By ALYSSA BERDIE and KAITLYN TIFFANY
American Horror Story is meant to explore and exploit the typically “American” fascinations with very specific forms of horror: those which invade the American home and family, those which get us labeled as “insane” and barred from participation in society, and those which send us on literal and metaphorical witch hunts and epitomize our collective paranoia. But, more than simply presenting these themes for viewers across the country (and around the world), show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk illuminate the classic plotlines of American horror as classic plotlines of female horror. Every season, the most terrifying depictions of violence, betrayal, and tragedy are inflicted upon women. Every season, the most deeply feminine fears, unique to the female body and to the types of violence inflicted upon it, are the ones most wholly realized.
Historically, horror movies have used sexualized violence as a way to hold audience’s interest, to make violent eroticism more acceptable in mainstream media, and to perpetuate the societally reinforced male urge to be not only violent, but violent against women, specifically. American Horror Story emphasizes these themes until they’re impossible to ignore, be it through depictions of involuntary sex with ghosts, stillborn babies, possession by the devil, drug-induced gang-rape, mutilated but living bodies, impregnation by aliens/rapists/serial murderers, the inability to get pregnant, a housekeeper who has one appearance around women and another around men, or a sadistic Nazi doctor who fetishizes virginity and brutally punishes sexuality.
The show has “an uncanny ability to provoke pure disgust,” writes Grantland’s Molly Lambert. “How many other shows can boast that they make viewers need to throw up?” But I’d argue that it’s not “viewers,” who feel the need to purge, but female viewers—those for whom the triggers of paralyzing fear are laid out subtly in American Horror Story, over and over again.
The Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB) describes American Horror Story as a story about “abjection”—referring to Julia Kristeva’s conception of the word, which is based on the Hebrew Bible. “The Judaic Tribes of the Hebrew Bible created laws concerning what was and wasn’t abject so that they wouldn’t die out: people naturally wanted to do things like have sex with their wives when the wives were on their periods, but when you’re living in the desert, as these Judaic Tribes were, you just can’t get yourself clean enough. Accessing the abject would be to risk disease and, ultimately, death.” The answer to this problem is to turn the woman’s menstrual cycle into something unclean and shameful—in other words, “abject”—and create around it a theory “of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live.” According to Kristeva, the abject applies to not just what physically repulses, inducing nausea in the same manner that American Horror Story does in its viewers, but also, on a deeper level, to “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”
The violence of American Horror Story is a violence of abjection because it, in all cases, appeals to that which we as women find most basically horrifying and simultaneously engrossing. The horrors presented are “engrossing” here because to experience them is so unimaginable that it must be imagined, so unseeable that we must, at least for a moment, see it.
season one: murder house
Murder House takes on your standard Amityville Horror trope of the corrupted American Dream: a family with a horrible past and a shaky future jumps at the chance to move into a beautiful and affordable home for an opportunity to start over, regardless of the house’s well-known violent past. The essence of the American Horror Story project is to re-imagine these already familiar tropes; the premise is the same, some of the events are the same, but the overall picture is surreally horrifying, larger than life, bigger than “based on a true story,” and hopelessly, convolutedly gory.
In regards to Murder House, this means that the home has not just a history of murder, but a legacy of it; highly sexualized violence has been occurring in this house for generations because it’s just what society does. Society murders women. And, though it is not only women who die in American Horror Story’s debut season, it is mostly women whose ultimate horrors are recognized. The website Autostraddle points out that the violence isn’t sexualized simply because a lot of it is based on explicitly sexual acts of violence, but also, in a broader sense, because “brutality and gore are sometimes eroticized here in a way you might be familiar with if you’ve seen enough horror.”
The ability for the home to be penetrated by evil creates a direct and painfully obvious allegory for the vulnerability of the female body. It is Vivien (Connie Britton) who initiated the move into the infamous murder house after she discovered her husband Ben’s (Dylan McDermott) infidelity—he had been sleeping with an undergraduate student of his, Hayden (Kate Mara)—and it is Vivien who ultimately pays the price when Hayden’s ghost infiltrates her home with the intent of destroying Ben’s family. The invasion of Vivien’s body by Tate (Evan Peters) in disguise is an equal and parallel horror, and the moment in which she realizes that she carries not her husband’s child, but the child of a murderous ghost, is one of the most heartbreaking moments in recent television memory.
The only scene that could possibly top it is Violet’s (Taissa Farmiga) realization that her suicide attempt was successful and that she is forever trapped in the house in immortal ghostly form. While she thought that she had tried and failed to kill herself upon learning Tate was responsible for a decades-old school shooting, it is then revealed that her body has been rotting beneath the floorboards of her own home for months. As the teenage victim-of-the-mistakes-of-others, Violet represents the singularly horrifying notion that a young woman can become consumed by her affection for a man to the point that she might immaturely decide her life is worth nothing without his. Here, the horror is doubled because she is granted the superficial continuance of life that allows her to feel the crushing regret of the decision.
“But it’s never that simple,” writes LARB, “the abject is at once an object of fascination and of repugnance. It draws in as it repels, seduces as it disgusts. It ‘fascinates desire,’ but must, ultimately, be rejected. We want to see a corpse, not because we’re weird, but because a body should mean life—and here it doesn’t. It confuses meaning, sure, but that’s gross and engrossing.” We are uniquely horrified and fascinated by Violet’s ability to look upon her own decomposing body, and we are shamed by this feeling.
Ultimately, women are the ultimate source of abjection—they are the source of menstrual blood, they are the embodiment of the emotional and the obsessive over the rational and the existential, they are selfish in motherhood and want to keep their children close and dependent. “In tales of abjection, the abject feminine manifests as the sprawling abyss— the mother who threatens to consume, to castrate, to make others into the gaping hole that is their lack.” Despite our empathy, something in us condemns Vivien’s efforts to hold her broken home together, something in us sees Violet as young and stupid, something in us must be repulsed by them in order to avoid their fate.
season 2: asylum
Asylum is a somewhat-expected rendering of America’s dark history of imprisoning and treating as sub-human, psychiatric patients whose ailments were debatable and whose “treatments” were unspeakable. Again, it is the horror of the female that is given center stage; while men and women reside together at Briarcliff, the men are there for nameable crimes (though not all are guilty), while the women are there for vague and even ridiculous reasons, all distinctly feminine, and are subsequently abused in distinctly feminine ways. Grace has been imprisoned after murdering her sexually abusive father and is later forced to undergo a botched and nearly fatal hysterectomy; Shelley is diagnosed as a nymphomaniac (though her only ostensible crime is talking about enjoying sex) and becomes the victim of horrible medical experiments; Charlotte believes herself to be Anne Frank, is clearly suffering from postpartum depression, and receives a lobotomy to eliminate her “violent psychosis,” a procedure that leaves her powerless, docile and ultimately, the perfect domestic companion to a husband who missed not her, but her childcare and cooking services.
The most striking example of the realization of female horror in Asylum, however, is the imprisonment of ambitious journalist, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), who originally comes to Briarcliff hoping to expose some of its indecencies. The horrifying but ultimately male-subjugated Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) discovers that Lana is a closeted lesbian, sharing an apartment with her partner Wendy (Clea Duvall), and then blackmails Wendy into having Lana committed. While I have to admit that most of Murder House didn’t really strike a chord with me, horror-wise, the terror came early and often in Asylum. As a woman, there is no fear more deep-seated and triggering than the fear of being unfairly labeled as crazy and of being powerless to stop your own march towards silencing.
Lana’s “treatments” in the asylum range from electroshock therapy to an absolutely devastating-to-witness aversion therapy in which she is given a vomit-inducing serum paired with images of sexualized women and then forced to masturbate while touching a male prisoner’s penis. Shortly after this episode aired, Autostraddle published a piece entitled, “The Lesbians of American Horror Story: For Us, the Scary Parts are Real,” which presented the horrors that Lana experienced as particularly horrifying given their general historical accuracy and symmetry to commonly-practiced “cures” for homosexuality. “To have such practices fully supported by society is a horror story we don’t need to call inventive or fantastic, because we know the line between our stories and a story like Lana Winters’ is still too thin,” writes Kate.
Winters is also raped by Bloody Face (Zachary Quinto), a serial murderer who kills women and turns their skin inside out. He reveals to her that he killed Wendy, and then rapes her while referring to her as his mother. Later he begs her not to abort the child that this act produces, and dubs her violation of the motherly duty an act of monstrosity. Lana tries to abort the baby herself with a coat hanger, but fails, and even when she reluctantly gives birth and asks that she not have to look at the child, she is ultimately, and horrifyingly, forced to breast feed it. The last episode of Asylum, “Madness Ends,” provides small comforts—though it is revealed that Bloody Face’s son has found a taped recording of his mother vowing to abort him and his father begging to save him and has subsequently taken up his father’s work of murdering women. In the final episode, Lana gets to shoot him in the fucking head.
In this way, Asylum grants more resolution to the female horror story than Murder House—Autostraddle also writes, “Whereas all evil in Murder House can be traced back to the evil manipulative seductresses of past and present, all evil in Asylum traces back to this or that fucked-up power-hungry white guy and/or the archaic ethics that enabled powerful people to treat women like sub-humans.” The women in Asylum are stronger than the ones in Murder House, and Sister Jude and Lana both receive redemption after years of fighting. While American Horror Story offers up abuse after abuse against these women, we’re not watching because we like to see them be brutalized, but because, as Madeleine Davies of Jezebel writes, “They are the kind of women who, when punched in the face, will spit out a bloody tooth then throw a punch of their own.”
season 3: coven
Coven gave us an imagined sequel to 17th century Salem witch trials, where women were prosecuted as “witches” and put to death for committing acts such as not attending church and not believing in the existence of ghosts, or for simply having a poor reputation. Clearly, this was a time of female horror, as the only “proof” of being “witches” many of these women exhibited was that they were either mentally or emotionally disturbed. However, rather than being treated like humans in need of help, they became victims of their powerlessness and mass hysteria. Coven takes place mostly in modern times—though occasionally jumping back to the 1830s—in a world where witches (and the hunt) still exist. The main story takes place at Miss Robichaux’s Academy boarding school, run by Headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), where young witches come to learn their craft, control their powers, and stay safe from the Delphi Trust, a wealthy corporation of witch hunters who pose as a financial institution. Delphi is secretly working with the Voodoo priestesses, a group of mostly African-American women who are rivals of the witch coven and also want them dead. Since the majority of the cast is comprised of women, Coven gave viewers more female horror than any season thus far.
In the first episode of the season, a young witch, Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), decides to have sex with her boyfriend for the first time and accidentally kills him, causing her mother to send her to Miss Robichaux’s Academy. This first female horror presented itself in the very first scene of the first episode: Benson murders her boyfriend because she unknowingly posses a power from the Salem era to cause brain hemorrhaging on anyone she has sexual intercourse with, leaving her feeling afraid and out-of-control of her own body. Later in that same episode, another young witch at Miss Robichaux’s, Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), is gang-raped by a group of frat brothers after being given Rohypnol or a “roofie” at a frat party. These are both examples of the way society refuses to explain to young girls the horrors that they can potentially face in a culture that still rarifies realistic sex education and silences the victims of sexual assault.
One of the most widespread female horrors in and outside of the American Horror Story world is that of female competition and racism. Coven, specifically, features a rivalry between the witches of the coven and the Voodoo priestesses. American Horror Story show runner Ryan Murphy commented that the season “really is about the witches of Salem pitted against Voodoo witches.” The witch coven and the Voodoo women have been feuding since the witches settled in New Orleans, invading the Voodoo priestesses’ territory and pointing to current intersectional feminism in America—or the lack thereof. Intersectional feminism is simply the equality of all women, regardless of sexuality, biology, race, body-type, and men. Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), another young student at Miss. Robichaux’s Academy, is the Coven’s only black member, which quickly became an example of how women are ostracized or made to feel different from other women due to race, sexuality, and body-image—concepts we see in media and that bleed into our reality. Queenie struggles with being part of the all-white Coven, even though she is a descendent of the Coven like the rest of the witches. Eventually, she accepts an offer from Marie Laveau to be a part of a “proper family.” The Voodoo faction in general is discarded in favor of the white witches. The priestesses’ living conditions are far inferior to the Coven’s, and the anger that Laveau lives with stems from violence perpetrated by a racist. Yet, the whole first half of the season depicts the rivalry between Supreme Witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange) and Voodoo Queen Laveau, where Fiona goes as far as to exhume Delphine LaLaurie—a serial killer who tortured and murdered slaves, including Laveau’s lover—to anger Laveau, ignoring the much larger injustices LaLaurie has committed in her lifetime. The rivalry escalates, becoming a race war as Fiona ends up beheading Laveau’s former lover. Laveau orders a witch hunter to kill the entirety of the Coven and Queenie joins Laveau by threatening Zoe and Madison that, “The war is coming… and you are going to lose.”
As a whole, Coven is about female power because, in the end, the witches do prevail. And not only do these witches overcome the witch hunters; they do it together in what I thought was one of the greatest scenes on television. Fiona and Laveau eventually come together for the betterment of all of these supernatural women, and devise a plan to confront the witch hunters in the most simple of terms—mercilessly killing every member of the Delphi Trust present without even getting out of their seats. They later toast to a “long, long friendship” because, as Fiona said herself, “When witches don’t fight, we burn.” This scene between Laveau, Fiona, and the Delphi Trust truly embodies the idea of intersectional feminism—minus the supernatural aspects and murder. The feud between these witches throughout the season depicted a very concerning divide amongst women. But, in the end, the unity between Fiona and Laveau and disbandment of the Delphi Trust shows us that solidarity between all women is the most effective and powerful way for women to stand-up and fight against the inequality we currently face.
Regardless of the horrors American Horror Story creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk choose to depict, it is hard to deny—though many have—the extremely unique and powerful way Murphy and Falchuk present the many hardships women (and Americans in general) continue to face. Some fail to see that this show is more than just frightening and gory entertainment, but a commentary on how these injustices that exist in our world are much larger and much scarier than they appear to us in reality.