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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Sorry, but 'American Horror Story: Cult' just isn’t all that scary

I have to give Ryan Murphy credit. I didn’t think there could be an “American Horror Story” season worse than the fourth season, “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” but two episodes into “Cult,” I think I have to call it.

The thing that made “Freak Show” the weakest of the “AHS” seasons (until now) was that it simply wasn’t scary. Although the characters were interesting, the storyline, dragging a bit at times, still had momentum and direction. It just lacked the scare factor. I felt more like I was watching some particularly violent period drama about a circus than something that prides itself on horror. But I digress.

This current season of “AHS” doesn’t even have good characters and story to go for it, let alone any sort of scare factor.

"Cult" takes place in the months after last year’s election. The characters are painful stereotypes of sheltered liberals and fear-mongering President Donald Trump supporters, with almost no character, save for the little boy, who is remotely relatable. These aren’t stereotypes that offer any sort of insight or commentary to the current political climate; there are ways to do that properly, but this isn’t one of them. For one, it’s too soon, honestly. This is the type of thing that could be poignant in a decade or so, but right now … it’s making me cringe because it’s trying so hard to be relevant. I think someone was hired to make sure each episode contained topical buzzwords — viral! Triggered! PC Police! Lesbians! Dark web! Immigrants! Lena Dunham! Twitter! Beyoncé!

There is no clear plot direction, other than, “The election happened and this is the reaction.” All the other seasons had some sort of goal, some sort of clear plot from the very start. I can’t even tell you where this one is going — and not in a good way. There’s a difference between “Wow! What happens next?” and “Wow … what is even happening?”

Additionally, the strong point of “AHS” has always been its supernatural elements. The first season, dubbed “Murder House,” was built on the concept of a haunted house. It is considered by most fans to be the best and the scariest of the seasons. The first half of last season, which relied more on suspense and a good old-fashioned built-up scare, was much stronger than the latter half, which relied on the shock values of cannibalism and torture. The only suspenseful serial killer of the series was the second season’s Bloody Face. The fifth season’s Ten Commandments Killer reminded me of a bad “Seven” knock-off, and the third season’s Madame Delphine LaLaurie ended up being a source of dark humor. Taking away the supernatural from “AHS” strips the show of its most defining element. If it could pull off serial killers well, maybe it could work, but the average 40-minute episode of “Criminal Minds” has more compelling and interesting serial killers than the ones who span these whole seasons.

“Cult” takes away the supernatural elements. It takes away this whole world and mythology of “AHS” which was the sole thing that redeemed “Freak Show.”

The latter half of season six was hailed by Murphy to be an incredible plot twist no one would see coming. But, in fact, almost everyone predicted it by the end of the first episode — that this “show within a show” would go behind the scenes. That, I think, is the main flaw of this new era of “AHS”: The creators are treating the audience like they are stupid.

They think the half-fleshed twists will keep us watching, that the shock value of the trypophobia and the clowns are enough to scare us and that we will look at these laughably bad stereotypical characters and be overwhelmed with some sort of epiphany about our political climate.

When I watch this show, I want to be scared. I don’t want to cringe at the 10th forced pop-culture reference or to yawn when creepy clowns start miming sex on kitchen counters. At the very least, I want to care about the plot and the characters.

Petrana Radulovic is a UF English and computer science (super) senior. Her column appears on Fridays.

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