Lady Monsters Rule American Horror Story: Coven

My original complaint with season one of American Horror Story was that my favorite characters were killed off, so what was the point of getting invested in characters who would only die? (It’s also sort of how I’m feeling about The Walking Dead at this point.) But then in season two of American Horror Story, the Asylum story arc, some of the first season’s actors did come back, but as different characters. I followed the second season for a few episodes but had to quit when Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) started performing unnecessary amputations—I have a really hard time with mutilation.

With this third season of American Horror Story, the Coven story arc, I have a feel for what’s happening with the series and the different incarnations of the characters. It reminds me a lot of Japanese storytelling, like the manga series Umineko and Higurashi, where a set of characters is presented and one story line, and then in each arc, bits and pieces of a larger story are revealed and characters are reincarnated and given a second chance at getting their lives right in a different story line.

I’m as in love with the setting and the stories American Horror Story: Coven brings along with that as with the returning actors. The ghost stories associated with New Orleans are ripe for telling, and I’m surprised they haven’t been featured more often in books, movies, and TV. There’s the story of Marie Laveau, the voodoo priestess who supposedly haunted New Orleans’ streets for a century, never changing physically. Before I’ve relied on Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams, a historical novel about Marie Laveau, to get my fix. Now I get a modern, tart version of Laveau with Angela Bassett’s portrayal of her. Laveau was a hairdresser in nineteenth-century New Orleans, and some people say that’s how she knew so many secrets rather than through voodoo. In American Horror Story’s modern day New Orleans, she’s shown running the hair salon Cornrow City and plotting to get rid of the rival coven led by Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and her teen witches Zoe and Nan (returning actors Taissa Farmiga and Jamie Brewer), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), and Madison (Emma Roberts), who Laveau says has stolen the magic of her people.

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One of the most horrible stories of New Orleans is that of Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a high society lady who mistreated her slaves and, some say, performed sadistic experiments on them. Madame LaLaurie was exposed when a slave set the house on fire, trying to kill herself rather than be subjected to any more cruel treatment. Authorities found Madame LaLaurie’s torture chamber and the woman was forced to flee New Orleans. The only visual I’d seen before for this story is the tableau at the New Orleans wax museum, and that’s pretty scary. American Horror Story: Coven brings in Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie, and the writers have bent these two ghost stories so they intersect in the series. Madame LaLaurie ends up being cursed by Marie Laveau after torturing Laveau’s lover in a scene that’s very graphic and unsettling. Many years later, Fiona resurrects her.

American Horror Story’s version of Madame LaLaurie is a much different take from what I’ve heard before, where the wealthy woman was sent off to Paris, France, by her son and always hoped that gossip would die down one day so she could return home. Supposedly, she never understood why people couldn’t forget about it, and it’s this racist that is dug up in modern day New Orleans.

Kathy Bates’s Madame LaLaurie is unapologetic; I haven’t seen her play anybody so terrifying since her turn as Annie Wilkes in Misery. She softens when she’s revived in the current century, and there end up being some really funny moments as she confronts society today, like when she’s shown weeping as she realizes President Obama is in the White House. It’s tricky showing racism as it exists today in America, and I like how the show has come up with the device of a 200-hundred-year-old racist interpreting modern culture to give commentary—the old ways confronting the new. Too often, the subject is only viewed from our racist past with movies like The Help, 12 Years a Slave, and Lincoln, as if the years give us safety from uncomfortable truths.

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I also like the unlikely friendship that springs up between Queenie and Madame LaLaurie and how they’ve come to bond over fast food. Queenie’s talent in the young witch coven is quite unique; she’s like a reverse voodoo doll, using her body as the doll’s to inflict pain on her enemies. Her move over to Marie Laveau’s camp seemed natural to me and was a much more interesting story than what had been composing most of American Horror Story up until last week: the battle going on for the coven. Because Queenie’s been able to heal herself after doing her particular kind of magic before, I don’t think she’s completely out of the picture yet. She took one for Marie Laveau in episode nine, but she’s left beside the powerful voodoo priestess of New Orleans.

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I hope the next four episodes continue to focus on the issue of racism as it exists today rather than the bickering that’s been going among the teen witches as they try to figure out who’s the next Grand Supreme. Queenie’s diversity training for Madame Lalaurie, consisting of the miniseries Roots and footage shot during the civil rights era, seemed to be working miracles on the old racist, and I’m hoping other miracles are yet to come.

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My Love Affair with Deadly Women

I am a devoted fan of crime television and have followed Law & Order: Special Victims Unit since it aired, delighting in the chiming sound between scenes just like everybody else. The problem is after seeing one of those episodes, it’s hard for me to rewatch it because I know what’s going to happen next. Also, the Law & Order writers can go a little over the top when lifting stories from the tabloids and then embellishing them even more. Really, did anything else need to be added to the Anna Nicole Smith death story or that of the kidnapping astronaut?

I was running a little dry on crime TV offerings when my friend Allie recommended the true-crime TV show Deadly Women. She warned me that it was a little bit cheesy, but when she said that a former FBI profiler who hosted it might have been the prototype for Clarice Starling of The Silence of the Lambs, I was ready to give it a go.

The first episode I watched dealt with women who murdered after being spurned in love, and rather than being put off by the low-quality criminal scene reenactments, I found them quite endearing. The women shown doing the crimes might be overweight, frumpy, have bad skin, wear too much makeup, look thirty when they’re supposed to be sixteen, but I embrace them. They look like real women bumbling along in life. Maybe that’s what makes the show especially chilling. It’s too realistic; our lives are bad TV.

An episode of Deadly Women is broken down into three separate stories that have a theme in common. A story begins with the crime scene and then works backward to analyze how and why the crime happened, and this is the part I really like, the why of it. Candice DeLong, the former FBI profiler, and various true-crime authors will weigh in, recalling what happened in the criminal’s past to lead up to the crime, and it’s almost always fascinating—bullying, an overwhelming love of money and what it can buy, friendships gone wrong, abuse, betrayal. All of the human weaknesses and foibles are laid out, and as DeLong says, “Most of the criminals with above-average intelligence have one thing in common: arrogance.” I will be watching out for this.

I love the deviousness displayed by some of these women. When they come to the conclusion that somebody must die, the planning could take years before the murder is finally committed. It’s not a moment-of-passion type of thing. They really want you dead. And sometimes their plans are like something out of a Grimm’s fairy tale, like the woman who has her husband build a wishing well out in front of their trailer. Then she kills him and stuffs his body in the wishing well. I don’t find these women heroes, but I’m very curious about what makes them this way, what they think about.

Most of the stories end the same. The women are arrested and spend the rest of their lives in jail or are executed. Up until that time, though, I find the stories all such wonderful source material. Often, after I watch one of these episodes, I think, That would make a great story. So I keep watching and watching and watching.

Does American Horror Story Have Legs?

When I started watching American Horror Story at the beginning of the season, I think I was as perplexed as everybody else by the number of ghosts who crowded out the regular human cast. All of the different puzzle pieces were shocking and controversial—a gimp in a latex suit, a maid who “belongs” to the house and fluctuates in age between her twenties and sixties (and in personality between sluttiness and stark formality), and nurses in bloody uniforms. It was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the story was fractured, as only one aspect could be presented in a forty-or-so-minute episode, and I could only marvel at the strangeness and irregularity of the pieces. At one point, the story wasn’t gelling for me, and I was going to quit watching the series. There’s only so much time and so many series out there. Right before I was about to quit, though, the story started to come together in some sort of coherent fashion.

Now that the series has progressed, and I’ve seen the different decades of stories acted out on the stage of the haunted house, I’ve been thinking about the series’ title American Horror Story, and how all of the stories represent America or American. The series can be quite clever, but I’m not sure how far it can continue now that it’s given away all of its conceits.

All of the stories revolve around the character Constance (tartly played by Jessica Lange), an aging Southern belle who sits like a fat spider in the middle of this web, sucking everybody dry within her reach. She’s a ruined beauty who’s destroyed her face with too much plastic surgery, whose words are honey sweet, but if she doesn’t get her way, she’ll flay you to the bone.

Constance’s children are a wise-young daughter with Down’s syndrome, like one of Shakespeare’s fools who speaks the truth in nonsensical lines; a teen son who’s a psychopath, part of the rash of school shooters taking out classmates with multiple weapons; and a deformed but good-natured ogre locked away from the public.

When the traumatized Harmon family first moves into the centerpiece of the story, the house, husband Ben (Dylan McDermott) and wife Vivien (Connie Britton) are trying to heal their marriage after infidelity, along with their daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga, sister of Vera Farmiga, who has inherited her older sister’s acting chops). Constance inserts herself into their lives right away—chasing or looking for her daughter Adelaide (Jamie Brewer) who is attracted to the house.

Constance wants the house. She has lost so many of her children to it, and I suppose she wants to be around them all the time. Shortly after the Harmons move into the house, Vivien finds herself pregnant with twins after a sexy night with her husband and the gimp ghost (who she thinks is her husband coming back for a second round). That act galvanizes the house and its ghosts as they move to claim each member of the Harmon family, one by one.

There are two settings overlapping in American Horror Story—modern LA and all of the stories and ghosts from the past that have overtaken the house. However, with each episode, more and more of the human cast join the undead. With each new ghost that pops up, it makes me wonder, What’s the point of using modern LA as a setting? At this rate, Constance is the only human left, and though she is a fascinating character, she cannot carry the series alone in modern LA. That leaves the house as a setting, describing a limbo between heaven and hell, but I’m not finding this very gripping now that all of the ghosts are explained. They can relive their tragedies and interact with other ghosts, but there’s no new ground to cover.

A story must have parameters; that’s what makes a story. You have a beginning, a middle, an end, and the story is complete in and of itself, but a series is always trying to bust out of these boundaries. I think probably one of the goals of a series is to go on infinitely, but I find American Horror Story to be overreaching.

The series’ creator Ryan Murphy has said with the conclusion of this season, he will be focusing on a new haunted house and new ghosts and human characters in the second season of American Horror Story. I’ll dial up a few episodes on Hulu when it starts to see if this is working. I have my doubts, though. The UK series Skins did quite well with a revolving cast, but that fit the season cycle since the show follows school-aged kids and they do graduate and go off into the world. I’m not sure how much more I can get invested in another season of American Horror Story if everybody’s going to be killed and claimed by a haunted house.

Our Zombie Christmas

Ellie with the zombie Christmas tree.

I love zombies because they scare me the most. I think it’s because, for the most part, they have no individuality. Once a zombie bites a person, they lose their personality, can’t talk and carry on a conversation, and look at humans as a food source. Except for certain stories where the usual zombie trope is abandoned, like in Mike Carey’s Felix Castor series, where Nicky the zombie is full of sparkling wit, a zombie is quite predictable, which is oddly comforting.

 

This has been a zombie year for me and my sister with the second season of The Walking Dead to look forward to every Monday night. We don’t have a TV or cable, so we bought a season pass for the series on iTunes because we couldn’t wait for the series to come out on Netflix. After each episode comes out on Sunday, I download it and then we watch it after Kristi comes home from work. The series is on hiatus right now until February, so we’ve had to further our zombie love another way. What better way than a zombie Christmas!

Usually, a few days before the holiday, we pull out a miniature light-up Christmas tree that my mother bought us during a post-Christmas sale about ten years ago. (My mother loves sales!) We set it up, unbend the branches, and then decorate the tree with a few disco ball ornaments and some old Mardi Gras beads for a garland. The tree stays up for about a week, until we get sick of the cats knocking it down, and then we pack it away in the box until next year. Our traditions had become a bit stale.

 

After Kristi and I decided on a zombie Christmas, we felt that our standby tree just wasn’t going to cut it. We really needed proper greenery to showcase the zombie ornaments that Kristi was planning to make. The green would make that desiccated flesh pop. We shopped along Cortelyou Road in our neighborhood, looking for something that would suit our needs, and finally found one at the second bodega we stopped at—a tiny potted pine for $25. A steal. We popped it in our cart and wheeled it home.

 

For the next few days, Kristi worked hard, perfecting her recipe and method for making the zombie ornaments, patting and molding eyeballs, bones, and gangrenous hands. At last she came up with some worthy pieces and set to work mixing up moldering flesh paint colors and finding bristly hairs and trims for the ornaments that needed it. Our finished tree was a wonder to behold, and the cats liked it. They haven’t knocked the tree down once.

On zombie Christmas day, we cackled while putting together our holiday dinner: “Jesus was the first zombie. He rose from the dead.” “And you eat his body and blood during Communion—that’s soooo zombie.” Our dinner was rather plain compared to usual zombie fare—duck (which I kept calling a goose), wild rice, asparagus, and pineapple upside-down cake, though we did have a thick sauce that looked like blood.

 

After present opening and dinner, we devoted the rest of the day to catching Kristi’s boyfriend Ed up on Walking Dead episodes. One really great thing about a zombie Christmas is that it’s hard to overeat. You never know when the guts and blood will start flying, so it’s best not to have anything in your mouth—unless you want to lose it.

Hoarders on A&E

We are now TV-less since the switch over to satellite, and I don’t mind so much. If I’m going to watch something, I really have to think about it, decide what the movie is going to be, whether I’ll be absorbed enough in the story line for two or so hours, and so on. No longer do I switch on the set for the tapioca-like comfort of white noise–TV commercials, Judge Judy, and the endless Law & Order episodes.

The last couple of weeks, I have been juggling two assignments–the copyedit of an erotica novel and the proofread of a nonfiction book on Theodore Roosevelt. Neither were particularly difficult assignments, but together I needed to sit and edit for about eight hours a day, while being incredibly focused on fine details during every minute of that time. I had to build in breaks that didn’t involve reading. I used my sister’s faster computer to go to the A&E Web site and find some quick entertainment in a three-inch by three-inch window.

One of the new episodes that had been added was the pilot of Hoarders, a reality show that explores the world of compulsive hoarding, a topic I’ve been fascinated by since I don’t when–probably birth. www.aetv.com/hoarders/

My first novel The Collectors tackles this subject, but back when I was doing research on compulsive hoarding a few years ago, I could find barely anything: Ghosty Men by Franz Lidz, a memoir/biography of the author’s hoarding uncle combined with the story of the Collyer brothers–probably the best-known hoarders of all time; a two-page story on the Collyer brothers in New York: An Illustrated History; and a few homemade Web pages with so many typos and errors that I doubted the stories’ veracity.

How I wish Hoarders had existed then, which goes to the heart of hoarding, the why?, and treats the subjects humanely, not as crazy cat ladies. In the pilot episode, two people are treated–Linda and Steven, both highly intelligent individuals who have become trapped by their stuff. Steven seems to be crippled somewhat by disability, and most of his garbage appears to be recyclables (compulsive hoarders usually have a theme with their stuff). He’s paired with the better of the counselors, I think, and she and Steven come up with a mission statement for his clean-up: to have a home that will also be a spiritual place where Steven can nurture his soul. Steven has been homeless at times and wants to write his life story. Most of his day is spent outside of his apartment, where he has made friends with coffee shop patrons, storekeepers, and library clerks. He loves to read and learn and is shamed when his counselor/organizer finally makes it to his bathroom, discovering "stuff" covered in defecation, which must be disposed of by people wearing sanitation masks and using gloves and shovels.

Linda is divorced, her husband no long able to cope with her hoarding ways, and as part of their divorce settlement, the family house must be cleaned of her stuff and sold. Linda is shown interacting with her children, where she puts blame on them for leaving items at home when they moved and adding to the problem. The daughter recounts the shame she felt growing up and never being able to have anybody over. As Linda starts sorting through her stuff, she has breakdowns when confronting old possessions (an old baby outfit of one of her children), and her emotions, her memories, are attached to the object, making it almost impossible to get rid of anything.

Very rarely is there a success story with compulsive hoarding–and the follow-up text for each of these episodes show this. I would say that maybe two out of every ten participants are able to make any progress in their compulsive hoarding, and these are out of the hoarders that willingly seek out help. After watching each of these episodes, I feel a major depression come over me. Compulsive hoarding springs from obsessive-compulsive disorder, and it’s tragic to see these people with such potential choked by their possessions and only having relationships with things rather than others. I guess the things have never hurt or abandoned them like people have.

Sybil

This was a tough movie to watch. I first saw it when I was nineteen years old, and it’s amazing how many details I remembered upon seeing it years later–the buttonhook, the crayola in the wheat bin, and those terrifying cat dreams and drawings. I think it was a visual scarification that took place because it was the images that I remembered, not words.

Sybil makes me marvel at the resilience of the human mind. Rather than committing suicide or becoming a broken-down catatonic human being, which one would think would happen as the result of such unimaginable abuse, this woman’s mind divided and compartmentalized into different people so she could survive what happened to her.

I wasn’t aware of how long the movie was when Kristi popped it into the DVD player. It was maybe 9:30 p.m. when we started it, and we thought we would be able to watch Sybil and then the season opener of Saturday Night Live. The doctor had just started her hypnosis sessions with Sybil when it was time for SNL, and Kristi and I missed the episode with an appearance by Tina Fey in order to watch the rest of the movie.

It’s hard to believe that Sybil aired on regular network TV. I found it more disturbing than current horror movies and was wound up so tight afterward I couldn’t sleep that night. I didn’t get to bed until five that morning.

Sally Field is amazing in this movie, playing Sybil and her thirteen different personalities. The way she can switch from angry Peggy to the somber, morose Marcia with just a few facial twitches makes the multiple personalities so believable. Then there’s Hattie, the paranoid schizophrenic mother who made Sybil the way she is. Hattie is terrifying, much worse than Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho. And Joanne Woodward as the therapist puts the finishing touches to this female trinity.

Such a meaty movie. I’m still thinking of it at odd times more than a week after viewing it. Kristi got the book from the library and is reading it right now. I hope she finishes soon because I’m dying to read it.