Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Byron L. Sherwin

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).

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