Bring on the witching hours: "American Horror Story: Apocalypse" and a sisterhood that will save us

Witches are having a moment now, in a feminist response to the misogyny thrumming through our politics and culture

By Melanie McFarland

Published October 30, 2018 7:22PM (EDT)

Sarah Paulson as Ms. Wilhemina Venable/Cordelia Foxx in "
American Horror Story:
Apocalypse" (Kurt Iswarienko/FX)
Sarah Paulson as Ms. Wilhemina Venable/Cordelia Foxx in " American Horror Story: Apocalypse" (Kurt Iswarienko/FX)

In the first few episodes of “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s vision of the world’s end resembled the one shared and feared by most. The worldwide launching of nuclear missiles sends the wealthy scrambling to their private jets, leaving those of more modest means, or none at all, to fry in a radioactive blaze.

The survivors gather in an underground bunker appointed with strange amenities, including a radio that only plays one song over and over again. Their hosts — overseers, really — run the place like a dictatorship and foist bizarre requirements upon them, such as wearing bizarre costumes more suitable for a Victorian court than a survival shelter. Eventually the people running the place dispense of their guests then turn on each other, leaving only one being standing: the Antichrist Michael Langdon (Cody Fern).

Only at the very moment it looks like the dregs of humanity have been wiped away do our potential saviors appear: Zoe Benson (Taissa Farmiga), Myrtle Snow (Frances Conroy) and Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), known to the series’ faithful viewers as the witches from “American Horror Story: Coven.”

Like other recent seasons, “American Horror Story: Apocalypse,” currently airing Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on FX, is another convergence of past storylines. Thus far it has included rearview glimpses of the Hotel Cortez (central to season 5) and a full episode set inside the first season’s “Murder House.”

The decision to grant a central role of “Coven” in this season is inspired and makes complete sense: “Apocalypse” is, at its core, a story about original evil, the devil himself. A very vain, solipsistic and male evil.

And he’s the reason that the Supreme, Cordelia Foxx, and her coven represent humanity’s stand. For the devil’s spawn would not have risen at all if he hadn’t been enabled by those with destructive desires — first his grandmother Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange), who orchestrated his natural mother's death so he could live, then a group of Satanists. Michael’s final keepers, a group of warlocks obsessed with asserting their dominance over their female counterparts, may be the worst of all. Some knew he was the Antichrist and helped him unlock his power anyway, just because they sensed he could become the first male Supreme witch.

Ultimately the devil made them do it. But helping that along was a long-festering resentment of women with power: the warlocks would rather have Satan in charge than a woman.

American Horror Story” revolves around tropes familiar to horror film fans mainly having to do with the many faces of evil, a theme reflected in the show’s penchant for using the same actors season after season, cast in different roles.

Paulson, Conroy, Evan Peters and Lily Rabe have appeared in nearly every iteration of “American Horror Story.”

“Murder House,” “Asylum,” “Coven,” “Freak Show,” “Hotel” and “Roanoke” are witty, grotesque expansions of horror Americana with a healthy dose of urban legend tossed in for good measure. Each season contains connections that establish the series as existing in the same twisted universe that pre-dates the country’s founding.

But the consistent player is fear. Murphy and Falchuk took a different spin on that notion in the election-inspired “Cult” season, which contains bridges to “Freak Show” (via the appearance of the horrifying Twisty the Clown) and “Asylum” (the story that made the career of Paulson’s dogged reporter Lana Winters).

In “Cult,” fear isn’t the outgrowth of some supernatural phenomenon — it is the phenomenon that infects everything, destroying every last bit of humanity and common sense.

What better way to follow up that bloody punch of reality with a depiction of what happens after the world is swallowed by fear? And who better to fight that fear than women, powered by magic in the show’s world and by rage in ours?

That’s probably why witches are everywhere right now, both on television and in culture. With so many outward examples of institutions failing the common people — politically, socially and spiritually — no one can be blamed for turning to the belief in unseen forces we may have forgotten.

J.K. Rowling may have made magic mainstream a couple of decades ago with "Harry Potter," but Syfy ushered the trend into adulthood via its adaptation of Lev Grossman's “The Magicians.” Referring to the employment of arcane arts as witchcraft takes on entirely different connotations, though. The term witch still carries a stigma even though practicing wiccans seem more common these days than ever. But it also has matriarchal associations.

Film and TV have made witches fearsome or adorable over the years, a factor The CW’s reboot of “Charmed” capitalizes upon while embroidering episodes, clumsily, with scenes of weaponized sexism in addition to the monster of the week. (The trend stands to continue: This month it was announced that the British series “A Discovery of Witches,” based on the All Souls Trilogy from Deborah Harkness, will premiere its eight-episode season in the U.S. on Jan. 17, 2019, on Sundance Now and Shudder.)

Netflix’s recent debut of “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” launches with the title character’s refusal to sign over her free will to Satan in exchange for endless powers, a deal many women before her were willing to make.

When Sabrina declares that she wants both freedom and power, a more experienced witch scoffs at her. “He’ll never give you both,” one responds. “The Dark Lord? The thought of you, of any of us having both terrifies him.”

Asked why that is, the witch smirks and replies, “He’s a man, isn’t he?”

At the outset of its first season, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina“  mainly concerns itself with its heroine’s desire to maintain a foot in both the human world and the magic one and retain some agency over her destiny. That’s at once feminist and a very common theme for many teenage tales, whether tinged with the supernatural or not.

But it’s an undeniably potent concept. It’s why Urban Outfitters sells starter kits for witches, and raw crystal jewelry and sage smudging kits are as accessible as lip gloss in 2018.

Fashion’s adoption of witchy accoutrements isn’t exactly new; going by the widely-referenced 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study conducted by Pew Research Center, the most recent data available that breaks down our nation’s demographics by spirituality, some 734,000 Americans identify as pagan or Wiccan.

Only recently have witches joined the ranks of Instagram influencers and become trendy enough to inspire fashion magazine features and a lengthy read in the New York Times. There are a number of reasons for this but one, certainly, is the rise of feminism in response to the misogyny thrumming through our politics and culture.

And as with every trend, there’s already been ample misappropriation, with men responding to the #MeToo movement by exploiting the term “witch hunt” to describe the fear of being held accountable for their misdeeds.

In a story published in May 2018,  Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams summed up the feeling thusly:

You need only look as far as "The Wizard of Oz" to know that witches get a bad rap. Witches are, just as often as not, the heroes. The healers. The truth-tellers. The ones who've paid the price for being different. If they're having a moment in the public conversation now, it's not because powerful men feel ostracized and victimized. It's because those men are scared. Scared that there are forces in the world stronger than they are. Scared that their hypocrisy will not sustain them. When the supposed commander in chief whines that he's the subject of a witch hunt, it's ludicrous not just because that's not how governing works. It's absurd because the witches would never have him.

Naturally in a medium built on heroic protagonists (whose membership has long skewed male) the powerful female protagonists would likely be mystically inclined as well. Especially now.

Fear has ruled recent years and run wild in the country in these weeks leading up to the midterms. Hateful, anti-Semitic killings at a Jewish place of worship in Pittsburgh. The racially-motivated murders of two elderly people shopping for groceries at a Kroger in Louisville, Kentucky. Leaders who, in the wake of these horrific events, gleefully threaten to strip natural-born U.S. citizens born of immigrant parents of their citizenship.

While all of this seethes in our streets, it seems eerily appropriate that “Apocalypse” places the blame for world’s destruction directly in the lap of selfishness, gender hatred and discrimination, and the evil sown by those ills.

And it’s just as apt that it falls to a sisterhood that has survived levels of toxicity that have decimated everything else to deliver us from that evil. In the finale the solution is likely to be supernatural.

But the overall idea feels fairly rooted in the reality in which we’re currently trapped.

Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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