What’s Really Horrible About American Horror Story

NOTE: I thought I understood the “insert more tag” feature, but I was so very mistaken. So, hey, there are spoilers at the end of this.  But Ryan Murphy has already told all of the Internet how this show unfolds anyway, so ….

So, here’s the thing: witches are everywhere right now.  Like, everywhere.  And not just because it’s almost Halloween.  It seems as though American pop culture has jumped on the proverbial broomstick and intends to fly it to Walpurgisnacht and back.  Walpurgisnacht, as you may know, is a 17th century German term for a meeting of witches on May Day.  Today it’s often celebrated with bonfires and booze and the like.  It’s been co-opted by pop culture, like many things related to witches, and changed into something light-hearted and fun.  But if you take a deeper look, the term refers to something similar.  In the Czech Republic, for instance, you might look at those Walpurgisnacht bonfires through your beer goggles and think, This is a great deal of fun.  But then you might sober up.  You might look closer.  You might notice that many of these bonfires have figures in the center of them.  Female figures.  Female bodies.  Yes, they are made of straw, but they’re female bodies meant to represent the witches who were burned at the stake.  And then it might hit you: you are boozing and bonfiring in celebration of one of the most horrific periods in human history: the witch trials.  You’re commemorating the persecution of hundreds of thousands of women.  You’re celebrating gendercide, and you had no idea — which is part of what’s so terrifying.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many witch trials (please note I say “as many,” and not “aren’t” period) these days, it is also true that the intellectual framework surrounding the witch trials still exists.  There are populations who are marginalized and brutalized.  There’s an increasing urgency in the idea of “us” versus “them,” and every time I forget this, all I have to do is sign into Facebook and scroll through my newsfeed to see that polarization at work.

It seems to me no accident that witches are back.  These histories — and herstories — seem unsettlingly resonant to what’s going on in our culture today. I started doing research into the European witch trials in 2006.  I read histories, sociological treatises, religious treatises, analyses of torture, contemporary pagan lore, trial transcripts, oral histories, everything I could possibly find — and I could already see similar threads.  And though the resulting book was published in April of this year, I’ve never been able to — and I never will be able to — shake the images and stories that became Maleficae.

When I saw that the third season of American Horror Story revolved around witches, I was intrigued.  I wondered what kind of “horror” they would focus on: the horror that so-called witches experienced, or the horror that accusers falsely claimed they caused?  I wondered if the show would support or debunk myths about witchcraft.  I wondered if they would tow the same lines that started the trials centuries ago: the idea that different is wrong and wrong is punishable, the idea that women are inherently dangerous, sexually deviant, evil beings.

I decided to watch and to blog about watching.  I then questioned my decision, because I am the person who still gets really seriously freaked out by the boat part of Willy Wonka and the part with the scientists and tubes in ET.  But I stayed resolute and watched the first episode — and about thirty minutes in, I was terrified.  It had nothing to do with gore.

So here’s the plan: I’m going to try to watch AHS every week, and I’m going to keep a log of my reactions.  I’ll post the reactions after a break, because, of course, spoilers will happen.  And I’m going to try to keep them as close to my initial responses as possible.  This week, for instance, I started out kind of amused and made some jokes.  And then there came this point where I realized things were definitely not funny anymore.  And then I was very, very angry.  Which is kind of reflective, in many ways, of how things moved in the witch trials — from some accusation no one took seriously to mass hysteria.  Due to the nature of the program, I will at times have to refer to ladyparts.  Also, I recognize that I’m leaving a lot out, because honestly there’s way too much wrongness for any one blogger to cover when it comes to this show.

Here it goes.

American Horror Story: Coven.  Episode One. Continue reading


I’m at this weird moment with my writing.  I am, on one hand, working on very very very (to borrow Anne Lamott’s absolutely perfect term) sh*tty rough drafts.  They’re the kind of drafts that are necessary for the kind of work I’m doing, which is very difficult and very personal and therefore means that I need to write faster than my brain can run, because my brain will just be like, stop stop STOPSTOPSTOP, and nothing will ever get done.  On the other hand, I’m working on almost-to-the-very-end-of-revising-and-beginning-of-submitting revisions.  In other words:

  • I’m cutting large parts of poems out and yelling things like stop trying to make fetch happen at them and then re-writing from the few lines that remain.
  • I’m spending most of a day (well, okay, a week) working on a poem, trying to coax it out of the form I at first forced it into (because it
    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    Here are some of those notes I was talking about in all of their cryptic glory.

    seemed like it wanted to be a pantoum, it really did) and into the form in which (hopefully) it’ll do something close to working.

  • I’m taking three hours to get two lines right.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters.
  • I’m changing “the Alabama Shakes’ Boys and Girls” to “that Alabama Shakes album” and realizing that that tiny change revealed exactly what the essay meant all along, and what I needed to do to make it mean that.
  • I’m trying to translate and expand cryptic notes I leave myself on my phone, on my laptop, on my Kindle, on my Post-Its, on the skin beneath my thumb, on a receipt for a McDonald’s smoothie.
  • I’m taking out all of the commas and capital letters and then replacing all of the commas and capital letters — except for two commas and one capital letter, which finally, finally makes the poem work.

It’s an interesting in-between place.  It’s a good place to be — bringing work into the world, preparing to send work out of the world — but it’s also an uncomfortable place.  And it’s that, that discomfort, exactly, that makes it such a good place.  When the writing gets too comfortable, I start worrying.  I start thinking, this is not good.  Because writing — good writing — requires risk, and that’s far from comfortable.

This has also made me think a lot about my students, who are all in a very similar place.  I’ve often thought that learning how to write is a kind of apprenticeship: you learn the craft from reading and watching someone work, from listening to them talk about how they approach their work, and you learn the art from practicing the craft, from being willing to take risks and sharpen your skills and to work and work and work.  Sometimes, I’ll think of the writing teacher as the leader of the apprenticeship, but more and more, I feel like that isn’t true.  I feel like it can’t be true, because no one can really be a master.  I feel like perhaps the real apprenticeship is to the art itself, to all of its mysteries and wonders, all of its moments of despair and whimsy and confusion.  We’re all in the same boat, in a creative writing classroom, wherever we sit, and I often think that the teacher’s job is to start conversations, to nudge students towards risk, to give them a vocabulary to talk about their work and a way to apply those terms and techniques to their own pieces.  I think it’s also a teacher’s job to learn — both through one’s own work and reading and from one’s teachers.

Every day, I walk to my office with my folder and grade-book and Diet Coke and Altoids and I feel — excited.  Thrilled.  Nervous.  Lucky.  Most of all, lucky.  I’d say that this has been an exceptional semester in which I’ve been lucky enough to teach some exceptional students, but really, there’s nothing exceptional about it.  Instead, it’s been the rule.  I’m continuously grateful to be surrounded by such minds and such energy, such unfailing appetites for learning.  I’m grateful to my students for being willing to talk through the routes they’re taking in this strange landscape language makes for us — and I’m grateful to them for the daily reminder that though we are all making our own way in this landscape, we are, none of us, ever truly alone.