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