Make Thebes Great Again? The Ancient, Twisted Roots of 'American Horror Story: Cult'

Evan Peters (FX via IMDB)

In a parallel to Euripides' The Bacchae, American Horror Story: Cult hammers home that not giving in to fear will not save you.

American Horror Story: Cult
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk.


The 7th season of American Horror Story, titled Cult, is the most clearly contemporary and of-the-moment of the seven seasons, with its inciting incident the frighteningly real 2016 election. The racist, nationalistic fears that enabled Donald Trump to rise, the fear his rise and the acts of his supporters have provoked, and the gaslit sense of absurd apocalypse that pervades 2017 America, form the backdrop for the horror in this story. But in the third episode of the season, "Neighbors from Hell", something far more ancient struck me as a possibility for what may be at work behind the scenes.

Evan Peters' character this season, Kai Anderson, at first appears as a recognizable archetype: one of the mostly young, mostly male, mostly white denizens of Reddit and 4Chan, delighting in the chaotic potential of Trump's election, gloating as his Hillary-supporting sister stares in disbelief at the election results broadcast on television. He goads a group of Latino men into attacking him by hurling racial slurs and then has it filmed to stir up racist sentiment on line. He uses his newfound "fame" to make a speech to the city council. The chairman, Mr. Chang who, along with his wife, is then the first to fall victim to a gang of killers in clown masks, gives a stirring speech above not giving into fear -- but that doesn't save him.

There are shots of Kai communing one-on-one with various characters in the show, asking them about their deepest fears. He becomes particularly interested in Ally Mayfair-Richards (Sarah Paulson), who suffers from several phobias, after she mistakenly shoots and kills a Latino employee, who came to the door of her wife's restaurant during a blackout. This, too, becomes a political firestorm. Kai parts a crowd of protestors with a gentle touch, almost ethereal; from an internet troll with a face covered in Cheeto dust who was an asshole to his sister, Kai has become an agent of fear of chaos, an almost imaginary being conjured from the horrors and prejudices beneath the bloody soil of all American towns. His is a collective hallucination designed to give those around him permission to submit to their worst instincts.

Ryan Murphy has said that Evan Peters will be portraying a number of real cult leaders from history during this season of American Horror Story, giving further credence to the unreal feeling of Kai's character, and calling back to a frequent trope in American Horror Story: different people throughout history wearing the same face, whether or not that's acknowledged within the universe (e.g., Sarah Paulson playing both the actress Audrey Tindall and her earlier role of journalist Lana Winters last season). But there's something else that that particular archetype calls up, and the sense of it struck me particularly vividly during the "Neighbors from Hell" episode.

In the times of ancient Greece, the city-state of Thebes suffered more than its fair share of misfortunes. One day, a stranger came to town, a young man with long hair, dressed unconventionally, leading a band of followers and driving the women of the town from their looms and into the woods, where they indulged in drinking and hunting and wilding -- releasing themselves into ecstasy as the town plunged into chaos and panic.

The leader of Thebes, a man called Pentheus, tried arresting the stranger, but an earthquake tore down the jail. He finally agreed to follow the stranger to watch the rituals in the woods, certain that reason and order would prevail in the end.

And then, of course, in a frenzy, his own mother tore him to pieces, believing he was a lion. Her fear turned to triumph, she bore his head into the town, crying out her success in the destruction of a thing once feared. And then she realized the truth -- what she had been, in her frenzy of devotion -- unable to perceive.

This sounds very much like Euripides' The Bacchae, a story of the god Dionysus, who makes his devotees "see the world as the world's not." That quote is from E.R. Dodds, a classics scholar who in the same passage of The Greeks and the Irrational wrote that Dionysus "is Lusios, 'the Liberator' -- the god who by very simple means…enables you for a short time to stop being yourself, and thereby sets you free… to relieve the impulse to reject responsibility, an impulse which exists in all of us and can become under certain social conditions an irresistible craving."

Indeed, The Bacchae is a tale of emotion triumphing over reason, illusion over reality. And, of course, it's all in the service of Dionysus's own ends: he is angry with Pentheus for refusing to recognize him as a god -- to validate his importance. All he does, all the false epiphany he offers the women of Thebes, is in the service of Pentheus's destruction. They are nothing more than pawns, however real the feeling of freedom from fear and responsibility is to them.

This is, often, a version of what cults and cult leaders offer their followers. It is also, fairly explicitly, what Kai offers to Ally when she is confronted by a mass of protestors after her accidental shooting (something not so unlike what occurs when Pentheus' mother Agaue mistakes her son for a lion): "I just want to tell you how incredibly brave I think you are," he tells her. Ally, whose phobias are nearly crippling, whose visions of the group of murderers in their neighborhood are dismissed by others as irrational, whose fear is destroying her life, wants to hear this more than anything.

"You didn't do anything wrong. You were protecting yourself and your family. Never apologize for that," he says, before assuring her that he will handle the protestors. "Don't worry about that," he says. Kai is everything Ally hates, but he has told her exactly what she wants to hear, and so she listens, imagining a way she could be other than what she is -- a potential path to Dionysian release.

But in The Bacchae, we want to sympathize with Dionysus. In the world of The Bacchae, of course, unlike in our own world or the world of Cult, the fault does lie on both sides; Pentheus is extreme in his thirst for order, in his refusal to admit the power of imagination into his worldview. Dionysus frees women from the tyranny of their homebound world in patriarchal ancient Greece, and himself embodies a defiant expression of gender.

One concern with the nature of Cult is that this "both sides" narrative will triumph; it is clear, in reality, that the fears of homophobic white supremacists who believe equality means something rightfully theirs will be taken away are not equal in validity to the fears of those whose rights and existence they menace. But part of why we want to sympathize with Dionysus, want to make excuses for him, is that he's more appealing than Pentheus. He speaks of freedom and mystery. His irrationality is a joyous frenzy, a divine madness. Belonging to his band of maenads promises wildness, ecstasy, and participation in deep and ancient mysteries, the secret of which has been sought for centuries.

Cult perhaps reveals that secret. It's no tincture of herbs, no magic spell. In the mouth of whoever offers it, even the bombastic pucker of Donald Trump, it is the same. It's perhaps more frightening coming from Evan Peters or Dionysus, from pretty, youthful figures with kind eyes as they earnestly hold forth, but the offer is always the same: give over to me your fear, give over to me your control; release your wildest self into the world and feel no consequences. It's a false promise that assures you that you will never wake to the damage done, never find yourself laying in the carnage of what some god or trickster told you would be a better world.

And it is -- but only ever for those who feed on fear and unreality, for those who use their followers to their own ends and then leave them, broken, in their wake.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone can undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.