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European Journal of American Culture

EJAC 38 (1) pp. 29–41 Intellect Limited 2019
European Journal of American Culture
Volume 38 Number 1
© 2019 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/ejac.38.1.29_1
Jennifer O’Reilly
Liverpool John Moores
‘We’re more than just pins
and dolls and seeing the
future in chicken parts’:
Race, magic and religion in
American Horror Story: Coven
This article will examine intersecting representations of race, magic and religion
in American Horror Story: Coven. Coven traces the presence of witchcraft
and voodoo in New Orleans from the nineteenth century to the present day. The
season presents two conflicting and racially divided modes of magic: the predominantly white coven who are descendants of the Salem witches and the African
American voodooists, led by the most infamous voodoo queen in the United
States, Marie Laveau. These two sects are sworn enemies who have competed
for power in the city since the coven first arrived in New Orleans. Following a
truce between the two groups, the city was divided and white and black spaces
were created in which the two groups could practice their magic separately. This
article will discuss the way in which Coven presents magic in the city as racially
and physically segregated and will pay particular attention to the depiction of
African American magical practices. This article will interrogate the ways in
which Coven echoes historical accounts of Marie Laveau and how it presents
New Orleans

Jennifer O’Reilly
30 European Journal of American Culture the nature and function of voodoo in New Orleans. It will question in what ways
Coven conforms to and deviates from established voodoo tropes, arguing that in
some ways Coven perpetuates pejorative impressions of voodoo whilst disrupting
others. It will argue that, through Murphy and Falchuk’s depiction of ceremonies, rituals and the voodoo deity Papa Legba, Coven sensationalizes voodoo and
presents its practices as spectacle. It proposes that this contemporary image of
voodoo is part of a cultural tradition established through nineteenth and twentieth century treatments of African American magic that includes depictions of
black culture based on the tradition of blackface minstrelsy, Harlem Renaissance
recoveries of folk traditions and popular ethnographies of the city. It will suggest
that in a similar way to these historical representations, Coven draws on racialized stereotypes of the primitive and the savage to present voodoo as dark and
dangerous. Yet, primarily through the figure of Marie Laveau, it will also argue
that Murphy and Falchuk depict voodoo as a symbol of resistance to racialized
and gendered violence and oppression, and that in many ways Coven grants
agency to voodoo women. Using voodoo as a lens, this paper will address broader
debates around intersecting hierarchies of race and religion, the representation of
race and the visibility of black culture in America.
The third season of the American Horror Story (AHS) anthology, Coven (2013),
traces the presence of witchcraft and voodoo in New Orleans from the nineteenth century to the present day. The season presents two racially divided
modes of magic: the predominantly white coven of witches, who trace their
heritage back to the Salem witches, and the African American voodooists. This
article will discuss how Coven presents magic in the city as racially divided and
will pay particular attention to the depiction of voodoo and its practitioners.
New Orleans voodoo is a ‘dynamic subculture’ or a ‘syncretic religion’ practiced
by a diverse group of people that is constantly developing under a mélange of
economic, social and cultural influences (Roberts 2015: 6; Anderson 2005: x).
The season perpetuates long-standing pejorative impressions of voodoo
whilst disrupting others. Through Murphy and Falchuk’s depiction of voodoo
ceremonies and the deity Papa Legba, Coven sensationalizes voodoo and
presents its practices as dark and dangerous. This contemporary image of
voodoo can be traced back to nineteenth and twentieth century treatments
of African American magic in various ethnographies and treatises of the city
(see Morrow Long 2002; Gordon 2012). Like these historical representations,
Coven draws on racialized stereotypes of the primitive and the savage to recreate the narrative of voodoo as a marker of inferiority, and as innately evil, in
the twenty-first century.
However, Murphy and Falchuk also depict magic and voodoo as a
symbol of resistance to social injustice. Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), and
to an extent the young voodoo/witch, Queenie (Gabourey Sadibe), use
their magic to retaliate against acts of racialized violence and to protect
the black community. Coven thus presents voodoo as a system that has
concrete political, social and cultural significance, and illuminates the ways
in which voodoo has historically been used as a means to counteract racism
and racial persecution (see Rucker 2001: 84). Though Coven circulates
images that draw on stereotypes to sensationalize and demonize voodoo,
it simultaneously employs magic as a symbol of power against societal
structures of oppression and therefore, challenges popular perceptions and

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Coven is set in 2013 against the backdrop of New Orleans, a city that
claims to be the most haunted in the United States (Official New Orleans
Tourism Website 2018). AHS utilizes this reputation and incorporates some
of New Orleans’ most famous myths and legends into the season. Coven
draws on various historical figures such as the Axeman of New Orleans,
a diabolical figure who murdered several New Orleans residents with an
axe between 1918 and 1919. The season utilizes historical reports of the
Axeman, such as the letter he wrote to the Times Picayune in March 1919
stating he would spare anyone who played jazz music, to create a character
that mirrors this historical figure in modern day New Orleans (Saxon et al.
[1945] 2012: 94). Murphy and Falchuk also bring to life other notable New
Orleans historical figures in the season including the voodoo queen, Marie
Laveau and Madame Delphine Lalaurie, a nineteenth century slave owner
renowned for the barbaric torture of her slaves. Like the Axeman, the characters of Marie Laveau and Delphine Lalaurie (Kathy Bates) draw on historical
accounts of them to reimagine their roles in the contemporary moment.
Delphine represents the horrors of slavery and America’s haunted racial past
and present, whereas Marie acts as the primary figure through which these
spectres are confronted. Through a series of flashbacks dating back to the
1830s, the season charts the ways in which intersecting notions of magic,
religion and race function within the city.
Voodoo versus Witchcraft
In present day New Orleans, under the direction of Fiona Goode (Jessica
Lange) and her daughter, Cordelia Foxx (Sarah Paulson), the coven runs
Miss Robicheaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Women. The academy is
a safe haven for young witches and teaches them to control their powers in
order to avoid persecution. The witches fear that they are becoming ‘a dying
breed’ (‘Bitchcraft’ 2013) because men have continuously hunted them since
the Salem witch trials. Across the city, Marie leads the city’s voodooists from
her hair salon in the Ninth Ward. Though the voodooists also hide their
powers from the public for fear of persecution, the two sects of women remain
divided. Magic in the city becomes geographically segregated in 1971 following a truce signed by Marie and the coven’s reining supreme (leader and most
powerful witch) at the time, Anna Leigh Leighton. Upon signing the truce, the
Voodooists and the witches divide the streets of New Orleans and agree not to
cross over into each other’s territory. The only character who is able to transgress this boundary is Queenie, the coven’s only black witch.
Early in the season, Queenie traces her heritage back to Tituba, a black
house slave who was accused of witchcraft in Salem. She says that she did
not know that black witches existed but since joining the academy and learning about Tituba, she feels that ‘“technically, [she is] part of [the Witches”]
tribe’ (‘Boy Parts’ 2013). While Queenie identifies herself as a witch, she also
describes herself as a human voodoo doll. She is able to inflict bodily damage
upon, and even murder, her targets by performing violence on her own body.
For example, in one scene, she soaks her hand in acid and her target simultaneously receives acid burns to her hand. Queenie’s powers signify that she
is not just a witch and that she belongs to the voodooists. As both a human
voodoo doll and a black witch, Queenie is able to cross the barrier between
the coven’s territory and that of the voodoos and, as such, often acts as the
character through which the tensions between the two groups are played out.

Jennifer O’Reilly
32 European Journal of American Culture Later in the season, Queenie learns that there are voodooists in the city,
and crosses the boundary to visit them. Upon meeting Queenie, Marie invites
her to come and live with ‘her own people’ and says that if she does that, she
never has to feel second best again (‘The Dead’ 2013). Marie suggests that the
coven is racist and that because of her blackness, they do not see Queenie as
an equal. Queenie tells her that the witches do not care that she is black, to
which Marie replies:
Oh, they care plenty. Their power is built on the sweat of our backs.
The only reason you and I are in this country is because our great great
grandfathers couldn’t run fast enough. You’ll never be welcome here and
those witches are the worst.
(‘The Dead’ 2013)
Marie’s comparison of the racialized power dynamics between the witches
and the voodooists to those between slave owner and enslaved defines the
relationship between the two sects. The division between the voodooists and
the witches is not simply based on what type of magic they practice, but on
the history of racial oppression in the United States.
Their relationship is divided along both racial and class lines and, in many
ways, mirrors fractures within the feminist movement. As Audre Lorde reminds
us, the ignorance of racial difference and the implications of those differences
is the ‘most serious threat to the mobilization of women’s joint power’ ([1984]
2007: 117). In Coven, the intersecting racial and class differences between
the voodooists and the witches leave them open to attack from a common
threat, the patriarchal witch hunters who seek to eradicate magical women.
The tensions between the two groups are exemplified in an early exchange
between Fiona and Marie. In the second episode of the season, Fiona and
Marie argue about whose magic is superior. Marie claims that the white witches
stole their power from the enslaved black witch Tituba in Salem in the seventeenth century. Fiona dismisses Tituba’s power: ‘She couldn’t tell a love potion
from a recipe for chocolate chip cookies if she had to read it […] please, you
want to tell me that some illiterate Voodoo slave girl gave me my crown?’(‘Boy
Parts’ 2013). Fiona’s designation of Tituba’s magic as inferior intersects with
her status as an illiterate slave. Tituba’s position as a slave, and as a slave who
cannot read, means that Fiona does not respect or value her magic. Tituba’s
skin colour and inability to read becomes a marker of the inferiority of her
power. Fiona’s conception of Tituba’s magic as inferior and her own as superior
is based on intersecting configurations of both racial and class difference.
Marie challenges Fiona’s standpoint by naming the role that Fiona’s
predecessors played in Tituba’s enslavement and arguing that Tituba is much
more than just a slave girl:
You made her a slave. Before that she came from a great tribe, the
Arawak. She learned the secrets of the other side from a two thousand year old line of Shamans. Necromancy. She gave it to your girls of
Salem. A gift repaid by betrayal.
(‘Boy Parts’ 2013)
By giving Tituba an identity outside of her identity as a slave, Marie advocates for the power of her magic. The location of Tituba in a long established
cultural and historical identity, rather than simply as a ‘slave girl’, empowers

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her and refutes Fiona’s designation of her as inferior in terms of race and
class. Marie and Fiona’s confrontation about whose magic is superior
ultimately becomes a discussion about whose status in society is superior
based on notions of racial hierarchy. Marie’s assertion that the white witches
took their magic from black women and made them slaves becomes a challenge to the racialized power dynamic between the voodooists and the coven
and of American society more broadly, and is no longer simply a debate about
whose magic is more powerful.
The physical interaction between Marie and Fiona throughout the scene
exemplifies the racial overtone of their confrontation. During the course of
their conversation, Fiona sits in a chair at Marie’s salon while Marie styles
her hair. The real Marie Laveau was rumoured to be a hairdresser during the
nineteenth century and in that capacity she is said to have visited the homes
of New Orleans’ wealthy white women to provide her services. Several New
Orleanians interviewed by Work’s Progress Administration (WPA) workers
said that this is how Marie ‘got in the good graces of the fine people’ and
learned the secrets of New Orleans’ elite (Ward 2004: 73). Robert Tallant theorized that she used this knowledge to influence the city’s officials and to
elevate her own status in the city ([1946] 2012: 54). In contrast, Marie’s role
as hairdresser in this scene places her in a position of servitude and inferiority. Throughout their exchange, Marie provides a service to Fiona and Fiona
gives her orders. As the conversation becomes more heated, Fiona firmly says
‘no more spray’ to assert dominance over Marie. Once again, Fiona’s classism
surfaces when she refers to Marie’s workplace as a ‘shithole salon’, which she
only visits because she wants something from Marie. Although Marie challenges Fiona throughout the scene, the dynamic of hairdresser and client, of
a black woman providing service to a white woman, contrasts with Saxon’s
assertion that this trade was a source of Marie’s power and instead places
Fiona in a position of superiority (Tallant [1946] 2012: 54). This interaction in
many ways acts as a microcosm for the way in which Coven represents magic
in New Orleans: explicitly, the narrative is about magic and power but implicitly it becomes a narrative about race and power.
Sensationalizing voodoo
In many ways, Coven perpetuates established voodoo tropes including those
that present it as dark, dangerous and as a primitive belief system. In 1935,
the anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston criticized white representations of
African-based belief systems in her account of New Orleans Hoodoo (she
claimed that whites mispronounced hoodoo and said voodoo instead) ‘[…]
these voodoo ritualistic orgies of Broadway and popular fiction are so laughable […] Hoodoo is not drum beating and dancing. There are no moonworshippers among the Negroes in America’ (Hurston [1935] 1990: 185).
Hurston suggests that white narratives of voodoo were so sensationalized
and exaggerated that they became laughable to those who knew authentic
voodoo. Nineteenth and early twentieth century impressions of voodoo rested
on notions of it as inherently dark and as a testament to the inferiority and
savagery of the slaves and free people of colour who practised it. This narrative
served to uphold hierarchies of race in the United States; ‘[i]n order to justify
holding other human beings as chattel – and later as underpaid menials and
second-class citizens – it became necessary to demonize, ridicule, or trivialize
their religion and culture’ (Morrow Long 2002: 87). Impressions of voodoo as

Jennifer O’Reilly
34 European Journal of American Culture primitive or savage became impressions of the people who practised it and
these narratives contributed to the justification of the political and legal designation of black people as inferior to white people.
In the early twentieth century, several guidebooks published accounts
of voodoo in New Orleans, many of which refer to Marie Laveau. The most
popular include those published by the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) as part
of President Roosevelt’s WPA during the 1930s and 1940s. The WPA Guide to
New Orleans warns: ‘Those Voodoo queens, they knew things no white man
ever knew. They could make people die, have them buried, and raise them
again two weeks later’ ([1938] 1983: 58). Bold argues that ‘[a]s contributors
to the shaping of a national citizenry, the WPA guidebooks carried a double
authority: the truth claims of an informational genre and the official sponsorship of the federal government’ (1999: 3). The way in which this narrative was
promoted in federally sanctioned publications demonstrates the prevalence of
these impressions of voodoo in the American cultural imagination. Similarly,
Robert Tallant’s Voodoo in New Orleans (originally published in 1946 and still
in print), is still sold in tourist shops in New Orleans’ French Quarter today.
His popular account offers highly sensationalized descriptions of voodoo
ceremonies that he claims took place in New Orleans during the nineteenth
and twentieth centuries. Tallant has been widely criticized by scholars, both at
the time of publication and today, for offering an inaccurate and superfluous
account of practices in the city, yet the images presented in his work persist in
contemporary understandings and impressions of voodoo (see Hurston 1947:
423; Anderson 2008: 1). He describes a typical voodoo ceremony thus:
Papa presented Mamma with the bowl of warm blood from the sacrificed
kid. She drank and handed it to each of the people as they whirled past.
Her own lips drank the last drops. The dance grew faster now. They spun
and gyrated and leaped into the air. They fell to their hands and knees,
imitating the postures of animals, some chewing at the grass, shaking
their posteriors violently. Their scanty garments were ripped away. The
clouds broke and the moon came out and glowed upon naked black
flesh. In pairs they fell upon the hot earth, still panting and gyrating.
(Tallant [1946] 2012: 7–8)
This scene is typical of accounts of voodoo from this period and promotes
impressions based on notions of the primitive and the savage. The ceremony
in particular acts as a site in which these narratives play out most visibly.
In contemporary New Orleans, Marie acknowledges the influence of these
accounts on popular impressions of voodoo and tries to dispel these derogatory and dismissive narratives. Marie warns Fiona: ‘Well maybe you haven’t
heard the news about civilisation starting in Africa. We’re more than just pins
and dolls and seeing the future in chicken parts. You been reading too many
tourist guides’ (‘Boy Parts’ 2013). Marie’s words suggest that Coven will offer
a counter narrative to these images but, like the guidebooks, its depiction of
ceremonies in particular instead echo these historic accounts.
The scene in which Marie imagines the performance of a fertility ceremony on white witch Cordelia perpetuates some of these images. An excerpt
from a report in The Times from 1872, which Tallant includes in his account,
describes a ceremony in which a white woman was ‘whirled around the room
in the arms of a negro blacker than the ace of spades’ ([1946] 2012: 25). The
report claims that the white woman succumbed to ‘the rapids of depravity’

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and participated in the ceremony in complete abandonment of any sense of
social decency. Cordelia’s participation in the ceremony reflects this narrative
whereby, white women are corrupted by black men.
Under Marie’s instruction and Cordelia’s request, two half-naked black
men escort Cordelia out into a courtyard where they meet Marie and the other
voodooists. The participants beat drums and dance and their bodies have
bones painted on them. Cordelia has followed instructions and has brought
a jar full of her husband’s semen to the ceremony. This is placed on top of a
fire to bubble and then she is once again taken in the arms of two men into
the centre of the ritual with a look of fear on her face. Wearing a revealing
red dress, Cordelia looks terrified as the two men lay her down on the floor
and she pulls her dress up above her hips. She looks up to see Marie holding
a machete. She holds a goat over Cordelia’s exposed skin and slits its throat,
spilling the blood all over her half naked body. Cordelia then rubs the blood
into her skin with a look of pleasure on her face (‘The Replacements’ 2013).
The transition between Cordelia’s emotions from fear to enjoyment, coupled
with images of animal sacrifice and sexual depravity, in many ways mirror FWP
accounts of voodoo. Instead of refuting these accounts, this scene conforms to
the depiction of voodoo ceremonies perpetuated in the guidebooks. Images
of animal sacrifice, blood and sexual deviancy underpin the fertility ceremony
and reiterate narratives of voodoo as primitive. Rather than challenging these
images, Coven continues to sensationalize voodoo and depict it as synonymous with primitivism, depravity and savagery.
Coven’s portrayal of the voodoo deity, Papa Legba, also promotes images
of voodoo as savage and depraved. Papa Legba traditionally acts in a similar capacity to Catholic Saint Peter, as a gatekeeper between Earth and the
spiritual world. In Coven he is depicted as more similar to the devil and
functions as a trickster figure that preys on the souls of the living and
controls hell. His red eyes, painted face, sharp dirty fingernails and his
solicitation of the souls of innocent children, make Papa Legba one of the
most sinister characters in the season. As he is a voodoo deity, the portrayal
of Papa Legba becomes a portrayal of voodoo as a religion. Where Marie
represents the way in which voodoo functions in the city, Papa Legba represents the spiritual part of voodoo. His portrayal as a predatory, drug-taking
spirit who relishes the suffering of others confirms ideas about voodoo as
dark and evil.
Similarly, despite Marie’s reputation for protecting the black community
in New Orleans, her character is portrayed as fundamentally evil and she is
destined to spend eternity in hell with Papa Legba for her evil doings. Some
New Orleans citizens told WPA staff that ‘Marie and her followers were
sorcerers and witches who sold their souls to the devil in return for power or
changed little children into black cats’ (Ward 2004: 17). Similarly, Tallant writes
that ‘[f]or many years Orleanians believed that every small child that vanished
had become a Voodoo sacrifice […] The queens were always being accused
of kidnapping and murdering small children’ ([1946] 2012: 15). Coven adopts
this myth about the Voodoo queens and its usage ultimately becomes Marie’s
downfall in Coven.
Mid-way through the season, we learn that Marie made a deal with
Papa Legba to provide him with the souls of innocent babies in exchange
for immortality. He first takes Marie’s own child as payment and then every
year following that she provides him with a stolen baby. In one scene, Marie
takes a newborn infant from the hospital and in another she drowns Nan, a

Jennifer O’Reilly
36 European Journal of American Culture morally pure and innocent witch, as payment for Papa Legba. In the penultimate episode, Delphine dismembers Marie and because she can no longer
provide payment to Papa Legba, he takes her soul to hell. Marie protests: ‘But
I was good to people. I protected so many’ to which Papa Legba responds,
‘How many little babies did you bring to me every year? Nobody gets away
with sin. Eventually, everybody pays, everybody suffers’ (‘Go to Hell’ 2014).
Though Marie protected the black community and acted as a central point of
resistance to racial violence and persecution in New Orleans, Coven ultimately
portrays her as sinful and evil. By appropriating the myth that voodoo queens
stole children and in resigning Marie to spend an eternity in hell, the narrative
of voodoo as evil and dark persists in Coven and reifies notions of white racial
Voodoo as resistance to gendered and racialized
Running parallel to the narrative of voodoo as dangerous, Coven also presents
magic as a mode of resistance to gendered and racialized violence and oppression. If ‘the function of any belief system is to make sense of experience and
reality’ (Hazzard-Donald 2013: 3) then magic in Coven acts as a paradigm
through which women understand the world and their position in it. Reis
writes that ‘[t]he concept of “witch” and the charge of witchcraft helped police
and set the boundaries of female normality and acceptability’ (1998: xii) and
this form of gendered oppression manifests itself in Coven through the (exclusively male) witch hunters. The witch hunters believe that the women are a
threat to society and they use the women’s power as justification to hunt them
and kill them whilst the witches and voodooists use their magic as a way to
resist this violence.
The trope of magic as a site of resistance to gendered violence first
appears earlier in the season when Madison, a white witch, causes the deaths
of several fraternity brothers after they drug and gang rape her (‘Bitchcraft’
2013). Throughout the season, various groups of men inflict violence upon
magical women, for example the burning of Misty Day (Lily Rabe) by men
in her town and the shooting of a young witch who has the power of pyrokinesis by one of the witch hunters. This trope resurfaces when the hunters
launch an attack upon the witches at the academy and betray their allegiance
with the voodooists.
Hank, a witch hunter and Cordelia’s husband, enters Marie’s salon with
a gun. As Odetta’s ‘Oh, Freedom’ plays in the background, images of protestors holding signs that read ‘We march with Selma’ and ‘We shall overcome’
flash on the television (‘Head’ 2013). In contrast to these images, Hank opens
fire on the women in the salon, injuring and killing several of them. He then
corners Marie in a back room and is about to pull the trigger when Queenie
shoots herself in the head, using her power as a voodoo doll to kill Hank.
Voodoo saves the rest of the women in the salon from being murdered. This
attack prompts Marie to visit Fiona and unite with her against the hunters.
She and Fiona conduct a ritual to ruin financially the company that the witch
hunters operate. Eventually, through an elaborate plan and with the help of
the Axeman, Marie and Fiona murder the senior hunters. Here, magic operates as a specifically feminist power and as a tool by which women resist
gendered forms of violence and persecution. Marie’s identity as a woman
supersedes her racial identity and social status. The intersectional oppression

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that Marie and the voodooists face as women of colour and lower social class
is overlooked because of the ‘common oppression’ faced by both sects (hooks
1984: 6).
In a similar way to the use of magic for resistance of gendered violence,
there are numerous examples of how voodoo acts as a site of resistance
towards racial violence and persecution at various historical moments.
Primarily through the figure of Marie Laveau, voodoo is used to challenge and
combat white supremacy. In film, ‘the Black Magic Woman is a female warrior
battling social injustices and fostering social change’ (Missouri 2015: 3) and
Marie’s character realizes the social responsibilities of the Black Magic Woman
in Coven. For example, in a flashback to 1961, a young African American boy
is lynched by three white men. His mother, who works at Marie’s salon, sent
him to an integrated school in the city. Marie tells her that she is taking a big
risk sending her son to that school since the ‘New Orleans White Citizens
Council warned the city of the Congolese raping their daughters. And the Burr
heads being forced into their schools’ (‘Fearful Pranks Ensue’ 2013). Directly
following the scene in which the boy is lynched, Marie begins work to punish
the men who murdered him. This scene opens to the sound of beating drums
as Marie slits open the belly of a snake and lets the blood run down her
hands. She then mixes various items and herbs together in a container, which
suddenly catches alight. She lifts the flames to her mouth and drinks them,
the fire flickering in her glowing eyes. The scene then cuts between images
of Marie conducting the ritual, the white men celebrating the lynching in a
barn, and bodies rising from the graves of a New Orleans cemetery. Marie falls
into a trance, she screams out and her eyes turn white and roll back into her
head as the drums beat faster. As the ritual intensifies, the dead begin to tear
down the walls of the barn and attack the men, tearing out their insides and
murdering them in a display of blood and gore. By using her powers to punish
the men who murdered the boy, and in protecting the black community from
them in the future, Marie becomes an agent of social justice and represents a
challenge to white supremacy and racial violence.
Yet, this scene also captures the duality with which Coven presents voodoo:
it illustrates the social significance and value of voodoo but the way in which
Marie brings about this justice through ritual is sensational and panders to
voodoo stereotypes. The drinking of fire, animal sacrifice, her demonic eyes,
and most notably the performance of necromancy sensationalizes voodoo and
panders to common misconceptions of the religion. Though voodoo is primarily a symbol of resistance and power in this scene, the aesthetics of this resistance paradoxically play into derogatory representations of voodoo.
The character Marie most aggressively confronts, and who represents the
most heinous form of racism and racial violence in the season, is Madame
Delphine Lalaurie. Delphine, based on a real historical figure of the same
name, tortures her slaves and has a chamber in her attic in which she imprisons slaves for this purpose. Although the details of the real Delphine’s abuse
remains obscure in historical documents, after a fire in her house in 1834
seven slaves were found chained in a secret chamber and in need of medical
attention. The Lalauries were then run out of the city as rumours spread about
the horrific mistreatment of slaves in the house (Darkis 1982: 394). Drawing
on the memory of this infamous figure, Bates’ Delphine is Coven’s most chilling character. In the first episode of the season, she drains the blood of her
slaves and paints it on her face because she believes it will make her skin
appear youthful.

Jennifer O’Reilly
38 European Journal of American Culture After Delphine catches her daughter making sexual advances towards the
black house servant, she has him taken to her chamber where she mutilates
him and attaches the head of a bull to his body turning him into a minotaur. Upon learning the fate of the man, Marie vows to exact revenge upon
Delphine. Marie visits her home and knowing vanity is her weakness, claims
that she has a potion that will restore Marie’s youth. Instead, the potion that
she gives her, called ‘life everlasting’, makes Delphine immortal. Marie then
murders Delphine’s daughters and hangs their bodies outside of the Lalaurie
mansion for her to see (‘Boy Parts’ 2013). Following this brutal scene, she buries
Delphine alive in a coffin under the streets of New Orleans for all eternity. In
this scene, Marie again acts as a warrior of social justice in terms of both race
and class. The violence with which she punishes Delphine acts as retribution
for Delphine’s years of abuse and murder of slaves. Marie, as a ‘Black Magic
Woman’, becomes a site of resistance to racialized violence and simultaneously punishes Delphine for her crimes and protects the New Orleans slave
community from any more of Delphine’s mistreatment.
This act of retribution is only the first in a series that seek to combat
Delphine’s racism and racist abuse. In 2013, one of the coven’s witches, who is
clairvoyant, hears Delphine’s thoughts from her tomb. Fiona has her exhumed
and brought back to the coven’s house where she meets Queenie. After
subjecting Queenie to racial slurs such as ‘negress’ and crying after seeing
President Obama on television, whom she calls a ‘darkie’, Fiona declares that
‘there is nothing [she] hates more than a racist’ (‘The Replacements’ 2013)
and has Delphine work as Queenie’s personal servant. Queenie shows
Delphine compassion and tries to educate her on the plight of black people in
the United States. After Delphine is beheaded (and the head remains alive),
Queenie tells her that it is time for some ‘sensitivity training’ and says: ‘believe
me, there is nothing I’d love more than to melt your ugly face off your skull
but you are ignorant. And you are not leaving this earth until I educate you
about those people you tortured, my people’ (‘Head’ 2013). She then forces
Delphine to watch Roots, The Color Purple, Mandingo and B.A.P.S. Upon hearing the music at the start of Roots, Delphine shouts ‘not that jungle music’ and
pleads for it to be turned off, but she is forced to endure Queenie’s training.
Delphine closes her eyes throughout the films to which Queenie responds
that she ‘had [her] eyes closed [her] entire life’. Queenie, another ‘Black Magic
Woman’, is responsible for resisting and combating the historic racism that
Delphine represents.
Despite Queenie’s attempts to confront Delphine’s racism and ignorance, Delphine (no longer dismembered) returns to the barbaric torture she
inflicted on black people at the beginning of the season. In a flashback at the
beginning of the episode, we see the first time Delphine tortured one of her
slaves in 1830 and learn that she is drawn to the sight of his blood. When
she is restored to her maid duties at the coven’s academy, Delphine witnesses
the black gardener cut his hand. The sight of his ‘thick African blood’ (‘Protect the
Coven’ 2014) seems to stir something within her and she takes him to the
attic of the house where she tortures and eventually murders him. This
scene echoes the opening scene of the episode and the presentation of the
two men’s bodies mirror one another. They are each, tied up, gagged and their
skin covered in blood. Though these scenes are set centuries apart, the way in
which they reflect one another suggests that the racism that Delphine represents persists into the twenty-first century and that voodoo still has a place as
a mode of resistance to racism in the contemporary moment.

‘We’re more than just pins and dolls and seeing the future …
www.intellectbooks.com 39
Delphine’s final punishment sees Marie and Papa Legba imprison her and
her daughters in a version of her own torture chamber in Papa Legba’s hell.
He tells Delphine: ‘as punishment for your crimes of murder, torture, passion,
fashion, and being an all-around no-good miserable bitch, you will spend all
of eternity here […] in my home’ (‘Go to Hell’ 2014). Marie is imprisoned in
Legba’s hell, and must torture Delphine and her daughters, but it is the two
of them combined who dispense justice for Delphine’s crimes. Papa Legba
and Marie together represent voodoo’s power and by having them punish
Delphine together, voodoo acts as a site of resistance and retribution to racialized violence.
Though Coven illustrates the way in which voodoo, and magic more
broadly, acts as a mode of resistance to gendered and racialized oppression,
the season’s depiction of voodoo does not entirely sever itself from longstanding impressions of voodoo that portray it as a marker of savagery and
darkness. Coven’s impression of voodoo, like these historic narratives, is intertwined with issues of race and racial hierarchy. The division between the
two groups of magical women rests on intersectional racial and class difference and illustrates the ways in which the United States is still haunted by a
legacy of slavery and racism. Despite the promise that the season will challenge notions of voodoo as an indicator of inferiority or primitiveness, Marie’s
downfall signifies that this narrative endures and is ultimately more dominant than revisionist narratives in Coven that portray voodoo as a symbol of
strength against injustice in the black community.
Anderson, J. (2005), Conjure in African American Society, Baton Rouge:
Louisiana State University Press.
—— (2008), Hoodoo, Voodoo, and Conjure: A Handbook, Westport: Greenwood
‘Bitchcraft’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American Horror
Story, Season 3 Episode 1 (9 October, USA: FX).
Bold, C. (1999), The WPA Guides: Mapping America, Jackson: University
Press of Mississippi.
‘Boy Parts’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American Horror
Story, Season 3 Episode 2 (16 October, USA: FX).
Darkis Jr., Fred R. (1982), ‘Madame Lalaurie of New Orleans’, Louisiana History:
The Journal of Louisiana Historical Association, 23:4, pp. 383–99.
‘The Dead’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American Horror
Story, Season 3 Episode 7 (20 November, USA: FX).
‘Fearful Pranks Ensue’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American
Horror Story, Season 3 Episode 4 (30 October, USA: FX).
Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the City of
New Orleans ([1938] 1983), The WPA Guide to New Orleans, New York:
Gordon, Michelle Y. (2012), ‘“Midnight Scenes and Orgies”: Public narratives
of voodoo in New Orleans and nineteenth century discourses of white
supremacy’, American Quarterly, 64:4, pp. 767–86.
‘Go to Hell’ (2014), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American Horror
Story, Season 3 Episode 12 (22 January, USA: FX).
Hazzard-Donald, K. (2013), Mojo Workin’: The Old African American Hoodoo
System, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.

Jennifer O’Reilly
40 European Journal of American Culture ‘Head’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American Horror Story,
Season 3 Episode 9 (11 December, USA: FX).
hooks, bell (1984), Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, Boston: South End
Hurston, Zora N. ([1935] 1990), Mules and Men, New York: Harper Perennial.
—— (1947), ‘Reviewed work(s): Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tallant’,
Journal of American Folklore, 60:238, pp. 436–38.
Lorde, A. ([1984] 2007), Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, New York: Crossing
Missouri, Montré Aza (2015), Black Magic Woman and Narrative Film: Race, Sex
and Afro-Religiosity, New York: Palgrave.
Morrow Long, C. (2002), ‘Perceptions of New Orleans voodoo’, Nova Religio:
The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, 6:1, pp. 86–101.
‘Protect the Coven’ (2014), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American
Horror Story, Season 3 Episode 11 (15 January, USA: FX).
Reis, E. (ed.) (1998), Spellbound: Women and Witchcraft in America, The Worlds
of Women Series, Oxford: SR Books.
‘The Replacements’ (2013), Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (dirs), American
Horror Story, Season 3 Episode 3 (23 October, USA: FX).
Roberts, K. A. (2015), Voodoo and Power: The Politics of Religion in New Orleans
1881–1940, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Rucker, W. (2001), ‘Conjure, magic, and power: The influence of Afro-Atlantic
religious practices on slave resistance and rebellion’, Journal of Black
Studies, 32:1, pp. 84–103.
Saxon, L., Dreyer, E. and Tallant, R. ([1945] 2012), Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of
Louisiana, Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company.
Tallant, R. ([1946] 2012), Voodoo in New Orleans, Gretna: Pelican Publishing
Ward, M. (2004), Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau, Jackson:
University of Mississippi Press.
Suggested citation
O’Reilly, J. (2019), ‘“We’re more than just pins and dolls and seeing the future
in chicken parts”: Race, magic and religion in American Horror Story:
Coven’, European Journal of American Culture, 38:1, pp. 29–41, doi: 10.1386/
Contributor details
Jennifer O’Reilly is a Ph.D. candidate at the Research Centre for Literature
and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. She is currently
a visiting scholar at Southern Connecticut State University where she
teaches courses on race and American Literature in the English department. Her research focuses on representations of African-based belief
systems in the American cultural imagination from the end of the nineteenth century to the present. Her project traces how hierarchies of race
and religion have intersected and explores how these intersections have
been represented in ethnography and literature from across this period.
Jennifer’s research is particularly focused on New Orleans and considers
how understandings of race, magic and religion interact with conceptions
of the city.

‘We’re more than just pins and dolls and seeing the future …
www.intellectbooks.com 41
Contact: Research Centre for Literature and Cultural History, John Foster
Building, 80–98 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, L3 5UZ, UK.
E-mail: [email protected]
Jennifer O’Reilly has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and
Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work in the format that
was submitted to Intellect Ltd.

Intellect is an independent academic publisher of books and journals. To view our catalogue or order our titles, visit
www.intellectbooks.com / @intellectbooks.
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IJIS is a multidisciplinary journal publishing scholarship on contemporary
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