The premier of American Horror Story: Coven, was a provocative look, not only at what happened to the series, but what has happened in much of horror. Shock is the new substance, stereotypes are the story, and we can expect a number of mundane, politically correct taboos thrown in for good measure, so the writers can validate themselves.
On a positive note, the actors do an impeccable job with what they’re given in every season of AHS. There is never a question of their capacity or capability. The settings and effects are likewise well done. The primary issues with the series seem to revolve around the writing. It’s also a startling glimpse into audiences.
Are our attentions spans so miniscule that main plots and characters are no longer relevant? Do Hollywood writers think their audience is circa 1950? In an industry, that’s produced such controversial works as The Last Temptation of Christ and Houndog (where 9-year-old Dakota Fanning was raped), have screenwriters became so lazy as to think controversy does anything but subtract from the story?
The first season of the series was utterly sublime. It was reserved, constrained, and audiences were thoroughly engrossed with the tantalizing story of the Murder House. The main family characters were likable, the effects got under your skin, and every episode was a descent into what made the Murder House so evil and the characters so unforgettably dysfunctional.
American Horror Story: Asylum
Season 2 was the beginning of lunacy. The careful planning, foreshadowing, and subtle disturbances were replaced with absolute and senseless confusion.
It was first implied the story revolved around the hospital, or the Asylum. A local boy was accused of murdering his wife and institutionalized there. Then, a reported started snooping around the hospital, hoping to catch a glimpse or get a story from said killer.
But then, it went haywire. The attentions focus on a teenage boy who was under possession. The demon that lived in him went into one of the nuns at the asylum. Then, the head physician turns out to be an ex-Nazi scientist who is performing brutal medical experimentation to create violent hybrid humans, the framed killer turns out to be part alien, the demonic nun ascends the hospital ranks with brutality, the snooping reporter is institutionalized because she’s gay, another woman is admitted who claims to be Anne Frank, a strangely helpful therapist turns out to be a serial killer, who rapes the snooping reporter, who gives birth to another serial killer, while she’s fabricating much of her history for a book, and we can continue on for several pages. Needless to say, it’s pure and utter chaos. It’s a ghost story, thriller, suspense, espionage, romance, horror, science fiction, drama, and social allegorical, all in one. The writers either overreached their ability, or overestimated the strength of the plot.
Not all Differences are Strengths
The main disparity between the first and second seasons was the woeful lack of focus. In the first season, the Murder House was much more than a mere setting. It was the key plot device, a character unto itself. It was the necessary anchor to pull all the subplots together because they all revolved around the house. The result was a neat and streamlined story. No matter which era was depicted, or what events were shown, everything happened in or because of the Murder House.
The second season had no key setting or plot device. It was a mishmash of fragmented plots, with no primary story. It was “Asylum” in name only, because there was no real focus on the asylum. The facility was more like a waiting room for the next character and their set of circumstances. Most of the stories actually occur outside the asylum and we only return to go on the next character.
It gives audiences the impression that the writers jotted down some elements, threw them into a hat, and randomly pulled each out as they attempted to force them together.
American Horror Story: Coven
Already many of those problems that plagued the second season have manifested in the third. Gratuity has run amuck in the series and no matter what is going on, you can bet someone will be raped. Rape is such a commonplace event in so much fiction that it’s in danger of being socially mainstreamed. It’s quite unusual that the topic has gained so much attention and at such expense to the real victims of it.
What many such writers tend to forget is that the bombastic, the outlandish, and often the seemingly “offensive” are wholly detrimental to self. Writers who pursue the offensive route tend to applaud themselves for offending their audience, when the audience is actually offended the writer(s) stooped to such a condescending level. They don’t piss the audience off or “provoke thought,” so much as destroy the story. Shock is all too often a doubled-edged sword where your work is just as stereotyped and maligned as whomever or whatever you are attempting to offend. Shock eliminates tension, suspense, and precious momentum. They make your story unbelievable, implausible, and the key to fiction is sustaining belief.
Shock and gore desensitize your audience. They grow numb to it, so it is imperative to administer it cautiously. Either the story gets more shocking, more outlandish, and more improbable, or your attempts to “shock” will be nothing more than white noise. The audience will grow bored and any attempt to shift focus the meaty part of the plot will fall upon deaf ears. By that point, it’s just too late.
Certainly, many people take liberties with historical people and events to create new stories. Those liberties must be plausible.
For example, no witch has ever been burned in America. Ever. It’s never happened. America is one of the few nations in the world that can honestly say they’ve never burned witches. During the Salem witch trials, and anywhere else in America that suffered such community panic, “witches” were hanged. One unfortunate gentleman in Salem was pressed to death under rocks.
As a whole, alternative religions have always been embraced in some part of our nation. Jews fled the Inquisition to find safety and acceptance in the southern cities. Puritans established the northern colonies to escape their European oppressors. Mormons fled to Utah, where they flourished and prospered. Unfortunately, “snake-handlers” in Louisiana are about as believable as a dairy farmer in Mississippi (Secret Window, Stephen King).
The “threat” identified is Christians, another well-worn, but still bigoted stereotype. Already, a suspected witch has been burned, which is lubricious no matter where you are in America. I do apologize, but even in the deepest, “darkest,” and most rural portions of the Appalachian Mountains, there are McDonalds, Wal-Marts, health departments, cell phones, cable television, and government offices. No one can burn anyone today. The rural shantytowns and remote cabin communities disappeared around the 1930s.
It will be interesting to see where the story goes this season, but it is incredibly disappointing that no more depth or substance was given in the premier. It’s tragic that a story with such possibilities must take a backseat so the writers can offend someone. It’s also disheartening that this season also appears to be using the same tired ploys as the second.
Technically, there’s no proof that Madam Lalaurie enacted the atrocities she’s credited with. It’s a good story, but the account of the horrors wasn’t actually documented until around 50 years after she fled New Orleans.
According to lore, Lalaurie had no motive for her brutality. She was simply evil. Judging by this version of history, her husband would most probably have been terrified of her, if he wasn’t an accomplice. Since he was a physician, it’s far more likely he was the actual mastermind. Lalaurie lost her slaves once due to maltreatment, but “concerned relatives” bought them at the auction and returned them to her.
Lalaurie had no affiliation with Marie Laveau. Laveau was a free person of color upon birth and, by the time she gained fame, was already a widow. Most of Laveau’s exploits are also undocumented and unproven.