An American Horror Story: Mediating Violence in the Afterlife of Slavery

Curator's Note

The tensions between the fantasies and realities of mediating legacies of anti-black violence are displayed on the TV program American Horror Story: Coven (FX, 2013), which experiments with antebellum imagery through supernatural processes of haunting. The program follows generations of Salem witches and their centuries-long interracial conflict with voodoo practitioners in present-day New Orleans. Two characters are actual nineteenth century historical figures: socialite Madame Delphine LaLaurie and Creole voodoo priestess Marie Laveau, who have been rendered undead and immortal, respectively.

In the episode “Head,” African American witch Queenie forces the decapitated head of LaLaurie to watch the entirety of Roots (ABC, 1976) as repentance for committing atrocities as a prominent slave owner. She is expected to be visually tortured by the miniseries seen as a popular reminder of her physical torture of blacks in New Orleans over 150 years earlier. LaLaurie’s head becomes visibly agitated while watching the program. When Queenie ignores her desperate request to lower the TV volume, LaLaurie sings “Dixie” in order to drown out “that jungle music.”

The refrain of the Confederate anthem as well as blackface minstrelsy favorite – “Look away, Dixieland” – can be understood here as a comment on the episode’s scene of spectatorship. LaLaurie is positioned as a contemporary television viewer who encounters the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and U.S. chattel slavery through its iconic depiction in Roots. However, she is compelled to “look away” from the TV image in order to deny culpability for her past horrific oppression of African Americans. There are two levels of spectatorship activated in the scene: That of LaLaurie’s resistance to watching Roots in the episode’s diegesis and the AHS viewer watching the strong-headed character look away from the screen.

How might sonic expression intervene in such societal looking away, literally and metaphorically, from the specter of injustice? At the end of the episode, Queenie states that LaLaurie can’t keep her ears closed and plays news footage from 1960s civil rights protests that accompanies folk singer and activist Odetta’s rendition of the spiritual “Oh, Freedom.” Odetta’s voice is interspersed with the sounds of a massacre perpetrated by a white male witch hunter downstairs in Laveau’s beauty parlor. The mystically alive former slave owner cries as she is confronted with the “liveness” of racial violence. In her incapacitated decapitated state, music allows for the capacity not only to see but also to affectively witness.

*Content warning: video contains violent imagery* 

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