Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative


Not Just Black and White

American Horror Story - Shaun Ross

In his review of “Burn, Witch, Burn” The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff articulated a thought that I had been working toward in previous posts:  this season of American Horror Story, more than any other, seems to lack a core narrative. If we were not feeling particularly kind we might contextualize this increasing lack of focus in a broader history of shows helmed by Ryan Murphy that have gone off the rails (i.e., the success that allows for latter seasons also permits Murphy’s staff more latitude in riffing on themes in ways that are not as controlled) but I continue to think that a larger influence in this season’s flailing stems from the way in which place is incorporated (or not). For me, the constraints provided by the physical structures themselves (a house and an asylum) necessarily helped to focus the action as viewers on some level wondered “What is the mystery of this place?” This season, neither Madame LaLaurie’s house nor New Orleans as a whole offer any similar sense of intrigue and although we might be momentarily curious with Spalding’s deranged attic, Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies also holds relatively little intrigue.

Without the centrality of place in the series we are left with a season that contains many ideas (or fragments of ideas) but whose transmission is hampered by characters that one does not necessarily care about. VanDerWerff notes the way in which this season is written around the talents of Jessica Lange (and it is no secret that Murphy favors her) and this emphasis on a single person fundamentally comes into conflict with what made the show interesting in previous seasons. More than any other season, it seems like the current theme of persecution could benefit from a story that walked the line between personal responsibility for bigotry and the way in which individual characters did not matter so much as the roles that they fulfilled in the grander picture. In short, recognizing that although individuals have agency and are capable of action they are still subject to movement from forces that are greater than them—both magical and social—would have been both an interesting theme and the backbone for a narrative arc.

And although I find myself increasingly disinterested in the show, there are a couple of things to note with regard to this particular episode, both of which revolve around the rather conspicuous inclusion of zombies.

The first point—and ultimately less meaningful one—is that there seems to be a bit of confusion here about the role and function of the zombie in New Orleans voodoo as compared to the depiction of zombies in a post-Romero (i.e., Night of the Living Dead) context. While I do not think that American Horror Story is consciously/necessarily jumping on the zombie bandwagon (I’d like to think that the show is smarter than that), the presence of the zombies in this episode does nothing but recall the popular image of the zombie horde/apocalypse that seems to have pervaded popular culture in the past few years.

There is, for example, a stark contrast between the way in which voodoo leverages the threat of the zombie more than the actual creature itself in order to maintain social control and the way in which the relationship between the zombie and the attacked is of a more personal nature. Whether it be a plantation owner/worker or a blood tie, the ancestors of New Orleans and Haitian zombies seemed to have a more intimate relationship than the post-Romero figure, which was largely a commentary on mass culture and society. Thus, if the zombies featured in this episode had been limited to LaLaurie’s daughters, I think we could argue for a more sophisticated understanding of the monster on the part of the show.

In and of itself, this use of zombies is not particularly consequential on a thematic level but definitely hinders the narrative of the show:  in a world in which death is already rendered relatively meaningless by the presence of Misty’s power of resurgence (and we will get to Fiona and the baby in a bit), why do viewers even care that the witches are getting attacked? There is no tension at all here and the indiscriminate violence on the part of the zombies is both unusual and meaningless, as is Zoe’s wielding of the chainsaw.[1]

As example of how things might be different, we only need to look at The Returned, a French television show currently airing on The Sundance Channel. In some ways similar to the BBC show In the Flesh in that both worlds explore what it means for outsiders/dead to reintegrate themselves back into the lives of the living, The Returned offers a much more interesting treatment look into the effects of people brought back to life.[2] The crucial difference here is less of a focus on the destructive physical power of the zombie and more of an emphasis on how the zombie’s presence (i.e., that the zombie even exists in the first place) is the very thing that renders a type of emotional violence.

The second point—slightly more abstract but farther-reaching—is the way in which the zombies in “Burn, Witch, Burn” contributed to a larger theme of violence written on bodies. Here we saw the aftermath of Cordelia’s acid-burned face, Queenie’s showdown with zombie Borquita and burning Myrtle’s hand, Spalding ripping off Madison’s arm, the whole zombie mess, and, of course, more scenes of Madame LaLaurie’s horrors.

As I have already mentioned, the constant onslaught of violence on the show is not particularly meaningful or poignant—the thing that American Horror Story sometimes forgets is that the things that we come up with in our heads are infinitely more terrifying than whatever could be shown on cable and that violence is often best used to underscore a particular emotional moment. Had we skipped the Chamber of Horror scene (a wry joke that ultimately detracted from the ongoing story), seeing LaLaurie’s slave break Borquita’s leg would have been that much more arresting.

That being said, the violence happened and the only way to salvage it is to think about why we were made to watch it. LaLaurie presents an interesting case as we have now seen her be both incredibly horrible to her daughters and also distraught over their death; violence to LaLaurie, then, is not necessarily about hate but rather about the exercising of power over others. We have violence visited upon black bodies and white bodies, on bodies of family, on bodies of allies and of innocents, and one’s own body. And, yet, despite bodies getting attacked left and right we never see black on black violence. Feeling cynical, I suggest that this is likely a symptom of how writers on the show conceptualize race[3] but I secretly hope that is some sort of larger commentary on how black women have often understood the truth about coalition building long before white women ever did.

As a final note, I am curious about the difference between Misty’s power of resurgence and Fiona’s power to covey life. As the Supreme, it seems evident that Fiona is able to duplicate Misty’s power and bringing the dead child back to life in the hospital that can’t pay its electric bill is a giant shrug (although solid stuff from Lange). What interests me here is the difference between that resurrection and Fiona’s action to literally breathe life back into Queenie in the previous episode. Evocative of the Judeo-Christian belief that conceptualizes life in terms of God’s breath and read against the inclusion of FrankenKyle, one cannot help but think about the implications of the Jewish golem on this season’s proceedings.

Although Charles T. Rubin’s essay, “The Golem and the Limits of Artifice” goes beyond the scope of what is necessary to read American Horror Story through this lens, the piece generally outlines some arguments worth considering with regard to nature, technology, and life.

[Byron] Sherwin begins his book with an overview of the golem story, and he has two very specific points he wants to make as he tells it. First, the nature of the golem, viewed across time, is very far from fixed in its character and meaning. Sherwin makes significant use of this flexibility, using the term “golem” to describe science, technology, and the modern state — after all, they are each “creations of the human mind.” Second, and more importantly, he points to the distinctly Jewish significance of golem creation. Following up a grammatical oddity in the Genesis story (in Genesis 2:3), Sherwin suggests that the world was “created to be made” — that is, God created the world with the expectation that human beings would carry on His own creative activity with the raw materials He created out of nothing. Moreover, Sherwin suggests that we see ourselves as co-creators of the world along with God, tasked with working “toward completing the process of creation begun by God.” Indeed, we are created in God’s image precisely to the extent that we possess and employ “moral and creative volition.” Sherwin alludes repeatedly to a passage from the Talmud (to which we will return) about human beings having the potential for being “God’s partners in the work of creation.” Sherwin finds further support for this outlook in, among other places, some of the writings of the real-life Rabbi Loew, and in a parable of uncertain origin about a king who leaves servants piles of flour, flax, and grapes, rewarding the one who turns them into useful goods and punishing the one who simply guards them in the form given to him.

Sherwin’s is by no means an unorthodox reading of Jewish tradition on this point about human creativity; one can find similar-sounding sentiments in, for example, the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Sherwin is at pains to suggest that there is nothing sacred about unaltered nature per se, nothing problematic about imitating divine creativity so long as it does not involve thinking that that creativity is unnecessary. Hence, in our scientific and technological accomplishments and strivings we are not “playing God” in any pejorative sense. Recalling another passage in Genesis, he notes that “beneficial human interventions in nature fulfill the divine mandate to human beings to subdue nature and to establish their dominion over it.”

Rubin’s essay is worth reading in so far as that it propels one to view the actions of Fiona and Madame LaLaurie in a new light with respect to the way in which they seek to create a world in their images. Given Murphy’s rather shallow of treatment of religion in previous offerings, work like Rubin’s is thought-provoking in that it gestures toward an integration of morality with the themes of biopolitics that we see on screen.

[1] In a truly horrid special effects sequence wherein Zoe splits a zombie down the middle I could not help but groan and think about how someone in the writers’ room had gotten a hold of Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chain Saws. The sad thing is that there is actually a very interesting way in which the material in Clover’s book could have been used here as a counterpoint to the women/magic/power theme.

[2] I am also still unsure of how to interpret the visual stereotypes that are present in American Horror Story’s zombies:  both last week’s and this week’s episodes zombie hordes featured a Confederate soldier, a flapper, and a Native person (based on costume) and while one might be tempted to contemplate the ways in which this selection of people speaks to a specific history that has come back to haunt white people, I remain unconvinced that it is little more than something played for amusement by the writers. The notion that most of the organic materials would likely have decomposed into a state that was, by 2013, somewhat less recognizable makes it seem as though the costume choices were made intentionally prominent and I am again left wondering, “To what end?”

[3] I am curious about the inclusion of albino blacks like Shaun Ross figure into the show. My distrust of the show leads me to believe that they were included because of their “strangeness” and something just seems off. In contrast to Jamie Brewer (Nan), who has Down Syndrome but always is a person, the albino black men in this season are essentially handymen. Worse, they are symbolic of the way in which the Salem witch culture only accepts blackness that is literally made white (i.e., whitewashed).

(Mis)Speaking for the Dead

There is, I think, a rather careful art to provocation, a type of balancing act that must occur as artists attempt to dislocate viewers from the expected. There are wells in the American psyche from which we continually draw—these deeply seeded reservoirs of emotion—with slavery and the Civil Rights era being two ever-potent sources. Here it should be noted that images of these moments are not evoked without reason in a society that is still negotiating the meaning of equality (and its refusal) in the form of heated contestations over racial profiling and affirmative action. This is to say that, deployed correctly[1], recalling particular exemplars of moments in the history of black America can serve a productive purpose.

It is, then, with some difficulty that I watched the opening of “Fearful Pranks Ensue”—from the beginning, the vignette’s conclusion is fairly obvious (although I must admit that I was hoping for some sort of twist) given that American Horror Story is not particularly known for being subtle in its presentation. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with the opening but throughout tonight’s episode I continually found myself wondering “to what end?”

The theme of persecution (of innocents) here is rather obvious and something that the season seems to be largely concerned with. Fine. In theory this is something that I would love for the show to explore given its location:  How does persecution arise and function? How are otherwise “good” people made complicit in its enforcement and implementation? What does it mean for a community to grapple with injustice and how does fear battle hope when it comes to effecting change?

As it stands, however, this season of American Horror Story is investing much into a side-by-side comparison of witches/whites and voodoo/blacks in New Orleans in a way that I continue to find largely unproductive, mostly due to the way in which the show handles its subjects and their persecution. This particular episode begins with a lynching before moving into its “main” story of a literal witch hunt. Now, to be fair, I think that there is something potentially interesting in this storyline with a reinvocation of the way in which paranoia functioned in Salem and how women sold each other out to escape punishment—the latter, in particular, seems to be entirely relevant to today’s business culture and an examination of how women get ahead or gain power in a world that continues to be disproportionately dominated by the influence of men.

And yet the invitation to compare the trials of the black community in 1961 New Orleans to the persecution of Salem’s descendants in 2013 is, to me at least, a rather stark slap in the face. To even suggest that the difficulties faced by Fiona (and others) are even in the same league as that of the black community is itself insulting, not to even mention that we are then using the image of a young black male being lynched as leverage to inform our reading of white people problems?[2]

As I mentioned previously, it is worth paying attention to how the show thinks about giving itself passes on things because it offers some sort of minor complication. Whether this is the use of misogynist language by females or, in the case of tonight’s episode, “racist white lady learns a lesson,” the show seems to think that it can excuse itself from grappling with its deeper flaws by offering the audience a minor conciliatory gesture.

Overall, it seemed like this particular episode was intent on hammering home particular things:  Spalding is mentally unstable, the two female leaders aren’t entirely heartless[3], Hank is cheating on Cordelia, that Madison wasn’t the Supreme, etc.[4] Ultimately, how much more interesting would the show be if these easy outs weren’t taken and the treatment of these characteristics was more subtle? But, again, this might be unfair as subtlety was never this show’s strong suit.

As a final note, I think that there is something potentially interesting that the show is working toward regarding these oppositional forces. Some of it remains fuzzy but the show seems to introduce this notion of Hank as possible beast (I am not going to cry werewolf) and the implications of that for feminine/masculine energy.

[1] This is not to suggest that these two iconic periods can necessarily be simplified down to one theme or that the totality of the black experience in America is summed up by these events but rather merely to suggest that, for better or for worse, these two examples have become touchstones in the American zeitgeist that might be useful as reference points in order to contextualize current struggles.

[2] It is of note here, however, that the zombies raised by Marie Laveau (I am going to ignore the stereotypical Native garb) perform the typical function of embodying white guilt that comes to destroy individuals who perpetuate some kind of injustice. I think that there could be a very interesting way in which the show uses this idea to expand on the comeuppance of the Salem witches (in general) and Fiona (in particular) that seems to go unexplored. Adding to this is the lamentable discussion of how Halloween traditions have become warped over the years. What is the show trying to say about the way in which our past haunts us? Perhaps something potentially interesting given Fiona’s storyline but so much seems to go unexplored.

[3] Which I fully support in principle but the introduction of this other side just seems forced.

[4] In contrast, Cordelia’s babbling informs her character that seems to be entirely germane to the situation.

It’s Time to Talk Replacements

American Horror Story Minotaur


In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books Anne Helen Petersen mused on the presence of abjection in American Horror Story, noting how the secondary understanding of the term—that of transgression and destabilization—appears in the series through references to duality and unheimlich. In some ways, horror is the genre that is best summed up by the phrase “…but not”: most obviously in that things are rarely as simple as they initially appear to be but, more subtly, also that they are both more and less than they seem to be. Gothic horror writers delved deep into this concept, exploring how young female ghosts were present (…but not) or how vampires were alive (…but not) and to this day horror remains the domain for things that are there…but not (or at least not in the way that we often fear that they are). What complicates things, however, is that horror often demands that we take a turn from either/or thinking (i.e., that spirits are either there or they aren’t) toward a realization that horror is often about both/and thinking (i.e., that presence is both there and not there and these two ideas aren’t contradictions). Horror, in short, is a genre capable of nuance and subtlety at the same time that it is about outright terror.

In her essay, Petersen noted how American Horror Story (in addition to, I would argue, Ryan Murphy’ other series) can contain both elements of feminism and misogyny. This revelation should not come as a shock for any viewers of Murphy’s past work as many of his series (including American Horror Story) often espouse a sensibility in which characters seemingly have a pass because they are also somehow disadvantaged. And ultimately, I think that this emphasis on persecution is what constitutes a consistent failing in Murphy’s series:  from bullying, to LGBT issues, to women and race, it seems like many of the story arcs in Murphy’s shows are preoccupied with exploring what it means to be marginalized from a very specific vantage point that itself remains unexamined. Credit should of course be given for a show like Glee that tries to think about the problem of bullying in youth or addresses the horrible ways that LGBT youth can be driven to suicide. And yet, despite this good intent, the treatment of the issues on the shows continues to be one that is reactionary (in that I do not think that the show is actively thinking about the tribulations of being a youth and only addressed the bullying/LGBT issues because they happened to trigger Murphy) and not particularly thoughtful in the way that they present solutions to problems.

But getting back to the notion of feminism and misogyny being intertwined (and muddled), we have the opening of tonight’s episode, “The Replacements,” where Fiona’s predecessor as Supreme (Anna Lee) references “bra burning” as a inaccurate, if ultimately widespread, shorthand for feminism and then calls Fiona a “vicious gash.” (Is it worth noting that Fiona did not attend the bra burning party?) Are we to believe that the derogatory attack is supposed to be more palatable or enjoyable because it is coming from a woman? It seems like any man who dared call a woman a gash (and let’s not even get started on the way in which that, like Naomi Wolf’s Vagina, reduces a woman down to a body part) would immediately be labeled as misogynistic, so shouldn’t we expect the same animosity toward a woman? The problem with American Horror Story is that even if we were to take a second to think about what this use of language actually implied for Anna Lee, Fiona, and a cast of witches who Murphy is determined to cast as oppressed, the show does a poor job of linking together other feminist moments/issues into a cohesive position about women, power, and patriarchy.

Going back to last week’s episode, I surmised to a friend that Madison’s refusal to admit to the rape had very little to do with her fear of the police and much more to do with the way in which she was unable or unwilling to cop to the violation of her body. From the beginning, I had a feeling that Madison embodied this postfeminist mindset wherein power flows from the body (not as literally as Queenie but through the standard concept of looks/beauty) as is hinted at in her behavior during the frat party in the first episode. It is without much surprise, then, that we see Madison in a skin-tight dress espousing the view that her body will win the affections of her new neighbor (Luke). Given that the other enticement for Luke is Nan’s homemade cake, there is fertile ground to launch into a discussion about women’s power in the magical and “real world” senses that goes untouched. In and of itself this is not a major issue but if Murphy’s express goal is to craft a season around persecuted minorities, and we are choosing the motif of witches as our central horror figure, and we are drawing a unsubtle connection between youth/beauty and power (again, both magical and postfeminist), it seems like feminism as a redress to the power imbalance must be a thing that is always on the table. And yet it is not.

Bungling another attempt to comment intelligently on states of oppression and power imbalance, we see the character of Madame LaLaurie continually espouse racist remarks (but it’s okay because she’s from the 19th century and didn’t know any better!) in a way that tries to employ the Mad Men gambit without any of the latter show’s skill or sensitivity. If I were being gracious, I would say that there is some sort of meta commentary here about how Fiona cannot abide racists and yet uses the term “slave” unproblematically given its implications and associations for the world that she inhabits. (I would also note that Madison uses the term at the frat party and it seems as though we are witnessing a trend of white witches who can only recognize their own form of oppression and not how they belittle others. That these women are so distanced from the historical weight of the term “slave” as applied to a person in a position in servitude is not itself the problem, but the failure to develop, comment on, or challenge that is. For example, what then what do we make of the way in which Queenie uses the term to refer to Madame LaLaurie? Is this a form of reclamation or is she simply adopting the framework of Fiona, relishing in her power of another? Contrast this against her confession to the Minotaur that she has been called a beast herself and you begin to see how the seeds for a very productive discussion about the nature of power and its effects on people are in the show but remain untapped!) I suppose, at the end of the day, my breaking point is that I just don’t trust the show to come out on the other end with anything insightful about oppression. Hell, even the way in which Fiona’s desperation to maintain power speaks to the way that women in power draw mentees in and then work to keep them down (Diane on The Good Wife anyone) is also a line that fits well within the provenance of modern day feminism and notions of oppression. In a sad and unfortunate way, I think that the show will be beholden to its white liberal upper-middle class mentality and understand persecution in a very narrow way that is ultimately unhelpful.

My biggest issue with “The Replacements,” however, was that “large moments” of tonight’s episode just didn’t make me feel anything. Now granted, I came from a background of both Biology and horror so my tolerance level may be higher than most, but I think that American Horror Story is at its weakest when it mistakes shock for genuine development. Shock, jump scares, and the grotesque of course has its place in the genre of horror and, when used appropriately, does a great deal to dislocate the viewer from his or her surroundings and reexamine the everyday from a new perspective. For me, tonight’s episode just seemed to be trying to throw too much at the viewer for no reason other than to shock and that is just not good story telling (or horror, for that matter). Are we, for example, supposed to be shocked that Kyle is returning to an abusive home? Hardly, since that whole reveal was telegraphed from the beginning of the episode. And while it would be interesting to have that have some bearing on Kyle’s current mentality, he seems to be operating much more as an animal and thus it seems unlikely that this particular bit of history will have large implications for the character moving forward. In contrast, the long slow pan into Kyle’s mother, Alicia, with her head in a noose is much more in line with the dread that horror embodies than the sight of her putting her hand down Kyle’s pants. Now, if the sexual abuse caused us to rethink Kyle and/or his mother in a drastically different way, we might also experience the slow horror of the realization but this is lost to us thanks to the show’s desire to shock. (We might also mention the way Misty mentions that Zoe won’t come back for her after Kyle leaves and then begins dancing as a quieter, but much more effective, moment.)

And, speaking of Alicia, it is here that we again see American Horror Story’s refusal to consider oppression that exists outside of the scope of the witches. (I mean, I know the #firstworldproblems and #whitepeopleproblems memes are old, but, seriously.) There is a wonderful potential here, I think, to consider the ways in which lower class people are subject to discrimination (and Alicia is certainly made to be emblematic of white trash). And let’s not even get started on the way in which black culture and voodoo is continually othered by this show, making it seem full of “primitive” ritual (because sophisticated white witches surely don’t butcher goats).

Alternatively, were we supposed to feel something when Fiona killed Madison (who I sincerely doubt is The Supreme given the anvil that witches can have four to five powers)? With Misty in play, death looses its meaning and it never seemed to be of any doubt that Fiona would do something like that in order to main control over her life and powers. Add to this that Madison was never drawn to be a particularly sympathetic character (unless we were somehow supposed to buy that Fiona and Madison had turned a corner in their “night out” montage) so really, who cares about all of this anyway?

Bring Me to Life


There is, I think, a certain amount of apprehension that some have when approaching any project helmed by Ryan Murphy and American Horror Story is no exception. Credit must undoubtedly be given for the desire to tackle interesting social issues but the undulation between camp, satire, and social messaging can occasionally leave viewers confused about what they see on screen.

Take, for example, Queenie’s statement that she “grew up on white girl shit like Charmed and Sabrina” and we see a show that is self-conscious of its place within the televised history of witches (Murphy also notes a certain artistic inspiration from Samantha Stevens of Bewitched) while also subtly suggesting a point about the raced (and classed) nature of witches. That Queenie’s base assertion—that she never saw anyone else like her on television growing up—had implications for the development of her identity is not a particularly new idea (which is not to diminish anything from it as it remains a perfectly relevant point to make in the context in which it is said) but one must question whether the wink/nod nature of the show detracts from the forcefulness of such an idea. In what way should we understand Queenie’s statement to comment on her current surroundings, in which she is surrounded by white women and is being acculturated accordingly?

Positioning Queenie as a descendent of Tituba is an interesting move for the show that once again blurs the line between historical figures and fiction. Although Tituba is the obvious reference for anyone who might be looking for a non-white New England witch, she also sets an interesting precedent for Queenie as someone who was both part of a community and yet did not belong. Moreover, accepting Queenie’s lineage serves to reinforce the symbolic power of Queenie in the show as it places her in alignment with witchcraft (and not, for example, as a voodoo practitioner who somehow just got swept up with the rest of the witches). In some ways, Tituba was the harbinger of change for Salem and I am left wondering if Queenie is fated to do the same for the people around her in this season.

Speaking of witches and in/out groups, there continues to be an us/them mentality on display throughout this episode. What strikes me as particularly noteworthy, however, is the way in which a persecuted group (in this case the witches) can stereotype others and generally work to maintain the difference that they feel diminished by. Early in the episode Fiona entreats that “Even the weakest among us are better than the rest of them” and Madison speaks negatively of Kyle, noting that “Those guys [who raped me] were his frat brothers, it’s guilt by association.” I remain hopeful that this schism in thinking will develop into the real conflict of the show and that the voodoo/witch nonsense is only manufactured drama.

And yet, for all of the things that the show makes me nervous about, American Horror Story also excites me because I think that it is trying to tap into very relevant veins in American culture at the moment (albeit in slanted ways). Echoing a theme that began last week, American Horror Story mediates on what appears to be its core theme for the season in a slightly different manne through the further development of power’s relationship to nature/life (and, in this case, to motherhood and feminine identity) with undertones of science and technology.

The most obvious reference is of course Frankenstein’s monster in the form of a resurrected Kyle. One of the things that I love about the Mary Shelley story is that it is, among other things, a story about hubris and what happens when power gets away from us. Fitting in a narrative lineage that stretches from the creation of Adam and the Golem of Prague through androids, cyborgs, and certain kinds of zombies, the story of Frankenstein is also very much one about the way in which anxieties over life and human nature are expressed and explored through the body.

Here I make a small nitpick in that Kyle seems to benefit from the idea that reanimation is the same thing as restoration. Thinking about the physical implausibility of zombies’ mobility, we must take it upon a leap of faith that the spell meant to reanimate FrankenKyle also restores the connective pathways throughout his body. Which, given the stated restorative power of the Louisiana silt, causes one to wonder exactly how far the power of magic extends and in what ways it fails to compete with nature.

And the notion of magic working within the bounds of nature or being used to circumvent it is an interesting point to mull over, I think, given what has happened in this episode. What else is the creation of FrankenKyle but an attempt to steamroll nature (only this time through magic and not science)? We see this theme echoed in Cordelia being initially reluctant to use her powers in a way that invokes black magic even though it (and not science!) can restore her ability to conceive. The implications of this barrenness should not be lost on us for the ties between notions of motherhood and American female identity undoubtedly remain even if they are not as firm as they might have been in earlier years. In a rather groan-worthy line, Cordelia explicitly describes her husband’s request to intervene as “playing God,” which of course directly mirrors the story of Frankenstein and his creation.

Returning to FrankenKyle for a moment, should we really be surprised that Zoe is at the center of all of this? As one whose name suggests that she is the embodiment of life and yet brings death (in the act of what brings about life!), she is precisely the one who would be involved in the reanimation of Kyle. Ignoring the seemingly unearned emotional connection for a moment, Zoe’s ability to wake a man with a kiss was an interesting reversal of the Snow White trope that has long been ingrained in our heads. And yet there is a curious way in which the power of witches continues to be tied to concepts of emotion and feeling, which have traditionally been the province of women. Furthermore, the kiss of life also opens up questions about Zoe’s abilities regarding her powers and the connection to Misty’s compulsion to arrive.

On another level I also struggle with Zoe’s decision (and this is related to my feeling that her emotional connection is unearned) as bringing Kyle back also seems to indicate that you are not only imposing your will upon nature but also upon Kyle. As acknowledged in the car ride home from the morgue, Kyle might not have wanted to come back, much less suffer the indignity of being a shadow of his former self. Moreover, if Kyle were to regain a measure of sentience (which Murphy’s interviews have suggested that this is not necessarily the case), he must also eventually grapple with the possibility of dying, which also seems like a horrible punishment to visit upon someone. And really, what kind of life is that?

Ultimately, in this episode we see many of the women clinging to life in various forms: Fiona continues her quest to achieve immortality, Laveau is shown to have been harboring her Minotaur lover, LaLaurie laments the life she once knew, Cordelia goes dark in order to foster her ability to bring forth life, and Zoe follows through on her desire to reconnect with the life of Kyle. As Tithonus learned, eternal life is not the same as eternal youth and the show seems to be conflating the two. (Which, to be fair, I would be totally fine with a potion or magic or science granting both but I would like it made clear that they are not necessarily the same thing.) The question that undergirds all of this, then, is about the value of life. What is a life worth, what does a life mean, and what does it mean to lose/give/take a life?

As a last aside, I also remain curious about is whether the universe of the show will ascribe to some sort of cosmic balance in that it trades a life taken for a life given. Nothing about the show thus far suggests that this will be the case but I think it is an interesting point to consider if we are thinking about how the forces of nature and magic intertwine with one another. If Misty is right that “Mother Nature has an answer for everything,” should we see attempts at circumventing nature as a short-term gain in exchange for an eventual comeuppance?

*Also what to make of the assertion that Queenie did exceedingly well in math but is working at a fried chicken restaurant and that Laveau (who is portrayed as the ultimate Voodoo Queen) is running a beauty parlor in the Ninth Ward? Normally I would be interested in thinking about how these scenarios provided a commentary on opportunity for black people in New Orleans and/or suggested something about reinvesting your skills into your community but I just don’t trust Ryan Murphy to be particularly insightful about race and class issues that are outside his norm.

Bitchcraft Round 2 and Ryan Murphy’s Thoughts on the Season

American Horror Story Coven

Vulture published an interview with American Horror Story creator Ryan Murphy that touched on many of the points that I considered while watching the premiere of Coven last night. For me, the interview epitomizes the way in which the show often contains grand and somtimes compelling ideas that don’t always come across clearly (or at least readily, which of course is not necessarily the same thing). I am interested in what Murphy has to say and although I disagree with bits of it, I continue to applaud the show for putting forth something different that just makes me want to go along with it for 44 minutes.

In the Vulture interview Denise Martin picks up on the theme of youth and women, noting that both Kathy Bates’ Delpine LaLaurie and Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode express an interest in maintaining a sense of youth. Murphy responds:

Well, there’s a reason why Fiona’s aging: It’s not because she’s dying or because of a natural process. It’s because the next Supreme has declared herself and her powers are growing and they’re sucking the very sap from Fiona…She’s that kind of lady, and it’s very hard for people in power to give up power. That’s the real idea. She’s not feeling well and she doesn’t understand why her vitality is slipping, and it’s really because a new witch in town is sucking her dry.

Here, two things appear to be of note. While LaLaurie is invested in youth and beauty in order to maintain the affections of her husband (who is having affairs), Murphy positions Fiona as interested in youth as a synonym for power and vitality. Both representations/readings of youth are valid here but I am skeptical that the show will actually put these two in conversation with one another and contrast the various ways that youth plays out, much less what youthfulness means to a woman in various contexts.

The second thing of note to me is the way that power is the connective tissue between these women. Although LaLaurie understands power as force (e.g., physically restraining slaves in order to use their blood in a youth ritual), Fiona in some ways represents the opposite as a figure whose power emanates from her ability to force her will upon the world. Here I think that the show is treading on potentially treacherous ground because the show, to me, is so much about power that manifesting this theme through the rather literal theme of magic could either be great as it illustrates otherwise invisible forces or groan inducing as it is attempting to use power to talk about power.

The other dynamic that relates to power—control/subjugation/domination—also makes an interesting appearance through the tension between Cordelia Foxx and Fiona (Cordelia just happens to be Fiona’s daughter and headmistress of the school to train young witches). The premiere episode evidences Cordelia’s desire to harness and focus the powers of young witches while Fiona expresses the sentiment that witches must fight or they burn. Here we see a contrast of sorts between energy that is directed inward and that which is focused outward:  control of the self as opposed to control of the world around you.

Another major theme throughout this season almost necessarily has to be women and gender, given the subject of the horror figures at play. In response to the question of how Murphy and crew came up with the powers that would be on display, Murphy says:

They were things that were attributed to witches back in Salem. One had been accused of fucking someone to death. The truth of the matter is the guy was probably a hemophiliac who got too excited. Clairvoyance, the power to read minds, the power to move objects, those are old tried-and-trued things that witches were burned for. The one we took liberties with, and that I love, is Queenie’s [Gabourey Sidibe] power: the human voodoo doll. That ability to do something to yourself and have it transfer to someone else is a voodoo-esque power that some voodoo witches do have. We just gave it to a Salem witch. And Queenie’s gonna be tempted by that Marie Laveau/Angela Bassett voodoo magic. Just wait.

In and of itself, I think the decision to recycle powers is very much what American Horror Story is about: the show reaches into the depths of well-worn horror tropes and tries to weave them together in a context that is both somewhat new and somewhat old. Here, however, I think the show is running the risk of doing a disservice to its subject matter by failing to acknowledge that the powers in question were born out of a suspicion and fear of women’s power and sexuality, which means that employing them as is in a modern context only serves to reassert the underlying assumptions behind those powers. I very much hope that the show will turn some of this on its head and interrogate why American society views women in a particular way and how these instances of uncontrollable women reveal flaws in our conceptualization of gender relations.

On a related note, I think there is an interesting sort of litmus test built into the premiere episode (although the show does not seem to expand on it as of yet). During the course of viewing, we are entreated to two major scenes of brutalization: the collective mutilation of slaves by Madame LaLaurie and the rather unsettling (or at least I hope) attempted gang rape of Madison at the frat party. I do not think that the show asks viewers to compare the two directly or sympathize with one over the other but I think that this is a form of introduction into two of the major oppressed groups in the show. The problem sort of comes with the way in which these scenes are shoved at us, however. Without discounting the severity of what these transgressions represent, the show positions us as viewers firmly on the side of the oppressed and I think that real life is rarely this uncomplicated. I want the show to ask us as viewers to question why we throw our support behind one group (over another at times) and what this says about as individual normal sane people.

The other moment of pause in Murphy’s answer comes from the conflation (which I was initially worried about) between voodoo and witchcraft. I think that one can certainly make some insightful commentary about the parallels between magic users of different traditions but I also do not think that practitioners of voodoo consider themselves witches (and certainly not in the sense of the popular use of the term and the way that the Salem witches do). I think that Murphy is creating a false point of contention here between voodoo and witches when the more interesting discussion (which maybe we will get to) is how both traditions are formed in conversation with Catholicism, although each took different paths. (And on that point, I remain stymied by the use of Pentecostals in the opening episode because those folks seem like a bridge—albeit an unlikely one—between voodoo and witches as people who believe in the channeling of spirits as a very real thing in the world. That they would persecute Lily Rabe’s character for what essentially reminds me of the laying of hands seems a misstep.)

Murphy: The Salem witches and the voodoo witches have been at war for years and years, but something happens where they question that and wonder if instead they should join forces. They realize there’s a common enemy.

Unfortunately, this division between voodoo and witches also takes on a raced dimension with voodoo largely being populated (at this point) by Blacks and Salem’s witches being White. Many others have discussed the inability of Murphy’s shows to deftly handle issues of race but here I think we see some potentially sensitive areas given that we are discussing issues of power and oppression. Early on I expressed trepidation over the show pitting persecuted Whites against oppressed Blacks and some of that seems to have come to fruition.

Murphy has expressed a desire to use the motif of witches to speak to the plight of minorities in America and I think that it is here that he gets caught up in perhaps trying to do too much.

During season one. Jessica and I were talking about how she was always attracted to that Salem story because her granddaughters are actually descendants of the Salem witches. I found that to be very interesting and cool, so I started researching it. I really locked into it when I thought about the witches story as sort of a metaphor for any persecuted and hunted minority group in this country. 

Although this is a noble effort and an interesting topic to take on, I think what is missing here is a nuanced discussion of the way in which minorities are often pitted against one another in an attempt to conserve the power that they do have. Given Murphy’s comments, there might be some recognition of this as the factions band together in response to an even greater threat but I think the really interesting point is to see how groups can complain about their own oppression even as they are (unconsciously) working to subjugate others. Given the subject matter of witches it seems so obvious that one can pull in lessons from the history of feminism (in American and otherwise) and this very issue of coalition building and minorities but I think that this is something that the show is likely to miss.

That being said, I remain hopeful for the show to develop into something rather amazing. I think that the show has great potential to deliver something interesting because of its subject matter and, to that end, I believe that Queenie represents the make or break part of the show. For me, Queenie is, in many ways, exactly what the show is about:  a black girl who is in a school for white witches and the way in which one must reconcile one’s identity with one’s environment. Murphy seems to indicate that Queenie will be a battleground in the plot of the show (and, really, could it be any more obvious with her power and race?) but I think that Queenie also represents the salvation of the magic community if the show plays it right. Queenie represents the literal bridging of these two communities, embodying the idea that voodoo/Salem isn’t an either/or proposition but in fact a both/and. Voodoo and Salem are not in contention in the way that American Horror Story wants to posit—they operate on entirely different levels!

As a final point, I am interested by this last direction of the show toward Frankenstein’s monster, which is so much about playing God on level (and thus ultimate power and life) but also about the reconfiguring of bodies (the direction that I think horror should be going in because these are the fears/anxieties that we are dealing with as a culture). As a preview to the next episode Murphy says:

The second episode is called “Boy Parts.” Zoe [Taissa Farmiga] is devastated because she had feelings for this boy. Madison wants to make it up to her. So they go into Cordelia’s stash and steal a spell. They go to the morgue, and it turns out all the boys have been horribly dismembered in this crash, and so Madison gets this brilliant idea. “Fuck it, let’s build our perfect boyfriend.” So they take all the best parts they like and create this teenage Frankenstein. Evan really loves playing him because he gets to do something almost like a silent movie, very physical and crazy. He watched a lot of those Frankenstein origin movies, but he’s come up with his own physical thing which is really amazing, and quite naughty.

Nitpicking, you see here how Muphy gets some of the little things wrong (e.g., the creature is Dr. Frankenstein’s monster and Frankenstein always refers to the doctor himself although the usage is certainly slippery in modern references) and this makes all of the difference. That being said, I am still excited to see where this will go and I think that the inclusion of this has the ability to add to the central theme of the episode. (Which, for the record, I guess I tend to write off the comments that so much of the show is “random.” I agree that there is often a ton of stuff thrown in, but I continue to believe that much of it revolves around a central idea for each season. The trick is that intent/execution—as I’ve said before—do not always align and so it takes some work for viewers to get on the same page as the writers as to why things make an appearance. Example A being the aliens in season 2 of American Horror Story.)

Seeking More Craft in “Bitchcraft”

American Horror Story Animal

Initial reactions from first viewing…

For better or for worse one of the things that American Horror Story excels at is maintaining a self-conscious eye toward visual presentation, particularly in the first offerings of each season. At its best, there are some truly memorable shots throughout each of the premiere episodes that help to set the tone for what this particular venture will be about. And yet there is also a way in which the show seems invested in continually reminding the viewer that he or she is a spectator in the proceedings—I enjoyed the snapshot montage of season 2—and we see this yet again with the anachronistic film stock of the Salem witch trials (not to mention the scoping in the opening LaLaurie scene).

And LaLaurie is a prime example of where some of the show’s haste to cultivate a style occasionally diminishes the impact of the (often intriguing) message at the core of each season. American Horror Story has always been a stylized and heightened experience (which is definitely part of its appeal) but there is a way in which this presentation severely undercuts the revulsion that one might feel in response to LaLaurie’s attic of horrors. Sure, the visuals are mildly unsettling but the scene takes on an entirely new dimension, I think, if one remembers that LaLaurie was a real person and, by extension, the mutilations visited upon these slave captives were quite real.

As a side note, I have yet to come to a conclusion about the featuring of a Minotaur in the first few minutes of tonight’s episode. In some ways I am reminded of Rome’s depiction of a ritual blood bath and yet I also wonder if the show is attempting to make nods toward the way in which the line between slaves and beasts was interchangeable.

But the connection that American Horror Story seems to be drawing between the New Orleans of 1830 and 2013 largely appears to rest on subjugation:  using the obvious broad themes of slavery and a somewhat manufactured persecution of witches in the modern era the show unfavorably conflates the severity of slavery with a looser form of persecution (generally) and those who simply feel put upon (insultingly). I have yet to be convinced, for example, that a modern society would actively persecute witches in the way that the show details. Aren’t we much more a culture of skeptics? Moreover, what do we make of the genetic basis of witchcraft and does this mean that the powers have a grounding in physics? Is this explanation an example of the way in which the language and rational of science has so thoroughly pervaded our consciousness as viewers (and furthermore what might that mean about the way in which we are willing to relate to witchcraft)? And then there is the odd way in which American Horror Story juxtaposes Pentecostals and witchcraft, in my view passing up a very interesting opportunity to explore how America positions itself to those who have totally embraced the supernatural. Which, when you think about it, is sort of irritating for there are many ways in which all kinds of people—including women!—are made subject to differing levels of inequality and fabricating a storyline in which witches are hunted is to ignore a closer investigation into the ways in which those with power in America can attempt to maintain inequality on interpersonal and institutional levels.

All of that being said, I don’t get the sense that this season’s major/true theme revolves around oppression/control (as is frequently mentioned in various ways throughout the episode, see “We’re on probation” and “Do you want to be my slave tonight?” for examples) so much as it is about power, who wields it, and what effect power has on you as a person. This, of course, is related to oppression/control but is also somewhat fuzzier.

As example, I think there is a potentially fruitful discussion to be had regarding the depiction of male/female power and its ties to homosocial environments and aggression. The question that this episode sort of puts forth is, “How do people wield power?” In a very stark way, we see a link between aggression and power through the young witches and frat boys:  while one group grounds their violence in emotion and physical aggression the other leans toward sexual/physical (guess which is which).

And, on that note, I am still cautious about the way in which the show thinks deeply on issues of women and power. Although witches have traditionally been the figure to express this combination, we see two major (white) figures obsessed with youth and looks. Are we to think, then, that this is what women aspire to power for? Is there a commentary here on the interplay between women’s power in their bodies (and why that is) and magic? I think that this last question in being too generous for what I’ve seen of this show, although I would happily be proven wrong. And then we have the “black widow” power of killing men through sex, which is 1) oddly heteronormative if it doesn’t also work with women and 2) a very basic retread of a fear that men have had about women for a long time. I want to say that the show is all about shuffling worn tropes and interrogating them so I remain hopeful and yet I am also not thoroughly confident that the show will pull it off.

(And what’s up with the title of “Bitchcraft”? I suppose this was my first red flag that this show would not be entirely nuanced in its exploration of this theme of women/power. Admittedly the “bitch” debate is not particularly resonant at the moment but my problem–as always–is that the sho does nothing to challenge or complicate the demeaning reading of the title.)

On Obsession with Choice

A couple of weeks ago I found myself leading an exercise on marketing ethics for an introductory marketing class in the Marshall School of Business. Structured more as a provocation than a lecture, we covered basic concepts of persuasion and manipulation before proceeding to engage in a discussion about whether particular marketing practices were considered ethical (and how such a determination was ultimately made). During the course of our discussion many of these students expressed an opinion that it was, generally speaking, the responsibility of the consumer to know that he or she was 1) being marketed to and 2) potentially being tricked. I recorded this sentiment on a whiteboard in the room but didn’t comment much on it at the time. However, toward the end of the session I presented the class with a thought experiment that was designed to force the students to struggle with the concepts that they had just encountered and to push their thinking a bit about ethics.

Case (A):  Smith, a saleswoman, invites clients to her office and secretly dissolves a pill in their drinks.  The pill subconsciously inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would have had they not taken it but otherwise has no effect.

Case (B):  Smith, a saleswoman, hires a marketing firm to design her office.  The combination of colors, scents, etc., inclines clients to purchase 30% more product than they would in the old office but otherwise has no effect.

Question:  Are these two scenarios equally ethical and, if not, which one is more ethical?

After running this session multiple times a clear pattern began to emerge in students’ responses: the initial reaction was typically that Case B was more ethical than Case A and, when pushed, students typically reported that their decision resulted from the notion that individuals in Case B had a measure of choice (i.e., they could leave the room) while individuals in Case A did not.[1]

Although I didn’t think about it as such at the time, the notion of choice situates itself nicely alongside the empowerment of the self that Sarah Banet-Weiser writes about in Authentic. The takeaway that I had from working with students in this exercise was a profound realization about how choice was construed for them and how, generally, marketing was considered unethical only when it impinged upon an individual’s ability to make a choice.

Linking this back to the earlier statement that the burden of responsibility largely rested upon the consumer, I tried to incorporate examples from popular culture to suggest to the students that, for me, the most insidious effects of marketing are exemplified by its ability to limit or remove choices that you didn’t even know you had.

Because I am old, I invoked a scene from The Matrix Reloaded but drove the point home with a discussion of The Cabin in the Woods, a movie that, among other things, prominently evidenced philosophical questions of agency and free will.

Without spoiling anything, there is an interesting line in the movie where a character essentially argues that the free will of potential victims is preserved because outside forces can lead individuals to an open door but cannot ultimately force them to walk through it. Reflecting the idea that an individual is ultimately responsible for his or her fate, The Cabin in the Woods was particularly helpful for urging students to consider that they tended to focus on choice as an individual transaction instead of taking a step back to look at how behavior was permitted/controlled within a larger system of actions.

After the exercise concluded I found myself talking to the professor of the course about how I was slightly nervous for the future of business if these students held onto their mentality that consumers always acted rationally and were largely responsible for their own fates (to the exclusion of marketers taking responsibility for their campaigns). Now, as I muse on the prominence of the individual and the self in this cohort, I am reminded of an essay written by Kathryn Schulz about the prominence of self-help culture in America and the development of the concept of the self. As I reread the Schulz piece, I found myself revisiting Authentic’s chapters on consumer citizens and religion as I thought through the examples in terms of self-help rhetoric.

[1] For the record, I initially considered both of these cases to be equivalent in nature and suggested to students that part of their abhorrence to Case A had to do with perceived influence crossing the body/skin boundary and becoming physically incorporated into the self. Invariably students raised the notion of the pill causing some sort of change in brain chemistry and the thought experiment is designed to suggest that marketing’s true power does not lie in the realm of the directly observable.