American Horror Story: Cult is the seventh season of Ryan Murphy's horror anthology series American Horror Story, aired by FX in 2017.
After Donald Trump is elected President of the United States, Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson) is deeply distraught. The result has especially triggered her coulrophobia (fear of clowns) despite the emotional support of her wife, Ivy (Alison Pill), and her therapist, Dr. Rudy Vincent (Cheyenne Jackson).
Elsewhere, blue-haired anarchist Kai Anderson (Evan Peters) revels in Trump's victory, and enlists the likes of his child-hating sister Winter (Billie Lourd) to spread their shared nihilism through a clown-based cult. Their first target? Ally and Ivy's young son, whom Winter is hired to babysit.
Through exploiting Ally's fear of clowns through circus imagery and Twisty the Clown memorabilia, the Mayfair-Richards family find their sanity — and safety — compromised.
Other returning members of the American Horror Story repertory cast include Adina Porter, Mare Winningham, Frances Conroy, Chaz Bono, and Emma Roberts, while new additions Leslie Grossman, Lena Dunham, Colton Haynes, and Billy Eichner also appear in supporting roles.
See the main titles sequence for this season here.
American Horror Story: Cult provides examples of the following tropes:
- Advertised Extra: Twisty was a big draw of the initial marketing, but he's only portrayed by John Carroll Lynch in two episodes.
- And Starring: Any prominent actor not in the main credits receives a "guest starring" mention in that particular episode, but Billy Eichner is billed as a "special guest star".
- Anyone Can Die: As per usual for the series. After episode 6, which ends with the death of Meadow, every subsequent episode involved the death of at least one major or main character. By the time the season's over, every major character is dead except for Ally, Oz, and Beverly.
- Arc Symbol: Bees. It's in the page image as well.
- Ate His Gun:
- Meadow does this on Kai's command after shooting up his rally.
- Another one of Kai's followers does this during the FBI's raid of Kai's house.
- Ax-Crazy: Judging from Kai's... extreme reaction to Trump winning the election, he is clearly insane. This only gets worse as the season goes on.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Possibly. The murders attributed to the Zodiac Killer were carried out by a militant feminist cult founded by Valerie Solanas. Zodiac himself was an associate of the cult who took credit for the killings. However, as the person who stated this was later revealed to be working for Kai to manipulate the female members of the cult, it could be a case of Unreliable Narrator.
- Betty and Veronica: At first, the show seems to set up Ivy as the reliable, plain Jane wife (the Betty) to Ally (Archie) and Winter as the younger, sexier bad girl (Veronica). After it is revealed that Ivy is in the cult, she becomes the Archie who has already chosen Winter (Veronica) over her wife and mother of her son, Ally (the Betty).
- Big Bad: Kai Anderson, the leader of the titular cult.
- Big "OMG!": Ally's reaction upon learning that Donald Trump won the election.
- Big "YES!": Kai's reaction upon learning that Donald Trump won the election.
- Bittersweet Ending: While Kai ends up being arrested and later on killed (with all his power being broken and his cults destroyed), the murders are implied to keep going. In beating him, Ally's lost much of what made her a good person (aside from her love of her son) and basically became the powerful villain Kai aimed to be, and is part of a new cult herself (though she obviously has much more noble intentions compared to him).
- Boom, Headshot!:
- How Winter kills Samuels.
- How Ally kills Bebe.
- How Beverly kills Kai.
- Breaking Old Trends: This is the very first season without Lily Rabe.
- The Bus Came Back: Emma Roberts and Mare Winningham both return to the series. The former after missing two seasons since Freak Show, the latter after sitting out the previous one. Unfortunately, neither of them last very long, as they both get killed off in their premier episodes.
- Twisty the Clown from Freak Show returns in the form of a fictionalized comic book character.
- The Zodiac Killer, who appeared in Hotel as one of James Patrick March's former students at his Devil's Night party, is revealed to have been a man named Bruce, who was an associate of SCUM that took credit for killing their victims before becoming one of them.
- Cast Full of Gay: Winter is only shown to sleep with women but it's heavily implied she's bisexual. Ally and Ivy are a lesbian couple. Harrison is a gay man in a faux marriage with Meadow. Samuels is a closeted queer man. Kai is probably bisexual, having sex with both Samuels and Meadow, but it's unknown if he is attracted to either at all or just using them for his own agenda.
- Casting Gag:
- In Asylum, Sarah Paulson plays an in-the-closet lesbian who is wrongfully committed to a mental hospital. In Cult, she plays an open lesbian who is, steadily, being driven insane by everything and everyone.
- Frances Conroy plays Bebe Babbitt, a radical second wave feminist. She previously played Moira O'Hara in Murder House, who was also a second wave feminist. She also played the head of a Mother Nature cult in The Mist.
- In Asylum, Evan Peters plays a man at risk of racist abuse due to his interracial marriage, who is also wrongfully committed to an insane asylum for crimes he didn't commit. In Cult, he plays a man who deliberately provokes abuse towards him by displaying racist attitudes and, when someone makes an attempt to place him in a psychiatric ward for crimes he actually has committed, stops the attempt and continues on his murderous way.
- Celebrity Paradox: When Winter is interviewing for the nanny job, she says that one of the biggest thrills in her life was being retweeted by Lena Dunham. Dunham plays Valerie Solanas in a later episode.
- The Consigliere: Zig-Zagged with Winter. Kai clearly loves her, trusts her advice, and listens to her more than anyone else (as she's his sister and was his Number Two from the start), but there are also moments where her mixed feelings toward him are very obvious and their power dynamic seems to skew. Additionally, he starts mistreating her more and trusting her less as the story goes on (partly due to Ally manipulating him) and eventually kills her out of the false belief that she has betrayed him.
- Continuity Snarl: Actually subverted with regard to the scene showing the Zodiac Killer was Valerie Solanas and her SCUM followers. While the Zodiac Killer appeared in the show's fifth season, he was portrayed as a completely different character. We then learn that the entire backstory connecting Solanas to the Zodiac Killer was something that Bebe Babbitt was making up as part of a larger plan, making sure that there's no Plot Hole.
- Corruption of a Minor: While babysitting, Winter shows Oz snuff films on the dark web.
- Cringe Comedy: During the sequence where it becomes apparent that Trump will win the election, the people watching naturally have concerns that they're at risk of being persecuted against... While Ally is concerned that Merrick Garland won't be appointed to the Supreme Court.
- Crocodile Tears: Despite her largely flat affect, Winter cries a lot, usually silently and often for no discernible reason. This is vaguely implied to be some sort of coping mechanism/manipulation tactic for dealing with Kai, as she mostly does it in front of him.
- Cult: It is right there on the title. A twist on an Apocalypse Cult, as Kai seeks to end the world by making everyone so afraid they'll "set the world on fire" at his slightest whim. The entire affair is based around the concept of using fear to control and destroy the world.
- Easily Forgiven: After joining the cult, Ally appears to reconcile with Ivy somewhat and to at least be willing to consider repairing their marriage. This is after Ivy intentionally terrorized and gaslit Ally, had her committed, and kept her away from their son. Subverted at the end of the same episode, however, when Ally reveals that the forgiveness was an act, poisoning and killing Ivy out of revenge.
- Evil Is Not a Toy: Bebe thought she could control Kai's psychosis and use it to jumpstart her feminist revolution. Instead, he uses her lessons to fuel his own agenda, and ultimately turns on her.
- Fairytale Motifs: The names "Kai" and "Winter" Anderson refer to The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. The story is partially about a mirror whose glass refracts the good and beautiful aspects of the world and magnifies the bad and ugly aspects. When the mirror shatters, the glass gets into people's eyes and makes it so all they can see are those bad and ugly aspects in everything. Given the end goal of Kai's cult and how he seems to infect others with his nihilistic views, it's a fitting reference.
- Foil: Valerie Solanas to Kai. Like Kai, she was a highly charismatic and brutal cult leader, was deeply affected by an extreme personal trauma, and craved power and public recognition. And like Valerie, Kai ultimately suffers a mental breakdown and psychosis that leads to the dissolution of his power and his followers abandoning him.
- Foreshadowing: During election night, the only thing that manages to snap Ally out of her freak out is to hear that the votes Jill Stein received in Michigan might have tipped the election in Trump's favor. Later in the episode it is revealed that Ally herself voted for Stein because she couldn't bring herself to trust Hillary Clinton.
- Freak Out: Ally suffers from these almost constantly in the first half of the season.
- Girlboss Feminist: This is revealed to be Ally's ultimate fate, with some overlap with From Nobody to Nightmare. Having been tormented by Kai's misogynistic cult, Ally joined the descendants of SCUM and is seen gaining political power in the closing moments of the series. SCUM itself is a murderous organization (bordering on a cult in itself), and SCUM and its extreme feminist beliefs are portrayed as being behind it.
- He Who Fights Monsters: How Kai's Start of Darkness happened. He and Winter wound up in a sadistic torturer's lair and were so disgusted at the man and horrified by his treatment of his victims that they made the joint decision to murder him in an act of retributive vigilante justice rather than turn him in to the police. After this, however, Kai became deeply disillusioned with the society that continued to allow such injustices to happen, and his concept of right and wrong began to grow more and more twisted until he became the manipulative and brutal cult leader of the present day.
- Hive Mind: With the cult-theme and the bee imagery, this season seems to play on this.
- Hope Spot: In the penultimate episode of the season we get a heart-to-heart between Kai and Winter where they discuss their relationship, and Winter ultimately admits that she feels like she needs to get away from Kai because she's worried that if she stays in the cult any longer, their relationship will deteriorate and she will end up too fearful of him to ever love him again. Kai expresses how much he needs her because she's the only person he really trusts, then accepts her request to leave and the two share a hug... only for Kai to then reveal that he knows she was trying to get Beverly out, accuse her of being The Mole, and choke her to death for betraying him.
- Horrible Judge of Character: Let's see, the babysitter dresses in some mildly unsettling gothic clothes, behaves in a somewhat condescending manner with the people whose child she's supposed be looking after, seems to care very little about said child, and he (evidently) does not talk much about her, which is frankly unusual... why, Ally and Ivy, does she strike you as good babysitter material? Ultimately subverted, as episode 4 reveals that Ivy met Winter beforehand, and episode 5 confirms that she's involved in the cult and is doing this on purpose.
- Hysterical Woman: Ally is a fragile bundle of anxiety and phobias who is liable to have a panic attack with little provocation. However, as of episode 8, she takes a level up in badass, pushes herself to get past her fears and dedicates herself to getting her son back, no matter the cost.
- Incest Subtext: Kai's attraction to his sister Winter becomes more and more blatant the more unhinged he gets, up to the point where he's trying to get her to have a technically-not-incestuous baby with him via a threeway with Samuels and confessing to having listened to her masturbate every night when she was 15. Whether Winter has ever felt the same way is left more ambiguous, as she seems to have mixed feelings about Kai in general.Kai: I loved you, Winter.
- Insane Equals Violent: Played straight with Kai when he has a psychotic break and kills Winter.
- Insane Troll Logic: Both the Cult and SCUM basically run on this trope, as do real-life cults.
- Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Everyone but Ozymandias among the main cast.
- Karmic Death: Kai manipulated Ally and Beverly into tools of his movement. They ultimately manipulate him into a position where they can kill him in such a way to win Ally a Senate seat.
- Karma Houdini:
- Ally sells out her only ally Dr. Vincent to Kai when the former is trying to help her, allows (or worse, helps) Kai's escape from jail that results in more deaths in order to boost her Senate campaign, and personally kills Bebe (who was about to do everyone a favor and kill Kai right then and there), Ivy (nasty enough herself that nobody minded much, but still sadistically drawn-out and painful), and Speedwagon (who was a spy trying to help law enforcement take the cult down, and not evil at all) while undercover in the cult. She not only gets away with all of it, but successfully gets elected to the Senate. Had Ivy been her only victim, it wouldn't have been quite so excessive, but she deliberately murdered, directly or indirectly, two non-villainous people who were trying to stop the cult, and saved Kai and allowed him to escape prison purely so she could kill him when it most benefited her, resulting in more death.
- Beverly, who brutally killed even more people out of petty vengeance and without a shred of remorse, is mistaken as a victim of the cult and let go, becoming Ally's assistant.
- Kill the Ones You Love: Averted with Ally, who murders her wife Ivy out of sheer malice and revenge and evidently feels no remorse; played straight with Kai, who kills his only loved one Winter in a fit of psychotic rage, cries the entire time, and shows immense regret after the fact.
- Landslide Election: Ally's Senate election victory in the season finale.
- Lipstick Lesbian: Ally and Ivy Mayfair-Richards are a lesbian couple, but neither of them presents especially butch or masculine.
- Loads and Loads of Roles: Evan Peters plays not only Big Bad Kai Anderson but also historical characters Andy Warhol, Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, Jim Jones, Jesus Christ and Charles Manson. It helps that most of those historical characters appear in flashbacks related by Kai.
- Loony Fan:
- Kai is a big fan of Trump. When he found out that Trump had won the election, he humped his television while letting out an orgasmic scream. However, he's less a fan of Trump's policies and more a fan of the idea that Trump's policies scare the shit out of a lot of people.
- Valerie Solanas, as played by Lena Dunham, will be featured in this season as well, taking into account when she tried to kill Andy Warhol.
- Malevolent Masked Men: Kai's cult dresses up in ghoulish clown costumes, complete with masks, to conceal their identities and play to Ally's coulrophobia.
- Manipulative Bastard: Kai knows exactly the right buttons to push to get people to do what he wants.
- Manly Tears: Played straight when Kai kills Winter for betraying him, and later averted when he learns she was innocent and starts screaming and sobbing uncontrollably.
- Mass "Oh, Crap!": The opening of the series is a scene showing a much of the cast — save Kai, who is ecstatic — freaking out over the fact that Trump pulled an upset victory.
- Meaningful Name:
- Siblings Kai and Winter Anderson, relating to The Snow Queen. Their surname is a homophone of its author Hans Christian Andersen, Kai has the same name as one of the main characters, and Winter is named after the story's prevailing theme.
- Oz's full name is Ozymandias. Given the fact that Winter and Kai seem to plan on corrupting him, it makes sense in relation to the poem the name comes from.My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
- Menacing Mask: The members of Kai's cult wear terrifying masks each time they kill someone, each vastly different, although most of them are based on clowns and at least some of the masks hinting at the identity of the wearer.
- Kai Anderson is the three-faced clown with exaggeratedly long noses. Kai himself is a manipulative, two-faced person with a bit of a fixation on his phallus.
- Winter Anderson, who's a little more enigmatic than the rest, is the clown with the jigsaw puzzle pattern on her mask.
- Meadow is the BDSM-themed ballgag clown.
- Harrison is the clown with the holes pattern mask, just like the holes in his beehives.
- The clown with the red pentagram on her mask and the arms protruding out of her head resembling horns/antlers is Beverly. She also wears a printed shirt like the one Beverly does.
- Ivy is the elephant-masked clown.
- The blonde clown filming the murder in episode 5 is RJ, Beverly's cameraman.
- The clown with the exposed brain is Detective Samuels.
- Monster Clown: Twisty returns from Freak Show in the form of a comic book and the first promo features a small army's worth of Red and Black and Evil All Over clowns. Not only that, but Kai and his cult are patterned after Twisty and clowns in general.
- murder.com: Winter shows Oz videos of murder on the dark web.
- My God, What Have I Done?: Kai's reaction when Ally tells him that Winter was framed as the mole and was innocent, and he killed her for no reason.
- Nothing Is Scarier: For a series that isn't one to shy away from Gorn, the flashback to the murder of Sharon Tate has a deliberate Gory Discretion Shot — which, knowing the absolutely horrifying nature of her murder, is more than justified, and makes the scene all the more disturbing for it.
- Oh, Crap!: Ivy gives a pretty righteous one at the very end of "Winter of Our Discontent" when she finds out that Ally is now in the cult. Pretty justified too, considering Ivy was one of the main reasons that Ally was targeted by the cult in the first place.
- Ominous Latin Chanting: Invoked when the cult kill Beverley's boss, and they chant "Hail Satan" in Latin for the recording. When Harrison counters that English would be more easily understood, Kai states that Latin is inherently scary.
- Patched Together from the Headlines: While clearly taking inspiration from the 2016 American election, the season also combines the 2016 clown sightings with a lot of other cult stories: notably the life of Valerie Solanas and her attempted murder of Andy Warhol, the Zodiac Killer in this universe, Valerie Solanas was one of the Zodiac killers, and Charles Manson.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Zig-zagged. Kai's ideology is very amorphous and changes depending on whom he's speaking to and what his specific goal is, and he frequently says or does bigoted things only to seemingly contradict them later. (This is at least somewhat Truth in Television, as real-life cult leaders often have teachings that change to suit their convenience and are unlikely to maintain a consistent set of beliefs for long.)
- Precision F-Strike: In the first episode, Kai shouts "FUCK YOU, WORLD! USA! USA! USA!" — it's especially shocking because it's the first F-bomb broadcast uncensored in the entirety of American Horror Story's run.
- Predecessor Villain:
- Pastor Charles, a psychotic Sinister Minister who would lure people to his home and, if he decided they were "sinners", torture and kill them for their perceived crimes and put them on display for future visitors. Encountering him is what caused Kai to snap and decide that the world needs to be burned down and rebuilt from scratch.
- There's also the SCUM organization founded by Valerie Solanas, whose last remaining member, Bebe Babbitt, tries to influence the female members of Kai's cult to rise up and start the long-awaited feminist revolution. She also gave Kai the drive to act on his Pastor Charles-inspired beliefs, believing that his actions would enrage women and start said revolution.
- Properly Paranoid: Everyone is out to get Ally. Literally, EVERYONE. Kai, Winter, her own wife, her own therapist, the clowns, the guy on the Oatmeal box, everyone. And nobody takes her seriously because they're all in on it, gaslighting her to ridiculous extremes. At least that is the case until Ally herself joins in with the group that's been harassing her in order to get her son back.
- In later episodes and in a roundabout fashion, Kai. He becomes convinced that the FBI is watching him, and that there is a mole in his cult reporting back to them, which he's right about, though he is wrong about the identity (Ally is the mole, not Winter.).
- Protagonist Journey to Villain: Or rather dark anti-hero at best, in any case. By the end of the series, Ally has become a cult leader herself — albeit one with nobler intentions, as she still loves her son — after taking the senate seat that Kai wanted so badly, with her redeeming quality being that she genuinely wants to help.
- Psychopathic Manchild: Kai is very intelligent and an extremely skilled manipulator, but still has some weirdly childish traits and a very unstable and mercurial temperament.
- Ripped from the Headlines:
- Rather than using expies of both figures involved, Donald Trump's victory over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential Election is the impetus for Cult's plot.
- The wave of clown sightings that took place around the same time is also used as a major plot point.
- This season dwells upon real-world cults (and cults of personality) more than the supernatural elements of prior seasons. Specifically referenced are Andy Warhol and his Factory, Valerie Solanas and her SCUM, Marshall Applewhite and Heaven's Gate, David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, Jim Jones and Jonestown, and especially Charles Manson and the Manson Family. Kai in particular seems to be following the trend of the latter few examples, going mad with power and, as of "Drink the Kool-Aid," believing he has supernatural powers.
- Sanity Has Advantages: The last few episodes revolve around Ally exploiting Kai's growing paranoia and delusions to bring him down and destroy the cult.
- Sanity Slippage: While he's already deeply unstable to start with, Kai steadily loses what sanity he had left after he actually gets on the city council. This is later suggested to be partially a side-effect of him taking more pharmaceutical drugs to cope with the constant stress he's under.
- Scary Stinging Swarm: One of the teasers Ryan Murphy posted to Instagram depict a person being swarmed by bees.
- Sibling Yin-Yang: Surprisingly averted. Despite Kai and Winter occupying polar opposite ends of the political spectrum, they are very close and shown to be quite similar, with both of them showing a sociopathic lack of concern for others' pain, a willingness to lie and manipulate, and a prioritization of their relationship over their deeply conflicting politics. It's later revealed that they both used to be 4chan-style centrists who would troll "social justice warriors" together for fun, and that their divergent worldviews only manifested after they killed Pastor Charles.
- Ultimately played straight, however, in that Winter eventually realizes that Kai has gone off the deep end, shows regret for her actions, and starts trying to help the women in the cult get out, while Kai remains basically evil.
- Sinister Minister: Pastor Charles.
- Show Within a Show: ''Freak Show" alum Twisty the Clown returns as the main character of a comic book.
- The Social Darwinist: Kai believes that fear should run rampant in society so that the masses can be controlled and ruled by the select few who are not affected by it. He sees Donald Trump's victory as a validation of that worldview.
- Start of Darkness:
- Kai's is explored in "Holes". He was a jobless college graduate with a religious studies degree living in his parents' basement when his mother killed his abusive father and then herself in a murder-suicide, the second half of which Kai witnessed and tried to stop. His brother Vince convinced him to help cover it up and hide and preserve the bodies (despite Kai's protests) so that they could keep collecting their parents' pensions and social security and Winter could finish college, as well as protecting Vince's new psychiatric practice. This caused something in Kai's psyche to snap, but also motivated him to grow up and make something of himself. Another layer is added in "Winter of Our Discontent", in which Winter reveals that she and Kai went to the house of a crazy priest they found on the dark web with the intention of trolling him, only to find that the man was in fact a psychopath who kidnapped and murdered "sinners" as part of his preaching. Kai freed the victims and murdered the priest with one of his own traps, but Winter reveals that this changed Kai even further.
- The entire season has been one for Ally Mayfair-Richards, whose mental illness was preyed on as she was terrorized and gaslighted by almost everyone she knew, until she reemerged as a cold, manipulative, and ruthless cult leader herself.
- Straw Feminist: Valerie Solanas and Bebe Babbitt, as well as the other members of SCUM, are extremist '60s second wave feminists, i.e. the sort of people where most of the attributes of this trope originated.
- Straw Hypocrite: It's hinted that neither Kai nor Winter actually places a lot of personal importance in their political beliefs, but rather that they are simply using them as a convenient and ready-made worldview to replace their original one, which was shattered after they experienced extreme trauma. It's particularly telling that they tend to actively ignore the cognitive dissonance that would realistically arise from the two of them holding to incompatible political positions.
- Team Title: Cult is in the title, after all.
- Trauma Button: In the first episode, Ally experiences a panic attack after seeing a clown-themed comic book.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Donald Trump's victory inspires the formation of the cult itself (even though the cult draws support from people across the political spectrum) and he causes a lot of anxiety in much of the show's cast, but he is not involved with the main plot at all.
- Villainous Legacy:
- Twisty's actions from Freakshow led to a series of comic books based of the character that children read, namely Oz, in Cult as well as the possible basis Kai used for his cult.
- Kai also views himself as the heir to the likes of Marshall Applewhite, David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson, taking inspiration from all of them.
- Wham Episode:
- "11/9" which reveals the formation of the cult, the backstories of Harrison, Meadow, Beverly and Gary and Ivy and Winter's previous meeting.
- "Holes" explores Kai's Start of Darkness, and reveals both that Dr. Vincent is Kai and Winter's brother and Ivy is actually part of the cult.
- "Winter of Our Discontent: Samuels gets shot by Winter, Beverly gets framed for said murder and gets sent off to be tortured, and Kai murders Dr. Vincent after finding out that he was planning on betraying Kai. And even more than that is the fact that Ally was the one who ratted out Dr. Vincent, and is now a member of the cult that's been tormenting her.
- "Charles (Manson) in Charge" shows Kai finally losing his mind after he finds out there's a mole in his cult. Gary is killed to further Kai's cause, but Bebe Babbitt is furious over the way Kai has been managing his cult and is killed by Ally after she tries to kill Kai. Lastly, Kai strangles Winter to death after Ally makes her out to be the mole; the real mole was in fact Speedwagon.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: Ally has a severe case of coulrophobia, among numerous other fears.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Kai provokes a group of Hispanic workers by throwing a condom full of pee at them and has someone videotape the resulting beating. It works perfectly and the media paints him as an innocent, upstanding citizen who was attacked with no provocation by the workers, who are arrested while he begins to campaign for City Council on an anti-immigrant, "PC police" bashing platform.