A mere 30-seconds into last week's premiere episode of American Horror Story: Coven, I found myself rushing to my Twitter account to announce that I was already in love. Now, two weeks into the show, I'm wondering if I might have spoke too soon. Currently in its third season, the FX anthology series has been both reviled and revered for its distinct mix of horror and high camp since debuting in 2011. It's definitely an acquired taste, with latex-wearing ghosts, alien babies, mad Nazi doctors, and demon-possessed nuns.
But the charm of American Horror Story, at least for me, is all that craziness coupled with what on the surface comes off as a sense of self-awareness, of melodrama, what with its references to the B-horror movies of yesteryear, and an acute tendency to go over over-the-top whilst never taking itself all the way seriously. And that's the spiel many fans of the show tell themselves and others whenever the narrative gets decidedly ridiculous or messed up. Of course, the danger in that reading is in giving the series (and by extension showrunner Ryan Murphy) more credit than it deserves.
This is a show that is often as problematic as it is delightfully bizarre, and navigating the thin line between being critical of its faults and being entertained by its eccentricities is perhaps the most difficult part about being a fan. Despite its pride in producing complex female characters, the series has the simultaneous tendency to perpetuate harmful stereotypes about women (especially those who own their sexuality) and to punish women (all three seasons have used rape as a plot point). Obviously there's also the casual racism, ableism, and homophobia that's become a staple in all Ryan Murphy shows -- used as a device to develop or at the very least place emphasis on the quirky, outrageous, sometimes vile characters that make up the series multiverse.
On the first episode of American Horror Story: Coven, we got our first taste of this sort of vile character (or caricature) when we met Kathy Bates as historical figure Delphine LaLaurie, a New Orleans socialite who in the 1830s was revealed to be socialite by day, sadistic serial torturer and killer of slaves by night. We're taken to her underground lair, where her slaves are caged and beaten, some literally covered in blood, with one particularly gory shot showing a person with all the skin on their face peeled off.
The crowning moment, as it were, is when she strings a young black man up for apparently making love to her daughter, suffocating him by covering his face with a bull's head in an attempt to, bizarrely, create her very own minotaur. Later, we see another slave's pancreas removed from his abdomen with a hook. Gore is nothing new on this show, which often pays homage to the slasher films of the mid-70s and 80s. But in this case, it isn't the images themselves that are disturbing. It's the context in which they're being presented.
The series has of course recreated horrific scenes from the past before. It's tackled a Columbine-esque school shooting, and serial killer Richard Speck's 1966 murders of 8 student nurses. But turning its campy eye onto the real-life horrors of slavery, placing the systematic murder of slaves on the same level as torture porn, makes it strangely even more uncomfortable than usual to watch.
Again, not only because of the violence itself, but because of the history of that violence, taking that history and placing it alongside Kathy Bates' scenery chewing performance, the camp and irreverence that usually makes this show so much fun to watch. Recently, Armond White came out to say that he felt Steve McQueen's adaptation of the little-known slave narrative 12 Years A Slave depicts slavery as "a horror show," on par with movies like "Hostel, The Human Centipede and the Saw franchise." In my mind, while some torture porn can be thought provoking, its main aim is at shock and titillation. It's gratuity for gratuity's sake.
McQueen's depiction of the punishment of slaves, particularly in a much-discussed scene featuring Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, is unmoving, unflinching, but in no way gratuitous. His motives aren't to create a spectacle but, to the best of his ability, create a sense of truth. I'm not convinced that every movie or TV show has to be overtly pious when tackling slavery, but on Coven, when we watch Kathy Bates manically soliloquize as she hangs a black man, watch her smear the pancreatic blood of a dead slave on her face as a beauty balm, watch her knock Gabourey Sidibe's character over the head with a hammer... it's nothing but spectacle, and I'm unsure if this particular story is one that lends itself to that kind of approach.
It's unclear what the show is trying to say with Bates's racist character, or if it is trying to say anything at all, or whether if it's even obligated to. In this week's episode, "Boy Parts," there are moments that suggest that the writers are very much aware of some of this season's racial tensions -- a show set in post-Katrina New Orleans, periodically referencing the city's history of slavery, cannot totally be oblivious to race, after all. We get some flashes of a sort of commentary with the introduction of voodoo queen Marie Laveau, played by a very badass Angela Bassett. Her scene opposite Jessica Lange's Supreme witch, schooling her on how white witches essentially stole the magic of black voodoo priestesses like Tituba, is a highlight of the episode.
And, in response to last week's opener, there's the scene in Episode 2 where the show pulls a Django, balancing LaLaurie's blatant racism and the images of tortured slaves by adding a wildly shot revenge fantasy in which we flashback to LaLaurie, confronted by her slaves, witnessing in horror her entire family hanging dead outside her home, moments before she's buried alive. And then, much later, we see Laveau with her grotesque half man, half bull lover -- shirtless, rippling abs, the horrifying head of a beast. Once again, we're shown an unsettling, problematic image of a black body. It's hard to know what to think.
Because I want there to be a method to this madness, some pathos, some sort of commentary on a larger idea, these early episodes of this season suggest that whatever commentary the show has to give, at least when it comes to race, won't be satisfying. It remains to be seen how the Laveau vs. Supreme storyline will unfold, or how possible future flashbacks of LaLaurie's killing spree will be handled, and whether any of it will balance and perhaps redeem what for me has been a shaky start to this series, at least as far as race goes. Whatever the outcome, slavery is a real American horror story, and thinking about the moral implications of any representation of its history is always important.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory, and co-hosts the podcast Two Brown Girls. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.
Follow Zeba Blay on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zblay