[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the season premiere of American Horror Story: Cult.]
We knew they were coming, and yet we still weren't prepared for the clowns in the American Horror Story: Cult premiere. You see, these aren't just your average clowns. These horrifying jesters are also an amalgam of various other common phobias, including trypophobia, which is a fear of clusters of small holes. They're basically living nightmares — which is exactly what they're supposed to be.
Sarah Paulson's liberal snowflake Ally suffers from multiple phobias (including clowns and clusters of holes, naturally) which are triggered by Donald Trump's victory in the 2016 presidential election. After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, Ally begins having panic attacks every time she sees a clown, including drawings of Freak Show favorite Twisty the Clown (John Carroll Lynch) in a comic book Ally's son is reading.
Soon, Ally begins to see clowns everywhere she goes. But are they real or a vestige of her overactive, fear-riddled imagination? It seems they may be a little bit of both!
Other than the Twisty comic, the first time we get to see Ally's clown phobia in action is when she goes to the grocery store and discovers it's being overrun by sex-crazed, knife-wielding clowns. The clowns are f---ing in the produce section. They're riding razor scooters down the aisles. They're dodging the bottles of rosé Ally throws at them in her race to escape. They're even in her car!
During the grocery store scene, there are five distinct clowns terrorizing Ally: one with multiple faces and long noses, one with green hair and holes on its face, one with an exposed brain, one with a black and white harlequin outfit and one with hands coming out of its forehead. But after Ally calls her wife Ivy (Alison Pill), prompting the police to get involved — specifically Colton Haynes' character, Detective Samuels — Ally is told there's no proof of anything she witnessed. The Trump-supporting cashier Gary (Chaz Bono) says he only saw Ally running up and down the aisles, screaming and throwing rosé.
Seeing as the clowns' outfits also included nods to Ally's other phobias (the holes!), it certainly seems as though they were merely in her mind, representing a culmination of all her greatest fears banning together to form her greatest nightmare. And yet we don't really buy that she made the whole ordeal up.
The premiere does feature some pretty strong evidence that Ally's phobias can be incredibly powerful, with her seeing a bloody crumpet surrounded by amputated fingers during a private tasting held at Ally and Ivy's restaurant. During that scene, Ally also sees a clown masturbating, but this one looks nothing like the ones that terrorized her at the store.
Almost immediately, the bloody food and the clown disappear and it seems clear that both were only symptoms of Ally's phobias. But just because she imagined one clown doesn't necessarily mean every clown she sees is only in her mind.
We know there aren't any supernatural elements in this season, which means that there would have to be a major cover-up of the grocery store incident if there were real clowns running around and the cashier is claiming ignorance. However, given that Winter (Billie Lourd) is seemingly embedded in Ally and Ivy's house on orders from her brother Kai (Evan Peters), we don't think a cover-up is out of the question. The episode also seems to indicate that Kai is pulling far bigger strings than his sister's new career in babysitting.
While Ally and Ivy are busy at the tasting, their son Oz sees a group of clowns pull up across the street in an ice cream truck. It quickly becomes clear that these are the exact same five clowns that terrorized Ally in the store. Could Oz have heard descriptions of these clowns during Ally and Ivy's discussions with the police, thus inspiring his own visions of killer clowns? Sure, but let's be real: the Changs didn't die of a murder-suicide. And if the Changs really were killed, then it was probably the clowns who killed them. Therefore, the clowns across the street were real, which means they were also probably in that grocery store and not in Ally's mind.
That means that Winter is working with the clowns (why else would she lie about what Oz saw?) and that the cashier and potentially even Det. Samuels are on Team Clown (there's no way it's just a coincidence that Samuels worked both the grocery store case and the Changs' murder). Taken together, all the evidence leads us to assume that the clowns are not only real, but they're followers of Kai — he is the one who would benefit most from the Changs' deaths, after all.
Not only would their murders achieve the revenge Kai promised after he was humiliated in front of the City Council, but more importantly, it would also open up a vacant seat on the Council, allowing Kai to get his first real political foothold. As for why Kai would be targeting a seemingly normal housewife, we have no idea — yet — but clearly he knows exactly how to push all of Ally's buttons and plans to use his posse of killer clowns to do just that.
This is where things get complicated, though. Now that Ally has seen the killer clown squad, what's to stop her from imagining them wherever she goes? The episode's final shot is of the multi-faced clown lying in bed with Ally and Ivy nowhere to be found. Even though we feel confident in declaring that the clowns in the grocery store were real, it will now be near-to-impossible to decipher when Ally is having visions of these clowns from when they're actually there without doing a deep dive into each scenario. So was there actually a clown in bed with Ally? We'll have to wait and see. But either way, the nightmares we'll be having about these clowns are definitely real.
American Horror Story: Cult airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.