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.

1461010_619769391418925_1652681513_n

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.

ahs1

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.

AHS_SacredTaking_1b

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.

Advertisements

Making Mischief in New Orleans, Part I

I haven’t been in New Orleans since before Katrina, but I love the city. When I got to LaGuardia, all stressed out after finishing a very long, tedious proofread and having the messenger pick up the package just in the nick of time, I found it soothing to hear Southern accents all around me. Our flight was delayed because a group from Mississippi (about forty people) had been in a bus accident. Nobody was injured, but the group had been delayed and the airline held the flight rather than leaving people displaced until the next day. When they straggled onto the airplane in groups of twos and threes, some personally thanked us for waiting, as if we other passengers had anything to do with it. It was a nice thing to do, though, and it put me in a good mood for an almost three-hour flight in such tiny, cramped seats—and of course, I was behind one of those guys who insisted on reclining all the way back so he could take a nap.

I got off the plane all right in New Orleans and taxied to the bed and breakfast, which me, my friend Sarah, and her daughter Megan are renting for the week. It’s called the Dauphine House and is supposedly haunted. The owner told me that there are five ghosts in her house. One is a couple from the 1860s that she saw on the staircase; she guesses they’re from right before the Civil War based on what they wear. One is a little girl who’s about six to eight years old and likes to play in the closet near our rooms. (I think I can handle that as long as she’s not like the kid from The Changeling.) The owner believes she died during the yellow fever epidemic. There’s also a ghost who’s very concerned with money and paces one of the balconies, and then another man who’s a dapper dresser and runs around in a top hat.

I was starving after two teensy bags of peanuts on the plane so we went to eat at a place that the bed-and-breakfast owner recommended, and on the way there and back, we saw the biggest, most luxurious cockroaches I’ve ever encountered. They put mine to shame in The Collectors. With shadow, they looked as big as three inches long and didn’t move too quickly since they were busy sucking heat out of the sidewalk—that is, until we started photographing them; then they got their hustle on. With the heat and humidity, I was covered with a fine sheen of sweat by the time we came back, but I was too tired to shower. I climbed into bed and slept for the next nine hours with no visitings.

New Orleans cockroach

We had drawn up our itinerary for our time before the World Horror Convention begins and decided to go on the cemetery voodoo tour the first day. After browsing through a few shops, taking breaks from the heat, we met up with our tour guide Gwen, a natural-born Creole, she said and then explained the differences. Gwen said spirits and ghosts are attracted to large bodies of water and that’s part of the reason why New Orleans is such a spiritual place.

She took us to Saint Louis Cemetery, No. 1, where Marie Laveau’s crypt is, the great voodoo priestess. I’ve been interested in her history ever since reading Jewell Parker Rhodes’s Voodoo Dreams: A Novel of Marie Laveau. People leave all sorts of tributes, but I was truly puzzled by a set of nail clippers that had been set on the edge of her crypt. I know Marie owned a beauty shop, so maybe it’s referencing that? Or somebody’s looking for extra help while opening a nail salon?

nail clippers for Marie Laveau

We were taken to another crypt that apparently held a hoodoo priest, though nobody can tell his name because the face of the stone is so badly damaged. Gwen told us about the serious black magic that this guy could do, and how cops would enter locked rooms to find bodies with their throats mysteriously cut…by nobody it appeared. I’ve heard NYPD talk about similar things, coming into a room where Santeria had been practiced and just feeling oppressive, bad things. This priest’s grave was decorated by three X’s, calling for magic, and other shrine-related items that had been deposited throughout the day. My favorite—somebody’s hotel room keycard.

tributes left for a hoodoo priest

We were lucky on our tour and ran into one of Gwen’s friends who runs the Golden Feather, a Mardi Gras Indian restaurant gallery. He let us see the Mardi Gras Indian suits on display and told us how each member spends one year making his, with a design that has special significance for him. (The owner told me there are only two shops in New Orleans that carry these supplies, and now I’m wild to find them.) When the suits are completed, the Mardi Gras Indians parade in different festivals as a way to honor the American Indians who protected the enslaved people during the slave revolts.

Mardi Gras Indian suit at the Golden Feather

Our tour group was flagging at the end, and Gwen offered to take us and a few other hardy souls to visit Priestess Miriam at the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center. Priestess Miriam was mixing up perfumes when we arrived and took a while to come to the door and let us in. She has two rooms full of shrines and altars that she’s been building since the 1990s. Gwen showed me her Burmese python and told me that Priestess Miriam reads bones, which are supposed to give really accurate, dead-on readings. I was curious about all of the Virgin of Guadalupe images that I saw in her altar room and asked Priestess Miriam about that since I have a shrine dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe. She told me that the Virgin is a door, and all doors are feminine because it’s through a woman that anybody gets into or out of this world. I definitely see the getting-into part and have to think more on the getting out, but I’m in love with the idea that all doors are feminine.

Priestess Miriam, Gwen, Megan, and Sarah

After our tour, we had a sit-down and food, and then took the streetcar along the Moon Walk. Sarah told me she had run out of stickers for Horrorfeminista, so I gave her a new load, and she did this decorating while riding the streetcar. Now our paper roaches will be alongside the real ones in New Orleans.

Horrorfeminista!