The Shocking Attractions of American Horror Story: Coven
Dawn Keetley / Lehigh University

The Seven Wonders

Silent Film Style Opening of episode 12, “Go to Hell”

The acclaim drawn by recent high-quality TV series (such as HBO’s The Sopranos and The Wire and AMC’s Mad Men and Breaking Bad) has been due in large part to those series’ narrative complexity. (( Jason Mittell, “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television,” The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006): 29-40. )) Indeed, they have been hailed as the heirs to the long novel, achieving some of its cultural prestige. As one critic writes of what he calls “Arc TV,” it is “thick on character and dense in plot line,” as “exquisitely calibrated as the social matrix of a Henry James novel.” (( Thomas Doherty, “Storied TV: Cable Is the New Novel,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 17, 2012, )) One series that has received significant critical praise, FX’s American Horror Story, progresses by entirely different means, however. As its third season, Coven, makes startlingly clear, American Horror Story is not terribly interested in sustained character development or intricate plotting. One characteristic review of Coven (even while it praises the show) admits that it “has never been more of a mess.” (( Phil Dyess-Nugent, “American Horror Story Has Never Been More of a Mess,” A.V. Club, January 29, 2014, )) I want to argue here that American Horror Story doesn’t really care about narrative continuity but instead develops through what is best be called, borrowing from Tom Gunning, a series of loosely-linked “shocking attractions.”

Tom Gunning first described the “cinema of attractions” in an essay published in Wide Angle in 1986. During the early years of film, he argues, specifically before 1907, “[t]heatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions,” Gunning continues, “expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward [towards] an unacknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situation essential to classical narrative.” (( Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 384. )) Gunning made it clear that this cinematic mode did not vanish in 1907 but went “underground,” persisting in avant-garde practices and within certain types of more conventional narratives. (( Gunning, 382. ))

Like the “cinema of attractions,” Coven is demonstrably uninterested in densely-woven narratives and psychologically-rich characters. Each episode inches forward, at best, in answering those questions that rather half-heartedly impel the narrative: Who will be the next “supreme”? What will become of the longstanding feud between the (mostly white) witches, led by Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), and the African-American voodoo priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett)? But as viewers struggle to care very much about such questions, and no doubt sometimes even forget about them altogether, the power of each episode comes instead from its spectacle. It is Coven’s “shocking attractions” that rivet its viewers. No one could claim that the two appearances of Stevie Nicks as “white witch” and acquaintance of Fiona Goode, singing “Rhiannon” and “Seven Wonders,” advanced the plot at all. Indeed, they manifestly stand as what Gunning calls “exhibitionist” moments, rupturing Coven’s self-enclosed diegesis, its illusion of realism. Explicitly acknowledging its debt to early film, and thus signaling that Gunning’s paradigm is a productive way to read the series, the episode “Go to Hell” actually begins as a silent film, with title cards describing the ritual of the “seven wonders” (by which the “supreme” is discovered, and which is itself a string of spectacles, played out in the last episode). This sequence highlights what has been a persistent strategy of Coven—its emphasis on what Gunning calls “a series of displays, of magical attractions” rather than on “narrative continuity.” (( Gunning, 383. ))

Go To Hell

Continued Opening of episode 12, “Go to Hell”

With the exception of Stevie Nicks’ cameos, almost all of Coven’s “exhibitions” are intended to disturb and disgust—hence my designation of the series’ predominant technique as one of stringing together “shocking attractions.” (( Some critics have explored how the horror film in particular, “with its multiple and varied investments in shocking, terrifying, disturbing, and haunting its viewers,” as Adam Lowenstein puts it, continues the aesthetic of “attractions” within contemporary cinema. Lowenstein, “Living Dead: Fearful Attractions of Film,” Representations 110, no. 1 (Spring 2010), 107. See also Lowenstein, “Spectacle Horror and Hostel: Why ‘Torture Porn’ Does Not Exist,” Critical Quarterly 53, no. 1 (2011), 42-60, and Linda Williams, “Discipline and Fun: Psycho and Postmodern Cinema,” Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: A Casebook, ed. Robert Kolker (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), esp. 172-176. )) It would be difficult indeed to provide anything like a complete list of the shocking spectacles of Coven, but some memorable moments are the several scenes throughout the season in which Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) mutilates and tortures her slaves; her creation of the “minotaur”; the propensity of Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) to kill men by having sex with them; the (re) creation of Kyle (Evan Peters) by assembling various body-parts and re-animating them; the cutting out of Spalding’s (Denis O’Hare) tongue—and then its re-attachment; Myrtle’s (Frances Conroy) scooping out of two witches’ eyeballs with a melon-baller in order to bestow them upon Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), along with Cordelia’s subsequent self-blinding; and several burnings at the stake (including Myrtle burning twice).


Delphine’s minotaur, episode 1, “Bitchcraft”

Kyle Reassembled

Kyle reassembled, episode 2, “Boy Parts”

As is clear from the above list, one particular focus of the “shocking attractions” of Coven is the taking apart (and sometimes the putting together) of the human body: the infamous “minotaur” which Delphine creates in the first episode from one of her slaves and a bull is a disturbing example of such dissassemblage and reassemblage of the human (and animal) body. The re-constitution of Kyle from his fraternity brothers’ body parts by Zoe and Madison (Emma Roberts) is another. This visual emphasis on dismantling the human body allegorizes precisely the way the show refuses narrative continuity and punctures the self-contained diegetic world, reveling instead in disassembling narrative through its disruptive “attractions.” Disintegration of the narrative, and its reintegration differently (as enacted in both the minotaur and Kyle), destroys any vestiges of conventional narrative integrity.

The assault that this narrative of “shocking attractions” launches on the wholeness of the body is paired with a similar violation of the integrity of the individual. Gunning argues that the “cinema of attractions” spends little energy creating “individual personality,” and the shocking attractions of Coven push the series into a veritable posthuman realm, one in which the boundaries of the “self” are thoroughly dissolved. This attack on the unified, singular self is evident not least in the witches’ powers, almost all of which challenge the very notion of such a self: Nan (Jamie Brewer) can read minds, for instance, and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) can mutilate another body simply by damaging her own. Minds and bodies are joined, are collectives—assemblages of “parts” or “powers” that are never the domain of one body or a single “self.” Like the narrative itself, subjectivity is composed of “shocking attractions” that surpass and pass through it, always breaching boundaries that once maintained the bounded, self-contained coherence of “self.”

Perhaps the most intriguing example of Coven’s radical intertwined “shocking” aesthetics and posthuman ontology is the episode “Head.” In this episode, Queenie has set herself the task of “educating” Delphine LaLaurie, whom she described in an earlier episode as an “immortal racist,” but with whom she seems to have been developing some sort of bond, a bond that appears mutual. Since Delphine has been beheaded by Marie Laveau, Queenie must target her program of education at the head, setting it on a table in front of the TV and forcing Delphine to watch Roots in its entirety. The gut-wrenching, tear-jerking miniseries leaves Delphine untouched, however, although Queenie’s next endeavor seems to work, as Delphine’s enforced watching of footage of a Civil Rights march to the accompaniment of a spiritual finally reduces the inveterate racist to tears. But the expected redemptive arc that Delphine seems to trace, a redemptive arc effected by salutary narrative, is stopped in its tracks when in a subsequent episode, we see her (again) torturing an African American man (the unfortunate gardener) and confessing her continued hatred of African Americans and her “scientific fascination for their body parts” (“Protect the Coven”).


Delphine LaLaurie’s “education,” episode 9, “Head”

When Spalding interrupts Delphine’s project of mutilation, he tells her not to apologize for what she’s doing, calling it an “art” that doesn’t need to be explained, only admired. This scene thus condenses Coven’s aesthetics, which is not about narrative continuity, not about the contained fictional world that draws viewers in and asks them to empathize with realistic characters (as in, say, Roots). Indeed, in the failure of Queenie’s program of moral education, American Horror Story offers a tongue-in-cheek refutation of the notion that coherent narrative and complex characters can elicit viewer empathy and thus effect some kind of progressive social change. In Coven, art is instead a series of linked and unapologetic spectacles of the ripped-apart body, demanding a subject who is perennially drawn to the grotesque fascinations of the “shocking attraction.” This kind of art refuses both character development and the progressive, linear, and redemptive plotline, along with the empathy and moral edification potentially immanent in both. In the end, Delphine LaLaurie remains fundamentally untouched and unchanged—condemned to eternal torture in hell, condemned to a life of shocking attractions. Such is the distinctly nihilistic vision of Coven.

Image Credits:
1. TBD (Screenshot from Author’s collection)
2. Opening of episode 12, “Go to Hell” (Screenshot from Author’s collection)
3. Delphine’s minotaur, episode 1, “Bitchcraft” (Screenshot from Author’s collection)
4. Kyle reassembled, episode 2, “Boy Parts” (Screenshot from Author’s collection)
5. Delphine LaLaurie’s “education,” episode 9, “Head” (Screenshot from Author’s collection)

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Has The Walking Dead Killed the White Patriarchy?
Dawn Keetley / Lehigh University


AMC’s The Walking Dead

AMC’s The Walking Dead has received a fair amount of criticism for its representation of race, perhaps best summed up in the title of Lorraine Berry’s article, written at the conclusion of season three: “‘Walking Dead’: Still a White Patriarchy.” Far from wanting to perpetuate a world divided by racial hierarchies, however, the creators of The Walking Dead have, from the beginning, seemed intent on making their post-apocalyptic world explicitly post-racial—beyond racial categories, beyond racial oppression, and beyond white privilege and power.

Rick Grimes voices this utopian aspiration in the second episode of the first season. Trapped on the roof of a building in Atlanta, surrounded by zombies, the survivors erupt into racial conflict, as the white Merle Dixon flings racial epithets at Hispanic and African-American characters and declares himself their de facto leader. When the inevitable fight ensues, Rick intervenes, beating and handcuffing Merle and declaring: “Things are different now. There are no niggers anymore, no dumb-as-shit-white-trash fools either. Only dark meat and white meat. There’s us and the dead” (“Guts”). Essential differences, theorized for centuries in terms of race, are displaced onto the absolute divide between “us and the dead.” From this point on, The Walking Dead seeks to imagine what it means to inhabit a post-racial world.


Merle declaring he’s in charge (“Guts”)

At first, alarmingly, this post-racial experiment seems less to usher in the disappearance of race than the disappearance of non-white characters. In fact, the post-racial, post-apocalyptic world ends up looking a lot like, well, the white patriarchy. African-American characters Morgan Jones and his son Duane help Rick survive his awakening to the apocalypse in the first episode of the series, but are then left behind as Rick moves on. The Morales family, a part of the original group of survivors, drives off to find family members in Alabama, and they aren’t seen again. The only African-American female character in the first two seasons, Jacqui, is not developed at all, has virtually no lines, and then chooses to immolate herself in Dr. Jenner’s destruction of the CDC in the season one finale.

Most notoriously, the series seemed unable, through the end of season three, to countenance more than one African-American male character at a time: after Morgan, there was T-Dog, who dies soon after the group discovers Oscar at the prison in season three. And once Tyreese appeared mid-way through season three, it surprised no one when Oscar was killed in a scuffle at Woodbury. T-Dog’s words from the second season episode “Bloodletting” are uncannily prophetic. Feverish from an infected wound, T-Dog says to Dale: “I’m the one black guy. Realize how precarious that makes my situation?” Precarious indeed. While T-Dog is worried about getting “lynched” in a world ruled by “two good-old-boy-sheriff-cowboys” and a “redneck,” he is in fact killed by the inexorable one-black-male-at-a-time logic of the series. Meanwhile, white men—Rick, Shane, Dale, Hershel, Daryl, the Governor—vie for leadership of the group. As Lorraine Berry writes, “white men have closed ranks and cemented their power.”


T-Dog and Dale (“Bloodletting”)

Despite obvious missteps, though, the writers of The Walking Dead have remained committed to their vision of the post-apocalypse as post-racial. Season three showed some signs they were succeeding, and season four has shown even more. Introduced in season three, Michonne has come into her own as a strong, central character. The same is true of Tyreese and his sister, Sasha, as well as former army medic, Bob. The series is emerging from tokenism, evidenced by the fact that in season four the survivors are ruled not by a white male patriarch (Rick) but are guided by a council that includes white, black, and Asian characters, women and men, old and young.

While the new post-racial world of The Walking Dead no longer erases people of color, it does, perhaps by definition, demand a studied indifference to racial identity. Virtually no reference is ever made by others or by themselves to the fact that Michonne, Tyreese, Sasha, and Bob are African American (or that anyone else is of a particular race). Race-thinking, when it infrequently happens, is represented as pathological. The first and only time T-Dog talks about race—“I’m the one black guy,” ruled by “good-old-boys” and “rednecks”—is when he’s sick, and his comment prompts Dale to worry that he has “gone off the deep end” and needs medicine fast. Alternately, race-thinking is the purview of the openly racist Merle—the only character who seems unable to let race go. In Merle’s case, his racism is part of his self-destructive, impulsive behavior, which he explains to Rick by saying, helpfully: “I don’t know why I do the things I do,” including, presumably, his insistence on calling Glenn a “Chinaman” (though he knows he’s Korean). Merle is the only person to remark on Michonne’s race, pointing out that it’s “ironic” that she has two chained zombie “slaves.” If T-Dog symptomizes race-thinking as a febrile hallucination, Merle manifests it as an unexamined reflex, an unthinking holdover from a past that’s now irrelevant.

In the world of The Walking Dead, race must be “let go.” The season four episode, “Indifference,” allegorizes this impetus. As Bob says early in the episode: “It helps to keep moving.” Daryl, Michonne, Tyreese, and Bob are on a run to find medicine. During the course of the episode, all three black characters are explicitly urged to “let go” of something. Devastated by grief and anger over the murder of his girlfriend, Tyreese hacks furiously at some vines and then holds onto the walker that lunges out at him. Michonne and Daryl yell at him to “Let go,” but he won’t, and Michonne confronts him later, asking him “Why the hell didn’t you let go?”, adding, “You should have let go.” Later in the episode, Bob almost falls off a roof and walkers grab at his bag. Again, Michonne yells, “Bob, let it go”; Tyreese shouts “Let it go. Let it go,” and Daryl says, “Let go of the bag, man.” And through her conversations with Daryl, Michonne learns, finally, to “let go” of her obsession with the Governor—realizing she needs to relinquish her anger and need for revenge in order to become part of the group.


“Letting it go” (“Indifference”)

While the things that Michonne, Tyreese, and Bob need to “let go” of are on one level, of course, specific to their stories within the series, the multiple explicit repetitions that they each “let go” also work, I argue, to signal The Walking Dead’s notion of what a post-racial world entails. It requires “letting go” of the past, along with the anger and the desire for redress that can animate memories of the racial past in particular. “Anger gets you killed,” Michonne says to Tyreese. Anger also isolates you, as it does to Michonne in her constant forays out of the prison in search of the Governor. Anger is represented as a dangerous compulsion, an unconscious holdover from the past (as symbolized by the alcohol Bob holds onto, despite himself). Bob tells Daryl, significantly, about having been “the last one standing” in two separate groups of survivors—and that he was “done being a witness.” Daryl tells him, “No need to be standing alone—not no more.” All three black characters are urged to “let go” of the past—of anger, grief, the desire for reparation, the need to be a “witness” to suffering. They are invited into the group—the new group, the only group that matters: “us” standing against “the dead.” Survival, belonging, the post-racial community, come at the expense of history. They demand to be “let go.”


Michonne and Tyreese (“Indifference”)

In her critique of The Walking Dead, Lorraine Berry demonstrates precisely this unwillingness to “let go” of the past which is so inimical to The Walking Dead (and its fans). She raised the ire of many readers by interpreting Michonne through the lens of history, arguing that when the Governor tells Rick he won’t attack the prison if Rick turns Michonne over to him, Michonne was being treated as property, as currency, in a battle between white men—that the series thus evoked both slavery and lynching (at one point Merle puts a hood over her head). Numerous comments on the article vehemently disagreed with this reading, arguing that Michonne was, as one writer succinctly put it, simply “bad ass.” Michonne had evoked the Governor’s fury by being smart enough to see him for who he really was and for killing his (zombie) daughter and blinding him. Michonne becomes the Governor’s nemesis because of her intelligence and strength. She is not a “bargaining chip” between two white men. She is nobody’s property, nobody’s slave, nobody’s victim.

What The Walking Dead recognizes is that in this new post-racial world history can’t just be relinquished; it needs to be re-written. There must be a new narrative. The Walking Dead fills the vacuum of history with something else: white meat and dark meat, the living and the dead—and the weak and the “bad ass.”

Image Credits:
1. Promo
2. Merle
3. T-Dog and Dale
4. Michonne and Tyreese

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