American Horror Story: Coven, an Appropriation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
FX’s American Horror Story: Coven appropriates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in a
modern retelling. The plot orbits teenage witch Zoe Benson and her fellow attendants of Miss Robichaux’s Acadamy for Exceptional Young Ladies, a boarding school for witches. Like Elizabeth in Shelley’s Frankenstein, Zoe is more of a passive catalyst than an interesting character. She is Bella Swan with magical powers and murderous genitals, literally. Zoe only discovers that she is a witch after giving her boyfriend the business on purpose and an aneurism accidentally, proving that the first time is awkward for everyone.
Once at the academy, Zoe meets the troubled starlet Madison Montgomery who decides
that the two are now best friends and takes Zoe to a party. Also in attendance are the members of a fraternity and their dreamy, morally upright leader, Kyle who reminds his buddies that the administration is dying to shut them down and insists they be good before allowing them to disembark from their party bus.
Kyle abstains from shenanigans in order to babysit his bros, but forgets all about them once he lays eyes on Zoe. The two chat, the lady aloof, the young gentleman sincere, both lost in each other’s teenage mystique. Meanwhile Kyle’s pals are in the midst of a grand ole time upstairs. Having drugged Madison into near oblivion, those rascals decided to take turns raping her, filming the ordeal for good measure.
Zoe and Kyle suddenly remember that they haven’t seen their friends since
arriving at the party and rush off to find their charges. Kyle discovers his friends upstairs and begins to react appropriately, (read: freaks out). His friends respond by knocking him out once he chases them onto the bus,(proving a pattern in their human interactional tactics) and drive off.
Madison stumbles out onto the street and, using her powers of telekinesis, flips said bus like a pancake on the hot griddle of vengeance. Sadly, two of the boys survived, and even more sadly Kyle was not a part of that pair. Zoe goes to the hospital and gets all vaginal vigilante on the comatose survivors and Madison decides to pay her BFF back by resurrecting her would be BF. The two gal pals head off to the morgue and this is where the Frankenstein narrative begins.
Although Zoe is the motivation for the creature’s creation, Madison is our Victor. Madison shares Victor’s high class status, however the changes reflected through the advantages of wealth and prestige reflect the modernity of the narrative’s reimagining. Victor’s privileged background allows him to attend school and pursue his passion for knowledge, while Madison decks herself in couture and pursues her passion for leisure. Victor has a loving and supportive family, a prospective wife, and a brilliant mind. Madison has fame, money, and no one to answer to.
The only usable part of Kyle is his head so Madison, seeing potential in the
tragedy, decides to pick the best parts from the other boys’ bodies and stitch together the perfect man. She is superficial like Victor in the construction of her creature, however unlike Victor, Madison does not need to work tirelessly. Instead she casts a spell over the body, and after a seemingly unsuccessful first attempt gives up.
Once reanimated Kyle cannot communicate, like Shelley’s creature, however unlike
Shelley’s creature, Kyle retains his memories and the true horror of his first sight of himself lies in the recognition of his friend’s tattoos. Kyle was with his frat brothers when they got inked and refrained, explaining to them that he had aspirations and a tattoo might hold him back. Not only does Kyle have to deal with the horror of finding himself composed of his dead friends, but also the impossibility of achieving his dreams. Zoe counteracts Kyle’s communication issues by treating him like a child; showing him flash cards and letting him play with educational apps for toddlers, a vast difference from Shelley’s creature’s literarily superior education.
All characters are violent, and as in Shelley’s novel, the violence is always justifiable in the mind of each character, especially in Kyle’s case. Madison abandons Zoe and Kyle immediately following his resurrection. Zoe initially abandons Kyle (twice), much like Victor abandoned his creature. First she drops him off with a fellow witch for some healing magic that reduces his scars and calms his violent new personality. Next, Zoe returns Kyle to his grieving mother in an attempt to better both of their lives. Unknown to Zoe however, Kyle is a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of his mother, and kills her following an attempted attack. This is also his first utterance of language since being brought back. He shouts “No” and kills his abuser. Kyle is technically a monster, but then again, so are all of the other characters within the series, (witches are prominently featured in Halloween decorations, as I recall). As in Shelley’s Frankenstein, Kyle is far more sympathetic than either work’s protagonist and he is also a satanic hero who rebels against a corrupt authority as Victor’s creature did following Victor’s refusal to create a companion for him.
Exploring Shelley’s theme of the domestic and reflecting the power and nurturing
aspects of femininity in the creation of life, the coven eventually restores Kyle to near his former self by working as a united community. Kyle shares Shelley’s creature’s desire to belong to a community a goal he achieves by being adopted into the coven as a butler. While the men of American Horror Story: Coven are not the cause of all troubles as they are in Shelley’s Frankenstein, all male characters in Coven are either backstabbers, servants, or playthings. There is a definite underlying theme of feminism, a possible nod to Shelley’s ‘radical’ mother Wollstonecraft. Despite the vast changes in the story, as a whole there are few thematic changes. The most noticeable change,(the change of the creator’s gender), reflects the call for feminine recognition of power (particularly as a united community) and for equality.
American Horror Story, Coven. Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, et al. Cast: Sarah Paulson, Taissa Farmiga, Frances Conroy, Evan Peters, Lily Rabe, Emma Roberts, Denis O’Hare, Kathy Bates, Jessica Lange, et al. FX. 21st Century Fox, New York. Aired October 9th, 2013 through January 29th, 2014.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. 1818. Ed. J. Paul Hunter. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1996.