In the hierarchy of Things That Are Supposed to be Scary but Aren’t, witches are at the top of my list. For every Blair Witch (who was only scary because she went unseen and could have been just about anything) and Wicked Witch (who was only scary because you were five years old and JESUS, THAT GREEN FACE AND HAUNTING CACKLE), there are REAL witches. Frumpy, middle aged white women who live in sensible studio apartments, burn black and purple candles and wear flowing robes to hide their girth. They’ve replaced aspirations of true love with a collection of cats and they worship things like “the earth” and “the wind.” They ARE frightening, but only as an unyielding reminder of dying alone.
So it will be with marked trepidation that I begin this season’s installment of American Horror Story, which starts tonight on FX.
Because it’s about witches, so, strike one. (The first episode is titled “Bitchcraft,” which is so, SO lame.)
I’m willing to give it a go, however, because I like the franchise. All apologies to The Ghost Whisperer (which may or may not still be a show), but AHS is the best “paranormal” show currently on television.
If you’re unfamiliar, I’ll quickly catch you up: The franchise was created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who rose to prominence with Nip/Tuck and Glee. Meant to be standalone anthologies, each season has focused on a singular theme, with no recurring characters from one year to the next. In a bit of an unorthodox move, however, the cast features many of the same players from season to season.
This works well, as most of the roles have been filled by some pretty damn decent actors.
The brilliant Jessica Lange, for example, played sadistic, would-be actress Constance Langdon in season one’s Murder House (for which she took home a deserved Emmy AND a Golden Globe), and she played brutal (and, well, sadistic once again) Sister Jude in second season’s Asylum. St. Louis native Evan Peters appeared as troubled (SPOILER ALERT), dead teen Tate in the first season and institutionalized, falsely accused axe murderer Kit in season two.
And so on.
It may seem like the epitome of stunt casting, but it works. I like these actors, and it’s a treat to see what they can do from one year to the next.
To round out season three, they’ve added Oscar winner Kathy Bates, Oscar nominees Angela Bassett and Gabourey Sidibe, and rising young starlet Emma Roberts.
And despite some architectural missteps along the way—to be honest, the whole “alien abduction” thing from season two was ridiculous and probably could have been dealt with differently (also: that season’s weird side-plot about monsters who live in the woods was mostly aimless)—there’s just enough atmospheric terror to keep me interested on a weekly basis.
Therefore, I’m willing to give Coven the benefit of the doubt.
To its credit, it does deal with the Salem Witch Trials (scary, but for reasons unrelated to women in pointy hats riding brooms and clutching black cats) AND voodoo (which is actually frightening).
It also takes place both present day AND in 1830’s New Orleans, which is promising. (I love all things New Orleans, and a big part of that intrigue is its dark, murderous history. Couple that with the 1800’s—when EVERYTHING was scarier—and you’ve got a winning combo.)
So even though a bunch of witches casting spells isn’t as inherently scary as the wretched treatment of mental illness in the 1960’s, or a house plagued by the spirits of a thousand murders and suicides, I’m confident that this season will have its fair share of fright.
And if not, there’s always season four: American Horror Story IV: Used Car Lot.