Witches have been a presence on the small screen since the 1960s, but their popularity is currently at a zenith. That fact may go hand-in-hand with the abundance of supernatural themed shows on TV. While every show has their own mythology when it comes to these magical characters, one fact is indisputable. TV witches have become much darker and malignant throughout the years. The days of the sweet, blonde haired, blue eyed, nose twitching Samantha Stephens (Elizabeth Montgomery) on Bewitched
are gone. This is indicative of cultural and societal changes that have desensitized viewers to violence. It also reflects the current popularity of shows with dark protagonists and subject matter.
The latest installment of American Horror Story
, always shockingly graphic, has introduced viewers to a coven of witches. It contains by far the least nurturing and most malevolent incarnation of the popular supernatural go-to character. AHS: Coven
focuses strictly on witches trying to survive in contemporary society as their numbers dwindle. The show distinguishes itself from other supernatural/horror dramas due to the lack of redeeming characteristics of its primary characters.
Matriarchs and Magic
American Horror Story: Freak Show is available on Amazon Prime.
An underlying theme that fuels many of the show's story lines is the complexity of mother/daughter relationships. A central character who constantly finds her actions at odds with "traditional" mothering is "Supreme" witch Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange). Fiona, a prodigy who has neglected her daughter, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), has returned because of her poor health, and the realization that she's completely neglected her coven and therefore her legacy. Only after Cordelia is blinded and considered vulnerable, does Fiona's maternal instinct start to manifest.
Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Nan (Jamie Brewer) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), all of whom who are relying on Cordelia for guidance and education as well as the wisdom of Fiona as their Supreme, are flailing. Too distracted by her own yearning to become a parent and the return of Fiona, Cordelia has been unable to keep track of her undisciplined students' misadventures that include: raising the dead, the murder of multiple fraternity boys, releasing evil spirits and battling zombies.
Immortal racist and serial killer Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates) resurgence into contemporary society results in an unlikely kinship with student Queenie. After torturing her own daughters, she tries to make amends by offering Queenie her new, but not vastly improved, brand of mothering. When Queenie expresses a disconnect from fellow witches Zoe and Nan, Delphine tells her it is because she is black. Delphine's influence over Queenie drives her right into the arms of another equally poisonous mother figure, Voodoo Priestess Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett).
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The AHS: Coven
witches aren't the only to stray due to the lack of a strong maternal figure. After the death of Bonnie Bennett's (Kat Graham) grandmother on The Vampire Diaries
, she became careless with her powers. She disobeyed the laws of nature to revive Jeremy (Steven McQueen) after he was shot. She was stripped of all the powers bestowed on her by hundreds of deceased witches, including her own ancestors. Bonnie became so vulnerable, she was an easy mark for professor Shane who taught her a form of magic so dark it had no limitations. Bonnie's lack of control led to a series of catastrophic events.
While Bonnie made restitution by orchestrating her own death, not even death is a permanent deterrent for the coven members' misdeeds.
Trainwreck Teen Witches
Madison (Emma Roberts) is a gritty example of a teenage witch. With her reincarnation has come a sense of self discovery not previously expressed or clearly understood. This Lindsay Lohan prototype represents a generation desensitized to intimacy and lacking an inability to interact with others in a way that doesn't involve texting. Numb to suffering and unable to translate her own feelings because she lacks the tools. Unlike Nan and Queenie, she's not even in touch with her own powers. Her newfound depth makes her realize that she is empty. She lacks purpose. Madison is a very modern and therefore very different from her predecessors; particularly the perky Sabrina (Melissa Joan Hart) or Disney's cavity-inducing characters from The Wizards of Waverly Place
Zoe is unaware of her innate powers until they bubble to the surface after she accidentally kills her boyfriend. The trigger, her sexuality. Definitely a taboo area until AHS
. Buffy the Vampire Slayer's
resident witch Willow Rosenberg fell in love with another witch, Tara (Amber Benson), but her sexuality didn't factor into her magic. Her G-rated foray into lesbianism is Disneyesque in comparison to Madison and Zoe's exploits.
The Emasculated Male
What few male characters exist in the female-dominated realm of AHS: Coven
are simultaneously controlled by the women and serve as their weakness. Cordelia's husband Hank (Josh Hamilton) is Marie Leveau's lackey, and until recently, her love for him made her blind to his true treacherous nature. Spalding (Denis O'Hare) was so enamored of Fiona he mutilated himself to protect her but winds up exposing her anyway. He spent his life surrounded by women but was metaphorically castrated to the point where he was reduced to playing with dolls. Kyle's (Evan Peters) existence rests in Zoe's hands, and he's nothing more than a spell gone awry, a dangerous animal that she and Madison now use for their own pleasure.
After being gang raped at a party, Madison uses her powers of telekinesis to cause a bus crash, killing both the guilty and innocent. Delphine kept men locked in her attic, visiting only when in the mood to inflict torture upon them.
This is a drastic change from the more traditional gender roles filled by other television witches. Bewitched's
Samantha Stephens was willing to renounce her powers in order to live a normal life with mortal husband Darrin (Dick York/Dick Sargent). Her magic was often used to offset spells cast on her husband by her mother, Endora (Agnes Moorehead).
Endora's spells were just vengeful enough to harass or inconvenience him but nothing truly malignant. Darrin's safety was all but guaranteed given America's more uniformly puritanical standards when it came to television censorship. The fact that Bewitched
was a comedy factored into Endora's darkness being diluted and conceived as crankiness.
While the American Horror Story: Coven
witches have devised the most creatively grotesque ways to avenge years of subjugation, it's not the only show that has or had female protagonists inflicting torture on men. Agnes (Karen Kaia Livers), a coven elder on The Originals
places a hex on Father Kieran's (Todd Stashwick) nephew causing him to murder several seminary students. Davina (Danielle Campbell) brings vampire Marcel's (Charles Michael Davis) blood to a boil to get her way. Willow flays Warren (Adam Busch) after he accidentally shoots and kills Tara. Melisandre (Carice van Houten) on Game of Thrones
manipulates Stannis Baratheon (Stephen Dillane) causing him to self-destruct. She also gives birth to a demon that kills his brother and competition for the throne Renly (Gethin Anthony). A grisly fate awaits Cordelia's husband once his real identity as witch hunter is revealed.
Such gratuitous acts are very much a sign of the times. With the popularity supernatural/horror themed shows like The Following
, Sleepy Hollow
, True Blood
and The Walking Dead
, it's obvious that TV audiences' are bloodthirsty. AHS
has not treated its viewers with kid gloves with past installments, so there's no reason for them to do so now.
One undeniable shared characteristic among all TV witches is the empowerment that their gifts afford them. But, strength doesn't always beget respect, loyalty or solidarity. Fiona turns on her own kind on multiple occasions, women she views as a threat to her power.
Cordelia has evolved from a soft-spoken and sweet tempered into vengeful and angry. She's recruiting Zoe to help her commit matricide, an act that definitely contradicts the purpose of the school and bringing all these powerful young women under the same roof.
At first timid, Willow, Bonnie and Zoe all gained confidence as they grew more proficient and educated as witches. Zoe takes on a leadership role and tries to encourage the girls to work together as a cohesive unit to insure their survival. She becomes increasingly aggressive, eventually murdering Spalding for his loyalty to Fiona. She's unable to kill Kyle even though he's demonstrated homicidal behavior. Zoe's too easily influenced by "cool girl" Madison, hopping into bed and having an undead threesome in an attempt to make a connection or feel affection.
While Bonnie and Willow worked without the benefit of a coven, they were often called upon by friends and enemies for protection. The Halliwell sisters of Charmed
: Phoebe (Alyssa Milano), Prue (Shannen Doherty), Piper (Holly Marie Combs) and eventually Paige (Rose McGowan), are immediately drawn together and bonded once under the same roof and their powers unleashed. Their powers also came with the responsibility of protecting innocents from demons and other things that go bump in the night. The AHS: Coven's
purpose, which is primarily survival, is overshadowed by each member's individual agenda's and needs.
History is filled with powerful men committing despicable acts for power or under the guise of religious principles. These women have had to resort to violence and duplicity to merely survive. Marie Leveau has witnessed centuries of racism instilling in her an unshakeable hatred for white people. Not only have these characters been oppressed as women, they've been persecuted and forced to hide their true identities because of their gifts. Yet, their acts seem unacceptably unsavory because of their gender. Have we been programmed over the decades to prefer our witches be indisputably good?
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Gender is Inconsequential
American Horror Story's
appeal is its exploration of the dark side of human nature whether it be rebellious teenagers, housewives, nuns or witches. Sometimes that streak of evil is there from birth and triggered later in life, or it can be born as the result of a life of endless drudgery and disappointment. Gender is inconsequential. It is our preconceived notions that are being challenged, and that's what makes it all so interesting and addictive.
American Horror Story: Coven
has introduced another incarnation of a popular archetype to the small screen, there is still room for less malignant versions such as the Evil Queen turned Mayor Regina Mills (Lana Parilla) from Once Upon a Time
or demon fighter Katrina Crane (Katia Winter) from Sleepy Hollow.
As far as wickedness goes, it will be hard to top Fiona Goode and the pupils at the private school for exceptional young ladies.
(Image courtesy of FX)