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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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.