To experience horror is to be so overwhelmed by fear the feeling is almost painful. When experiencing empathic horror as members of an audience, the visceral aversion to monstrous predators such as beasts, ghosts, murderers and rapists committing heinously gory acts of violence and psychological torture can make our fear for the protagonists just as potent as the fear for our own lives. Horror films and television shows most successful at achieving this terrifying effect on its viewers employ formalistic techniques to create visually striking imagery that engages the viewers in such a way they are forced to undergo a plethora of emotions.
American Horror Story is a television series that truly exemplifies the horror genre with the depth of its dark, twisted plot structures and characters whose moral depravity drives them to perform unspeakable atrocities. Each season of the show is an anthology of horrific events occurring in a single place: a murder house, an asylum, and a witch coven, portraying a cruel world in which evil always triumphs over good. The homicidal ghosts of Murder House, the sadistic caretakers of Asylum, the vengeful witches of Coven, and other morally ambiguous characters reflect only the worst aspects of humanity.
While every season has thus far possessed paranormal inclinations, the most recent installment of American Horror Story, involving the practice of witchcraft and voodooism, focuses more intensely on the perversion of nature and the loss of humanity. Through the unconventional use of metric and intellectual montage as well as a frightening expressionistic style, the opening titles of American Horror Story: Coven utilizes an amalgamation of abstract visual motifs to eerily foreshadow its themes: the corruption of nature and the monstrous metamorphosis of the human body.
Intercutting images of forebodingly dressed witches, with hauntingly bizarre forest imagery, the opening title sequence depicts a dark and colorless world in which the occultists have dominion over nature. By definition witchcraft entails the supernatural manipulation and defiance of the natural world. This is evident in the first of a series of jarringly quick jump cuts: a wide shot of witches entering a forest followed by a sudden burst of white mist overwhelming the frame in a similar shot. In this instance the witches’ presence seems to have a mystical and transformative effect on the forest as the grainy image of trees dirt paths become consumed by the blindingly white mist. Several shots later the witches’ slow procession brings a dark aura to a row of trees backlit by a gray mist. The darkness is so profound that the witches’ black robes blend in with their surroundings suggesting a stronger connection to the landscape. Bent at odd angles the tree silhouettes create eerie shapes, resembling gnarled fingers shooting up from the soil; the tree’s transformation from literal to abstract representation signifies the distortion of nature. The startling appearance of a horned, skeletal, winged, and disturbingly humanoid creature further represents the grotesque melding of nature and the occult.
The composition and mis-en-scène of shots depicting unnaturally distorted human bodies suggest that the landscape is not the only aspect of nature altered by witchcraft. In fact, the witches’ strange costumes alter the form of their bodies. The long black robes have tall pointed hoods that cover their face except for small eye holes. The ambiguous shape produced by the robes’ formlessness and the bizarrely pointy hood obscures the women’s humanity and gives them an otherworldly appearance. Later an image of a backlit female standing in darkness, except for a halo of light around her body, emerges. Like the hood of the witches, the low key lighting conceals the woman’s human features. On the ceiling above, the woman’s body casts a shadow of a bull-like creature, which literally overshadows her smaller form with its size and position in the frame. The bull’s shadow and the ambiguity of the human imply a transition from human to beast. Immediately after an illustration of a large demon devouring humans signifies the annihilation of humanity and supremacy of evil. Between a close up of two slanted tree limbs a human with a mule’s head—an abomination of nature—ambles across the frame. While the human torso is somewhat hidden by the darkness of the forest, the comparatively brighter tones of the mule head serves as a dominant contrast drawing attention away from the human body. The number and speed of cuts increases close ups of the mule head, further emphasizing the bestial half of the hybrid until the metamorphosis is complete and not a trace of humanity remains. ________________________________________________________________________
The Opening Title Sequence of American Horror Story: Coven
All images licensed under CreativeCommons.