The 1970s Cult Horror Movie That Explains 'American Horror Story'

american horror story cult
This story contains spoilers for American Horror Story: Cult. 

Two episodes in, and American Horror Story: Cult is already raising the question: Will Sarah Paulson’s Ally Mayfair-Richards join the cult? After this week’s Episode 2, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” it’s made clear that she’s the specific target of the clown crime rotting the Michigan suburb she calls home. Evan Peter’s Kai Anderson shows up on her doorstep to proliferate the truth, weird neighbors move into the murder house across the street, and she both bears witness to and perpetuates crimes that, on the outside, appear politically motivated.

The cult is also preying on Ally’s phobias. Clowns, specifically, but also the series of holes in one of their masks, and the home invasion stuff, which violates her agoraphobia. Even Ally’s family -- including wife, Ivy, and son, Oz -- seem distrusting of her post-election hysteria. It’s like everyone is turning against her, or honing in on her, or some culmination of the two.

So where is all of this headed? It’s hard to say just yet, but there’s a clue in this week’s episode title that may tip us in the right direction.

don't be afraid of the dark 1973

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

This week’s episode shares its title with a 1973 made-for-TV horror film that premiered on ABC in the middle of October. Known for its eerie production values, and creepy creature and sound design, the movie -- which enjoyed a healthy life in syndication -- terrified an entire generation, who got their horror straight from the tube. Director Guillermo del Toro is a notable fan, and called the film “the most terrifying on Earth.” He went on to produce the 2011 remake starring Katie Holmes.

The remake was generally well received, but it’s the original that has staying power, and that has become something of both a cult and feminist classic thanks to its treatment of female madness and the way society gaslights women into believing their trauma is imaginary. The film follows Sally, who moves with her husband into an old mansion previously owned by her grandmother. After unlocking a mysterious room in the mansion’s basement, Sally starts hearing voices and having visions of goblin-like creatures who try to lure her to her basement lair. Her husband and friends think she’s crazy, and eventually the monsters wear away at her psyche, dragging her into their fortress, where she joins them and awaits their next victim.

american horror story

Sally = Ally?

There are already many parallels between Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and AHS: Cult, namely in the character of Ally, whose name even sounds like Sally. Ally, too, is stalked in her home by malevolent forces who want her to join them. They may be goblins in the movie and clowns in the show, but their methods are the same: prod and pry and victimize until the sanity of their subject is tested by everyone, including herself.

Ally’s wife, Ivy -- like Sally’s husband, Alex -- is a key component in the gas-lighting. When Ally witnesses the death of one of their restaurant employees, Ivy phones her shrink, Dr. Rudy Vincent, who makes a presumptuous house call. She’s in constant disbelief of what Ally claims to see, reminding her of her trauma and the implausibility of her statements. When Ally questions their new neighbors, Ivy explains to them, “If there is a story about something horrible happening, Ally knows about it.”

Of course, we have to wonder if Ivy is totally innocent herself; several clues point to her being in on the cult’s antics, such as the way she forgives all of babysitter Winter’s bizarre antics, or the fact that she’s never around when the clowns appear. Someone certainly isn’t who they seem -- how would the cult know about Ally’s specific hysterias if they didn’t have an informant? Is it Ivy? Is it Dr. Vincent? Both?

Will Ally join the cult?

The ending of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark may foretell where Cult winds up this season. Ally is already susceptible to following a cult, given her crumbling sense of reality and the upending of her family. As the fabric of her life and mental health dissolves, she may be prone to the hive-mind attitude that her new neighbor Harrison Wilton loves: “A hive is the perfect natural community because every single member of the hive is completely committed 100% to a singular task. There are no arguments, no complaints, there’s no ‘me.’” That’s clearly tempting to someone whose own life is so far off-track.

In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Sally succumbs to the dark, but accidentally -- the goblin creatures put sedatives into her coffee and drag her down below. Likewise, Ally is afraid of taking doctor-prescribed medication for her phobias. If Dr. Vincent is in the cult, maybe these pharmaceuticals will help with Sally’s coercion, leading her into the basement-like pit of the mischievous and maniacal clown cult. Or maybe he's not involved at all. One of the things that's clear about American Horror Story: Cult so far this season is that what you see isn't always an accurate depiction of the truth. 

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Lindsey Romain is a writer and editor living in Chicago. She covers politics for Teen Vogue and has also appeared in Vulture, Birth.Movies.Death, and more. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.