An African-American albino. A 200 year old woman who looks 45. A vagina that destroys all that enters it. A MINOTAUR. This is the stuff of abjection, and American Horror Story: Coven is overflowing with it.
You hear that word — abject — and think of something done horribly, wretchedly. In Coven’s premiere, the Supreme Witch, Fiona (Jessica Lange) tells her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) that her running of the witch academy has been an “abject failure”; ten minutes later, the tour guide of Madame Lalaurie’s home calls it a site of “abject horror.” It connotes a depth of something we don’t usually reach.
But I want to talk about a slightly different connotation to see if we can get to why American Horror Story treads the knife-edge between feminism and misogyny — and why so many of us can’t stop watching it.
Abjection is more than just a depth of experience: it’s a theory of grossness, of confusion, of what we must reject in order to live. Stick with me here. The theory of abjection is most famously pronounced in the work of Julia Kristeva, who, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, theorized the role of the abject in the building of both society and the psyche. Abjection includes that which is dirty — feces, decay, etc. — but also that which crosses borders and confuses. 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.
So what do you do? You make a woman’s menstrual cycle into something dirty and shameful — and write laws (still on the biblical books) that send that woman to a hut while menstruating. Eating pork was made abject because pigs were likely to pass along diseases — and kill off the tribe. Incest was made abject because sleeping with your family members would result in genetically deformed children — and eventually kill off the tribe. Homosexuality was made abject, because if you didn’t have sex that could make babies, you’d kill off the tribe. By labeling certain things as gross, the tribe — and society — was able to survive.
For Kristeva, the abject applies to that which makes one retch, but it is also, on a deeper level, “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.” These things disrupt the Symbolic, meaning they disrupt the way that language works: if you see something that looks like a tree, you expect it to be a tree. That’s how order works, how we get through everyday without going crazy. A thing is what its sign — and the way our culture understands that sign — says it should be.
But the abject messes with that: you see the muscular, shirtless chest of a man and you think “man.” But then you look up and see the head of an ox, and you think “animal.” Even if we have a name for it in our symbolic (“minotaur”) it’s still compromising order. Men behave one way; animals behave another — what can you expect from this thing?
The minotaur is a pretty straightforward example, but society also rejects things that are much more subtly confusing: the androgynous, the confusingly mixed-race. Even if you, yourself, think that you’re okay with these sorts of ambiguities, you can recognize that society isn’t, as manifest in everything from the census form to the development of slurs used to denigrate and separate that sort of ambiguity as dangerous, unacceptable, not me.
Historically, the abject – refuse, corpses, blood – is what must be pushed aside, rejected, and labeled as Other in order to live. Literally: reject this stuff or you die. Modernity has made bacteria much less of a problem, but the deep fear and distrust of the abject remains. Rejecting the abject becomes a means of shoring up identity: by clearly labeling what I am not, I receive a clear understanding of what I am. By rejecting gender ambiguity, you solidify your own lack of gender ambiguity…. or so the psychological process goes.
But it’s never that simple. 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. So in order to make sure that no one will succumb to the temptation of hanging out with corpses, you’ve got to label corpses, and people who are fascinated by them, as disgusting and weird.
Thus the abject is thoroughly shadowed with shame. Trespass into the abject must not only be a societal violation, but a moral one as well. Desire for the chaotic, the border-breaking, the Other, is constructed as an offense to God or common morality. To be clear, there’s nothing about the abject that is a priori immoral: things, people, objects become abject through complex psychological processes. Some of this is bound up in the physical — I’m sure an evolutionary biologist could explain to you why feces smell “bad” to us — but a lot of it is ideological and, as such, erases its traces. Transgender people aren’t gross; they’re confusing to our conservative symbolic order and therefore constructed as abject, unnatural. We cloak confusion in the language of repulsion.
Visual art provides the perfect opportunity to feed the attraction to the abject while simultaneously satisfying the need to reject it. As film theorist Barbara Creed explains, you willingly go to a horror film to get “the shit scared out of you” — just think about that wording. The abject is explored right in front of you, but it’s distanced enough that you don’t have to fear being absorbed by it. It’s voyeurism, only you’re looking at the abject.
The main horror genres are all magnifications of the abject: the vampire movie is all about gender ambiguity and drinking blood; the zombie movie is about the animated corpse; the “meat” movie (Creed’s perfect word, not mine) is about humans who eat humans (Night of the Living Dead, The Hills Have Eyes). Over the course of the film, you also get to watch as abjection is vanquished, usually by the protagonist, with whom we, as audience members, subconsciously align ourselves. In so doing, we vanquish abjection, leaving the theater secure in the knowledge that we are not them.
Over the last two seasons, AHS has revelled in the abject. Sex with ghosts, stillborn babies, a housekeeper who looks one way for men and another for women, a nun possessed by the devil, sadist Nazi doctors, mutilated yet still living bodies, alien impregnations — and that’s just the first two seasons. The show has “an uncanny ability to provoke pure disgust,” according to Molly Lambert. “How many other shows can boast that they make viewers need to throw up?”
Some of these storylines, especially the focus on the Nazis and the Nuns, highlight recurring abject fascinations. We return to stories of Nazis and corrupt church officials, at least in part, because they’re so compellingly contradictory — the doctor who destroys; the steward of God who punishes. That contradiction — that confusion — is what makes us return to them again and again, but it’s also incredibly reassuring. By labeling even the relatively recent history as abject, we distance it from ourselves. They were this way; we are not.
Coven has two main focuses of abjection: slavery and the monstrous feminine. In the first ten minutes, we see abominations of human flesh, the work of the sadistic Madame Lalaurie (Kathy Bates). She turns one human body inside out; on another, she places the head of a beast. So far, so abject. But she’s able to do these things because of the primary abjection of racism: if you label an entire race as part animal, part man, part savage, part civilized, if you label that race as abject, then society will sanction the enslavement and othering of that race.
In this way, racism — and slavery — becomes moral. But Lalaurie took that compunction too far. In her desire to explore the abject, she herself became abject, which is why a mob stormed her house and, at least according to the narrative of Coven, hung her entire family. As for Lalaurie, she became an embodiment of abjection: the corpse that breathes and never ages. It’s no coincidence that all who cross her path once she emerges from the ground, nearly 200 years later, remark on the putrid smell.
Women have long been a source of abjection: they’re the keepers of the menstrual blood; they’re selfish with their babies, trying to keep them from entering into subjectivity, always trying to get them to stay and hang out in the pre-symbolic, pre-language, forever bound to their doting mothers. 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. Creed points to examples of this all-consuming feminine in Alien, but I always think of the massive vagina dentata of Star Wars (the sarlacc — thanks, Google Image Search), so eager to consume Luke, Han, and Chewbacca, the very embodiments of righteous masculinity. In Coven, that’s Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), who may look meek and non-threatening on the surface — just like a doting mother would! — but whose inner void (re: murderous vagina) threatens to consume not just your penis, but your entire life.
But the abject feminine doesn’t have to be represented as a lack or void. Per Freud, the fear of that lack is manifested in a substitute fetish object — usually some sort of substitute phallus — that distracts you from her lack. Medusa is the example par excellence, the powerful, potentially castrating female with her glorious penis-like hair. But witches also take this role: there’s a reason we draw them with pointy hats and protuberant noses.
The witches in Coven don’t wear black hats. They have normal, frankly beautiful noses. But they are castrating bitches, that’s for sure. Fiona destroys or incapacitates all men who stand in her way. Cordelia has a husband of some sort, but the narrative suggests that she’s also bad at her witchy job. The only man who lives at the school has his tongue cut out; Madison (Emma Roberts) avenges the men who gang-raped her by flipping their bus…with her finger. When a man questions Queenie’s (Gabourey Sidibe) authority and insults her, she effectively submerges his arm in hot oil. Two men kill crocodiles with big pistols; Misty (Lily Rabe) has the crocodiles eat them. Patriarchal authority figures who attempt to interfere — such as the policemen who visit in episode two — have their memories and, as such, the potential to wield any sort of power, wiped clean. And don’t get me started on the Frankenstein man Madison and Zoe make out of dismembered body parts.
The witches are dangerous — they’re abject — because they threaten order. But it’s a very specific sort of order, namely, patriarchal order. To be a bitch, to practice “bitchcraft,” is a particular demonstration of female power, at once magnetic and repulsive. Just think of how we wield that word: as a means of policing behavior (“God, stop being such a bitch”). But “bitch” can also be recuperated and celebrated; to declare oneself a “bad bitch,” for example, is to revel in and acknowledge the transgression of behavioral norms. A bitch like Fiona — single, independent, powerful — is so threatening (and/or attractive) because she’s seemingly dismissed the role patriarchy has set forth for her.
In almost all forms of art, the monstrous feminine must be vanquished. She sticks around for awhile, letting us gaze upon and be fascinated by her, but her death is an absolute necessity if patriarchal order is to be restored. But things aren’t so simple in American Horror Story. It offers the basic abject pleasures of the horror genre, but it refuses to cooperate with the processes that call for the ultimate rejection of those pleasures. It screws with the processes that sustain the symbolic order — with the “Law of the Father,” as Jacques Lacan would put it, with patriarchy.
It’s easy to see why Ryan Murphy — an openly gay man whose work has been systematically denigrated by Hollywood — would be invested in this project, and would collaborate with middle-aged women who have been similarly thrust aside. In fact, Murphy’s oeuvre could be viewed as a sustained muddling of the lines that divide good and bad, high and low, queer and straight, campy and sincere, quality and pulp. As Willa Paskin points out, amidst the vaunted, masculine anti-heros of the so-called “third golden age,” AHS is an amalgamation of “undervalued genres, often dismissed as pulp” — horror flicks, women’s pictures, soaps, camp. But it looks great — the opening sequence alone is a study in aesthetic complexity — and boasts the same qualities that typify “quality” television (the auteurist showrunner; expensive production values; Hollywood actors; narrative complexity).
American Horror Story disregards hierarchies. It signifies as one thing and is another. It is, in other words, abject as hell. Which is precisely why it inspires the reactions it does: it’s addictive yet embarrassing; you love and hate it, can’t decide if it’s sympathetic or predatory, misogynistic or feminist. Fiona is a shameless ball-buster, but she’s also terrified by her own aging body, beholden to societal understandings of what “beauty” and “vitality” look like. Even as the “Supreme,” her power only extends so far: she can decimate men, but she can’t decimate patriarchal ideology. Those sorts of nuanced contradictions function as AHS’s narrative engine: it feeds on them, explores and explodes them.
In other texts and societal interactions, abjection is deployed as a tool of clarity — a way to delineate, to categorize, to shore up identity and classification, to de-abjectify the self. American Horror Story does the opposite: abjection begets abjection. You watch, and you might know that you’re not a witch, but you don’t know much else, either about the world or what you’re watching. It’s an exquisitely repulsive, wholly addictive place to be.
Yours in liminality,