Kai (played by Evan Peters), the influential leader
in American Horror Story: Cult

When Ryan Murphy announced the new season of American Horror Story, we heard a lot of comparisons of “Cult” to the Manson family.

“For many seasons the runner-up idea has been Charles Manson and the Manson family,” Murphy said, as reported by IndieWire. “I’ve been researching it, but it never felt right to me. It’s been done a million times and I didn’t know how to make it fresh.”

Cults have long fascinated me, going back to my reading of Helter Skelter when I was 11. I grew up with the admonition of “don’t drink the Kool-Aid” (although it actually was Flavor-Aid), a reference to Jim Jones followers who killed themselves by drinking poison when their leader told them to.

But the cult I’m most familiar with is the Symbionese Liberation Army, spending many years researching and writing about Camilla Hall’s role within the group. I believe some scenes replicated what I think could have gone on in the SLA.

Let’s look at some examples.

* In Episode 5, what Ivy says in the car I could very well imagine Camilla saying the same thing. Politics had frustrated Camilla for a long time, but I think the corruption of Nixon’s final years in office put her over the edge.

* A crazy, influential leader. The SLA’s purported leader was Donald DeFreeze, even though by all accounts he was not a typical cult leader, lacking a strong personality. But he was charismatic, and had ideas, and the group also wanted an African-American at the helm in order to give themselves legitimacy.

* Intense political fractures. Do a quick Google search for “Nixon/Trump” and you’ll see a lot of theories about their similarities. The protests of the 1960s/1970s also spurred a lot of counter-protest. Deep political divides marked that era.

* The cult leader getting people to do things they don’t want to do. There’s another scene in Episode 5 in which Ivy does not want to hurt a fellow cult member. Kai gets in her face and tells her she’s either with them or against them. If she decides to go against them, she knows she will for sure be killed. I’ve often wondered if that’s why Camilla didn’t speak up when she knew the SLA’s actions were so dangerous and illegal.

* Using the media to spread the message. One of the cult members is a TV reporter, and they use her to create media messages to whip up a frenzy of fear. The SLA also knew how to use the media. They distributed taped communiques to radio stations and print newspapers and demanded that their messages be distributed.

I think Ryan Murphy did a great job with the latest season of AHS, probing that group-think mindset and what can happen when we turn to one person for hope.