Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Voodoo

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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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.)