American Horror Story – Cult episode 2 review: Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

American Horror Story Cult plays on real fears and real politics mashed into a blender of creepy clowns and honeycomb. Spoilers...

This review contains spoilers.

7.2 Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

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Fortunately for Sarah Paulson, she has a much calmer week this week than she did during Election Night. Rather than screaming and breaking down multiple times, she only has a few crying jags. For most of the episode, rather than being completely irrational, she’s more paranoid and anxious. Ally’s fear turns inward, rather than outward, which allows Sarah Paulson to do more subtle work this week as a woman taken to the very fringes of her ability to withstand life. When there are dangers lurking in every shadow and your personal and professional life seem to be falling apart, it’d be pretty easy to be stressed out.

It seems as though every horror genre has a movie that takes place in a spooky house, and they all share some common elements. There’s a sense of being alone, even in the middle of a neighbourhood. There are neighbours, typically new neighbors, who may or may not be trustworthy. There’s typically a doubting spouse who abandons the other to be terrorised. There can also be a child in peril, or some sort of spooky newcomer into the household—like a spooky nanny—who adds to the growing sense of anxiousness.

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American Horror Story, as a show, knows how to establish a visual idea. It may not always follow through, but AHS establishes themes pretty well. Throughout Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, the tension that Ally feels is visited upon the audience at every turn. She’s jumping at shadows, and after the opening visit by a clown in the bedroom, the viewers are jumping at shadows, too. The clowns, which still may or may not be real, show up at random times, and like Ally, I find myself looking for them in the background of scenes or skulking at the edges of the frame. At any point, John Carroll Lynch is going to step out of the shadows clutching a knife to chase after Sarah Paulson’s Ally or Oz (Cooper Dodson). Every little bump or creak inserted into the soundtrack means that a collection of killer clowns could be infiltrating suburbia.

It seems like every little thing that happens in Ally’s life only makes her mental health issues worse. It’d be pretty traumatic to have the neighbours across the street murdered, and to have that complicated by a murder taking place in the meat locker of your business? Ally and Ivy are already stressed out and having difficulty making ends meet in the tough restaurant game; the last thing their pocketbook needs is to replace a whole butcher shop full of meat. Ivy’s been the only one working at The Butchery, having to take up Ally’s slack as her mental state grows increasingly fractured.

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And that’s before an eight-state blackout disables the security system in Ally and Ivy’s McMansion.

Writer Tim Minear opts for a more restrained episode than the hand-wringing and screaming of the first episode, but it works. Ivy is softened a little bit; she’s not just John Cassavetes in Rosemary’s Baby, she’s actually concerned enough about her wife to have her wife’s therapist make a special trip to the home. Rather than simply dismissing Ally’s fears, Ivy takes them seriously and puts up bars and security gates on their home. New neighbours Harrison (Billy Eichner, a surprising treat) and Meadow (Leslie Grossman) aren’t the creepy, secretive sort; if anything, they’re too open with Ally and Ivy about their unconventional relationship and the circumstances that lead them to buy the Chang murder house. Winter’s still kind of creepy with Oz, but she’s also kind of being helpful when it comes to giving him tips on dealing with his night terrors (when she’s not seducing Ally). Things still feel slightly off, but given that Ally is our way into Cult‘s twisted tale, we’re getting a lot of her perceptions rather than reality.

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In a similar manner, Liza Johnson’s direction goes for a more grounded effect. Everyone seems to dial it back a little (or a lot in the case of Billy Eichner, who is still funny in a more understated performance). There are many fewer Hitchcock zooms and Dutch angles this week, traded in for solid POV shots of Ally as seen by a third party hiding in her house and a very pretty opening tracking shot starting in the master bathroom and finishing in the bedroom. Even the scenes of terror, like when clowns stalk Oz in his nightmare, are far from the nightmarish tableau of the first episode. Rather than a phantasmagorical hellscape like Killer Klowns From Outer Space, Twisty and Three-Face are more like the masked thugs from The Purge.

It’s unmistakably American Horror Story, but it’s a little more Murder House and a lot less Hotel. It highlights a lot of common fears people have in the wake of the Donald Trump election. Certainly, the fears are exaggerated and played for laughs—a gay man married to an asexual woman who hordes guns thanks to Obama is an amazing amalgamation of quirks—but these are all genuine concerns that real Americans have to varying degrees. Real fears, real political platforms, real people… just turned up to 11 and mashed into a blender full of creepy clowns and honeycomb.

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Putting real politics into horror isn’t new, but it can be risky in today’s climate. Thus far, it appears that Ryan Murphy’s urge to say something meaningful about political polarisation seems to be yielding entertaining television. After all, beneath Murphy’s melancholic gaze, the fearful left and the fearful right are equally prone to overreaction and are equally able to be manipulated by those seeking to gain or maintain power. According to Kai, fear is power.

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US Correspondent Ron Hogan was pleased to see American Horror Story indulging in a little spooky house action this week. As someone who lives in a spooky old house, he appreciates this. Find more by Ron daily at PopFi.