American Horror Story and the Currents of Magic

This post contains spoilers.  If you haven’t seen the finale of American Horror Story: Coven you may want to come back and read it later.

After 13 episodes featuring plot twists, turns and train wrecks, the biggest shocker of all came in the final scene of American Horror Story: Coven – a happy ending.

The Pagan community has had a very mixed response to Coven.  I have Facebook friends who rave about it, who wear black on Wednesdays and who claim they should be the next Supreme.  My fellow Patheos Pagan bloggers pretty much despise the show:  Jason Mankey’s recap and Lilith Dorsey’s farewell cover their complaints.

Those complaints are valid.  Coven portrayed witches and other magic users in a rather bleak light – neither as we are nor as we wish we were.  The witches were shallow and vindictive, Marie Laveau sold her soul and sacrificed infants, and the Voodoo loa Papa Legba was turned into a slight variation on the Christian devil.

Yes, it’s TV fiction and not an anthropological documentary.  No, nobody ever mentioned Wicca or Paganism – the only religion that ever came up was Christianity.  Yes, the title is American Horror Story, not American Inspirational Story – you expected it to be disturbing.  But even given the nature of this particular beast, I was hoping for better storytelling:  tighter plots, fewer subplots, and fewer inexplicable acts by main characters.

I had high expectations for American Horror Story: Coven and most of those expectations were not met.  But I still watched it to the end, which is rare for me – I watch very few TV series.

I think I enjoyed the finale’s opening scene more than anything else all season:  Stevie Nicks twirling through the house singing “Seven Wonders” while the witches practiced for their tests.  I immediately kicked myself for not connecting that song with the Seven Wonders of the Supreme, but while I liked Fleetwood Mac way back when, I wasn’t obsessed with them.  That scene was what I was hoping for when I first heard about Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies – a school where young witches would work to grow into their powers.  As Jason Mankey complained, Miss Robichaux’s wasn’t a school, it was a hotel.

The first of the Seven Wonders were simple enough, but it was clear the swamp witch Misty Day was out of her element.  When it came time to journey to the Underworld (did anyone else hear Captain Barbossa saying “It’s not gettin’ to the Land of the Dead that’s the problem. It’s gettin’ back!”?), Queenie (who had been there before) made it back quickly, but Misty got stuck in an infinite loop of her worst day, resurrecting and then killing a frog in high school biology lab, over and over and over again.

From a story progression standpoint, that served to eliminate one of the candidates, but while the list of Coven characters who deserved to end up in Hell is long, Misty wasn’t on it.  She was the kindest and most innocent of all the witches, including Nan.  But journeying to the Underworld is a hazardous ordeal, and when you deal with hazardous things either you can do them or you can’t.

A universalist point of order: nobody deserves to end up in Hell, even Delphine LaLaurie… not that I wouldn’t be very tempted to send her there if I could.  I do wonder how many times the historical Delphine LaLaurie has been reborn as a slave or a refugee or other person in horrible circumstances.  Hopefully she’s learned something by now.

If there was a key theme running through American Horror Story: Coven – and that’s a big “if” – it’s the ambiguous nature of power, and the effects of power on those who have it and on those who seek it.

On one hand, those who have power tend to abuse it:  LaLaurie’s power over her slaves and her daughters, Madison flipping the bus and killing innocent guys along with those who raped her, the witch hunters, and pretty much Fiona’s whole life.  On the other hand, those who shy away from power get walked over, or worse:  Misty, Kyle, and up till the end, Cordelia.

Coven had a happy ending because Cordelia finally agreed to pursue and claim the power of the Supreme – but not for herself.  Her goal wasn’t make herself rich and powerful and young forever – her goal was to protect the coven, rebuild the school, and empower the dozens (hundreds?) of young witches who were hiding in the shadows.

But trying to read moral lessons into American Horror Story: Coven misses the point.  It’s cool.  It’s sexy.  It’s fun even though it’s frustrating.  It’s dark fantasy about a type of witchcraft that has long been feared even though it doesn’t exist, at least not exactly like this.  It’s what we wish we could do, even though we wouldn’t… probably… maybe…

Several observers of pop culture and the entertainment world have said “witches are the new vampires.”  Witches and witchcraft are popping up on television to an extent we haven’t seen in 15 years, if ever.  Most of the shows appear to be targeted to teenage girls, which means there’s not a chance in the Hell that doesn’t exist that I’ll be watching them.

Most of their viewers will see witchcraft as a pleasant fantasy.  Most will see magic as “oh, if only I could…”  Most will watch a season or two and then move on to some other entertainment.

But for a few, a new curiosity will be kindled.  Or perhaps a vague desire will be given a name.  Or a life-long interest will become urgent enough to finally pursue.  And because some of us have done like Cordelia at the end of Coven and gone public with our magic, those people will have resources to turn to.

The currents of magic are rising in the mainstream world.  Let’s ride them while we can.

About John Beckett

I grew up in Tennessee with the woods right outside my back door. Wandering through them gave me a sense of connection to Nature and to a certain Forest God. I’m a Druid graduate of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the Coordinating Officer of the Denton Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans and a former Vice President of CUUPS Continental. I’ve been writing, speaking, teaching, and leading public rituals for the past eleven years. I live in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and I earn my keep as an engineer.

  • Tracci Spencer

    Well said! I enjoyed the show for what it was, a show. I never allowed myself to see it as anything more.

  • JasonMankey

    “Despise” as a way of summing up my feelings isn’t exactly fair. I thought the show meandered and it always felt like a cast of characters searching for a story. I don’t mind fantastical elements applied to the terms “witch” or “witchcraft.” As I’ve stated many times we (folks like myself who identify with it) don’t own the words and I understand their use in fantasy situations.

    The portrayals of Legba and Marie Laveau were just nasty. Voodoo doesn’t need, or deserve, that sort of negative depiction. Laveau was a real person. Portraying real-life horrible people as they actually were is fine, Delphine LaLaurie was a real life terror. Laveau was not, turning her into a baby killer was just completely unacceptable.

    The performances in the show were fun, and visually there were bright spots too. Did it all hold together? No.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      If “despise” is too strong, how about “annoyed and offended and glad it’s over”?

      I agree that Voodoo got the worst of it, and the scenes with LaLaurie and her slaves were painful to watch.

      I still enjoyed the show.

      • PegAloi

        I am wondering why you only mention two “fellow bloggers” who wrote about the show; I had almost two dozen posts about it on Patheos these last few weeks. ;-/

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

          No slight intended, Peg. I just grabbed the two who had posted finale recaps when I wrote mine.

          • PegAloi

            Ah, okay. I wondered if maybe you found my responses to the show too favorable (I had a lot of problems with it too, every week). Still working on my “what we hated” piece as there is so much to parse out…

    • PegAloi

      Jason: Didn’t you announce it was a “gigantic failure” or something along those lines right after the finale?

  • Agni Ashwin

    HBO’s ‘True Detective’ has some Pagan overtones. How that exactly pans out in the end, will be seen.

  • http://www.forgingthesampo.com/ Kauko

    Two issues that irritated me (even if only mildly) that I haven’t really seen covered in Pagan reactions to the show:

    1. Making magic a matter of gender, i.e. in the show’s mythos it comes across as if only women can practice magic. Do we really need to keep perpetuating that kind of nonsense?

    2. Making magic a matter of race, i.e. the show states that the witches (all white aside from Queenie) got–or even stole–their magic from slaves back in Salem. I object to this because, first, it treats African (i.e. black) peoples in a very cliché, exotic fashion as people who must have some magical powers, and, second, it ignores that Europe has a vast array of historical magical traditions.

    • maverickmann84 .

      Magic isn’t real, so who cares if they say only women can practice it? And many shows/movies have magic using men. Check out any magic based action show in Japan. And I mean magic like they use on this show, not the kind pagans/voodoo/wiccans/etc practice. I’m not trying to deny your beliefs. Even if I don’t believe it personally.

  • maverickmann84 .

    If you were offended by this awful show, then you need to take a step back and reevaluate yourself as a person. First off: its a show. It’s not a documentary, or even a “reality” show. The only reason Pagans/Wiccans/Voodoo whatever they’re called are offended is because everyone laughs at those beliefs far more than the major religions, and that has made you overly defensive about stuff. Who cares what they did on some show. If they made a show where Jesus was doing drugs and stealing souls I wouldn’t bat an eye. Why? Because I’m an adult, and I can tell the difference between reality and television. And for those who can’t, you’re much better off not having those people follow you’re religion because those people are exceptionally dumb.


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