Make Thebes Great Again? The Ancient, Twisted Roots of 'American Horror Story: Cult'
In a parallel to Euripides' The Bacchae, American Horror Story: Cult hammers home that not giving in to fear will not save you.
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.
Emily Atkinson is Chicago-born writer living in the Northeast. She recently received an MFA in Playwriting from Smith College, and was a 2017 Tin House Summer Workshop participant. She is currently working on her first novel.