Let’s talk about Generation Y. We were raised on mythology and fantasy, with Lord of the Rings coming out in theaters when we were just preteens. We grew up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, but we also grew up with Hostel, Chuckie, and enough torture flicks to desensitize us to on-screen violence by the time we were out of high school. We love witchy business and bloody guts, and so American Horror Story (FX) found a target audience with our generation by combining the two, and setting it in America, integrating true tales of our bloody past, and making the gore and carnage just believable enough to spirit us through the fast-paced episodes every year between October and January.
Let’s get one thing straight: American Horror Story is the shit. This season piloted at 5.54 million views, and even its least-watched episode tipped over 3.35 million views, which still tops its own most-watched episodes in season 1&2, with the exception of Asylum’s premier, Welcome to Briarcliff. In other words, American Horror Story is popular, and getting more popular all the time.
But the coolest thing about AHS – in particular, season 3, Coven, is that it’s not original at all. Many of the main themes can be seen in the original American Horror writer, Edgar Allan Poe. I will detail two here.
But before we get to the parallels, let’s take a look at the premise of Coven, according to FX’s statement of October, 2013:
Over 300 years have passed since the turbulent days of the Salem witch trials and those who managed to escape are now facing extinction. Mysterious attacks have been escalating against their kind and young girls are being sent away to a special school in New Orleans to learn how to protect themselves. Wrapped up in the turmoil is new arrival, Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who is harboring a terrifying secret of her own. Alarmed by the recent aggression, Fiona (Jessica Lange), the long-absent Supreme, sweeps back into town, determined to protect the Coven and hell-bent on decimating anyone who gets in her way.
Yess -hmm- kind of. The Coven’s primary enemies are New Orleans Voodoo witches, and a deadly, ancient witch-hunting Corporation. As seen in Season 1, which told true stories of L.A. murders, America’s own dark history is played out in characters based on historical personages, including Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a socialite who brutally tortured slaves in her attic, and Voodoo queen Mary Laveau, to whom New Orleans residents, prisoners on death row, and fraught lovers still write letters begging for her help.
above: Laveau, historically, and in Coven, where she is immortal.
Below: Coven’s version of LaLaurie, and the real serial killer of New Orleans.
Needless to say, with these historical players in supporting roles, as well as the back story of Salem, American Horror Story is playing with the mythos and macabre of the deep South and colonies, their roots in Puritanical behavior, as well as truly frightening figures of history. But there’s another American Horror Story at work here: the story of Edgar Allan Poe, and his popular, terrifying tales.
Edgar Allan Poe: America’s First Horror Stories
Edgar Allan Poe is probably best known for the beating heart under the floorboards, and quoth the raven bit.
Poe wrote between 1830-1849, when he was found semi-conscious outside a polling place in Baltimore (Bantam’s Classics-biography). Inbetween his birth in ’09 & death in ’49, he racked up gambling debts, was dishonorably discharged from the service, became estranged from his uncle (he was orphaned very young), married his thirteen-year-old cousin at the age of thirty-three, watched her die of consumption, and eeked out a miniscule little living. Though a popular writer, he never really received the literary recognition he deserved Stateside, but hailed in France as a brilliant mind.
Of course, now Edgar Allan Poe is known as the father of madness and mystery, as much as Daenerys Targaryen is the mother of dragons.
So, how does AHS: Coven hearken back to Edgar Allan Poe? Here are a list of themes Coven lifted right from the pages of America’s mystery mastermind.
1. The “Buried Alive” Trope
We first encounter a character buried alive in S3 E1 of AHS: Coven, Bitchcraft.
Madame LaLaurie has been entombed alive for over a century, having been given a potion by Marie Laveau to ensure a state of non-deterioration. In other words, LaLaurie is immortal, and completely trapped, penance for her crimes against humanity. That is, until Fiona, reigning Supreme of the Coven, unearths her with the help of Nan, whose gift of mind-reading allows her to hear LaLaurie mumbling from under the cobblestone.
A second live burial occurs when Madison Montgomery clocks fellow witchy-woman Misty Day over the head with a rock and sees her entombed in a crypt, the coffin’s former owner resurrected and wandering confusedly through the graveyard. Misty is unearthed three days later, and delivers a Bad Girls Club-style ass-kicking to an unrepentant, jealous Madison.
We see this theme played out in Poe’s frightening works, the Cask of Amontillado, as well as, the Fall of the House of Usher, which I will focus on here.
The Fall details a grand house on a god-forsaken moor inhabited by the brother and sister Usher, the last of an incestuous line and both cadaverous in form and beset by peculiar maladies. Rodereck twins his sister Madeline’s illness, though is apparently afflicted in his mind alone, while Madeline, like a she-ghost of old, wanders the house emaciated in a white nightgown, and is finally laid to rest in a family crypt.
But no – ! The alarming twist – she’s been alive all along, and buried, existing in that ghastly space between life and death. Usher details this to his friend moments before Madeline reappears, an animate corpse, at the door.
Not hear it? Yes, I hear it, and have heard it. Long – long – long – many minutes, many hours, many days have I heard it – yet I dared not – oh, pity me! miserable wretch that I am – I dared not – I dared not speak. We have put her living in the tomb! (the Tell-Tale Heart & Other Writings, pg. 42)
Of course, Usher’s just desserts for burying his kid sister alive include his own hasty post-mortem, as he and Madeline die together in abject horror, sibling-lovers beset by strange malady. Well.
In AHS, Madison gets off for burying Misty alive with an ass-kicking, but LaLaurie and Laveau have much more fatal intentions for each other. LaLaurie, too, must rid herself of Laveau if she is ever to loosen the bonds of immortality. But I will leave it at that, because anything more would be telling, and one does hate spoilers.
2. The “Death-Cheating,” and “Inevitability of Death” Trope
The characters in AHS: Coven are constantly cheating, or trying to cheat death. Fiona feels her powers fading and a cancer growing, which is directly related to the rise of the next Supreme. Science cannot save her, but she believes some witchcraft may, and so she unearths LaLaurie to discover her secrets of immortality. The trail leads her to Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen and mortal enemy, who refuses Fiona her death-cure.
[Spoiler Alert] However, the secret to Marie’s immortality is revealed when she explains that she made a deal with Papa Legba, a Haitian voodoo figure, the gatekeeper between here and the hereafter. It is said that one who truly desires Papa Legba will be able to meet with him, and to strike a bargain: a hideous task, to be completed yearly, as well as the soul of the querent, and immortality, or the temporary ability to cheat death, is theirs.
LaLaurie’s immortality is also attributed to Papa Legba, as Laveau cursed LaLaurie with one of her tears, binding the two together until Laveau’s (unlikely) death.
We see this trope played out in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, a story Poe published anonymously in 1845, which he passed off as scientific – a frightful hoax. In the Case of M. Valdemar, the main character is a hypnotist, then called “mesmerist,” who intends to mesmerize Valdemar at the point of death in order to cheat it. Valdemar is dying of pthisis (tuberculosis). The mesmerisation in articulo mortis would cause the subject to remain suspended between life and death for as long as the hypnosis lasts.
Mesmerisation occurs over the course of a few hours. Valdemar is put to sleep, but speaks from that place of suspension when called to, murmuring over and over, “Yes, I am asleep; do not wake me – let me die so.” And then, the moment of death passes, and from beyond, Valdemar says, “Yes! – no – I have been sleeping, and now – now – I am dead!”
In this unlikely suspension, Valdemar is kept for seven months, his body neither changing nor rotting. Believing that he, in fact, can awaken Valdemar to life from this dream state, the mesmerist makes passes over Valdemar’s body, and then:
His whole frame at once – within the space of a single minute, or even less, shrunk – crumbled, absolutely rotted away beneath my hands. Upon the bed, before that whole company, there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome – of detestable putridity (58).
So, we see in Poe that the attempt to cheat death by science or magic or both is completely thwarted, and that a far more horrible fate awaits those who attempt to do so.
But does an equally horrific fate await the women of American Horror Story: Coven, who have cheated or attempted to cheat death?
Short answer, yes. I won’t detail the sordid fates that await these witchy women (you’ll have to watch it yourself), but suffice to say, in the words of Papa Legba, eventually, everyone pays.
This is a strangely religious notion for the likes of Poe or the AHS: Coven writers. And yet the hells detailed or implied by both are alarmingly real, and the suffering therein is vast.
And I think this is the coolest thing about AHS: it is truly American in its roots and inspirations, familiar to those in tune with the dark histories and literary tropes we see Stateside, and who better to draw from for Horrific inspiration than the original scary story guy, Edgar Allan Poe?