RJ Bayley – ‘American Horror Story: Coven’ Retrospective Part 1

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As part of our Women in Horror Month celebrations, RJ Bayley will be looking back at the third season of American Horror Story: Coven – particularly with regards to it’s female driven cast. 

American Horror Story had quite an act to follow after its second season, Asylum. Very dark and disturbing, set in the drab and very real scariness of a 1960s institution for the “insane”, the series threw in supernatural chills from aliens and demonic possession. The real horror however came from the treatment of the patients in the asylum, many methods of which painfully mirrored real life happenings. For such reasons Asylum was, and still is, rightly considered the highpoint of the American Horror Story franchise.

It was a smart move by series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk to not try and repeat the same trick twice, creating something that would inevitably be compared unfavourably. From the very title of the first episode of Coven, “Bitchcraft”, we know we’re in for a very different kind of American Horror Story.

Having said that, Bitchcraft begins with an absolutely explosive opener, and just like Asylum, it’s rammed with the horrors of America’s history. Series newcomer Kathy Bates makes her mark immediately as Delphine LaLaurie, a wealthy New Orleans socialite who’s twisted and barbaric treatment of her slaves see her draining them of blood so she can wash in its rejuvenating juices (a neat nod Countess Elizabeth Báthory) and stuffing a bull’s head over a slave’s as a punishment that satisfies her interest in Greek mythology. It’s a wonderfully bullish opening that’s tense, gripping, unflinching and challenging; all the more so for Bates’ stunning performance.

Fast forwarding to the modern day, we meet our entry into the world of witchcraft, Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga). As she loses her virginity to her boyfriend she also finds out that sex fires her witchcraft powers, powers that cause the other party to have brain aneurysm and die. We’re quickly told that being a witch is considered a genetic abnormality, and as she’s briskly carted off to a secretive school for young people like her we’re left wondering if we’ve accidentally started watching an X-Men movie. It’s not a scary set-up for our lead, but then everything pales after the horrific slave sequence.

The sense of “opening with a bang” doesn’t let up. As Zoe arrives at the school we’re treated to some classic witch-associated imagery as her classmates Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) and Nan (Jamie Brewer) terrorise her dressed as plague doctors. Already there’s a sense of witchcraft iconography box-ticking, but it’s fun and keeps things enjoyably campy. This is continued with the brief introduction of Lily Rabe’s character Misty Day who, keeping the iconography coming, is promptly burned alive at the stake. It’s an effective scene, with her performing the beautiful act of bringing a bird back to life, before being attacked and killed by a right wing Christian mob, ripped straight from the headlines and echoing the likes of the Westboro Baptist Church. By evoking such a hated institution persecuting a woman for her talents the writers do a great job of getting us onside with the witches while also paralleling LaLaurie’s treatment of those socially beneath her.

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As ever, it’s great to see Jessica Lange returning, this time as Fiona Goode, mother of the school’s head Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) and the de facto matriarch of the school. The only problem is she’s playing pretty much the same character as she did the last time around (and she does again in following series Freakshow). It would’ve been refreshing and welcome to see her play against expectations, just as Rabe does with her hippy swamp witch. She brings another facet to the story however, as a tough and ruthless businesswitch. It’s very much an opening episode, but it’s thoroughly enjoyable and really makes the world of witches three dimensional.

The main thrust of the story concerns Madison taking Zoe to a frat party. It’s striking just how different this very teen orientated setup is compared to both Asylum and the preceding Murder House. It’s a fascinating play with expectations: the noisey, packed, dim, chaotic and claustrophobic atmosphere of the party mixed with the teen characters immediately brings the slasher movie to mind. The intense colouring of the lighting really works to create a throwback horror vibe. Just as you’re ready for some fun carnage to begin, you’re immediately caught off guard as we discover Madison being gang raped in a bedroom. It just brings you hurtling back down to earth with a smack; a solid punch of reality. Beneath all the frivolity and glamourous wickedness that preceded it, this is the real world, and in a nighttime environment young women, superpowers or not, are still the first candidate as sexual prey. It’s a shocking moment, used great effect to highlight social ills faced by women. Sex used as a weapon.

Roberts gives a brilliant performance in the aftermath, dazed and victimised, her casual flip of the fratboy rapists’ bus with her telekinesis making the action one of inevitable consequence. It doesn’t seem like rage and vengeance, it seems like simply the next step in a process that has to play out. It wonderfully says something about Madison’s morals, psychology, and speaks of a natural law and justice. It’s like the episode is demonstrating that if casual, devastating violence was met with casual, devastating vengeance, only societal devastation can result.

The theme of natural justice and the revenge of women is solidified in the closing act as Zoe finds the surviving rapist in hospital, unconscious. She mounts him, and just like her boyfriend before, the rapist suffers a brain aneurysm and dies. Bringing the sequence full circle, the woman uses sex as a weapon to life altering results.

Bitchcraft is an exploration of the empowerment of young women leaving their familial homes for the first time, of the fun and newfound kinship that comes with it. But it also looks at the world they enter into, and the yet unfaced danger of those with established power seeking to make them victims.

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