‘American Horror Story: Coven’ casts spell with black voodoo narrative

Opinion

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Halloween started early for fans of American Horror Story when the third season kicked off October 9.

Titled American Horror Story: Coven, this season focuses on witches and has added noticeable color with Angela Bassett playing storied New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau and Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie, a descendant of Tituba, the woman of color at the center of the infamous Salem witch trials.

History comes in all forms these days and AHS: Coven is muddled with it. Creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who joined forces during Nip/Tuck, which Murphy birthed, are also key players behind Glee and, through these two previous projects, have regularly included African-American characters. But arguably no project from them eclipses the depth of AHS: Coven.

Long before many other genres, African-Americans found a place in horror. Perhaps because the origin of the word “zombie” itself is rooted in Haitian Creole, with the very concept tied to Vodou or Voodoo, as it is more popularly written. While popular culture has turned “voodoo” into a freak show, it is actually a religion with deep West African roots that is believed to mingle those roots with the Roman Catholicism that was forced upon enslaved Africans from there. In this country, New Orleans is the “voodoo” epicenter, with the practice taking rise in the late 1790s and 1800s as those fleeing Saint Domingue, the one-time French colony, during the tumultuous Haitian Revolution sought refuge there.

In AHS: Coven, a correlation between witchcraft and voodoo is clearly made, with the two practices which share similar roots being at war most notably through Bassett’s Laveau and the witch Fiona, played by Jessica Lange, who has appeared in all of the show’s incarnations. Although most Americans are indeed familiar with the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in the late 17th century, few probably learned about Tituba during history classes.

While many historians are unclear if Tituba was an “Indian” or African slave, AHS: Coven kind of takes the view consistent in West Indian culture that acknowledges the influence of the Arawak Indians and the African slaves brought to its many islands. So Tituba’s descendant Queenie, who is a modern-day witch, traces her heritage to both influences.

Now, as in American history, things get very complicated when slavery is thrown in the pot. And, with AHS: Coven, slavery, or rather its ghost, is very much one of the season’s anchors. Kathy Bates plays the infamous Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a real life New Orleanian who was well known in the 1800s. Though a socialite, LaLaurie, it was discovered, tortured her slaves, and her Royal Street mansion, restored from fire and briefly owned by the actor Nicholas Cage, still stands today. The 1834 fire, which many believed was started by an enslaved cook whom LaLaurie reportedly chained to the stove, was the catalyst to revealing her house of horrors, which according to English social theorist Harriet Martineau, considered the first female sociologist, recounting tales she was told by New Orleans resident in her 1838 book, Retrospect of Western Travel, included seven “horribly mutilated” slaves.

LaLaurie’s attic contained the dead bodies of slaves whom she tortured. Upon its discovery, LaLaurie and her family were driven out of town. It is rumored that LaLaurie fled to Paris and died there. An epitaph plate discovered at her one-time New Orleans mansion states that LaLaurie died in Paris but was buried in New Orleans, at the  home. Hence, the storyline of Marie Laveau using a potion to damn LaLaurie to eternal life, burying her alive on her property as retribution for torturing and mutilating her lover.

Fiona’s freeing of LaLaurie ignites war between her and Laveau. Interestingly, though Fiona is not depicted as a racist or even sympathetic to them, she has a connection to LaLaurie who, of course, is horrified to learn that a black man is president. Fiona even brags to LaLaurie about voting for him twice.

And, in another twist to the story, Queenie is credited for saving LaLaurie’s life when the beast she created, the lover whom Marie Laveau resurrected, comes for her. Of course, the obvious question is why?

In AHS: Coven, Laveau, who really did operate a beauty salon, has also lived for a century or more. And though in real life, Laveau is famously buried in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1, there were of course sightings of her reported after her death. Adding to that confusion is the fact that her daughter, who was also Marie Laveau, publicly practiced voodoo, which attracted many tourists. Of course there are many who believe the two to be one and the same.

These historically-inspired storylines mingling truth and fiction are both entertaining and thought-provoking, troubling even.

Bassett, who has a long history of playing real-life people, shines in the role which also touches upon the horrors of Jim Crow. In an interesting twist, AHS: Coven includes lynched black men among the zombies. So “the beast,” Laveau’s former lover, can be considered one but the storyline involving a 1960s lynching of the son of one of Laveau’s salon clients is particularly deep. Here these black zombies are out to avenge racial injustice. It’s a good twist that, especially at this moment in time in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s death and trial, as well as the case involving the alleged murder of another teen, Jordan Davis, by an older white man, Michael Dunn, who reportedly felt threatened by Davis and his friends’ loud music, speaks volumes.

This year has indeed been full of surprises as themes of racial injustice, the impact and horror of slavery and Jim Crow, have penetrated and succeeded at the box office and, now, on the small screen. Marie Laveau in particular may not be the major storyline of AHS: Coven but, like African-Americans in this country who remain a minority group, she leaves a hell of an impression. Her power and force, as portrayed by Bassett, cannot be ignored.

And, with AHS: Coven only four episodes into its thirteen-episode run, the rest of the season promises to be a thrilling ride.

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @RondaRacha.