'American Horror Story: Coven' - Slavery As Torture Porn?

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by Zeba Blay
October 17, 2013 5:41 PM
17 Comments
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A mere thirty-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.
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17 Comments

  • Rachael | November 26, 2013 9:08 PMReply

    THANK YOU for writing this -- and I'm disappointed to read commenters telling you that you are essentially overreacting because the very SECOND that bull's head went on the man's body my immediate reaction was "NO! THIS IS GOING WAY TOO FAR!" I was almost there when Bates' character addressed the caged slave whose eyes and mouth were stitched shut. I have enjoyed many of the performances on AHS but I began to question the writers during Season #2 with all the gratuitous rape scenes. Yes, slavery IS a REAL American Horror Story, but as bell hooks pointed out in her recent discussion with Melissa Harris Perry at The New School, it seems that the black experience in the USA has been commodified and the only thing that "sells" or interests viewers are images of pain, brutality, rape...essentially torture porn. I almost feel like Americans (white Americans, especially) are so drawn to Civil War era narratives because we can look back and say, "Oh hey! We've come so far! At least we don't do THAT anymore!" I am curious to see how this season concludes but...if the writers were REALLY trying to make a bold and radical statement about race relations...wouldn't they have more than TWO people of color in starring roles -- in the season that's supposed to be about race?

    Also, disappointed to see so many commenters de-railing you in your analysis by pointing out how white bodies are also the victims of violence in AHS. Missing. the. point.

  • Monie | October 19, 2013 10:09 AMReply

    You are seriously over-thinking this show.
    Every show that involves slavery is not meant to be a historical homage to slavery. As long as a program doesn't show some Anglo's fantasy of the "happy slaves" myth, and shows the misery/agony of slavery, then I feel it can work.
    This show has always been a "nod to the macabre" - think the 60's, 70's, and 80's "hack 'em up" movies.
    "American Horror Story" portrays the majority of Anglo characters as being racist (at different levels - Kathy Bates' character being the most comfortable with her racism). It also portrays the misery and horrors of slavery.
    It's a fantasy show. Angela Bassett, Jessica Lange, and Kathy Bates are the 3 reasons to watch it.

  • amina | October 18, 2013 4:10 PMReply

    Don't watch the show but based on your article they have also depicted other historical events in a similar manner. We have to own up to the fact that there was slavery in America, and it was indeed a peculiar institution.

  • jdbmelb | October 18, 2013 1:35 AMReply

    LOVED the first 2 series (particularly Asylum) but have to say I'm struggling with Series 3. Had such high hopes, but am worried it's just going to miss its mark. Feels a bit all over the shop, or that little bit too self-aware. What made Asylum so great was the mix of horror/absurdness/pathos. Remember those exquisite scenes towards the end with Kit and Sister Jude living together?

    Hope things improve real soon.

  • beemooree | October 17, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    Did kathy bates call angela bassett a n word last night? I couldve sworn she did. It was like you n word something.

  • Vanessa Martinez | October 17, 2013 7:33 PMReply

    Zeba, I've tried with these two episodes but I'm having issues with it for reasons you mentioned. As you pointed out, I don't like the way slavery is shown in the context of this show for pure shock value and entertainment. It's like having A German Horror Story show and seeing Jews being gassed. No.

  • ojie | October 17, 2013 7:00 PMReply

    Why cant we just marvel in the entertainment aspect and just looooove these wonderful actors and this wonderful, greusome, edgy show?

  • CVJ | October 17, 2013 8:05 PM

    This. Anyone who has ever watched American Horror Story knows that they've never shied away from too much gore or horror porn or anything like it, really. I'm not getting up in arms over this, black people. - signed, also a descendant of slaves, also a black person.

  • Valerie | October 17, 2013 6:53 PMReply

    There is a point that this article failed to address or may not have been aware of. Ryan Murphy has made it a point in a few behind the scenes commentaries about the show that he wanted to take real issues that were prevalent during the time period he addresses in each season and use experimental horror to amplify the horrors these societal ills were in their times.

    The story is based on a legend of a supposed true story in New Orleans. Ryan Murphy makes a point to address the common misconceptions about voodoo, the SAlem witch trials, and the way races view one another and the abuses they afflict on one another because of these misconceptions.

    While a bit overboard on the horror gore for my tastes even as a die-hard horror fan, Murphy brings back a missing element to the horror genre-psychological terror. The images are meant to be terrifying and disturbing. That's the whole point.

  • Jo Lamat | October 18, 2013 12:36 PM

    You said it perfectly, Valerie!

  • Joe Lee | October 17, 2013 8:22 PM

    Thank you so much for sharing Valerie because you are absolutely right.

    Saw is torture porn. Hostel is torture porn. This is not slavery porn. It is a horror story set within the centralized context of race relations and the lengths people will go to satisfy the superficialities of ego. The lens is horror and rightly so.

    Is it at times gratuitous? Yes. But as a horror fan, I am not watching a show called American Horror story only to feel like I am watching Are You Afraid of the Dark.

    And kudos to the casting this season...the acting is exhilaratingly good as usual and Angela Bassett versus Jessica Lange is a real treat.

  • Nikki | October 17, 2013 6:45 PMReply

    Did we not see some White guys stitched together? Did we not see White Girls flung against a wall (Similar to Kathy hitting Sidibe)? How many scenes of slavery were there exactly?

  • HypnotiqOne | October 17, 2013 6:44 PMReply

    I'm so tired of the need to complain.

  • ojie | October 17, 2013 6:58 PM

    Word!!!!

  • WaheedahB | October 17, 2013 6:30 PMReply

    I have been a fan of the show because it is creative and edgy, but I must agree, as a descendant of enslaved Africans in the U.S., I find its use of slavery-porn as a trope highly disturbing. I am trying to reserve judgment until a few more episodes, primarily because of Angela Bassett's excellent performance, however, if I continue to be assaulted by gratuitous violence against black bodies, I will have to drop this from my viewing and complain the FOX. Enslavement is too close and violence against black Americans still too common for it to be displayed thusly.

  • omar | October 17, 2013 11:41 PM

    What did you expect from a show called American Horror Story? It was mentioned before that AHS has re created/referenced the Richard Speck murders, the Columbine mass shootings, and the Nazi Holocaust. Did you complain about them? Gratuitous violence against black bodies offends you. So you're okay with violence against anyone else.

  • ojie | October 17, 2013 6:59 PM

    So, are you going to write to the studio who made Django or the studio who made 12 years a slave? or the network who did Roots?

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