Given the popularity of the show has sprung a new wave of horror lovers, particularly teens, I felt it best to talk a bit about why this is and how to write horror (or not, but we will get to that). Being that the finale of Coven happened this week, I’ll be focusing on this season rather than previous ones, though both Asylum and Murder House are worth checking out – if you’re not familiar with the show, each season is a stand-alone.
Be forewarned, if you haven’t seen Coven I’ll be focusing on this season as a whole so… SPOILERS BE HERE.
Recently, I was reading the ways that American Horror Story went wrong. The article was fascinating, informative, and I agreed with damn near every one of its many grievances about the show. That said, this season got the highest ratings of any and I consistently heard people talking about how everyone was watching it and it was one of the things contributing to teens digging to find the latest horror.
So where is the show going right? What’s so addictive about it? There are a lot of factors, good and bad, I will get into here:
THE SHOCK FACTOR
One of the best things about this show is the shocks, coupled with intriguing characters that we don’t know what insane thing they may do next. The gags are often gross, but never floating there without revealing something about a character’s nature or motive. So, keep in mind, with each gore treatment comes responsibility. When LaLaurie kills her slaves, yes it is senseless violence and racist, but each scene reveals something to us of her character. The show doesn’t tell us she is a racist, it shows us, and each scene is her relation to the world and how she views herself in it. When LaLaurie cries because Queenie forces her to later watch the harsh treatment of slaves in film and their struggle to freedom, her eventual tears tell us how for a moment LaLaurie was moved by their cries and isn’t entirely a monster. Her descent back into killing shows us even more.
THE CHARACTER BUILD UP
The best part of every season of American Horror Story, it could be argued, is Jessica Lange. While her acting is phenomenal, a greater part of this is due to the fact that she is given the most intriguing character to stand on. When writing a villain, particularly the type you don’t want to be stereotypically twirling a figurative mustache, there must be a part that either becomes the train wreck of a life you can’t look away from or the hope of redemption that might appear by the end of the season. In the case of Lange’s character Fiona from Coven, we just can’t wait to see how low she will go to secure her eternal reign as supreme. This is at the heart of what carries the show.
One of the balances this show maintains is the direction of the characters interweaves motives between everyone to leave it unclear how each “pawn” in the game is going to bounce off each other next. Queenie was an interesting example of this. We didn’t know what part the “human voodoo doll” would have to play because it was clear from the beginning she wasn’t a side character. From her sexual advances to the Minotaur to joining the voodoo clan to her return and almost mastery of the seven wonders. But why did we care? Because we cared about her. Her humbling speech about not feeling like she could fit in when she tries to seduce Bastian, her backstory working for a fried chicken fast food joint, her alienation from the witches because of race and ignoring her budding abilities that forced her to feel more at home with voodoo queen Marie were some of the most tear-inducing moments of the show. After a certain point, we didn’t know where she was going and in a good way, because all these small moments caused us to hope that if she didn’t end up as the Supreme by the end, she would at least find herself and her true inner strength. So, make use care. Build up character through reveals, same as any other story. Depends on what you’re trying to do with your horror, but it can make the difference between creating “torture porn (without plot)” to writing horror with some great gore moments that show us something about the people involved.
With horror, the excitement comes in writing the supernatural element, monster, or killer. In some stories, like Coven, the supernatural has an obvious part to play when writing any amount of supernatural creatures from witches to ghosts to vampires. But many times what happens is the supernatural element overpowers the story and character development. In the case of Coven, it both did and did not do this well. Misty was an excellent example of balancing ability and character. While other girls like Zoey did not have her unusual power go anywhere past the first two episodes, Misty was born of her power, literally rising from the flames, but then her character became the heart of the girls. This extended all the way to bringing her idol Stevie Nicks onto the show and become the anthem of the changing witches as well as the test of the seven wonders. She even delivered one of the most memorable lines of the show, “You broke Stevie,” which tells me that if her lines can stay with the audience like that, there is more going on with her character than she is defined by her ability to resurge dead witches. Conversely, the supernatural element was not balanced well in Zoe, who felt more like Rogue from X-Men in her origin. Her power was clearly a struggle for her but was never mentioned again throughout the entire season. While she manifested other powers, Zoe’s character development had no relation to her powers or opinion of them apart from trying to stop Madison. In the later part of the season, we get a glimmer of her care for being a witch at all when she runs away with Kyle and realizes she can’t run from who she truly is. So, make sure your characterization is more important than your supernatural elements, but don’t forget to have them react to it as well.
Which brings me to where AHS Coven is failing:
Most seasons of AHS try to do too much within one season and it’s becoming known for that. Asylum’s religious themes coupled with aliens and insanity and ritualistic murder became all too much by the show’s end, but with Coven it was even worse. At first it appeared that we were going to luck out, that witches versus voodoo wouldn’t go into strange territory and try to somehow cut-and-paste it into the plot of the show, and for the most part it didn’t. But another problem was created. Instead, it was over-plotted with what it had and, beyond Fiona, didn’t have focused character development that made sense. Frequently things would bend to the will of the plot, like Madison exhibiting the most power by the show’s end but being killed by Kyle who she clearly just controlled with her mind only thirty minutes earlier. Zoey brings back a homeless man from the dead, but couldn’t bring herself back from being impaled. And what about the fact that Cordelia was never a consideration for Supreme until the last second just because Myrtle brings it up because they all can’t stand the idea of Madison becoming the next Supreme? These are all symptoms of plot over characterization, forgetting the supernatural rules you place in your writing, and only allowing your characters to react as the plot dictates not as their characters do. This is a hard tendency to break, especially when you’re a plotter like myself and can imagine exactly what a story looks like from start to finish. But the problem is then your characters, like Myrtle or Cordelia or Zoey, don’t ring true. Myrtle frequently kept acting as the deus ex machina that would say “Oh wait, what about the fact that you can do all this supernatural stuff Cordelia?” when it wasn’t developed over time but tossed together at the end. Things like this are important stuff your readers WILL notice and it will take them completely out of the story you’re writing.
If the true stakes all along were to complete the seven wonders, why were they mentioned at the very end right before the last episode with absolutely no build up? This was what I found myself asking as the season came to a close. It was also unclear how the test was typically performed and how this test with all the girls strutting their magical struts differed from previous generations of Supremes. They talked a lot about the past Supreme “naming” the next Supreme, but how would they have known which girl to test without testing multiple girls? Surely there were more girls in the past, besides the would-be supreme, that manifested multiple powers? This is why the end goal is so important to keep in mind as you write horror. Where do you want these characters to end up by the end? What are the stakes? For example, Kyle was just sort of there beyond the first three episodes as a Frankenstein-like villain who just killed for no reason. Even Frankenstein’s monster had more intrigue and reason behind his actions than that. So, the killer you write in your book might be sadistic, but there is pretty much always a reason. Even if that reason is insanity. And if it is insanity, there is a backstory AND there is development of the killer’s understanding of how and why they kill going forward. LaLaurie pulled this off the most effectively of all the characters. While her trajectory and motives were hard to follow, we knew why she killed, and by the end, so did she.
These are all just things to keep in mind, using one example that’s doing well in media today.
We’d love to hear your thoughts of what to do and not to do writing horror that you learned from this season of Coven.
But as always, keep reading and watching. Keep learning.
AM I THE ONLY ONE LEFT WONDERING WHO THE HECK THIS GUY EVEN WAS?