Horror, humour in a world that does not make sense

Sarah Paulson has starred in every season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story anthology series since it debuted in 2011.
Sarah Paulson has starred in every season of Ryan Murphy's American Horror Story anthology series since it debuted in 2011.PHOTO: FX

Cult, the seventh season of the American Horror Story anthology, was inspired by the US presidential election and reflects the idea that the world we live in is ridiculous, says producer Ryan Murphy

Two decades after he quit a career in journalism and created his first hit series, the teenage comedy Popular (1999-2001), television demigod Ryan Murphy shows no signs of slowing down.

If anything, his empire-building has gathered steam, especially after his unexpected foray into true crime with The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story - a retelling of Simpson's racially charged 1995 murder trial that topped the Emmys with nine wins last year, including one for Outstanding Limited Series.

And the 51-year-old is switching it up again with Cult, the seventh season of his award-winning American Horror Story anthology (2011- now). Debuting in Singapore today at 10pm on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507), it adds a satirical and zeitgeisty political twist to the usual horror storyline, which this season revolves around the idea of cults as well as a band of killer clowns terrorising a small town.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles recently, the Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning writer, producer and director says he and the mostly liberal staff on the series were inspired by the presidential election victory of Mr Donald Trump in November last year, which shocked many left-leaning Americans.

Election night is the starting point for tonight's episode of American Horror Story: Cult, which casts actresses Sarah Paulson and Alison Pill as a liberal couple horrified by the outcome of the vote, while another resident of their small Michigan town, played by Evan Peters, is thrilled and energised by it.

"Politics in the past year has become entertainment in a weird way in our country and this plays into that a little bit," says the creator, whose TV credits include the musical comedy Glee (2009-2015), the drama Nip/Tuck (2003-2010) and this year's Feud: Bette And Joan, a Bette Davis and Joan Crawford biopic that launched yet another anthology series.

The show is, in some ways, reflecting the idea that nothing makes sense, and the only way to get through it is to try and have some degree of humour about it.

RYAN MURPHY, creator of the American Horror Story anthology, on the seventh season of the show

Murphy reveals that like many other Americans, the writers of American Horror Story have been obsessed with politics since the election.

"The writers' room has been so volcanic and so emotional," he says. But politics has also been a source of creative inspiration for them as well as the cast and crew. "Everybody seems really turned on because they're able to express as an artistic family what everybody's talking about in the world, pros and cons."

With Cult, Murphy combined Trump-era politics with a previous idea he had had for this season, which references the cults of personality surrounding figures such as killer Charles Manson, cult leaders David Koresh and Jim Jones, and even artist Andy Warhol.

"For many seasons, the runner-up idea for the show had been Charles Manson and the Manson family - we're coming up on the 50th anniversary of (the Manson murders of 1969). I had been working on it, but it never felt right to me because it's been done a million times and I didn't know how to make it fresh," he explains.

"But the thing that I just kept being drawn back to was the idea of cults of personality. And then this time last year, everybody was talking about the two election candidates, and that's when I had the idea of the election being the jumping-off point, and mixing in the idea of the Manson cult of personality and somebody who rises like that within a sort of disenfranchised community."

Like other TV shows that had planned to reference the American election, American Horror Story: Cult had to tweak its script to reflect the upset victory of Mr Trump over Democratic contender Hillary Clinton.

"Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was going to win in a landslide, so the opening was a little different. But it was very easily switched because Evan's character, who plays somebody who rises up because of anger in our country, was always the same.

"Our feeling is that everybody lost their s*** after the election, Republican or Democrat, and everybody's still at each other's throats - you're either on one side or you're on the other."

Murphy, who won Emmys for directing Glee as well as the 2014 Aids drama TV movie The Normal Heart, says though: "This season really is not about Trump or Clinton - it's about somebody who has the wherewithal to put their finger in the wind and see that that's what's happening, and is using that to rise up and form power."

Like The People V. O.J. Simpson, Cult may also seem oddly prescient in its take on modern American politics, particularly with a storyline that seems to foreshadow the recent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

"Things that we were shooting in May in our country have come true in the past six weeks, Charlottesville being an example," says Murphy, who is married to photographer David Miller, 51, and has two sons aged four and two.

Despite Murphy's own support for the Democratic Party, the show also sends up the liberal reaction to Mr Trump's victory and uses this as a source of comedy.

American Horror Story "has always had an element" of satire, its creator says.

"I think that we're trying to make a point, but not take it too seriously. And I think that's evident in the first episode where Sarah Paulson chases clowns with (a bottle of) rose (wine)," he says with a laugh.

"I mean, I think we've all turned to rose a lot in the past year. I was doing that in my life, so I'm like, you know what, she's going to chase these clowns with rose."

Some conservative fans of the anthology have tweeted that they will not watch this season because they think it will bash Mr Trump and his supporters, but Murphy says "they don't understand that every side on our show gets it just as much," adding that the "white privilege" of Paulson and Pill's characters is satirised too.

The deeper idea this season leans into is that "the world we're living in is ridiculous".

"The show is, in some ways, reflecting the idea that nothing makes sense, and the only way to get through it is to try and have some degree of humour about it.

"I mean, some of it is very serious. As we go on, Evan's character gets darker and darker as he rises to power - but the comedy is always there." And he impishly adds: "The clown masks are hilarious."

•Cult debuts today at 10pm on FX (Singtel TV Channel 310 and StarHub TV Channel 507).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2017, with the headline 'Horror, humour in a world that does not make sense'. Print Edition | Subscribe