American Horror Story: Coven — the last gasp

Is it a good TV show gone bad, or was it never as good as the hype?

American Horror Story CovenOnly one episode left in this season of American Horror Story: Coven. I’ve seen every one. The first few game me some hope. The series had a top-notch cast, some clever ideas, and, most importantly, it is one of the few shows that focuses on horror.

But, the writing… boy oh boy. Sometimes you need to just give up on a TV show. I didn’t.

It’s not all bad. Jessica Lange’s Fiona Goode, the supreme witch, the head of the coven, is lucky. Her character has the best storyline. Her path through villainy is compelling, and Lange is skilled enough to underplay the camp that weighs down the series.

Fiona’s relationship with her daughter Cordelia, a witch who is much weaker than her mother, is compelling and complex. Watching Fiona battle cancer, the loss of her power, mortality, all the while remaining a villain is the highlight of the show for me.

There are several other characters on American Horror Story: Coven who are rich enough to keep my attention: most notably fellow witches Misty Day and Myrtle Snow, and Cordelia’s duplicitous husband Hank Foxx. Even the Axeman, a murderous musician, is 3-dimensional enough to keep me interested.

Most of the other characters, however, are either flat or downright annoying. There’s Madame LaLaurie, the psychotic noblewoman played by Kathy Bates (annoying), and Angela Bassett’s Marie Laveau (one-note). Though their final (joined) fates were well done.

The plotting is a lesson in absurdity. Characters die and are brought back to life. When death is not final it holds no power to shock or disturb. Fiona was supposedly killed. I’d be shocked if she didn’t reappear in the final episode.

American Horror Story: Coven is a show with no internal logic. From the beginning of the season it was emphasized that witches were in danger of dying out — they were being killed off. But in a recent episode, supreme witch Fiona claimed that the process to identify the new supreme would inevitably kill some of the girls. How does killing witches help strengthen the coven?

That is bad writing.

During the course of the season we got to meet the group responsible for hunting the witches down. With just one episode left, I would be rooting for them to kill every last one of these witches, even the so-called good ones. Unfortunately the writers screwed up again. An organization that spent centuries hunting witches had no way to protect themselves against witchcraft, and they were wiped out in the course of a single episode. you would think that such a group would know how to protect themselves.

Logic be damned. Then again, maybe I was expecting too much.

Evil and the Ouija board

An underused trope of horror gets its due.

The Ouija board is basically just a game. You touch a pointer (or other object), and ask questions of the spirit world. The pointer will move between yes/no, or letters to give you an answer. Simple enough.

Except when you play with a Ouija board, you’re messing with the spirit world.

From a creative standpoint, there are tons of possibilities. But I’ve rarely seen it portrayed in TV, movies or in print. the 2007 movie Paranormal Activity used it to good and creepy effect. A recent episode of American Horror Story: Coven had one as well (they called it a spirit board), though it wasn’t nearly as consequential as it could have been.

Now there’s a new movie in production, called, simply enough, Ouija. It’s way too early to tell how this one will pan out; from the looks if it, it will be a typical teen horror flick. At least it’s a start.

My opinion?The more interpretations the better.

Always MineI’ve added my own Ouija board story to the canon. It’s called Always Mine, and it’s about Danny, a 15-year-old who has a crush on Tina, the new girl next door. She lures him into Ouija board play, and he quickly becomes the target of the spirit of a drowned Swedish sailor.

It was a fun story to write, and I attribute that to the Ouija board — a great prop and a cool gateway into tales of terror.

American Horror Story: Coven – Good, Bad and Ugly

What lies between a masterpiece and a mess?

I continue to be frustrated by American Horror Story: Coven. The show has loads of talent, creative writing, and a great cast. But still…

The good:

The writers are not afraid to give us complicated villains and complex heroes. Jessica Lange’s Fiona Good, the supreme leader of the struggling New Orleans coven, is  basically evil. She killed the previous supreme to usurp her powers, and she killed a young witch who threatened to challenge her standing. But lately we’ve seen Fiona struggle with terminal cancer. Maybe it’s due to Jessica Lange’s talent, but I actually felt sorry for Fiona. And now that there are new villains on the scene (the witch hunters), we might actually see a heroic Fiona.

And then there’s Zoe Benson, the young witch, and the hero of the story, or at least the character that the writers have used for the audience to identify with. She’s always been led into iffy situations (resurrecting Kit Walker Frankenstein-style), but now she’s killed Spalding, Fiona’s henchman. Yes, he was bad, but Zoe didn’t flinch. That doesn’t bode well for her, but it sure makes her a lot more interesting.

The bad:

Let’s stick with Zoe killing Spalding. It would have been nice to see a consequence for her (as a person). There was none. Then again, death seems to be irrelevant. Madison Montgomery was killed. She’s “alive” again. Myrtle Snow was burned at the stake and now she’s back. Can Madame Delphine ever die? (Please?) Death is no longer shocking or interesting.

And what about rules? When a writer constructs a universe, the rules should be clear and consistent. In American Horror Story: Coven they are not. Kit was brought back to life several episodes ago but he can still barely talk; everyone else resurrected was fine after a day or so. Madison said there was nothing after death, just blackness. But we’ve seen two spirit entities so far: the Axeman and Spalding. So something must exist after death.

So much for rules.

And the ugly:

Sometimes less is more. Tell that to the writers. Every scene involving the over-the-top Jesus freak next door neighbor Joan Ramsey and her dopey, cardboard son Luke make me want to change the channel. An enema as punishment? Death by bees? Really?

And get rid of Madame Delphine. She’s served her purpose.

When fear is a place

Mental wards. Insane asylums. Sanatariums. Do those words scare you?

If so, you’re not alone.

The question then is… what makes mental wards so scary? It’s been a potent setting for fiction: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a book that shows that you do not have to add ghosts or monsters to make a story horrifying. And on TV, American Horror Story devoted an entire season to an insane asylum.

Then there’s Session 9, a 2001 movie that follows an asbestos removal crew in an abandoned mental hospital. It is filmed brilliantly, and manages to be scary and disturbing. To say anymore would give too much of the story away, and it’s best to be surprised. They’re right when they say fear is a place.


So back to the why…

I believe the fear of asylums, and mental illness, is rooted in powerlessness; being powerless to control your own mind, being powerless in your movement in the world.

The thought of losing touch with “reality” to the degree that you are locked up scares me. Not being able to tell what’s real and what’s not. Hearing voices. Seeing things that aren’t there. All terrifying. People deal with this in real life every day. It’s got to be tough. And I’m sure it’s a common fear.

Then there’s the idea of being committed. Not too long ago, involuntary incarceration in an asylum was more than just an idle fear. Check out this link at Dangerous Minds, where common traits ranging from laziness to superstition could get you locked away.

When you consider that many fears are internally generated, (a dis-ease of the mind), and mental hospitals are full of dis-eased minds, then the asylums, especially those of yesterday, are the fertile settings for horror stories.

What are some of the scariest asylum-set stories you’ve read or seen?

American Horror Story: Coven – horror or camp?

There’s a scene near the opening of the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven that is the definition of horror. The year is 1834, and a society madam, played by Kathy Bates, is a vain, sadistic woman who keeps a collection of slaves chained and tortured in the attic of her New Orleans mansion. The camera fixes on the mutilated people. You hear their moans and screams. It is pure horror.

But why?

Because it is grounded in the very real horror of slavery.

I’ve seen 3 episodes of this series so far (I haven’t seen the first or second seasons), and nothing else has compared to this one scene.

Don’t get me wrong, American Horror Story: Coven is entertaining and compelling. It follows a coven of witches in New Orleans (with roots in Salem) as they battle each other and the outside world. But it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a campfest or a gory/horror thriller. Too often it slides into camp.

The actors are big names. Jessica Lange is a great fit for the role of a witch obsessed with holding on to her fading looks and power. But there are times when Lange, Angela Bassett, and Kathy Bates play it way over the top. There’s not much subtlety going on. Or maybe they’re just too big for the small screen.

The best horror is rooted in real-life tragedy, both small and large, because it gets us where we live. Case-in-point: the slave/torture scene. And American Horror Story: Coven has more of this. There’s an infertile woman desperate to get pregnant, and there’s a young man who is revealed to have been molested — both are great set-ups for horror. In the latter, you get the payoff (the pregnancy storyline is developing).

So there is potential. The writers are highly skilled in keeping you watching (and I”ll definitely watch on). I just wish they wouldn’t rely on lazy tropes like the rapist fraternity brothers or Jesus freak neighbor, scale back the camp, and stick with the horror.