23 and Me found themselves in trouble recently because they promised to give clients powerful insight into their genetic history. The great popularity of this test, and others like it, suggests how very desperate many Americans are to uncover their ancestral past. More important, we want to know how that past might wreak havoc with our present. After learning we’ve inherited a gene, even a predisposition, we want to feel empowered to take action. We may not be able to erase the past, but we want to take away its power. We can, we tell ourselves, prevent it from dominating our current lives.
Except–according to the FDA and this season’s American Horror Story–we can’t.
Any good tale of terror features the past making a mess in the present. Ghosts, zombies, vampires–they’re all different manifestations of the dead refusing to go away. And if there’s one emerging theme in this wild, gleefully chaotic season of American Horror Story, it’s that the dead refuse to stay dead at all. This past week’s episode, ‘The Dead,’ featured two hot love scenes—one a ménage a trois—in which only two out of the five participants hadn’t already died at least once. To paraphrase Faulkner, the past is never dead. It’s walking down the street, rising from the grave, inhabiting modern houses and seducing the living.
The women of the Coven are there because some ancestral information coiled in their DNA has marked them as a member of the club. And magic is only one of the forms of inheritance that causes problems for the characters casting their lots in the cursed New Orleans of American Horror Story. The bodies of the women themselves—and the story those bodies compel them to play out—are moved by an inheritance that seem to scare Americans more than anything else: the legacies of race and slavery. That is a history we’d definitely prefer to keep buried. Although the show makes some gestures towards postracial harmony, it also plays into racialized fears of the vengeful ghosts of our past. In the logic of American Horror Story–a logic shared by those who would suggest that our genetic code provides a blueprint for future lives–the past utterly determines the present.
Many of the reactions to the powerful and wrenching film 12 Years a Slave expressed both fear and anger at how the movie digs up the past through its sustained and unflinching look at slavery’s atrocities upon mind and body. The critics calling the film torture porn argue that the movie serves a function akin to AMHS‘s Queenie’s magical gift of pain distribution. A “human voodoo doll,” the Coven’s Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) makes others feel pain by hurting herself. The inheritor of a long history of racism, Queenie’s power seems to have evolved from fictional characters like Uncle Tom. It was only after reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s prolonged 1852 description of Tom’s fatal beating that many white readers were moved to oppose slavery’s horrors. In true sentimental tradition, Queenie’s power relies on the logic of the slave narrative, in which the victim’s subjugated flesh forces onlookers to feel sympathetic pain.
The Coven where Queenie resides promotes itself as a sort of liberal post-racial space, telling a fairly comforting story about the role of the past in modern American life. Fiona, The Coven’s “Supreme,” gleefully taunts the unreconstructed racist Mme LaLaurie when she discovers that—horror of horrors!—a black man has been elected president. Declaring that there’s nothing she hates worse than a racist, Fiona assigns the former mistress to be Queenie’s personal slave. As far as Fiona—and arguably many in the audience are concerned–justice has been served. At first, the former slaveowner and the African American woman seem to find some form of interracial understanding as Queenie saves Madame LaLaurie’s life, comforts her, and takes her out for fast food. It should come as no surprise to any viewer of Hollywood’s past record on race that such progress emerges from Queenie’s—not LaLaurie’s—sacrifices and compassion. As Spike Lee has lamented, the film industry never seems to tire of black people using their powers for the benefit of needy white characters. Here was a story American film audiences knew well, one that provided a happy ending for the inheritors of a difficult past. This was a place where the descendants of slaves were able to forgive, thereby taming the racist ghosts of the past.
If Queenie’s self-immolating power and her presence in the coven offers a possible narrative of racial reconciliation, Marie Laveau (played brilliantly by Angela Basset) provides a fierce counterpoint. An immortal voodoo queen, Laveau has personally witnessed racial atrocities running the gamut from Madame LaLaurie’s sadistic treatment of slaves to 20th century murders of black children trying to attend school. She embodies the unappeasable rage of a history that will not die. It’s no accident that one of her most fearsome powers involve raising the dead from their graves. I’m not the first to note that the idea of a zombie apocalypse sometimes serves as code for right-wing fears of a future race war. When Marie Laveau’s zombie army attacks a house full of white girls, she fulfills these fearful visions. The ravages of the past live among us, and they are hungry. Our inheritance is violence, AMHS tells us, and there’s no medicine for it.
If recent comment threads are indication, Mme Leveau’s rage, and Queenie’s decision to ally herself with her are as perplexing to many viewers as they are frightening. They can’t understand why Queenie, after seeming to accept her part as the black character in a buddy movie, suddenly opts for revenge over rapprochement. But she does. She turns the former slave mistress over to the Voodoo Queen, and the episode ends with Mme LaLaurie—looking helpless and betrayed in a baggy t-shirt—imprisoned in a torture dungeon much like the one she used to preside over. As other writers have noted, Kathy Bates’s formidable talent renders LaLaurie more sympathetic than she has a right to be. In any case, the show makes it hard to cheer for a middle-aged lady facing an eternity of magical torture. She may well deserve her punishment, but it seems unlikely that centuries of future cruelty are going to help lay past demons to rest.
In many ways, the racial double-vision of American Horror Story evokes the same dilemma faced by anxious 23 & Me customers. The flip-side of the illusory belief that either genes or race determine our future is the deeply American fantasy that we can somehow duck out of the payment history demands. AMHS tells Americans a scary story in which there’s no way to either effectively manage the past, or to avoid the unhappy future that inheritance has mapped out for us. It’s a fear shared by liberals and conservatives alike, although that fear takes strikingly different forms. For viewers, both black and white, who wish that American culture would progress past the story of slavery, this show treads in a frightening landscape indeed. As the recent controversy over Ani DiFranco’s misguided decision to hold a workshop at a slave plantation testifies, there are many places whose ghosts remain, painfully, among us. These witches predict a haunted future in which we’ll never really be able to anticipate the places the past might take us. The good and the bad lies waiting for us in our cells, in our politics, in how we move through this world and the next. Both the vengeful Marie Laveau (a magical version of Django) and the self-congratulatory post-racial Fiona Goode are two edges of a very sharp sword. Each of their stories suggest that there’s a way–either by vengeance or by tolerance–to nullify the damage that American ancestors have contributed to our collective DNA. If we just hit on the right technology, we can put the dead to rest.
Sorry, the terrifyingly energetic corpses of American Horror Story insist, we’re not getting out of this that easy.