AHS Season Three: Coven of Secrets

[spoiler warning]

While Asylum may be the best season of American Horror StoryCoven comes to a close second. Season Three features an assembly of witches in modern New Orleans, descended from their notorious ancestors during the Salem Witch Trials.

Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga) finds out about her lineage after she accidentally kills her boyfriend with her powers. She is then sent to a haven (under the name Miss Robichaux’s Academy) for girls like her, the only “safe place” for witches, who are still facing persecution in the modern world. While many women (and men) were condemned and burned at the stake back in the 1690’s, according to headmistress Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), but they weren’t actual witches, just innocent people– the real ones acted quickly and fled South, and eventually enough congregated there and New Orleans turned into the new place for witches.

At the academy, Zoe meets child actress Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts), a telekenetic, stuck-up, arrogant witch; African-American “human voodoo doll” Queenie (Gabourey Sibdibe); and clairvoyant witch Nan (Jamie Brewer). Cordelia, their headmistress, does not seem to exhibit impressive powers and constantly spends her days as an alchemist in the greenhouse, depressed and under the shadow of her mother Fiona Goode (Jessica Lange), the current reigning Supreme (one witch in a generation who embodies all the powers).

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From left to right: Fiona, Madison, Nan, Zoe, and Queenie.

Things get messy when Fiona shows up at the coven again, treading on Cordelia and taking her role back as leader of the witches. She takes the girls to a museum, which is a house that belonged to a wealthy white lady, Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates), who was famous for torturing her slaves. Nan uses her clairvoyant powers to find where Delphine was buried, and Fiona discovers that she is still alive, rendered immortal by the voodoo tribe queen Marie Laveau.

Fiona, obsessed with avoiding death, pays Marie a visit and demands that she tell her how she stayed alive. Marie refuses because Fiona blatantly disrespects her, and this sparks a renewed animosity between the white witches and the black voodoo witches, which was tempered for a while after Marie and the previous Supreme Anna Leigh Leighton signed a peace treaty– Fiona’s trespassing on the voodoo side of town as well as her crude remarks broke this truce.

Fiona returns to Miss Robichaux’s for one reason– she has cancer. A Supreme is supposed to be in stellar health for as long as she reigns. Once a new Supreme is on the rise, the current one will begin to deteriorate in well-being, until she dies and the spirit takes place in her successor. Fiona tries to eliminate possible candidates and carefully watches the girls over the next few days. Each one of them begins to grow, exhibiting new powers or strengthening their current ones.

After the girls find out the news, however, rivalry begins to spark amongst them. Zoe and Madison’s friendship begins to crumble after they fight over a boy they killed and subsequently resurrected at a frat party. Zoe is focused on trying to maintain the unity amongst the women of the coven, while Madison only wants to become Supreme. Meanwhile, Queenie feels that she is no longer part of the group and leaves to join the voodoo tribe.

Later, the coven gains another new member: Misty Day (Lily Rabe), who resurrected herself with her powers after being burned at the stake. The Council of Witchcraft strongly believe that she is destined to be Supreme, as her power of resurrection is more extraordinary than any of the Seven Wonders.

Fiona continues to neglect her duties as head witch, and refuses to name her successor. Then, the coven stumbles upon a new but old enemy: witch hunters. At first, Marie rejects Fiona’s offer to ally against their shared foe, but after the witch hunters massacre her tribemates she joins the Academy, and teams up with Fiona to begin eliminating Supreme candidates (after first bankrupting the witch hunters’ corporation). While doing so, Fiona discovers Marie’s secret to immortality: her soul. Papa Legba, the ruler of hell, has traded Marie’s soul in exchange for a yearly offering of an innocent baby. When Fiona offers her own deal to Papa Legba he rejects her; she has nothing to give.

The Council decides to hold a competition for the four surviving witches– Misty, Madison, Zoe, and Queenie– to chose the next Supreme. They must pass the test of the Seven Wonders, seven extraordinary magical powers that must all be mastered in order to rise to the throne. They are:

  • Telekinesis, the ability to move objects with one’s mind.
  • Concilium, the ability to impose one’s will onto another (also known as mind control).
  • Pyrokinesis, the ability to summon and control fire at one’s will.
  • Divination, the ability to obtain knowledge about an object, person, event, or location through means other than the user’s physical senses.
  • Transmutation, the ability to move from one place to another at will (also known as teleportation).
  • Vitalum Vitalis, the ability to balance the scales between one life force and another.
  • Descensum, the ability to descend into one’s own personal hell (through an incantation) and return.

Unfortunately, each of the girls begin to fail. Misty is the first, unable to come back during the Descensum test; Zoe loses focus and impales herself on a gate while playing Transmutation tag; and Queenie is disqualified after being unable to revive Zoe through Vitalum Vitalis. The Council and Cordelia watch helplessly as Madison is the only one left; knowing her, they refuse to allow her to ascend to the throne. Cordelia then joins the competition, emerging victorious after Madison fails in Divination. She also manages to bring Zoe back to life through Vitalum Vitalis, thus completing her test and winning the title.

As the new Supreme, Cordelia chooses to reveal the coven to the world. As a result, the academy gains several hundred new girls, and Cordelia, Zoe, Queenie, and Kyle open the doors for a new beginning.

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The Coven welcomes several girls into its numbers.

The central theme of this season’s American Horror Story is oppression; we can see from the very start that the witches are oppressed by society, and the slaves (as well as the present-day blacks) are oppressed by white people. Though Coven could not compete with Asylum, and it had a fair amount of plot holes, it certainly offers its own brand of fun and twists.

My favorite character is, once again, played by Sarah Paulson. Cordelia has a lot of potential, but is constantly kept in the shadows by Fiona. She herself is tyrannized, firstly by her mother as her daughter, then by her husband as a woman, and then finally by society as a witch. After her rise as the Supreme, we can see, albeit shortly, her beginning to take charge and become the strong leader she is destined to be. Murphy makes an empowering point by having Cordelia go public about witchcraft: that in order to break free from oppression, you have stop hiding and let yourself be seen, and prove to others that you are worthy of being accepted as an equal. Cordelia’s new mannerisms have yet to be fully seen and evaluated, and hopefully we can see that in a future season with the Murder House and Coven crossover; but the small bits that are shown in Coven portray Cordelia as an inspirational leader with a lot to give.

What I also love about the show is the fact that it casts almost all females; while Asylum portrayed strong female characters, Coven does so even more. The fact that the girls have gone so far and have had the strength to keep going show that women can be just as strong as men. I have always been a fan of powerful female characters, and season three has given me a healthy dose of them. For all girls looking for inspiration and strength, you’ll find kindred spirits with the witches in the academy, who all sport unique powers and personalities.

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For those who have enjoyed watching CluelessCoven offers a new twist on teen life in a clique. For those who have enjoyed watching Vampire Diaries, Coven offers the same fantastical excitement. And finally, if you enjoy watching AHS, season three is essential to your repertoire. Enjoy the many antics of the young witches, and be ready some shocking twists, turns, and of course, horrors.

 

 

 

 

 

Sanity in AHS: Asylum

As Ryan Murphy tweeted, sanity is a central theme in Season Two of American Horror Story. Like ‘Cuckoo’s NestAsylum explores the idea of insanity and sin, and who gets to define it.

Insanity, like “good” or “bad,” can be seen as a relative term. Whether or not someone is insane is up to the observer; someone who I deem is insane can be perfectly sane in the eyes of another. But who gets to decide?

Though there are many visibly “insane” patients in Briarcliff– those that have real mental or emotional problems that need to be dealt with medically– there are others that are only there because they are outcasts of society, and are thus considered insane when they really are perfectly straight in the head.

Lana Winters, for example, has been committed for her homosexuality, which was viewed as a treatable sin back in the 1960’s. At the asylum, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” to try to change her into a straight woman. But like Lana herself says, there is no way to fix the “problem”– she was always born that way, and society just can’t seem to accept that.

Insanity, and the condemnation of it, also prompts conformity. No one wants to be seen as insane; otherwise, you’d get thrown into a filthy mental institution. People hide themselves in an attempt to belong. Lana and her girlfriend, along with their lesbian friends Lois and Barbara, are forced to keep their relationships secret. After her release, Lana reveals her sexuality, and becomes the “sapphic writer”– but Lois and Barbara, caring and kind as they are, are hesitant to be seen in public together with Lana, fearing that people will quickly assume them to be homosexuals as well (which they are). Briarcliff, as a microcosm, demonstrates this tyrannic, oppressive rule of society.

Digressing slightly from the idea of sanity, but along the lines of conformity, we come to Sister Mary Eunice. Mary Eunice, before her possession, spent her entire life being a people-pleaser. As she herself comments, “All I wanted was for people to like me.” And when she is horribly humiliated at a pool party, she joins the Church out of shame. She spends her time at Briarcliff trying to appease Sister Jude and taking care of the patients, happy to spend her time as a obedient staff member at the asylum. Nervous and skittish, we can’t help but feel sorry for her, as if she is a small child only yearning to be accepted– don’t we all have that wish? Many people at the ward come to like her, such as Sister Jude herself and Dr. Arden. However, when she is possessed by the Devil, her demeanor changes drastically, and this causes people to begin to shied away from her in disgust, while the human within the body cries for her fall.  Mary Eunice becomes a promiscuous, smoking, lipstick-wearing church-condemning character. She is no longer pure, no longer innocent, no longer the ideal image of a good girl.

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Evil as she is, the Devil tries to convince a young girl to stay strong, and to not listen to society’s expectations.

Though Mary Eunice’s new lifestyle as a more free person is depicted as the Devil’s work, it begs the question, is nonconformity truly a sin? Is it considered “insane” for a woman to have a strong spirit? (see my discussion on this theme here.)

To the society of the 1960’s, it looks like it is.

Although the view on women has changed considerably today, conformity is still very prevalent in our community. Though Asylum can be seen as a horror movie purely for fun and screams, it stands alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell’s timeless novels The Great Gatsby and 1984, with a story and themes that very much apply to the present. Murphy reminds us that no one has a right to demand that others submit to anyone’s rules. It should not be considered insane if someone has aspirations and qualities besides those that are expected of them. No one should be committed into an asylum just because they are different. People should be free to be themselves, whatever they choose to be.

 

Oppression of Women in AHS: Asylum

Another theme of ASYLUM.

America in the 1960’s was a time of exploring new ideas– however, old ones still prevailed in society, and women found it hard to attain the same independence and respect as men. All of the strong-spirited women characters in Asylum, which takes place during the 60’s, have been victims of society.

Lana Winters’s (Sarah Paulson) main enemy throughout the season is society itself. Poor Lana, with a dynamic personality and ambitious goals, is unfairly committed to Briarcliff for her homosexuality (Sister Jude blackmailed her girlfriend into committing Lana), after attempting to infiltrate it to get a story on the notorious serial killer Bloody Face, who is known for murdering and skinning women. She is the very definition of a woman whom society fears: strong, spunky, and lesbian. At Briarcliff, the nuns attempt to force her to submit to their rules, but nevertheless Lana keeps fighting until the very end, eventually bringing down the asylum with its harsh, barbaric practices. As a patient, she is forced to go through “conversion therapy” with Dr. Thredson, in an attempt to alter her sexuality– homosexuality was largely frowned upon in the 60’s and as viewed as an illness and a borne sin.

Later on, Lana is brutally betrayed by Dr. Thredson, whom she initially believed to be her ally. After getting her out of Briarcliff the first time, Thredson reveals himself to be Bloody Face, and claimed to only be at the asylum to try and frame Kit Walker for the crime, as well as help Lana “convert.” He traps Lana inside his home, telling her about his murder stories, and how his goal is to find the perfect woman to be his mother, to replace the one he never had. Thredson exclaims that Lana is “The One,” and attempts to shape her into his ideal mother, thus reflecting the view society has on women: that they are only there to take care of the house and kids, and are heterosexual and stupidly loyal, and do only what men tell them. When Lana refuses Thredson, he humiliates her, and then rapes her in anger.

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“I don’t think Lana ever gave up. Ever. She still hasn’t, even in the finale… I think I really learned things from Lana. She’ll be in my heart forever. I never really cried at the end of a job from knowing how much I was going to miss the character I was playing. It was like she died. That was it. It’s over.” | Sarah Paulson

We get a bittersweet ending for Lana. After Supreme Mother Claudia releases her from Briarcliff, she goes on to expose Thredson and, eventually, the asylum, bringing a closure to her fight for independence. Lana meets Thredson in his apartment after she goes to the police, and shoots him before he is arrested, finally killing the man who had tortured her so much. She refuses to have anything to do with Thredson, abandoning her child that he fathered, and going on to live her dream: to be a well-respected writer and reporter, with nothing holding her back. Throughout her life, Lana has been a nonconformist, and is one of the strongest characters on the show. I applaud her for her victory over the status quo.

Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) is the stern, no-nonsense head nun of Briarcliff, and can be initially seen as the Asylum counterpart of Nurse Ratched from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest, with a similar condescending and patronizing personality, hardened from her repression of her own sexual freedom. However, despite her strong ruling of the ward, her position is constantly challenged by the men of the staff, and she even unconsciously follows Monsignor Howard around whenever he is present. This is mainly due to the fact that, for all her attempts to cover her persona with a habit, she still has sexual fantasies about him, a sign of the humanity and spirit beneath. She even has a hidden set of red lingerie in a drawer, a symbol of her suppressing herself.

Jude became a nun because of a hit-and-run accident that leaves her ashamed of herself; before she joined the Church, she was a night club singer who smoke, drank, and was a free soul like Lana. Her life begins to spiral downward after her fiance leaves her due to her inability to have a child (she contracted syphilis from him, yet he still blames her)– we can see how the men in her life have already contributed to the pain in her life. As she later says to Shacahath, “all I ever wanted was my own family.” Society, dominated by men, has denied her this dream.

We are inclined to hate her, along with Lana, at first, due to the fact that they are often rude and aggressive towards others. As Jude’s life crumbles, however, we can see that this stems from the frustration they feel from being oppressed by society. Though becoming a nun is perhaps better than the old wild lifestyle she led before, she is unhappy and miserable from the sexual freedom she had to renounce. Throughout the season, she suffers multiple flashbacks that leave her traumatized and guilty. As powerful head nun of Briarcliff, she is holding onto the last bit of her dignity and pride, and we can no longer blame her for trying to be tough, with the circumstances she’s been placed in. Like Lana, she is just another woman bullied by society.

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While she outwardly loathes Lana for her spunky spirit, she was once just as strong, and, towards the end, respects Lana for her ability to keep fighting. Secretly, she also admires Sister Mary Eunice, much like Dr. Arden does, for her purity and innocence– two things stripped early from Jude– and hates Shelley, the nymphomaniac who may remind Jude of her own shameful history (pointed out by Poetry Pundit).

As a patient, Jude (now Judy Martin) is just as rebellious as Lana in the beginning, determined to fight against the Devil and its new tyrannic authority over Briarcliff. Consequently, she is given a max dose of electroshock therapy, which leaves her disillusioned and disoriented, and is also thrown into a dirty, isolated cell when Lana (now a famous reporter) comes to visit the asylum, a move by the Monsignor to prevent Jude from spilling the horrible secrets of Briarcliff. He has also informed Lana that Jude hung herself and has died, presenting a legitimate death certificate, when, in reality, Jude’s name has been changed to Betty Drake. Jude rejects his offer to release her (something he suggests only after he has been promoted to Cardinal of New York, and is able to leave his responsibilities at Briarcliff), commenting:

“It’s an extraordinary thing, you know that? You throw me in the madhouse, you strip away everything I have, everything I know. You treat me like a rabid dog, like a mad woman… And you know what happened? I’m blessed with the gift of total clarity. I am more sane now as a madwoman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.”

Forced by the asylum (and possibly from her syphilis), however, Jude gradually starts to go insane. She then begins see a new committed woman physically resembling Shacahath (the Angel of Death) and, terribly frightened and intimidated of this strong patient, fights her, in an attempt to avoid death. It is later revealed that she was beating a harmless woman who was not at all the Shacahath, and it was all part of a elaborate hallucination she has been going through for two-and-a-half years.

Eventually, Kit, the moral compass of the show, the only man who does not try to see women as stupid, childbearing tools of society, rescues Jude, after she has been committed as a patient and stripped of her title from the Church. It is he who constantly visited Jude at the asylum and helped her through her insanity. It is only after she leaves both institutions that she finally finds happiness with Kit’s family (she has achieved her dream after all), and peacefully accepts Shacahath’s kiss of death in Kit’s house, away from the critical eyes of society. Though she can be seen at first as the main antagonist of the show, we eventually come to see her as just another victim of the true enemy: society.

We can see a demonization of females after Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) becomes possessed. As a human, she is innocent and pure, and only wants people to like her. She becomes a nun after being hazed at a pool party. Many people, like Dr. Arden and Sister Jude, find her chastity precious. However, after the Devil gets a hold of her, Mary Eunice’s purity begins to burn away. She shows up at Sister Jude’s office one day wearing lipstick, and Jude (still a nun) is disgusted. She then begins to slowly overtake Jude in authority, eventually becoming head of Briarcliff, and takes up drinking and smoking habits. She tries to seduce Arden (leading him to stop loving her, though he later becomes aware of her possession), and proceeds to rape the Monsignor, physically stripping her of her virtue. Here, Mary Eunice’s new sexual freedom and strong personality are portrayed as, quite literally, the work of the Devil.

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Shelley complains about how men can be promiscuous with impunity.

Perhaps a more obvious example is Shelley (Chloë Sevigny). The very reason she is committed to Briarcliff is because of her obsession with sex. She began touching herself at the age of five, and her parents forced her to wear mittens to bed to stop this habit. She expresses her anger at her husband, who cheats often but isn’t reprimanded and shamed of his sexual freedom like she is. Her husband admitted her to the asylum under the diagnosis that she was a nymphomaniac, and that she doesn’t obey his wishes for her to be an obedient, devoted wife. At Briarcliff, Shelley begins to wield her body as a weapon, giving sexual favors to the guards in order to get what she wants. Like all the other strong-spirited women of the show, however, she is punished; after laughing at Arden after he attempted to rape her, he amputated her legs and made her into a Rasper, turning her into a horrifying creature. We can see, again, that the female sexuality is paired with monstrosity. Shelley can be seen as a fallen hero; she sacrificed herself in order to allow Kit and Lana to escape, only to be mutilated by Arden and disposed of carelessly by Mary Eunice in the woods. Later, she is taken to a hospital after being discovered at a schoolyard, and the Monsignor visits. Disgusted by her form and unable to save her, he strangles her with his rosary, a symbol (and I admit that I may be guilty of imposing meaning upon a scene with no merit) of the Church and society smothering the female.

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Grace refuses to apologize for killing her molester of a father.

Lastly, we come to Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré), who was committed for her axe murder of her father. However, she is not at all insane, and only killed him after he had molested her for many years. She is then ordered to be sterilized– literally, purified of her feminism– after being caught with Kit in the bakery. Grace is first killed after she jumps in front of a bullet Frank shoots at Kit. When Shacahath kisses her, she exclaims, “I’m free.” (Later, she is captured by the aliens and is resurrected and re-impregnated by them.)

Asylum raises awareness about the way women were treated back in the 60’s. There were many campaigns to fight for women’s rights. Around the time Asylum took place, there were many feminist movements, largely inspired by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. However, isolated from the society that was changing (albeit slowly and grudgingly), Briarcliff could still forcefully oppress women and keep them imprisoned within its walls. We can see the dangerous tyrannic power of the asylum as it destroys woman after woman, from Sister Jude to Grace Bertrand. The only victorious one is Lana, who retains her strong spirit after she leaves, and bravely comes back ten years later and ultimately shuts it down with her exposé. Lana is an inspiration to us all, and reminds us that even through the hardest of times it’s important to remain strong and keep fighting. And, we should remember all the other female characters who were brave enough to stand against the status quo. Though Asylum is very much fiction, the sufferings of the what the women went through at Briarcliff represents the hardships of real women in history.

The Tug-of-War Between Religion and Science in American Horror Story: Asylum

As previously mentioned, there are a lot of observations made about religion and its influences in Asylum. For the duration of the season, it is constantly locked in a headbutt against science, whether we are aware of it or not. While the Church officially rules Briarcliff, science keeps making a return and interferes with their operations. Though this theme may not be as obvious as the other ones present in Season Two, it’s definitely worth talking about.

The bitter contention between Big Nun Sister Jude and resident mad scientist Dr. Arthur Arden at Briarcliff of the second season of American Horror Story represents the bigger picture of the quarrel between religion and science. However, neither person are shown to be more principled than the other; while Arden honors purity and innocence, he himself is very much lacking in those traits: he uses his role as doctor to experiment on the helpless patients of the ward, attempting to create “superhumans” who have heightened survival rates. So far, his creations have resulted in “Raspers,” deformed former patients who lurk as horrifying zombie-like monsters in the forest around the manor. Likewise, Sister Jude, though outwardly declares that she follows in the morals of the Church, mercilessly canes patients with bloody wooden sticks as a form of punishment, in addition to commending the other barbaric practices of the asylum, such as electroshock therapy and frontal lobotomy, claiming that they are only to help cure the patients.

Another examination of this theme of religion versus science is present in the cryptic, recurring appearance of the aliens. Both of Kit’s lovers, Alma and then Grace, are abducted by them while they are pregnant (due to their connection to Kit, whom the aliens continuously experiment on). However, the two women have very different responses to their shared experience: while Alma pleads to forget about the aliens and go back to a normal life, Grace is fascinated and attempts to reconnect with them to learn more. When asked about the aliens, Ryan Murphy comments in an interview, “For me, [aliens] were always an obvious metaphor of God. It fit very easily into the world of a Catholic sanitarium asylum.”

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Like God, aliens are feared and revered due to their mysteriousness. Both serve as explanations for the unknown, things that are beyond our scope of knowledge, and people can get feverishly obsessed with either (like Grace), or become utterly terrified (like Alma) of either. Some even claim that fear of aliens and such other areas of mystery is what causes people to turn to religion, and, likewise, that rejection of God and religion can cause people in turn to become obsessed with the other side of the beliefs spectrum. Alma, horrified that Grace might be trying to recall the aliens, kills her, angry that Grace was “acting like it was a religious experience.” While Grace mentions that she wants to look forward to the future, Alma desperately wants to look back towards those times before her abduction. To her, it was not quite an exhilarating trip, and though Alma is not mentioned to be religious the way she refers to Grace’s view of her abduction shows how she does not approve of the fact that it can be counted as something enlightening, along the lines of a “religious experience.” She reflects the show’s portrayal of a religious wish: a desire and need to return and preserve a time when things weren’t so chaotic and dark, and the need to purify those who aren’t (shown in her axe murder of Grace, despite her formerly condemning Grace of the same act– an example of the Church’s hypocrisy). The aliens hurt Alma, and “stuck things within [her],” symbolically stripping her of her own purity.

However, it is obvious that the aliens are harmless; in fact, they are potent beings who have the ability to revive dead people and perform other miracles. While the nuns back in the Church’s asylum do nothing but care for patients that they have no ability to cure, the aliens are able to do so completely, as shown by their treatment of Pepper and resurrection of Grace and her baby. Similarly, though Dr. Arden’s horrible experiments continuously fail, he is also attempting to move forward– to create better humans, stronger lives– rather than continuously stay in the same gray area. He is also fascinated by the aliens themselves, after finding a strange microchip implanted in Kit by them; Kit becomes the link for the aliens.

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And then, there’s Kit Walker and Lana Winters. After both are released from Briarcliff and go their separate ways, Kit chooses to move past his experience at the ward and live his life, going on to raise two successful kids. Lana, however, continuously looks back upon her time in the asylum. Though it is part of her job as a writer and reporter to forcefully return to that dark period in her life, she also mentions Kit’s story over and over again. Kit is seen to still retain his purity despite going through the same experience as Lana; even his name contains religious symbolism (astutely noticed by Alicia Lutes on her Hollywood.com article): the name “Kit” means “carrier of Christ,” with Greek origins, and his last name is Walker. He could very well be seen as the McMurphy of the show, able to walk the patients out of the ward and away from the tyrannic rule of the Church, if it weren’t for his own comment that he could not “lead [the patients]” out of the church “like Moses.” Instead, Lana acts as his apostle, exposing the horrors they experienced at the institution and leading the charge to shut down Briarcliff. At first, Kit is even mad that Lana chooses to write about it, and her time with Thredson:

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To Kit, for all his representation as a religious Christ figure, that’s all in the past. He accepts it and move on. But Lana, who seemingly worships Kit and his strength and story, continuously returns. Both lead successful lives, with one based on the upcoming future and one based on the static past.

It’s clear in the conflict between Jude and Arden that neither science, the pusher, nor religion, the puller, is better than the other in terms of goodness; both can positively motivate people, but can also cause people to throw morals and ethics out the window in order to move in their respective directions. However, the show makes it seem that science is brightening the future more than religion is, as seen with the aliens. Both Kit and the aliens move forward. Here, Ryan Murphy’s idea is ambiguous; with the subtle condemnation of religion, but which is now so prevalent and deeply rooted in society, which one should we begin (or continue) to follow? Should this really be an either-or choice?

The Comment on Religion in AHS: Asylum

Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Asylum packs a whole lot in only thirteen hour-long episodes, featuring a myriad of different horrors, including mad scientists, human experimentation, aliens, serial killers, and all sorts of inhumane practices dealt by a typical asylum one would expect to see in a horror show.

Frankly, the second season of AHS vastly outshines the first season (fan-dubbed “Murder House”) in terms of scariness. The dark themes of Asylum was what made the season so fantastic, despite its so-so plot.

Religion is a huge theme in the season: firstly, the mental institution for the criminally-insane is run by nuns, with Sister Jude (played wonderfully by Jessica Lange) as its head, who rules with an iron fist and an array of wooden canes. Briarcliff is owned by the Church, and it would seem as if it were using the asylum to promote itself and make Christianity more appealing through “saving” and “caring for” the various mental patients of the institution. The Monsignor, Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes), is certainly using this tactic to elevate his own role and to boost his own reputation, which eventually leads to his appointment as the Cardinal of New York (feel good about all the horrors you’ve turned a blind eye to, Howard).

The nuns, especially Sister Jude, seem to use religion as an excuse to execute painful punishments upon the patients. Barbaric practices such as solitary confinement, electroshock therapy, and lobotomies are allowed in the institution, despite the fact that the Church should very much be alarmed at the inhumanity of such things. However, their justification is that they are helping the patients from their insanity– but would God really allow such cruel and forceful refinements of people if He was the one who created them as crazy? Here, is Murphy subtly pointing out the hypocrisy of the Church?

The Devil does a good job of summarizing this idea:

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Insanity, in the Church’s eyes, was often seen as the work of the Devil (and ironically, the Devil makes its appearance in the asylum), and victims of mental illness were frequently subjected to the aforementioned operations as means of curing (or rather, “purifying”) them. As Sister Jude put it in the show, “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin.” The staff of Briarcliff, particularly Sister Jude and Monsignor Howard (due to their shared ambitions of becoming leaders of the Church in Rome), are seemingly blinded by their duties to help the “lost souls” that are the patients, and overlook the fact that the techniques they use to force these patients into the definition of sanity are simply horrifying. This fact is, once again, exposed by Sister Jude (as Judy Martin), when she herself is stripped of her power and is committed as a patient of the asylum. She then rejects Timothy Howard and his ambitions, commenting, “I am more sane now as a mad woman than I ever was as the head of Briarcliff.” From her new perspective as a victim of the Church, rather than a member of it, she is able to see that its proclamations of “helping the mentally ill” is all cant.

Murphy does a wonderful job of exploring the role Christianity played in the history of mental illness and insanity and also exposes the indecency of the procedures used by the Church’s asylums to treat their patients– who, in the eyes of the Church and the rest of society, are sinners from birth. As Sister Jude put it, “All monsters are human.”

To the Church, however, not all humans are monsters.

AHS Season Two: Asylum of Horrors

Stunning season of AHS! Amazing themes, amazing depth, amazing horror, and amazing characters.

Recently, after reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I’ve finally gotten myself to finish Season 2 of American Horror Story. Compared to the first season (fan-dubbed “Murder House”), Asylum sure packs a punch. If you’re looking for a good, scary thriller, Asylum is the very definition of dark. Ryan Murphy arrives with fresh characters played by a familiar (yet utterly fantastic) cast, with a new storyline and setting, and what results is the best season of American’s favorite horror show.

Asylum contains an assortment of themes: religion in society, religion vs. science, Nature vs Nurture, oppression in society, and corrupt ambition. The setting is at an asylum, Briarcliff, in Massachusetts, run by nuns of the Church. The main plotline is the continuous hunt for the murderous, sociopathic killer Bloody Face, so named because he wears a bloody mask of a previously murdered human’s face over his own. Our hero, sapphic writer Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), is committed to the asylum (coincidentally, after attempting to infiltrate it to get a story on “Bloody Face’s” commitment) by her own girlfriend, as her sexuality at that time was not accepted in society, and was viewed as a sin.

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There, she meets fellow innocent inmate Kit Walker (Evan Peters), committed because he is wrongfully believed to be Bloody Face. He also has his own share of societal problems: he is married to a black woman, who disappeared mysteriously (in reality, kidnapped by aliens) and caused the police to suspect Kit as the serial killer. Both are just tired of being ostracized by society and want to go home to pursue their individual dreams: Lana aspires to become a well-known writer, and Kit wants to have a normal life with a loving family.

The ward is run by Monsignor Timothy Howard (Joseph Fiennes) and Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), who can be read, in the beginning, as the parallel of Nurse Ratched from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest. Both Howard and Sister Jude share in a wild ambition: Howard wishes to become Pope, with Jude at his side (unknown to the Monsignor, Jude harbors sexual attractions for him, a subtle symbol of the humanity hidden within her).

Strict with a no-nonsense attitude, Sister Jude canes patients and locks them up in unsanitary, prison-like rooms whenever the ward is out-of-order, overlooking the fact that her punishments are very inhumane. Monsignor Howard respects her and her authority, and foolishly allows for her to continue her tyrannic rule over Briarcliff. Jude and the ward’s doctor-slash-mad-scientist, Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), are locked in a bitter rivalry, one that represents the feud between religion and science; Dr. Arden in reality, however, is not much better than Sister Jude, as he enjoys performing scientific “experiments” upon the helpless patients.

Later, the Devil arrives at Briarcliff in the form of Jed Potter. After an exorcism that kills the boy, the Devil jumps into a Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe), a young nun, seizing her purity and innocence. Sister Jude, along with the rest of Briarcliff, eventually begins to crumble under the Devil’s hand.

Meanwhile, psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Thredson (Zachary Quinto) is called to examine Kit Walker (still perceived as Bloody Face). Though he claims to be only trying to help Kit to deal with his “insanity,” he has his own motives: he is the real Bloody Face, and is trying to get Kit to record a false confession to frame him for the murders he committed himself. He also takes Lana Winters under his wing, promising to get her out once he has the tape, and to also help “cure” her of her sexuality by means of conversion therapy.

However, he sees a potential in Lana as his next mother, and takes her back to his apartment so she can stay to take care of him. He reveals to her, after she finds out his true identity, that his motive was to find a perfect mother to replace the one he never had– all his previous candidates, however, were inadequate, and thus he was “forced” to skin and kill them. Thredson believes that Lana is “the one.”

After a bitter struggle, Lana escapes Thredson’s place but is eventually returned to Briarcliff. Sister Mary Eunice-slash-the-Devil is now the new head of Briarcliff hires Thredson as a permanent psychiatrist of the ward to add salt to Lana’s new wound. Knowing that Lana, as well as her ally Kit, knew about his secret he sets out to find and destroy the evidence they recorded and to kill them both. The Devil informs Lana that she has fallen pregnant with Thredson’s baby, a result of the shared time in the apartment.

The Devil also preys on Sister Jude, eventually usurping her authority of the ward and having her committed as a permanent patient herself. From her fall back towards humanity, Sister Jude is stripped of her title and becomes Judy Martin once again. As a patient, she begins to see the horrors of Briarcliff, and the insanity of society itself. She begins to sympathize with Lana and Kit, admiring their strength and preservation against the pain dealt upon them by the ward (which she once administered herself).

Lana is finally released from Briarcliff after Supreme Mother Claudia of the Church visits and realizes her innocence. From there she proceeds to reveal Oliver Thredson (whom she shoots before the police actually catch him) to the world, and writes about her time in the mental institution, effectively shutting it down. Kit Walker’s wife returns, though she is committed to Briarcliff after killing his second lover, former fellow inmate Grace Bertrand (Lizzie Brocheré) after an argument about the aliens. Though Lana tries to get Judy out of Briarcliff, she is informed that Judy has died.

Kit Walker, however, finds out that Judy is in fact not dead– she has been living under a different name, her previous identity forcefully wiped out by a death certificate. He takes her home, and allows her to become a nanny to his children. Lana reunites with Kit after Judy’s death and they reflect upon their different lives– Kit is now married a third time, and his kids are successful in their adulthood, while Lana is a famous reporter, caught up in the life of a respected celebrity. Through hardship and struggle, they have both achieved their dreams.

However, Lana has a secret: her son by Thredson has survived, despite her attempts to abort him. Unknowingly, she has repeated Thredson’s history with her own child, abandoning him and leaving him craving for a mother-figure in his life. Consequently, Johnny (Dylan McDermott) follows in his father’s footsteps as the current Bloody Face, to finish what Thredson didn’t: killing Lana. In an emotional encounter between mother and son, Lana apologizes for her actions and kills Johnny herself.

Murphy reveals how people struggle to fit into the box that is society’s norms, and what happens to those that refuse, or can’t. It is seen in Briarcliff, a microcosm for society, that forceful purification of people demoralizes the community as a whole; in attempting to cure the patients, the Church itself has become sinful for its barbaric practices. If there wasn’t so much selfishness and hate in the world, then it would be a much more peaceful, pure place. Unfortunately, sins are what differentiates humans from God. We are reminded, however, that what counts as a sin is strictly up to debate.

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Who is the evil one here, now?

My favorite characters by far are Lana Winters and Sister Jude. Both grow and develop fantastically. However, I did hate both of them at first– both were rude and snappy towards others, but as I watched, I realized that it was a very human response; both were going through a lot of pain and misery, hiding their identities from a judgmental society that ostracized them. Despite them being enemies in the beginning, the two women have a lot in common. I highly admire Lana’s strength, which she retains even as it seems as if the entire world is against her. Sister Jude, too, is a wonderful character, and finally becomes sane after turning insane; it just goes to show how conformity to society can blind people.

Although I can only call the plotline of Asylum mediocre, with dead ends and random bits inserted here and there, its character development and themes are what make this season the best of American Horror Story. For only thirteen episodes, Asylum sure contains an impressive amount of content. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this season. With a fantastic writer and a fantastic cast, Asylum is a must-watch for all those who like horror, thriller, and complexity in a TV show.