This post contains spoilers for the premiere of American Horror Story: Cult.
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"Is this really happening?" That's Winter's big question in the Season 7 premiere of American Horror Story. She's horrified by the outcome of the 2016 election, and while President Trump might not be an official character, his impact is felt immediately. His win empowers radicals like Kai (Evan Peters) to mobilize; it magnifies the phobias of snowflakes like Ally (Sarah Paulson); it sends Winter (Billie Lourd) into an identity crisis; and it spawns a gang of killer clowns that maybe exists, maybe doesn't.
For everybody, there's a reality check, one that's hard to track. How much of what we just saw on screen -- specifically, that clown murder -- was real? Or, to put it in today's parlance: How much was fake news?
The themes in AHS are always allegories for something bigger. Before Cult aired, executive producer Alexis Martin Woodall said that this season would be about the fear that has divided the country since Trump's election. "It's more about what's going on in the world around us," she explained. "We talk about the streak of paranoia."
Kai, someone the town council described as a basement-dwelling nut, feels validated under this new world order. He feels freed. As he explains to the council during a speech that's supposed to be about his Michigan suburb's Jewish Community Center, freedom means saying no to things like protection and safety.
"Above all, humans love fear," he says. "They want to be scared. They yearn to be so scared that they don't have to think anymore, that they don't have to want for anything anymore. Fear will release them from their desires, and their ambitions, and their bullshit needs. And then they will come running to us like children in a feverish nightmare."
On the opposite end of this ideological spectrum is Ally. She begins latching onto that fear, which manifests as the return of her phobias. Specifically, she's harassed by clowns whose features point to her trypophobia, intimacy issues, and dislike of confined spaces. They're tailor-made nightmares that make her wonder if she's being targeted by someone.
But by whom?
You'll notice that Paulson's Trump anxieties always precede the clown sightings: After seeing a grocery store cashier put on a MAGA hat, she suffers what's ostensibly a breakdown; after reading Trump's Twitter at her restaurant, someone serves her a bloody crumpet and fingers, and she sees a masturbating clown. The sensory overload she experiences -- the tinnitus, the warping rooms -- could hint that these are hallucinations brought on by her own psychosis. Her wife and her therapist chalk the sightings up to a lack of much-needed meds.
Of course, there's a chance the clowns could be real. Ally's son, Oz, claims to have seen the same gang murder the Changs across the street. And early theories point to Ivy as someone who has secretly been involved with Kai's cult since the election. The thought of Ivy working with clowns to cure or gaslight her wife is awful, but not necessarily far-fetched in Murphy's universe (see: Asylum). Unleashing a pack of murderous clowns seems like an effective, Purge-esque way to sow fear and wrest control.
The problem with Oz, however, is he suffers night terrors, during which he doesn't realize he's asleep. And the clowns we saw through his eyes could very well have been Ally projecting the manifestation of her fears during a flashback. So what's real and what isn't? Was this episode really just a heightened example of paranoid liberals making a huge deal out of something, so the alt-right could spin it the other way?
To a degree, yeah. Murphy and Co. have made the reality of Cult purposely vague. When Ally rolls over and sees she's not alone, that moment's real to her, but not to anyone else. The clowns represent uncertainty as much as chaos; they stand as a physical representation of our current climate, in which no fact can be taken at face value, regardless of its veracity. No matter your political affiliation, the truths you put forward will be viewed by your opposition as though you'd just claimed evil clowns had ambushed you during a supermarket run.
This whole season is going to be social satire dressed up as a freaky clown story -- you feel it in the hilarious name drops (Merrick Garland!), the on-the-nose references (4chan! Cheetos!), and the caricatures of the people you might know (Kai! Ally!). The horror story this season isn't Trump so much as what his election has caused people to believe in and to act on: a twisted view of reality that's based on a personal, necessarily incomplete view of the truth.
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Sean Fitz-Gerald is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. Find him on Twitter: @srkfitzgerald.