled. “Sarah’s character has particular fears that we will explore,” Murphy said. “Phobias can die down and ignite when something else is happening in your life.”
2. But there won’t be any supernatural scares.
Mythological monsters Rubber Man, Bloody Face, Piggy Man, and even Asylum’s aliens will sit this round out as Cult sticks to the evil that men do. Murphy explained, “We don’t have any of that this year. It doesn’t fly off to Mars at all in that way. It really is about the cult of personality and the scares come from that. Evan’s character gets darker and darker and darker as he rises to power and ultimately goes from running for city council to running for the Senate.”
One exception, sort of, is Twisty. Paulson and Pill’s TV son is caught reading a comic book based on Freak Show’s slobbering serial killer in oversized shoes. “It’s just sort of a meta idea that Twisty has his own comic book, the kid in the show [is reading it], and that could be one of Sarah’s phobias,” he said. “And I love John Carroll Lynch. He was willing to do a couple of episodes for us.”
3. Welcome to The Wolverine State.
Season 7 takes the action to Michigan for the first time. Murphy, himself a Midwesterner, thought thematically it made the most sense to set this story there. “Because that was the battleground state where there was so much at stake and it was so close. That community was so divided. [Clinton] was clearly predicted to win there and then didn’t. I thought that was a great jumping‑off point because it was so polarized and so heated,” he said. “Also, I’m from that area of the world, so I felt like I knew it. My family was having these arguments. Everybody’s Thanksgiving was ruined. That’s the truth of what we’re going through now. I wanted to reflect that.”
4. Murphy found a way to include Manson after all.
Peters plays Kai, a disturbed Trump-loving twentysomething and rising cult leader in the suburbs, but he will also take on portraying several of the most infamous non-fiction sect heads including Charlie boy. “Throughout the season, Evan Peters is, I think, playing six different cult leaders — Kai, Manson, David Koresh, Andy Warhol, Jim Jones. We’re examining all different sorts of cults. How do those people rise to power? Why did people follow them?” Murphy said. “When we look at what happened, they’re all such idiots, but at that time there was something going on in the culture. People were so disenfranchised that they were like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to follow you, Charles Manson, and I’m going to do whatever you say.'”
Even the addition of a bee subplot, which has been alluded to in all the buzzy lead-up advertising, is linked to the idea of devotion to a supreme. “Bees are the original cult in a weird way, the hive community,” Murphy joked. “[They] will die for the queen.”
5. Girls just want to have fun, too.
New to the AHS repertory is Lena Dunham, who was fresh off her own HBO show, and Murphy revealed that she, too, will play a real-life figure in episode 7. “Lena is playing Valerie Solanas, who attempted to shoot Andy Warhol because she felt denied into the cult that was Warhol and The Factory at the time, in flashbacks. ‘Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins, Scumbag’ is about the female rage then and in the country now,” he said. “Back then, Valerie created The Scum Manifesto in which she told women to kill all men [as] that was the only way you could rise to power. We also examine our female characters trying to figure out a way that they can have equal power within this cult that Kai has started.”
Other series newbies include Billy Eichner (Difficult People), Billie Lourd (who was in Murphy’s Scream Queens), Alison Pill (The Newsroom), Colton Haynes (Arrow), and Leslie Grossman (who worked with Murphy way back when on Popular).
This season will also mark the franchise return of Coven/Freak Show alum Emma Roberts. “She plays a Michigan newscaster named Serina Belinda, who is promoted above Adina Porter’s character simply because she’s much more superficial and willing to do what it takes to survive,” Murphy said, adding that her time in Michigan is brief. “She is here for one episode as a favor. She carved it out in her movie schedule. A thing I like to do is to say, ‘What have you always wanted to play?’ Emma and I always made a joke about her being a newscaster. Her dream finally came true.”
AHS: Cult premieres Sept. 5 at 10 p.m. on FX.
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