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It, AHS and the Creepy-Clown Trump Era

September 6, 2017

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With his cotton-candy coif, circus-peanut complexion and general buffoonishness, Donald Trump has often been compared to a clown. So maybe it’s no coincidence that less than a year into his laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-terrifying presidency, the Bozo-in-Chief has inspired a pair of scary-clown shockers: the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It and FX’s American Horror Story: Cult. The question is: Is either more frightening than the real-life nightmare we’re experiencing as a nation?

The answer is: Yes, It is. In fact, It‘s so good, It‘s scary. (OK, I’ll cut It out with the It puns. Maybe.) Now before you start cyber-bullying me like that Twit in the White House, I know It was originally written by Stephen King in 1986, long before the idea of a Trump administration was anything more than a sick fantasy in his own head. Perhaps it was meant as a metaphor for the Bonzo-in-Chief who was occupying the Oval Office at the time. But you can’t deny the current cultural resonance of a story about an evil force who was once a joke — in It‘s case, Pennywise the Clown, brilliantly embodied by Bill Skarsgard — and now seeks to tear a community apart by striking terror into the hearts of its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Now I have no idea if director Andy Muschietti or screenwriters Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman intended for It to play out as a metaphor for our contemporary predicament. The film is set in the late ’80s, when a gaggle of teenage outcasts (including a stutterer, an obese new-kid-in-town, a home-schooled African-American and a girl with a bad reputation) bands together to fight back against Pennywise. This joker quite literally feeds on the fears of children, and these self-proclaimed “Losers” (one of Trump’s favorite putdowns) believe the only way to triumph over this bully is to stand up and unite against him. Sound familiar?

If It‘s Trump connections remain buried deep in its subtext, American Horror Story: Cult hits you over the head with the parallels. Ryan Murphy repertory-company player Sarah Paulson stars as a lesbian with a deep-seated phobia of clowns, which is only one of the reasons she freaks out after the election of Ronald McDonald — er, the Donald. As her fears are stoked by various aggressive Trumpers, including a MAGA-cap-wearing supermarket cashier (Chaz Bono), a gay anti-Obama survivalist (Billy Eichner) and a blue-haired psycho racist (Evan Peters), she and her son start to be haunted by visions of evil clowns. Does Cult make American Horror Story great again? Not quite, although it is a refreshingly realistic and timely incarnation of a franchise that has grown increasingly grotesque and absurd with each season.

Why clowns have become the monster du jour (there have been sightings reported around the country) might have more to do with the marketing tricks of Warner Bros. and FX than any political commentary, intentional or not. It and AHS don’t exactly offer escapism from the nightly horror show of Fox News — like FX, an arm of Rupert Murdoch’s octopus-like media empire. But at least they can provide a kind of catharsis. Watching seemingly marginalized characters resist nefarious tyrants who seek to divide and conquer could prove inspirational and ensure that the real-life Scary Clowns around the world don’t get the last laugh.

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