The FX Channel has just concluded the highly successful third season of its American Horror Story series.
Each season has featured its own stand-alone storyline, insuring against series stagnation and creating a story competition as the ever-ravenous horror audience eagerly awaits each season’s next outrageous attempt to top the last. Coven, the third entry in the series, a witchcraft genre entry, has not disappointed. Its star, Jessica Lange, was nominated for a Golden Globe. Critical reception, despite the considerable gory fx (envelope-pushing for network TV), has been uniformly positive. The ratings have soared.
Set in contemporary New Orleans, Coven tells a tale of internecine struggle as the dying matriarch of a clan of young witches fights the inevitable succession of the next “Supreme” witch, soon to usurp her leadership. She simultaneously wages a struggle against the loss of her youth, her seductive beauty and death itself. The narrative punch is Stephen King meets Tennessee Williams.
Quote from Katy:
The Supreme—The concept of this is very interesting to me. I feel that it’s sort of a high priestess in a coven, the witch the rest of the coven looks up to for guidance etc. I think it’s strange how they set it up that the supreme gets sick as the new supreme comes into her powers. I think that’s pretty unrealistic in terms of witchcraft, as we all have our own power and grow into them with time and practice and while we do so, it doesn’t take away from anyone else.”
— Astralseed (Katy), Modern American Witch
American Horror Story: Coven deviations:
While pop culture commentators have made much of Coven reflecting the psychotic levels of youth and body worship that we’ve reached in our society, as well as the aggressive edge that has developed, socially and especially sexually, amongst today’s young women (the debate raging as to whether this signifies growing empowerment or just a general coarsening of the culture)—I think there’s something more to the special response received by Coven. I think a far deeper chord of male and female identity and relationships may have been struck for there to be so much resonance in response to this show.
Does Coven reflect a realignment in the male/female power paradigm?
The concept of “witchcraft” itself was invented by the Holy Roman Church when it assumed authority over all Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. During the Medieval reign of the Roman Church, all religions competing with Christianity were obliterated or driven underground. Pagans who refused to convert to the official state religion withdrew back into the deep woods and continued with their rites of ingesting natural herbs and seeking oneness with the spirits present throughout nature.
The Church responded to these homeopathic healers and midwives by denouncing them as “witches” and lodging the Big Lie against them that they were practitioners of “demonology” (raising demons from Hell to do bad things) and that they were Satan worshippers. Crop failures, livestock epidemics and still-births were attributed to witchcraft. And so, each time, a few more non-conformist unmarried women were “convicted” as witches and burned, hanged, crushed or drowned. And the good people felt safe again.
Quotes from the Community:
I come from a family who has generations of individuals who have believed and practiced in what many outsiders refer to as witchcraft. However, my family does not call it witchcraft. Nor do we like being called witches. Instead, we refer to it as being spiritual or rather enlightened or living with the veil lifted.”
— diphylla (Star), modern American Witch
I know of no one who can bring back the dead. I don’t know any human voodoo dolls. I for one cannot flip buses. For me, Witchcraft is about connecting with the world with both physical stuff and ether (it’s all one) and fighting to make a difference for other people.”
— diphylla (Star), modern American Witch
I think Myrtle’s gift is the closest to realistic abilities out of all of them. Misty’s being the least. Although I love Misty! She has the personality and attitude of a true witch I feel. She’s in touch with nature and she wants to do good with her abilities… I’m in love with nature, I draw all of my energy from nature. It makes me so happy to see somebody else also as in love with nature as I am.”
— mippieArt (Leana), Modern South African Witch
After an estimated half-million executions in Europe and America, witch lynchings became rare after 1800.
In the modern age, witches and witchcraft have become more the stuff of children’s tales and Halloween fun. Belief in actual Satanic covens of beings empowered through magic potions and incantations has become nonthreatening superstition. Recently, a revival of a “positive” version of witchcraft as a rediscovered Pagan religion has evolved into the thriving Wiccan movement, in which spellcasting is practiced for the good and Satanism and demonology are denounced and rejected as having nothing to do with “white witchcraft.”
This Chinese Wall now separating Satanism/demonology and the modern witch was most evident in the popular show, Charmed (1998-2006), in which the three young “white lighter” protagonists were constantly forced to defend themselves against demon assassins sent to kill them.
Quote from Jaimie:
There is no such thing as “white” or “black” magic. Magic has no color. It is the reflection of the intention of the Witch who is using it. So, there are really no intrinsically “good” or “bad” witches; rather, it depends on intent.”
— Aeirmid (Jaimie), modern American Witch
Coven represents the latest “rebirth” of the witchcraft narrative.
As a story centered on contending generations of females, birth and rebirth are in fact a constant theme throughout the story. The witches kill each other, but sometimes bring each other back from the dead. The “Supreme” fights for immortality, while her old rival chooses self-immolation, her life’s work having been completed. What’s new in this latest plunge into the pop zeitgeist is the story’s “report” on two rapidly evolving issues.
First, there’s the current state of how young women value themselves as independent beings beyond body-image slavery. Jessica Lange is a brilliant choice to play Fiona, the Supreme on her way out. She is about as classically beautiful as any Hollywood actress working today. Her character is driven to murder and madness by her inability to stall the natural aging process by yet another century. The young witches of the coven are, in contrast, a collection of the most anti-cliché beauties imaginable. It is definitely a new dawn on television when Gabourey Sidbe and Jamie Brewer can be cast as protagonists non-ironically. This update bulletin on the current changing state of young female body-image attitudes is definitely a positive report.
Second, there is the male/female power issue. Whatever the historical reality or actual metaphysical possibilities of the practice of witchcraft – there is always the power of the witch as metaphor. Here is a witchcraft story that, in trying to entertain the 29-49 demographic, reflects back to that audience what the makers intuit is their sensibility in male-female relationships. What’s unique in the witch narrative is its constant theme of female subversion and non-compliance with male power. It’s all about females banding together to learn arcane methods of alternative defense and weaponry to battle male oppression. I believe Coven has such deep resonance because it’s a snapshot of the current state of female strategies of advancement and simultaneous accommodation within our contemporary patriarchy.
Quote from Jaimie:
I was disappointed that there was no talk of energy or anything like that. I don’t mean energy as in, “Here, let’s do Reiki on you!” but rather in terms of spirit or essence of existence. Also in terms of personal power.”
— Aeirmid (Jaimie), modern American Witch
We see in Fiona’s downfall not only the demise of the witchcraft of her generation, but with it the demise of her generation’s stale male/female power paradigm.
Fiona’s power flows from her physical beauty, her sexual allure. Inflaming men’s desire is her method of control and power over the opposite gender. The traditional male response to this sort of female “empowerment” is to hate being controlled by one’s own hormones. Fiona’s sexiness is her source of power, her true worth. Each wrinkle is a devaluation of her being. Her lover is The Axeman, a revived serial killer. Fiona’s horrible fate is to end up in Hell living out an eternal Groundhog’s Day existence with the brutish Axeman in a tiny 50’s-style claustrophobic domicile. She will endlessly reap what she has sown, being simultaneously adored but also brutally controlled by her significant other.
The love interest of the younger generation of witches is Kyle, the only “nice” frat boy amongst a crew of rapists, all killed in an act of vengeance by one of the witches. Kyle is revived from the dead, but with body parts borrowed from the dead frat boys. The witches attempt to literally preserve the prospective boyfriend’s non-misogynist mind and sweet spirit, and – of secondary concern—reassemble the rest of him into a generically hot stud from spare boy parts. An interesting play on the difference between male and female priorities. Of course, the well-intentioned use of witchery goes awry and he becomes a raging mental defective who has to be cared for by the coven like a pet dog. But the theme of male-female connection through appreciation of specialness, of placing a premium on, rather than casting stones at, otherness, is constant throughout the young witches’ relations with the opposite gender.
Quote from Jaimie:
What is it, at the core, that we believe in? For me, it is that energy flows and envelops everything that is, and that we are manifestations of that energy. I believe that we can manipulate our energy and influence others’. I believe that there is something so much greater than I am “out there,” but that I am part of it (as we all are). I rarely differentiate between spirit and flesh, as it is really kind of a continuum. I am super excited about this opportunity to learn what others believe and to share it with you.”
— Aeirmid (Jaimie), Modern American Witch
Coven uses the darkness of the horror genre to illuminate the stark difference in how today’s younger generation of females (as represented by Coven’s young spellcasters) balances body-image with more important personal traits in nurturing self-value and a healthy self-identity. This, as opposed to the old style notion of a women’s main worth being her physical attractiveness. Coven also rings a death knell for the “traditional” (often lethal) formula of male absolute adoration of a woman’s physical beauty coupled with the need to absolutely control the “beloved” woman. The attitudes of the young witches point to a major positive sea-change in the male-female power-control equation. Pursuing and preserving power and control over others would appear to be a life strategy that is dying off with the older generations. It may be gradually being replaced with a growing appreciation of the value of all the small wonders and personal gifts that give a truer value to all our lives.
Gypsycurse71 joins the discussion of American Horror Story: Coven.
depthRADIUS is pleased to be able to share with you the thoughts of our “October Days of Horror” Curator, a critique with a perspective informed not only by her gender but also by her aficionado's love of the horror film genre.
Out of a deep-fried southern gothic fever dream of contemporary New Orleans saunter the decadent libertine belles of the delicious pulp that is American Horror Story: Coven.
Within the first hour, these sultry divas brandish their feminine powers to telekinetically destroy vicious rapists, tap the fountain of youth by draining a man of his life force and resurrect an undead torturess, firing the opening salvo in AHS’ first gynocentric season. Beyond its obvious main directive of being a shocking scare-fest, Coven explores themes of misogyny, youth obsession and toxic female rivalry against the backdrop of feminism and witchcraft in all their seemingly contradictory permutations and agendas.
The young witches of the coven embody in their unique supernatural gifts the full spectrum of Wiccan Triple Goddess archetypes. They also display the full spectrum of body and personality types, providing an accessible role model protagonist for each and every young female viewer. The coven is governed by Supreme witch Fiona Goode (portrayed by classically beautiful Jessica Lange). The Supreme is aging and she is fighting to cheat her impending death by all manner of experimental pharmaceuticals and dangerous arcane incantations.
Fiona warns, “a storm is coming,” and as the season unfolds we’ll witness the women unifying their powers and banding together for survival. To that end, a new coven leader must be chosen. According to the mythology of this witches’ tale, there must be a contest between the young witches that will result in a successor to the “retiring” Supreme. The true Supreme is a chosen one always meant to assume power, her messianic identity to be revealed by her victory in the competition.
The greatest danger to the survival of the coven is Fiona’s sabotage of each witch she senses may be the chosen one. Driven mad by the loss of her physical beauty and desperately seeking a “magickal” way out of ever dying, Fiona would rather kill her own daughter than give up her power. This hidden handicap is only discovered by the contestants very late in their competition.
Here we have one of Coven’s intersections between witchcraft and feminism. Fiona is old school, using her sexual allure to exercise power over men, a crude traditional strategy of empowerment rejected by modern feminists. Her empowerment relies on “playing” the male power structure rather than altering it or replacing it. The misogyny that birthed this coercive form of female empowerment only gives rise to male resentment and abuse against females in response.
How is it witches came to be associated with feminism?
The simple answer is that any act of female defiance against male diktat is considered by the male power structures (religious, corporate, legal and cultural) to be de facto “feminism.” When Pagan herbal healers refused to convert to Christianity in Medieval Europe, the propaganda stereotype of the Satan-worshipping crone dancing around a fire and sacrificing children was first born as the Church’s response to female non-compliance. The concept of the witch as a nature-loving healer and nurturer is a more modern Wiccan construct, arising alongside a growing cultural interest in ecology and protecting the natural environment in general. The witch as hot sexual succubus has always been a male fantasy disguised as being somehow “feminist.”
So long as “witch” indicates defiance of the male order, witches will be persecuted simply for existing. Trying to accommodate men by becoming providers of kinky “sex magick” or, conversely, detaching completely from males and forming insulated Wiccan communes are both doomed strategies. The poison pill is the question of power. Men have it. Women are denied it. A suspicion of a female coveting that power can mean lethal consequences. Witches symbolize that covetous conspiracy that never sleeps.
Is it any wonder witches cling to their magickal abilities as a path to empowerment?
When denied the basic human right to exist, those who were forced to cower in the shadows can find a voice in magick, a torch to carry into battle. The young charges of Miss Robichaux’s Academy do just that, using their powers to forge strength under the siege of male oppression. We see the Academy’s ancestors banding together to thwart an impending attack by the Axeman (“If we embody our feminine might: intelligence with grace, strength with an iron will, no man can make us cower in our home.”). Misty Day resurrects slain swamp gators and turns them back on the red neck hunters who slaughtered them, a low tech metaphor for triumph over male brutality. Zoe and Madison use their collective powers to destroy Madison’s frat boy rapists in a scene ripped right from Steubenville’s headlines, with the coups de grace performed poetically on the last male by Zoe’s powers of vagina dentata.
The one male-contrived bastion of oppression that seems to be the chink in our witches’ armor of empowerment is obsession with youth and beauty. In modern society, beauty standards are set by male opinion and catered to by women who continue to perpetuate those stereotypes, influencing generations of young women after them to live up to an impossible ideal. We can see this in everything from Maxim spreads to the average age-range and body type of actresses who stay gainfully employed in Hollywood. Coven’s Crones Fiona, Marie Laveau, and Delphine also fall victim to these standards, desperately trying to revert back to Maidenhood by any means necessary. Fiona Goode is the quintessential Norma Desmond figure, sneering disgustedly, “I’m starting to look less Samantha and more Endora everyday.” In a twist of irony, the one thing that seems to make her feel young and vital is finding solace in the ghostly arms of a long-dead serial killer.
Men know that they can best control females by constantly increasing the rewards, acclaim, approval and adoration (the males’ double-edged conceit of being “pro-woman”) rained down upon females for their physical allure. This emotional extortion is so potent that it makes women turn upon each other and then spiral down into their own solitary self-contempt. Only when women manage to truly find self-worth according to standards set by their own sensibilities, completely independent of male judgement and approval, will genuine sisterhood finally prevail.
At story’s end, the young witches who emulated their mentor Supreme, using their powers to control and hurt others in order to increase their own power end up in Hells created especially to fit their crimes. For the rest of the coven, renewed strength comes after these toxic creatures are finally purged from the House of Robichaux. Although male oppression was always a real and present danger, the external threat just beyond the iron gates, the coven was in greater danger of foundering from the internal threat of insidious narcissism. After the deaths of Fiona, Madison, Laveau, and Delphine, chlorine is introduced into the witch pool in the form of new Supreme, Cordelia Foxx. Finally able to throw off the weight of Fiona’s malice, Cordelia abandons the shadows and accepts her powers and her place as Supreme, shedding self-hatred and instilling a new sense of pride in the Coven.
In a speech that echoes current day minority struggles, a self-assured Cordelia encourages all magickal folk to live openly and reject any societal attempts to relegate them to outsider status. With Zoe and Queenie by her side, she ushers the coven into a new era of tolerance and renewed power. Lines of new students overtake the street like vines of kudzu, signaling morning for Miss Robichaux’s Academy and incubating the hope that these former outcasts have finally found their tribe. We’re reminded that life is about survival and salvation is ultimately found in each other. Perhaps if we can learn to embrace uniqueness, to value one another over our own agendas, and to recognize that true empowerment comes from lifting each other up, that would be the real magic the witches of American Horror Story: Coven had to show us after all.
For the Readers
- Do you think about any deeper meanings when watching shows like Coven, or appreciate them strictly as scary fun entertainment?
- Do you believe witches are real? (“Real” meaning able to harness special abilities by supernatural means.)
- Do you think modern covens are actually practicing a “witchcraft” that produces tangible results, for good or bad, or do you think of covens as an alternative religion’s church?
- Have you experienced evidence of actual witchcraft in your life?
- Would you (or have you) ever sought out a witch for the potions or spells to attract or win over a prospective love interest? What about exacting revenge on an enemy?
For the Witches
- Does being a witch mean:
- Simply adhering to a religion that celebrates the spirits inherent in all nature’s creation.
- Having special inherent powers I was born with and the ability to change things, affect minds, through potions and spells.
- Have you suffered discrimination or physical threats because of your beliefs?
- Has witchcraft been a mainly positive or negative element of your life?
- Under what circumstances would you recommend an exploration of witchcraft to another woman?
- Are there aspects of witchcraft that enhance or liberate the creative energies of an artist?