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.

First response: HOLY CRAP KATHY BATES.


I wondered: Is she doing a Kim Khardashian vampire facial?  Confirmation soon followed.

As a watcher of the Real Housewife franchise, I can say that something always happens at dinner parties.

This is feeling very Kate Chopin.

Three minutes in: first impulse to vomit.

An interesting reach-back to Greek mythology, interpreting it as a religion of vengeful gods – very different than contemporary pagan practice.

The credits are a combination of Kanye West’s “BLKKK SKKKN HEADS” video and a beastiary from the Malleus Maleficarum.

Two seconds into the first contemporary scene, and we’re already dredging up the kinds of harmful ideas about female sexuality perpetuated in the witch trials: that women are sexual aggressors (the boy hesitates, the boy asks if she is sure, and she seduces).  Then the idea that sexuality is dangerous – to the man, because of the woman.  Then the sexually dangerous woman has to be sequestered from society, imprisoned with her kind – sounds pretty familiar.

Yes, FX.  It’s a great idea to associate albinism with evil – something else you’ll find in the annals of the witch trials.

RE-CAP: FEMALE POWER IS DANGEROUS and a woman needs to be taught how to use it, otherwise she is a danger to men.

I love the fact that the first thing the women are told to do is get the groceries.  Because of course that’s how you show these are normal women: they get groceries!  They write children’s books!  How soon until we have pies?

UPDATE: no pies, but tea.  Pearls and tea.

They’re actually talking about the conflation of “white” and “dark” religicomagical practices, which is promising.  According to the Malleus, it’s the same thing.

That burning at the stake scene? Totally innacurrate.  Witches died from suffocation, not from burns.

Dear FX: I’m very glad that you’re lumping stem cell research in with flawed views of witchcraft as satanic.  That’s very responsible.

Dear FX: I’m especially excited about your portrayal of an older woman as powerless, as ruined, as a hag, as a prowler for youth.  Your portrayal is every bit as dated as this Iron Butterfly song.  However, this Iron Butterfly song is still awesome.  Relegating women outside of their reproductive years to the status of hags?  Not.  Awesome.  At.  ALL.

Now the girls are being mean to a guy who is clearly Riff Raff from the Rocky Horror Picture Show.  Even witches know to count calories – they ask for their dressing on the side!

A woman appears on stage.  Saying something seductive about all of the boys.  AND she Carries-out.  And then they have a girl squabble and show bad table manners and their powers appear.  NOTE: powers are NOT present when one girl makes fun of another’s weight.

I mean, do we even have to make the point these days that these tales of adolescent women who can’t control their powers are obvious metaphors for nascent female sexuality?

BREAKING: one of these women could use her powers to the fullest extent and have power in the world.  Instead, she chooses to run a finishing school.  NOTE: this woman is wearing white.  The “hag”? Wearing black.

I will bet all of my monies that this “council” is made up of men.

Interestingly, we’re shown a male version of a school, walked through their rules, which involve not puking or showing of spheejinxes.  Within moments of their entering the party, the men have used multiple derogatory terms referring to women by their genitalia.  There is a Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet moment.  There’s the first mention of stereotypes: when the frat boy accuses the witch of thinking he’s from a rich family.

It’s unclear if this is a rape scene, and that?  That is a problem.  That is a serious and dangerous problem.  Especially since the woman is shown as being overtly sexual in the previous scene.


Okay.  So.  We have LaLaurie, another woman desperate for youth.  She’s a witch.  She viciously tortures African-Americans – all in line with the ghost story, yes.  But then the contemporary witch refers to her house as a “sacred space.”  This is the moment I almost turned off the television.  OH AND OF COURSE THE WITCH IS DOING ALL OF THIS BECAUSE SHE ISN’T GETTING ATTENTION FROM HER HUSBAND.  OF COURSE.

Let’s also note that the “witch” with Down’s Syndrome is the one who has an obvious, innate connection with LaLaurie, who she calls “the lady of the house.”

Gloves, umbrellas, wide-brimmed hats, and the implication that these women are only safe in the dark, indoors, shuttered.



2 responses to “What’s Really Horrible About American Horror Story”

  1. Some of this didn’t even cross my pea brain, so yay thank you online media criticism!

    I was excited about this season of AHS because DIVERSE WOMEN EVERYWHERE, but the writing inevitably panders to tropes for each respective cast member rather than transcending them. I mean, what if (sex negative nature of her storyline notwithstanding) Gabourey or Jamie had been cast as Zoe? I hear so much about Ryan Murphy being a reactionary, but if he’s such a badass…why isn’t he actually going there and turning our mainstream ideas of what certain women can and cannot do on their heads?

  2. When I initially commented I clicked the “Notify me when new comments are added” checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get four e-mails with the same comment.
    Is there any way you can remove me from that service?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: