American Horror Story has an interesting concept for American television: Ryan Murphy (the creator of Glee just to break your brain a little) has a reoccurring ensemble cast (the indominable Jessica Lange, the sharp Connie Britton, the delicate Taissa Farmiga, the endearing Evan Peters and the always delicious Zachary Quinto, just to name a few). Each season, it’s a completely different storyline with a completely characters, played by the ensemble as they go through various time periods and horror tropes. This makes it so that if you’re not into a season, you can just start the next season fresh.
Naturally, when I started hearing about season three (Coven), I got very excited and also a bit concerned. Not so much from a factual standpoint because it’s a fictional horror story, though episode one has already hit some good, historically accurate points – the women who were burnt at the stake were not actually witches historically, Angela Basset is wonderful so far as Marie Laveau, Kathy Bates depicts Delphine LaLaurie as the soulless, sadistic serial killer that she was.
I was more concerned if I would be able to handle the horror aspect with something that hit so close to home. Already a character has been burnt at the stake for witchcraft in a modern setting by being dragged out in the middle of the night by her family and doused in gasoline. Ryan Murphy is disturbingly good at starkly setting a scene in a very modern context.
Todd VanDerWerff takes on his qualms about Murphy handling the intricacies of presenting witchcraft and systematic oppression very adroitly in his A.V. Club review, but he hits the nail on the head particularly here:
If there’s something Murphy and Falchuk seem to be aiming at this season, it’s subjugation and what happens whenever people are beaten down enough to lash out. Witchcraft, which has traditionally been an expression of feminine power in mythology, is a solid way of angling toward that basic idea, and in bringing in a topic like slavery and the systemic oppression of African-Americans, the show has a natural thematic B-story to everything else. [. . .]Some people have all the power, so much so that they seem to wear it like a light summer jacket, and when anyone tries to take that power away, they’re shoved aside.
This, again, is a pretty good basis for a horror story. The powerless taking their power back through force undergirds the subtext of many a horror tale (including Carrie, coming soon to a theatre near you), but I can never quite cotton to the way that Murphy and Falchuk seem far more interested in the actions of subjugation directed upon the powerless than they are in the moments when the power is taken back. [. . .]
But there’s far more time and attention lavished on the build-up to that moment, on Madison’s humiliation and sexual torment, than there is on her revenge. Her revenge is just another thing that happens; the build-up is just the way the world works.
Which is actually true. Subjugation of women and people of other races and those with Down’s syndrome happens each and every second of each and every day, and it’s valuable to examine those questions in a context where the fiction is obviously fictional.
All those particular qualms aside, in this fictional context he’s pitted Fiona (Jessica Lange’s character) against Cordelia (Sarah Paulson’s character) as mother and daughter in a dispute that’s not so fictional to those of us in the witchcraft community: Is it better to know, to dare, to keep silent or to fight back overtly? Have we allowed ourselves as Workers to become completely declawed in our efforts to become socially acceptable?
I’ve been thinking about these two particular issues a lot lately. Starting with the first issue, I think the real question is what are you trying to accomplish as a Worker? Fighting back usually isn’t even about magic in this day and age anyway, it’s about perception in the media which is why the phrase “Witch War” isn’t actually all that exciting in reality, it’s mostly a devolving internet argument where everyone calls each other stupid.
Fighting back overtly can be important though, make no mistake about it. Selena Fox fought back when here in New Jersey a radio station decided to make dumb remarks that are typical of that particular radio station. Why not pick on Pagans, Witches and Occultists? There’s got to be somegroup that it’s still okay to be discriminatory towards, right? Selena Fox knew exactly what to do and it had nothing to do with being silent and everything to do with ensuring that they published her media statement describing local Pagan groups’ involvement in the military, donations to local food banks and educating about Paganism as an umbrella term for earth based religion.
I spoke up when Z. Budapest caused a ruckus over at PantheaCon last year because even within Pagan/Occultist circles, we tend to be guilty of thinking that if an elder of a tradition thinks something that everyone in that tradition agrees with the elder. And um no. Even in Catholicism, the phrase “The Pope says a lot of things.” exists for a reason.
But there is something about being silent. I talk about curse work theory fairly often in my blog for a few reasons. A. No one else ever seems to want to. B. I like to think I give a fairly neutral, level headed presentation on the issue. But I discuss theory, witchcraft and morality, not what curse work I’ve actually done. Having the whole world knowing generally where all your bodies are buried is a bad idea.
I know most of us want to be seen as more than Glenda the Good Witch and the temptation is strong to let people know what kind of bad assery you’re capable of so they don’t mess with you. But think about it this way: who do you think is tougher, that friend of yours who’s always blabbing about being a third degree black belt or Bruce Lee? Did Bruce Lee need to tell people that he could kick their asses? No. He knew he could. He didn’t have to say it. Conversely, who do you put more of a question mark about messing with: someone who’s always talking about their initiations and the wide array of magical prowess they claim to have or the person who simply introduces themselves by their name?
I also know that we have very divergent beliefs as Occultists/Pagans that sometimes we have very little in common and we would like to not all be lumped into the same category but here’s a not so secret secret: Non-Pagan/Occultists are going to do that anyway whether you give them a thoughtful ten minute presentation on your belief system or simply say you’re a Wiccan (whether or not you actually are). My mom is still completely unclear as to what I believe in.
So maybe your neighbor thinks you’re an airy-fairy flake. So what? How does that not work in your favor? You’re seen as harmless and not scary. What part of that doesn’t help you not get on the wrong side of the condo association and practice the Dark Arts with the blinds closed? It’s not like you were going to invite your neighbor over for that part of your practice anyway.
Still. There is something to be said about feeling like a declawed, neutered house cat all the time because we are what we pretend to be. And if we spend too much time pretending to be a declawed, neutered house cat just to get through the day and not enough time practicing witchcraft, our perception of ourselves can shift and weaken our magic.
So this Halloween, I’m going to dress as Zoe from American Horror Story. And when people ask me who I’m supposed to be, I’ll smile and say, “I’m a witch.”