The term "cult" conjures some very specific images, though what those images entail depend on who's considering the word. Perhaps your mind goes to the Heaven's Gate group or other masses awaiting the end of the world. Perhaps you think of the Manson family or other groups of outcasts living outside the law. But in AHS: Cult, premiering Sept. 5, Ryan Murphy is making a connection between cults and the 2016 presidential election. Why? Well, to determine why American Horror Story Season 7 is called Cult, you have to understand that Murphy isn't just thinking of this phenomenon in the traditional sense.
As recounted in The Hollywood Reporter, Ryan Murphy stated at a press event that "[AHS Season 7] is really about the rise of a cult of personality." Murphy seems to be taking a look at the people who invested themselves in the personalities of Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, and exploring how people reacted in the wake of Trump's win. "What did Trump tap into?" Murphy asked. "We're interested in his rise and how that happened."
To explore what's underneath the cult of personality, Murphy will also be exploring real groups that have been defined as "cults" this season. In addition to his main character Kai, Entertainment Weekly reports that Evan Peters will be playing historical leaders of groups such as The Manson Family, The Peoples Temple, and Branch Davidians, drawing comparisons between these charismatic masters and showing how the controversial term is applied to groups with varied ideologies and missions.
The "cult of personality" that Murphy has spoken about seems to center around Kai Anderson, Peters' most prominent character. In the trailer for the show, Kai, seen literally humping a television after Trump's win, uses familiar language to talk about bringing about some kind of revolution.
But in the showrunner's view, both extreme sides of the American political spectrum seem to resemble cults, or at least are susceptible to the kind of thinking that breeds strong identification and limited thinking. The same THR piece quotes Murphy saying:
"There is no real discussion. Everybody's still at each other's throats [after the election], you're either on one side or you're on the other. The season really is not about Trump, it's not about Clinton. It's about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger up in the wind and see that that's what's happening and is using that to rise up and form power, and using people's vulnerabilities about how they're afraid and don't know where to turn, and they feel like the world is on fire."
Murphy's definition of "cult" even extends to the animal kingdom. In the aforementioned Entertainment Weekly interview, Murphy said "bees are the original cult," and hinted that these insects seem to play a major role in AHS. So his definition seems to include any group of people (or bees) who amass behind a leader and are willing to do their bidding. Whether the figurehead of that movement is a presidential candidate, Charles Manson, an internet troll, or a Queen Bee, Ryan Murphy seems to believe that each of these groups is cult-like in a different way. It's a compelling idea that ought to have AHS fans picking apart every episode.