The third season (Coven) of American Horror Story (AHS) was by far the most popular installment to date of the television series. A record number of 4.2 million viewers tuned in for the season finale to find out who would reign supreme in this epic of witches from Salem and voodoo queens, all set in magical New Orleans. Due to the increased popularity of the most recent season of AHS, it seems appropriate to address some racial and religious injustices perpetrated by the program – common Hollywood prejudices whose firm grip upon the popular imagination has apparently not relaxed in the twenty-first century.
Many published works on Vodou include a preface that says something like, “Vodou is not devil worship, black magic, cannibalism, etc.” This is a necessary introduction, as Vodou is a religious tradition that has long been glamorized and vilified by scandalized white voyeurism and fear of black power. Hollywood did not originate the diabolic spectacle versions of Vodou, but has been a vehicle for its wide dispersion. The ubiquitous image of the zombie of Walking Dead or any comparable works have their roots in the sensationalist creation of “voodoo” by white writers.
The grim fascination of Vodou for white audiences began in the eighteenth century with the legendary Vodou roots of the Haitian Revolution, in which men and women of color rose up against a sadistically cruel slave economy in the French colony of St. Domingue and, ultimately, won independence. The victory of the Haitian republicans horrified white slaveholders in the newly-independent United States and caused political turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic. Suspicion of the savage “slave religion” of Vodou has followed it ever since, and in the twentieth century became fertile ground for the spectacular entertainment of Hollywood.
So with that, what has all this to do with AHS: Coven?
Coven introduces the viewer to the fictional New Orleans boarding school, Miss Robichaux’s Academy, a school for young witches. The school was founded by the persecuted witches of Salem, who fled New England for New Orleans, and is now a safe haven and place of instruction for modern witches. There is a tense peace in the City of New Orleans between the predominantly white witches of the academy and Marie Laveau, the centuries-old voodoo queen and her devotees, who are women of color.
The focus of the season is, by far, the Salem-heritage witches of Miss Robichaux’s; however, Marie Laveau and her fellow Vodou sévités, based at a hair salon, stand as antagonists to the witches. As such, the development of Marie Laveau’s character is less comprehensive than the other characters; however, near the end of the season a window into Marie’s past is opened that directly touches on the themes of race and religion.
It is revealed that the source of Marie’s powers and her extraordinarily long life is a deal she made with Papa Legba, one of the principal lwa of the Vodou pantheon. Here is the first problem with the depiction of Vodou in AHS, it is never portrayed as a religion, but as a black magical tradition. Papa Legba shows up to explain how Marie received her powers. Legba is iconographically a muddle of other lwa, principally the familiar figure of Baron Samedi (always depicted as negative and scary by Hollywood). Naratively, Legba functions more like the figure of the Christian devil. He is the lord of Hell and comes to collect those bound for the afterlife; his deal with Marie is to exchange power and immortality for her soul. Another stipulation of this deal is that she must provide him with the soul of an innocent child each year. Here the depiction of Legba goes beyond any kind of blending of lwa characteristics and stumbles headlong into the lurid sensationalism of white commentators on Vodou since, at least, the nineteenth century.
Papa Legba, in Vodou practice, is the keeper of the crossroads. It is he who holds the keys to gate between the world of the lwa and the world of human beings. As such, Legba is served and petitioned at any Vodou service, so that the ceremony may take place at all. As such, the iconography of St. Peter with the keys of heaven and hell is often used to represent Legba. Alternately, he is depicted as a man with a cane, broad-brimmed hat, smoking a pipe, and attended by a dog. Thus, both iconographically and characteristically, AHS made a mess of the figure of this important lwa. Making him a cocaine-snorting baby-eater is the offensive icing on the cake, so to speak. Not only does this distort Vodou in rather unimaginative ways, it treats Marie Laveau in a misogynistic and, again, racially problematic light.
Laveau, the real Marie Laveau, can in many ways not be separated from the legends that have grown up around her (such is the also the case with Delphine Lalaurie, who figures into the AHS narrative). What can be said definitively about Marie Laveau is that she was a spiritual practitioner in the city of New Orleans, who had some measure of public recognition for her work. She is, perhaps, one of the most popularly well-known women religious leaders in a city that has known many, from the Ursuline sisters that helped settle and build the young colony to a long line of women’s leadership in the Spiritual Churches of the city. Women, both Vodou, Christian, and beyond have been arbiters of the divine and leaders of the community in New Orleans. AHS demonizes Marie Laveau and her religious tradition just as male religious leaders have discounted the leadership of women for centuries. The narrative spends more time working through the character of the notorious racist and slave-torturer, Mme. Delphine Lalaurie, and renders Laveau and Queenie as rather flat versions of the “good” and “bad negro.”
If the writers of AHS were going to write a fanciful revision of the Salem Witch Trials — themselves an historical instance of religious hysteria and violence of against women—why then are the same racist and misogynistic tropes trotted out for the “voodoo” women of New Orleans?
Granted,the concept of “horror” is written into the very title of this television series; however, it doesn’t seem that the kind of atrocities the writers ended up depicting, either blatantly or subtly, were what they had in mind for this season about scary witches.
By: Seth Alexander