The Monstrous-Feminine in FX’s American Horror Story

American Horror Story is full of monsters: Murder House’s Tate, Asylum’s aliens, Roanoke’s The Butcher. For me, however, two monsters that stand out more than most in the horror anthology series are Coven’s Black Voudou Priestess Marie Laveau, and Hotel’s vampiric starlet The Countess. Why? Because they are more than just monsters; they are Monstrous-Feminine.

Monstrous-Feminine is a psychoanalytic theory developed by Australian Professor Barbara Creed, who explains that “all human societies have a conception of the Monstrous-Feminine, of what it is about woman that is shocking, terrifying, horrific, abject”. Creed assigned this label to this specific representation of woman as monster because “female monster” does not accurately describe this construction. Referring to these characters as female monsters implies their gender is irrelevant to how they are constructed; that if they were male, they would be constructed in the same way. This is not the case. Monstrous-Feminine figures are monstrous because they are female. This construction of woman as Monstrous-Feminine figures provides us with an insight into how subconscious fear and anxiety males have towards females influences how they represent them. Although it must be acknowledged that not all female characters on screen are this black-and-white, falling into the virgin or whore stereotype, a significant percentage of them unfortunately do. Juliann Fleanor explains that men construct women in these ways because “casting them as praiseworthy or blameworthy types diminishes the threatening power women hold over men”.

That American Horror Story’s Marie Laveau and The Countess can be interpreted as Monstrous-Feminine figures is concerning. In an American patriarchal culture run by influential and frighteningly powerful misogynistic men such as Trump and Harvey Weinstein, it is discouraging that these powerful, independent, and sex-positive women are represented as negative, threatening, transgressive figures that cannot be allowed to exist in a male-dominated society.

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The key to understanding Laveau and The Countess’s constructions is through the framework of the gothic conception of the Other. Broadly speaking, the male psyche views the woman as Other because they are not men; not only do they not possess a penis, prompting subconscious Freudian fears of castration, but they are complete without one. In other words, they do not need one to be at their most powerful. What makes Laveau and The Countess especially frightening are their statuses as a witch and a vampire, two of Creed’s Monstrous-Feminine archetypes. These archetypes are human in appearance, a disguised enemy within. They are frightening precisely because they look human, for males cannot easily identify their monstrosity by their outward appearance.

The witch, almost always female, is now viewed as an empowering liberator of their gender, but in the past, they were the embodiment of male anxiety towards the un-understandable woman. Joseph Campbell explains that women are associated with witchcraft because of their “mysterious ability to create new life”, something men are unable to experience and therefore truly understand. This inability to understand women is frustrating for men, and oftentimes throughout history has resulted in negative representations of women.

Regarding the witch, the ultimate embodiment of male anxiety towards knowledgeable and sexually free women is the Malleus Maleficarium. This witch-hunting manual provided justification for men in the 1600s to murder any women they viewed as transgressive and threatening to their patriarchal power by claiming they were witches who copulated with the Devil. What makes Laveau frightening is not only is she a witch, she is also a Black Voudou practitioner. Voudou is unfairly represented as macabre and evil, and her identity as a black woman further cements her Other status in a male-dominated white culture. In Coven, she is represented as an animalistic, sexually aggressive, and unfortunately falls victim to the “angry black woman” stereotype. By reducing her to a stereotype, patriarchal culture can not only control how we see her but diminish the significance of her actions as a self-appointed avenger for racial injustice in her community.

The murders she commits throughout Coven further strengthen her Monstrous-Feminine construction. Twice we see her use voudou to enact necromancy over the bodies of Civil War soldiers. The first time she murders white men who lynched an innocent black boy in the 1960s, whose parents, hopeful for the future, had sent him to an integrated school. She uses this method a second time in 2013 to avenge the beheading of her lover Bastien. Although these acts can be interpreted as justified, in the context of Monstrous-Feminine her actions encourage us to adhere to the patriarchal assertion that women are easily emotionally compromised. This is further stressed through her instrumental role in the destruction of the Delpi Trust, a modern male-run witch-hunting organisation. By having her commit murder, AHS is subconsciously linking Laveau’s emotional response to death, thus cementing the idea that women like her – Monstrous-Feminine women – need to be controlled or destroyed for the safety of others.

Similarly, the female vampire’s positive attitude towards female sexuality is seen now mostly as empowering and liberating for females, but The Countess’s representation as Monstrous-Feminine also plants the idea in our heads that she should be destroyed because of it. Heavily influenced by the “vamp” figure in 1940s noir, The Hunger’s (1983) Catherine Deneuve, and real-life serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, The Countess is Othered because, as a corpse, she is an abjection to normality. She perverts the borders – alive/dead, good/bad, male/female – that define and shape our lives. She possesses personality traits predominantly associated with men – authority, sexual desire, and the power to manipulate – without having to sacrifice her femininity. The female vampire, in general, goes against patriarchal culture’s construction of women as passive, nurturing and conforming. What makes The Countess so frightening is that she not only understands how this culture expects her to behave, but that she has the intelligence to use this construction for her own gain. Whilst seeing a woman in a position of power can be interpreted as empowering for viewers who identify as female, in the context of Monstrous-Feminine it reveals an aspect of feminine power that induces fear and anxiety in men’s subconscious.

Like Laveau, she is also linked to death. Her sexually charged style of hunting victims, whilst possible to be interpreted as empowering for viewers who identity as females, exposes us to our subconscious fear of sex’s connection to death. A major story arc in Hotel is the rise of John Lowe as the Ten Commandments Killer; his identity as a killer is not defined by his sexuality in contrast to The Countess, planting the idea in our minds that even male serial killers are not as bad as female ones. This is further pushed by The Countess’s sexual way of turning her victims into her vampiric children. By making her children immortal, she is perverting patriarchy’s construction of the natural mother, and the sexual way in which she turns them – she purposefully makes Alex, John Lowe’s wife, drink from her breast rather than somewhere more neutral – perverts the relationship a mother is supposed to have with her children.

Even Laveau’s and The Countess’s deaths are connected to their construction as Monstrous-Feminine. Laveau is placed in her own personal Hell by psychopomp Papa Legba, the patriarchal figure who granted her immortality in the first place. Laveau was only allowed to remain immortal by sacrificing an “innocent” baby to Papa once a year, perverting her patriarchally constructed role as Mother. Although Laveau sees herself as an avenger for the racial injustices experienced by her people, Papa reminds her that she too has committed sin so she cannot escape Hell. She is stuck there, forced to torture LaLaurie’s children in front of her for all eternity. The Countess is not killed in the typical vampire way – a stake through the heart – but she is killed by John Lowe with the phallic gun (perhaps a modern version of the stake for bullets are a similar shape). She is killed as she abandons her vampiric children in search of freedom, perverting her motherhood role. John can be interpreted as the patriarchy punishing her for her transgressive sexuality which has led to the abandonment of her unnatural children.

Obviously American Horror Story has some positive, powerful and empowering female characters, such as Vivian from Murder House and Cordelia from Coven, but the creators’ decision to construct Laveau and The Countess negatively as Monstrous-Feminine, focusing mainly on what patriarchal culture considers transgressive behaviour and aggressive sexuality, cannot be ignored. While they can be interpreted by viewers who identify as female as empowering characters, the fact that they can be interpreted as Monstrous-Feminine is worrying and honestly, a little disappointing. A female is not monstrous because she is female. Fear of women, Judith Halberstam explains, is “historically conditioned rather than a psychological universal”. The use of the Monstrous-Feminine in American Horror Story not only complicates notions of female empowerment but unintentionally reinforces patriarchal culture’s assertion that women who go against the “norm”, the “ideal woman” – passive, nurturing, sexy but not too sexy – are transgressive figures who must be controlled and destroyed for the sake of others.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy How American Horror Story brought queer representation to the forefront of TV

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