The Horror of the American Story

With work and moving taking up so much of my time these past few weeks, I’ve neglected my Halloween season of horror movie watching. Thankfully, a couple of shows are filling the void, FOX’s Sleepy Hollow and FX’s American Horror Story: Coven. I’ve written about the former here. After last week’s episode of American Horror Story, I felt compelled to say a few words about why I like this season and why it could be the series’ best.

This season of American Horror Story focuses on a coven of witches living in a New Orleans mansion. The house itself once belonged to Madame Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), an evil woman who mercilessly tortured her slaves. Like the South itself, the past haunts this house, its new inhabitants, and the surrounding city. Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) is the coven’s Supreme…and supreme bitch. Her daughter Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson) sees to the day-to-day education of the girls. The coven is composed of four young witches, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Madison (Emma Roberts), Nan (Jamie Brewer), and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), who to varying degrees understand and harness their latent powers.

Another competing Crescent City witch/voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), knows first-hand the horrors that Madame LaLaurie inflicted upon the city’s black inhabitants. She is at odds with Fiona, who resurrected Madame LaLaurie from the immortal spell that she placed on her centuries ago. Both Fiona and Cordelia want Marie’s ancient power and spells for various reasons, but she is understandably loathe to give it to them. After two horrific incidents in the pilot episode, Zoe and Madison “resurrect” Kit (Evan Peters), Zoe’s love interest, with the help of a loner bayou witch, Misty Day (Lily Rabe). Misty is a marginalized victim of that region’s witch hunts but shows signs of re-integrating herself into the community.

The series benefits from impeccable performances from every cast member, but Lange and Bates obviously lead the charge. This season’s first three episodes might be some of Lange’s best work not only in the series, but in her entire career. Each actress perfectly conveys their character’s level of comfort with their powers. Sibide as Queenie, a walking voodoo doll, is potentially one of the most complex characters, but it unfortunately seems as if she might not be long for this world.

But so much of these great performances owe much to fantastic writing, from the biting dialogue to the character arcs that have begun to take shape. Though there is blood and gore to spare and deeply disturbing scenes of date/gang rape and incest, at its heart the series, like all good supernatural/horror narratives, is about dealing with the inexplicable or unavoidable parts of life: (in)fertility, death (letting go or not being able to), aging, the desire to be loved, and the like. In different ways, these witches use their powers and their sisters’ powers to fight off the larger powers that be, over which they only have tenuous control. Fiona may be able to extend her life, but it comes at a high cost to others. Zoe may be able to bring back Kit, but to what kind of life have they returned him? His mother is a monster in her own right. Nan has the ability to hear other people’s thoughts, but she can’t turn it off.

This week’s episode saw the arrival of hyper-religious neighbors, which will no doubt continue to provide Lange with miles and miles of incendiary one-liners. Yet hyper-religiosity is, in many ways, a “safer” alternative to witchcraft, as practitioners also use it to wrestle with–or make sense of–forces larger than themselves. The witches’ new neighbors might not be anything other than tired stereotypes, but, who knows, juxtaposed to such fantastically freakish characters like Fiona and Madison, they might be something more.

I enjoy both Sleepy Hollow and American Horror Story: Coven, but it’s clear that they’re mixing up completely different Americana cocktails. I, for one, prefer the straight, no chaser version of Coven.

American Horror Story: Coven airs Wednesday nights at 10. View carefully.