American Horror Story has always had an eye for the fantastical, but for its seventh season, Cult, the anthology series has turned its gaze to the real world. Could the AHS clown cult be based on a real cult? The series certainly draws from the 2016 presidential election that left America largely divided. Is it possible, then, that there are other elements culled from real life, too?
To many viewers' relief, the clowns who terrorize Ally in the show don't appear to take inspiration from any particular real group, but rather builds upon the collective fear such hive minds tend to inspire. "The thing that I just kept being drawn back to was the idea about cult of personalities," Murphy said at a recent press screening, per The Hollywood Reporter, "mixing the idea of the [Charles] Manson cult of personality, and somebody who rises like that within a disenfranchised community, took root."
According to THR, Murphy had been toying with the idea of Manson-centric season for quite some time, but couldn't figure out a way to make it feel fresh. Instead, he broadened the story to span various figures and the cult-like followings they've invoked. This includes infamous ringleaders like Charles Manson, who, per CNN, pleaded not guilty but was convicted of seven counts of murder related to the "Manson family murders" of 1969 and is now serving a life sentence; David Koresh, a self-proclaimed "prophet" who, as reported by The New York Times, led an allegedly abusive sect of the Branch Davidians in the late '80s but was eventually killed by a follower during an FBI raid of his compound; and Jim Jones, the man alleged by many of his disciples to have orchestrated the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, a mass suicide that killed him and his followers in 1978, per The New York Times. Also featured will be art icon Andy Warhol and Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot him, later pleaded guilty to assault, and was sentenced to three years in prison, according to Time. Solanas doesn't quite fit the same mold, but is featured because she "felt denied into the cult of personality that was Warhol in the factory at the time," Murphy claimed at the screening, per THR.
AHS staple Evan Peters will tackle each of these roles in different episodes, while his main character — a maniacal, blue-haired Trump supporter named Kai — incorporates characteristics of all of them. After Donald Trump wins the election, Kai exploits his newly polarized and vulnerable Michigan suburb, feeding on fear and anxiety to recruit an army of faithful acolytes. Eventually, he'll run for local council, then Senate.
The killer clown posse that arises in Kai's wake plays into a common and longstanding phobia, but one that's been particularly amplified in recent years. In 2016, reports of eerie clown sightings became oddly prevalent. According to Rolling Stone, one South Carolina resident said she saw a clown with a blinking nose standing beside a dumpster at 2:30 a.m., while other children in the town came forward with claims that clowns had attempted to lure them into the woods with money. Soon, similar accounts began sprouting up across the country, but police were unable to uncover any evidence or persons of question, leaving many to wonder if it was some kind of elaborate, large-scale hoax. Then, the weekend after AHS: Cult's premiere, the feature adaptation of It made its debut, reimagining the murderous, sewer-dwelling clown that first plagued Stephen King's 1986 novel of the same name.
It seems intentional, then, that Sarah Paulson's character, Ally, has nightmarish visions of sexually deviant clowns defiling one another at the grocery store or stalking her over dinner at her home. No one believes her, not even her own wife, but she's very much awake — making this storyline an intensified and terrifying take on the supposed clown craze of 2016.
So no, American Horror Story: Cult isn't exactly ripped from the headlines, but it's the most real — and perhaps frightening — season of the series yet.