The math behind the cross is a little confusing. As a kid, I went to church every Sunday and recited: “In dying you destroyed our death, in rising you restored our life.” I’d known since day one that Jesus had died for my sins, but the equation itself—how the death of a man two thousand years ago could be related to me drinking the last ounce of milk and getting in a fistfight with my brother about it—has always been just a little beyond my reach.

Until American Horror Story, that is. For those struggling with the idea of substitutionary atonement, or the sacrifice on the cross in general, it could be helpful to alternatively think about Jesus as a human voodoo doll. As a case study, take Queenie, a young witch from American Horror Story: Coven (also featured in a cameo on Hotel), who lives daily life as a human voodoo doll.

(In my opinion, AHS: Coven (Season 3) is at a tie with Murder House (Season 1) for the second-best season. Asylum, for it’s storytelling, was the best, and Murder House, objectively speaking, was well-crafted but philosophically ambiguous, and Coven, while not exactly scary, gave us an awful lot of gore—and that, in addition to its nuanced storyline, sets it apart as specifically Christian.)

Coven takes place in New Orleans, at a creepy old academy for young witches (a kind of Hogwarts-gone-bad situation; or, what those parents who burned their kids’ Harry Potter books thought Hogwarts would be like). Miss Robichaux’s Academy, a candlelit, double-gallery mansion of spindly railings and cobwebbed chandeliers, grants refuge to certain teenage girls who are coming to terms with their identity, i.e. that they are witches who possess the often uncontrollable power to harm others. The school aims to teach the girls how to live the good life despite their circumstances, and to this end the school fails primarily because each of the students, as well as their instructors, are all completely self-involved witches with a B—a pun that is never once downplayed throughout the entire season.

One of the young witches, Queenie (played by the charismatic Gabourey Sidibe), leaves the Academy and begins dabbling in dark alleys where she encounters the hair dresser/voodoo practitioner, Marie Laveau. Laveau (played brilliantly by Angela Bassett) flips her long dreads, smiles, and welcomes Queenie into her circle.

Blood on the Cross/in the Hair Salon

If you’ve ever seen Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island (also known as the first time the monsters were real!), then you already know that voodoo dolls are dangerous doohickeys of Louisianan swamp-lore. It’s like this: You model a wax doll after someone you don’t like, and then that doll controls the person after whom its modeled.

So it gets interesting when Queenie admits that she herself is a “human voodoo doll.” It follows that any pain inflicted on her…is also inflicted on her aggressor. Which becomes particularly Christological in episode 10 when a witch-hunter breaks in to Marie Laveau’s hair salon and tries to shoot the voodooist in cold blood. To save Laveau, Queenie picks up a gun and shoots herself in the head, thereby also blowing out the witch-hunter’s brains and spewing them across the room. In both the biblical and real-life senses, the witch-hunter represents death; so we begin to understand how death itself may pass away. While the old spiritual “Oh Freedom” plays in the background, Queenie also dies.

5942112b9ec24474c4d58a04a7d05538I guess you could say that this is the cross, AHS-style: Queenie, on the floor of the hair salon, lying in a pool of blood, and the witch-hunter, a symbol of death, lying dead in the doorway as well. Marie Laveau remains alive, hidden in the corner. It’s easy to think that a good Christian should shield his eyes from these sorts of images (“Whatever is true…whatever is pure, whatever is lovely…dwell on these things”), but, as Jurgen Moltmann says in The Crucified God, “In the human search for the good, the true and the beautiful, the crucified Christ [is] not a valuable aesthetic symbol” (40). The cross is a horror story, a deeply troublesome one, made even more so by predominant sociopathic Christian chatter that glosses over it or pretends that it’s somehow G-rated. Moltmann references a German poet, Theodor Storm, who writes:

There hung on the cross his tortured limbs,
sweaty with blood and put to shame;
the virgin-pure nature vanished from sight,
under the picture of terror.
But those who called themselves his disciples,
formed it [the cross] in bronze and stone,
and set it within the temple’s gloom
and on the sunlit meadow.
So to every eye a horror
is present in our days.

Christian viewers might be inclined to argue that American Horror Story is sacrilegious because of its violence and gore, and it is. But so is the cross. ‘Religion’ may properly be categorized as a system at risk of reflecting the desires of the human heart rather than merely the actions of God; the cross is the unleashing of those human desires onto God, while he suffers them through Christ. It’s neither systematic nor particularly religious; it’s horrifying. In fact, Moltmann argues, “The cross is the really irreligious thing in Christian faith…Christians who do not have the feeling that they must flee the crucified Christ have probably not yet understood him in a sufficiently radical way.” Even the disciples—who always get a bum rap for being three steps behind but who also walked in the very presence of Christ and who followed him during his ministry and ate meals with him and would have taken selfies with him (Jn 15:15)—even they peaced out when he was pitched up and humiliated for the whole city to see. It’s the correct response. It’s fear in the face of godlessness.

Interestingly, it turns out that Marie Laveau had hired the witch-hunter to kill her enemies—but he tries to kill her instead–and the only thing that stands between them is Queenie, a young outsider from Detroit, who enters into all this New Orleans witch-drama, and sticks a gun to her head, and dies in Marie Laveau’s place. It is a substitution, one for the other. Queenie descends into hell.

American-Horror-Story-Coven-Episode-9-Season-3-Recap-and-Review-HeadOf course, that isn’t the only biblical moment in AHS: Coven. There are plenty of others, not the least of which is a cameo by Stevie Nicks, who appears one day as a gracious interruption to all the madness. She sits down at the old haunted piano and plays a lovely rendition of her hit, “Rhiannon.” Despite her limited appearance, Nicks serves as a relatively significant force throughout the show: one of the key characters, Misty Day (played by the very cool Lily Rabe), is obsessed with her. Misty, the white-winged dove herself, lives in the swampy wilderness alone, and listens to Fleetwood Mac on repeat, and her special power is resurrection. If the voodoo-cross analogy was a tough sell for you, then do yourself a favor and check out an episode with Misty Day in it; modern TV characters don’t get much more biblical than her. Throughout the show, she appears at critical moments to bring characters back from the grave. In American Horror Story, truly, death is just the beginning.

Spiritual Blindness and Burning Eyeballs

Finally, Cordelia.

Cordelia, the second-in-command at the Academy (and played by my all-time favorite, Sarah Paulson), is a least-of-these kind of character who feels scorned by her self-involved mother, and she excels not in telekinesis or pyrotechnics, but in a quieter, more left-handed power: she works in the Academy’s greenhouse, tending to the plants and creating elixirs to ensure the good health of all the students.

American-Horror-Story-exclusive-clipAt one point, she is unexpectedly accosted by a hooded figure who throws sulfuric acid onto her eyes, blinding her. After a painful night in the hospital, Cordelia returns to the Academy, her walking stick echoing about the mansion, and she discovers that, very unexpectedly, she has gained the gift of “sight” which allows her to see people’s secrets when they touch her. Her husband comes to her aid, grabs her arm, and she sees that he’s been having an affair. Disgusted, she cries, “I had to go blind to see things about you I couldn’t see before. A bad cosmic joke. It’s a different kind of clarity, an absolute clarity I’ve never had before. The images almost vibrate with light.”

Cordelia’s sight, in spite of her blindness, is just the kind of spooky miracle that Jesus of Nazareth spent his spare time achieving in the Gospel of Matthew: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” Not only did he grant sight to the blind, but Jesus also scrunched up his nose at the Pharisee who would enter the Temple according to the merits of his 20/20: “Blind Pharisee!” Jesus says in Matthew 23, “First clean the inside of the cup, and then the outside also will be clean.” Cordelia receives her sight, which becomes one of the most powerful powers in the coven, only through tragedy.

(Spoiler: In a later episode, Cordelia’s aunt, as an attempt to heal her, gouges out the eyeballs of her enemies, and puts them in Cordelia’s head, which does in fact restore her physical vision but, in a tragic twist of fate, results in the loss of Cordelia’s more magical ability to “see” the truth about people. Even more tragically (and this is a real spoiler), Cordelia then stabs herself in the eyes in the hope that by blinding herself again she might regain her powers—which doesn’t work, either. Here, Coven hands us a rare, explicit comment on the futility of human control. Cordelia received the sight on accident, by some power outside of herself, be it magical sulfuric acid or Fate or some divine power called God, and once she tried to control it, she lost it. Having blinded herself, she becomes once again pathetic, completely poor in spirit, just in time for the show’s finale, in which we find (at least for the most part) that the show maintains its biblical pattern, concluding that the first will be last, and the last will be first.)

This post was written in honor of Tuesday night’s debut of American Crime Story, which I was unable to watch because I don’t have cable, but which my mom is recording for me, and which I will binge during my visit at Easter. Rest assured, AHS: Coven is available on Netflix but not for the faint of heart.