Having watched the season finale of American Horror Story: Coven, I wanted to take this opportunity to write about something that I think it did very well: the unexpected way it treated a couple of its characters.
Specifically I was struck by the characters of Nan, played by Jamie Brewer, and Queenie, played by Gabourey Sidibe.
For background Jamie Brewer is an actress who has Down Syndrome. She is very active in theater and is a member of the Groundlings. She is also a disabled rights activist. In the first season of American Horror Story: Murder House, she played the daughter of Jessica Lange’s character. It was a fairly clichéd portrayal of someone with Down Syndrome. She was childlike, mistreated, and had trouble understanding the world fully. It wasn’t a gross portrayal, it just didn’t stand out as anything ground breaking.
Brewer did not appear in season two Asylum; her return in Coven however was fantastic. Her character, Nan, is a clairvoyant and thus often knows more about what is going on than most of the other characters. She is also clearly very intelligent and in a rivalry to attract the attention of a handsome neighbor, and wins over the pretty starlet in the coven by treating him as a person rather than a prize.
Nan is a complete subversion of what we would expect from a character who has all the physical signs of Down Syndrome. In fact I can’t think of a single point in the season where there is any dialog making any reference to her having the condition, although I could not check back with the earliest ones thanks to how On Demand works. I think it shows Brewer’s strength as an actress, combined with the strength of the writing, that by the third episode we aren’t thinking of her as anything other than a member of the coven, and a strong one at that.
New to the show this season was Gabourey Sidibe as Queenie. Sidibe is best known for the movie Precious, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Obviously her weight is going to be something that people notice. As an actress she has had to face a lot of fat shaming in her career, and has always dealt with it like a champ.
As Queenie, there are hints of that in the first episode, again from the pretty starlet who joins the coven. She quickly deals with that and, honestly, it is never brought up again. Instead, the issue of her race is more central, which is logical as race relations are a central theme of the season and her character’s arc includes her being torn between the largely white coven, and the lure of joining the exclusively black voodoo group. She also is the primary character to deal with a racist slave owner, brought to modern times, whom she attempts to teach the error of her ways.
Queenie, like Nan, is given agency, and the writers avoid going for any of the easy routes they could have, given her appearance.
American Horror Story: Coven had an overabundance of excellent actresses and it would have been easy to overlook the gems they had in Brewer and Sidibe, or gone the easy route of playing on the stereotypes of their appearances. That it didn’t, and gave both actresses plenty of opportunity to shine, is a testament to the entire production and makes me eager to see what season 4 has in store for us.
As we enter the final stretch of the Halloween season we now turn our eyes to the origin of the holiday, Samhain. And since this is Fanboy News Network I am going to tie it back in with geek culture by the end.
Before I even get into what Samhain is/was/isn’t/whatever I want to tackle one of the trickiest subjects of all, how to pronounce it. You see Samhain is a Gaelic word and so its pronunciation has nothing to do with how our eyes accustomed to modern English see it. When you look at it I am sure that you assume it is pronounced Sam (as in the common first name) hane (rhyming with bane). And you would be wrong. In fact it is pronounced Sow (like the pig) in (as opposed to out).
We will get back to fun with pronunciation later.
So what is Samhain and how does it relate to Halloween? Well to answer that we need to look to our old friends the ancient Celts.
It’s easy to think of the Celts as a superstitious people who spent most of their time painted blue and hitting things, but really they were a very practical people who incorporated their spiritual lives into their everyday lives. Due to this a lot of their holy days tended to line up to practical matters like planting or harvesting. It is also good to keep in mind the harsh climate they lived in. Finally you have to remember that they did not look at seasons the same way we do. To them there were two seasons, summer and winter.
So for Samhain, the first thing to know is that its literal translation is “summer’s end”, meaning it was when they marked the beginning of the winter season. Or to put it another way, it was the Gaelic word for November. The festival of Samhain was the feast that they would have to mark the occasion. It was also when they would bring in their livestock from the summer pastures and slaughter any animals to provide food for the winter. Due to this last bit it was sometimes known as the blood harvest.
On the spiritual side of things it was a time when the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead were thought to be thinnest. Many traditions that we think of as Halloween traditions were born out of this belief. People would dress in ways they normally didn’t to confuse spirits that meant harm, turnips were craved into frightening faces to scare off evil spirits and offerings were left out for the beloved dead. Thus we have costumes, Jack-o-lanterns, and trick or treating for candy.
For the Celts Samhain was the beginning of their year and the festival of Samhain their most important holy day.
I’m sure some of you are now thinking “But haven’t I heard of an actual mythological character called Samhain?”
I’m sure you have, and let me take this time to explain why this is wrong.
In the 18th and 19th centuries in England the practice of armchair academics was very popular. These were amateurs in various sciences who would do research and get published without any actual field experience. I have always held the belief that the kind of people that did this would be what Monty Python would refer to as an Upper Class Twit.
One such individual was Col. Charles Vallency, who wrote a 6 volume set of books in 1770 that attempted to prove that the Irish people once came from Armenia. This work has the first reference that can be found naming a god called Samhain.
This concept would be picked up by Godfrey Higgins in 1827. Higgins wanted to prove that the Celts originally came from India. Now today there is scientific evidence that backs this up, but the field work that proved it had not been done yet in 1827 and Higgins needed something to prove his theory. In his research Higgins came across Vallency’s work and picked up on the idea of calling a god Samhain. He found a Hindu God named Samana, and figured he had his hook. But he needed a mythology to go with Samhain to make this work. Finding reference to the blood harvest it was an easy step to go from a sensible practice to survive the winter to a festival of ritual sacrifice to appease a pagan god. And the belief of the dead roaming the land made Samhain a god of the dead, terrorizing the people as the cold set in.
And this BS is what stuck in a lot of people’s minds. For years if you did a search on Samhain on the internet all you would find would be references to a “Lord of the Dead”. Fortunately decent research in more recent years has drowned those pages out and most information you find is in the neighborhood of accurate.
Well unless you are talking about mass media, then all bets are off.
It seems that when you want to do a TV show or movie involving Samhain that last thing you want to do is actual research, especially when the BS is so much more fun.
One example that I always think of is an episode of the TV show Supernatural. Now this show has always had its issue when it comes to research. Don’t get me wrong, I like this show, and watch it regularly. When they are working from a mythology they create no problem, but whenever they try to work in any existing folklore, not so much. Let’s put it this way, my sister and I have a game where we predict when the other is going to start flailing at the screen because they got some piece of lore wrong. When they did their Samhain episode she actually called me and said “are you yelling at the screen yet?” The answer was yes by the way. They basically took Higgins’ story and used it whole cloth, adding that Samhain was helping bring about the apocalypse.
Another is the otherwise really fun horror movie Trick r Treat. It’s iconic character is Sam who looks like a little kid in a pumpkin mask, but is in fact Samhain who acts as the spirit of Halloween.
But really it was the cartoon the Real Ghostbusters that solidified the use of Samhain as the spirit of Halloween. In multiple episodes they had a pumpkin headed baddie called Sam Hane who wanted to make every day Halloween.
As for shows that get a bit closer to the facts, even they can have issues.
True Blood for example almost drove me to drink. They did great on the Samhain mythology, but their pronunciation was like fingernails on a chalkboard. They pronounced it Sama Hane. I have no idea where they got that extra A from.
Another show that was not annoying was the show Reaper, about a guy who ended up stuck working for the Devil. In one episode the Devil lamented that he missed the festival of Samhain, and nailed the pronunciation. His mythology was a bit off, but better than most.
The one show I can cite that nailed it on the head was American Horror Story last season. They opened their Halloween two part episode with a character accurately describing the old Samhain traditions, getting both pronunciation and history correct. The best part was that since the story was about ghosts, they were able to take the accurate information and make it relevant to the plot.
So there we have it, a look at what is and isn’t true about Samhain. So when you go out this year, remember that there was no blood god wanting sacrifices, just a people getting ready for winter and honoring their beloved dead.
When I was growing up one of the shows I liked to watch was DarkShadows. I was too young to really understand it much beyond “oh neat, monsters,” but I would sit riveted. Years later it was syndicated and I was able to watch it again.
One of DarkShadows’ intriguing qualities was how it handled casting new characters. Between time travel, parallel worlds and simply a character dying and a new one showing up later, many actors on the show played 4 or 5 different characters. The show often dealt with this by just ignoring it. It became the accepted norm.
And now the new show American Horror Story has decided to follow in its footsteps.
If you have not watched this show you really should.
The premise is that the Harmon family of Boston, Ben, Vivian, and their Daughter Violet, move to Las Angeles for a fresh start after Vivian has a stillbirth and Ben has an affair with a student of his. They move into a restored mansion that was an amazing bargain.Only it turns out that the house is cursed, anyone who dies on its property is trapped there as a ghost.
I am not going to spoil the rest. It is a well-crafted story, and discovering details as it moves along is one of its strengths.
While I was watching the early part of its first season I was wondering how they could sustain the story over multiple seasons. The pacing was great and they gave a lot of revelations but there was no way to avoid the problem Heroes had, a great first season and then a downhill slide.
And then they proved me wrong.
The season finale was in fact the end of the story.As it become clear near the end that they were going to wrap up the producers explained the plan. Each season would be a complete story with new characters. To provide continuity several cast members would stay with the show, but as different characters then before.
I personally think this is brilliant. It allows for a well-paced story with a climax, which is much more satisfying then stretching the story beyond the breaking point that shows like Smallville have.
It also allows for the freedom to sign up some really good actors as they are do not have to commit to anything beyond the one 13 episode season.I’m sure that’s how they got Dylan McDermott for the first season.
It was announced that Jessica Lange, Zachary Quinto, Evan Peters, Sarah Paulson, and Lily Rabe are returning next season and that they will move from the west coast to the east. If they can keep up the quality from the first season I am there.