I decided to look at one of the most recent representations of witchcraft and witches that American entertainment has to offer: American Horror Story: Coven. It premiered Wed October 9 2013 as the third season of the FX show.
Based on the promo graphic alone, I wasn’t interested in watching the show. The image depicts three young, clear-complexioned women wearing hot red lipstick opening their mouths as an snake passes in and out. What genre is this exactly?
Despite my inability to stomach most modern horror movies, I decided to watch the show anyway. American Horror Story stars some top-shelf actors like Jessica Lange, Angela Basset and Kathy Bates. Plus it’s a television show not a movie. How scary could it be?
Not scary at all.
Technically speaking the show was excellent. The visuals have all the typical horror elements such as distorted imagery, spinning cameras, odd point-of-view shots, moving cameras and tilted angles. When Zoe walks through the hospital near the end, the camera is nearly upside down. Cool! These non-traditional visuals are all meant to keep the viewer off balance and unsettled. They help create intensity and makes a film (or TV show) a whole lot creepier.
However, I still wouldn’t call this show horrifying, at least not in the teenage slasher kind of way. What is horrifying is the show’s depiction of how humans treat each other. In just one episode American Horror Story: Coven forces the viewer into the uncomfortable position of facing slavery, human torture, gang-rape, cruelty, and child abandonment. There is no room for comfort anywhere. The characters aren’t kind to one another - not parents to children, not peers, and not student to teacher. Most interpersonal dynamics are held in a space of forced tolerance.
Where does Witchcraft come in? In this case, witchcraft is a portal through which the show amplifies the horror and sensationalizes its product. When a program explores the nature of personal power, it is far more tantalizing for a character to consume someone’s life blood than steal his lunch money.
Like a good deal of witch films, this show basically asks “How far would you go to get what you want?” ”Would you turn to witchcraft?” However, in this case the desires and the supernatural power are both in one person. The temptation is amplified. Therefore the question is more probing, more complicated and more personal. If you had the power, would use it? How would you use? When is it ok to use it?
Interestingly, the show doesn’t juxtapose Christianity and Witchcraft. In fact it mocks the concept that Witchcraft is Satanic. The girls perform a fake ritual to the “dark father” as a joke. Later the narrative scolds Christianity for burning an innocent young girl who has the power of resurrection.
In this world Witchcraft is not inherently evil – it is the practitioner that makes the choice to be good or not. Cordelia Foxx, wearing light colored conservative attire, seems to be good. Fiona Goode is assumed to be bad. She wears all black, kills men and, oh yea, resurrects quite possibly one of TVs cruelest characters, Madame LaLaurie. Let’s just say this woman gives King Joffrey a run for his money!
What does this mean for real Witches? I like the exploration of moral gray areas. However until Hollywood stops presenting the Craft in a sensationalized, literal format devoid of Pagan theology, there will be no real Witches in Hollywood. Until Hollywood stops using Witchcraft as a way of negotiating women’s social power, there won’t be an honest depiction of Witchcraft.
But if they did, they couldn’t advertise with hot red lipstick and call the show “Bitchcraft,” could they? (What a cleverly uncomfortable and socially offensive title.)
Over all the show was entertaining in a warped, creepy way. I hope it doesn’t get any more sensationalized or graphic and sticks to exploring the story itself. I’d also like to see a few of the characters become sympathetic, empowered witches. I’d like to see some interpersonal kindness between the women and some men survive unscathed. Hopefully that’s in the plans.