| Arts & Culture
Queer Life Lessons On Camp and Queerness from ‘American Horror Story’
Madison Montgomery never stops performing. She is at once person and persona.
Masked witches stalk Zoe, our protagonist, through the house. They pin her to the dining room table and raise a knife to strike in satanic offering. Suddenly, candles flare. The witches retreat. Their leader pulls off her mask and laughs, “We’re just messing with you.” Zoe recognizes the leader, who also introduces herself: “Madison Montgomery, movie star.” Watching the scene, I felt myself chortle in surprise. What was Emma Roberts doing there?
Emma Roberts made her American Horror Story ( AHS ) debut in Coven , the show’s third season. Roberts was not your standard Ryan Murphy–universe baddie. She was a known entity with film-royalty lineage: Eric Roberts’s daughter, Julia Roberts’s niece. A TeenNick star with several Teen Choice Award nominations under her belt for her roles in Unfabulous and Nancy Drew . When she appeared on-screen, I had to text my sister, also named Emma, who had once bumped into Roberts at a Miss Sixty in LA, said, “I’m Emma,” and gotten her autograph. All of this meant Emma Roberts seemed so teenaged to me. What would she bring to this anthology series, known for its camp and gratuitous gore?
Coven tells the story of a downtrodden boarding school for witches in New Orleans. All the smart witches fled Salem during the witch trials and now, by 2013, live here, slinking down Bourbon Street in black maxi dresses. By casting Roberts, the show offered a meta wink: Madison Montgomery is also a former Teen Choice Award actress, albeit one gifted with telekinesis. According to her character’s backstory, a director got mad when she wasn’t hitting her mark on set, so she used her powers to drop a light and kill him. Now, she’s in the coven trying to rehabilitate her image.
I was instantly enthralled by Madison, an electric bad girl to root for and love to hate. There’s something exaggerated, fully embodied, to her presentation. She gets the season’s best zingers (“You’re a dried-up old Hot Pocket, but I don’t judge.”) Every day, she wears an over-the-top outfit—Victorian gown, skater-girl getup, fur coats and poofy hair. I was at once shocked by her one-liners and harbored a minor crush.
In the season’s third episode, the coven’s reigning leader—known as the supreme—Fiona Goode (played by Jessica Lange) identifies Madison as her successor. She dotes on her at brunch, shoots pool with her at night, and seems to see herself in Madison, until she suddenly slits her throat. I was shocked. They couldn’t off Madison so easily! How dare they? But, in horror, there are always consequences for transgressions. As Madison’s powers blossom, Fiona’s vitality wanes. Fiona ferrets out the usurper to stay in control. I thought about Madison’s death for days after. To me, it came as a threat: Don’t stick your head up and upset the established order or you will be punished. If I lived as fully embodied and self-actualized as she does, what might happen to me?
Watching Coven in 2013, I was in college and confused. I’d mastered the cognitive dissonance of the closet and grown stiff, robotic. In high school, my squad of mostly female friends would comment that a guy was cute, and I’d frantically respond, “I don’t know!” On nights out, I wouldn’t let myself get drunk out of fear of what I might do or say.
I’d mastered the cognitive dissonance of the closet and grown stiff, robotic.
Madison was everything I wanted to be. With her extravagant outfits and changeable style, she epitomizes camp as it’s defined by Susan Sontag in her seminal essay, “Notes on ‘Camp’”: “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Madison never stops performing. She is at once person and persona. I felt a kinship with her zingers; her blazing, problematic sense of superiority; an imprecise discontent that sometimes glows beneath the surface. The other witches roll their eyes at her, call her dumb, a stone-cold bitch. But she lives boldly and unapologetically and doesn’t change course.
In my fourth-grade journal, I wrote about how all the other boys came to school in track pants, but I’d stay true to myself in Gap jeans. By middle school, my desire to fit in won out. For Christmas, I got a pair of Hollister joggers. I showed up to school in my new sweatpants, feeling somewhat empowered by partaking in what counted as fashion. The pants were comfortable too—what wasn’t to like?
I’d grievously miscalculated. Stifled laughter tailed me all day. Only at lunch did I figure out why: a sympathetic girl found me in the cafeteria and told me everyone was saying I was wearing “girl pants.” I kept my head down for the rest of the day and, after school, hid the sweatpants in a plastic bin under my bed. They never came out again.
Months later, on a school field trip, boys threw sticks at me and made fun of my AIM profile—cartoon palm trees and the phrase “I love California.” Instantly, I connected this to the girl-pants incident. While I hadn’t articulated to myself anything about my sexuality, it seemed others were already starting to feel it. My clothes and interests were signals I didn’t know how to control. There was something that felt constantly dissonant about being bisexual. In the aughts, I’d seen Ellen DeGeneres and Lance Bass coming out on the covers of magazines but had never seen bisexuality presented as an option. By seventh grade, I knew people thought I was gay. At the same time, at a school play rehearsal, a girl called me a “player” for chatting with too many girls on AIM. Under the punishment of bullying, I learned to edit myself—what to wear, how to behave publicly, which interests and opinions I had to keep to myself. Don’t stand out, modulate your voice, wear hoodies and jeans that hide every contour of your body.
Six years later, I remembered these feelings of repression while watching Madison be unashamedly herself. After she’s murdered by the supreme, she doesn’t stay dead long. The butler dresses her body up like one of his dolls, and the other witches find her in the attic and resurrect her. She launches back into life and croaks, “I need a cigarette.”
Madison’s first days back are turbulent. One episode opens with a shot of Roberts looking washed-out, smoking on the coven’s grand staircase. She monologues on millennial youth, the dissonance of trying to numb the pain of life but, now that she’s undead, feeling nothing at all. Spectral, pallid, she drifts through the house gobbling up eyes of newt and wings of fly in an effort to reattach to the corporeal realm. Though she presents so luminously to others, she’s deeply uncomfortable when she’s alone.
There is something recognizably contradictory to me in Madison’s character. She is exactly who she wants to be, and yet she is not at all happy with herself. Her character’s bold presentation and buried discontent—this hunger to be seen—mirrored how I experienced the daily dissonance of the closet. On every rewatch of Coven , she is the one I pay attention to.
Hiding in the Catholic church and the closet, I found the desire to speak out like her seductive. What if I just articulated the thing I wanted? There was this guy I liked, my friend Sam, but couldn’t admit it. At the time, I still hadn’t heard others discuss bisexuality. Instead, I hemmed in my unruly edges and corralled myself into a straight-passing person. I spent a year talking in therapy about how Sam drove me crazy with this need for “friendship.”
There’s something appealing, deeply human, about wanting to say the mean thing.
I saw in Madison the possibility of fully expressing oneself. There’s something appealing, deeply human, about wanting to say the mean thing. The healthier version of this, of course, is to speak your mind. But what might happen if you really let loose? Maybe there was another, meaner version of me inside—one who, like Madison, said what he thought: “Do you own any clothes that don’t come from the Gap?”
And perhaps Coven held a more forbidden interest for me too. Something a little gay, unlabeled, lingered just off-screen. Coven is one of AHS ’s campiest seasons. Witches come back from the dead left and right, and the writing is lovably over-the-top. The overblown aesthetics appealed to me. If I’d once learned to control the signals I was sending, Coven was showing me how much I adored exaggeration.
In my senior year of college, my Italian literature seminar traveled with a Latin class to Sicily. By then, I’d been in a series of short relationships with women, and with Sam having graduated and thus out of the picture, I’d avoided processing my feelings for him. We wound by bus from Palermo to Catania, visiting the homes of Luigi Pirandello and Leonardo Sciascia as well as sites of Greek and Roman antiquity in Agrigento and Selinunte. Away from school and plunged into this stunning landscape not our own, we bonded quickly. Toward the end of our trip, we spent two nights in Siracusa. We got comfortable there, loud Americans claiming the back of this one bar both nights. I sat with two friends and felt myself getting tipsy. Our conversation cut into the juicy stuff: love, life after college, secret obsessions. One girl revealed her fascination with Mormonism. My other friend was out, gay, and we spoke about homosexual suppression in the Mormon church. I was adept at participating without revealing myself. I was drunk, I was talking, everything was fine.
Then my friend mentioned how some gay men live suppressed forever. As long as I could remember, the idea of the distant future—weddings and children and eventual demise—had felt impossible, sinister. But contemplating an eternity of suppression made me feel sick. Even if I hadn’t admitted to myself that I knew I wasn’t straight, I didn’t want to feel this way forever. Walking back through Siracusa at night, past the cathedral and the fountains and the shops we’d visited by day, my feelings for Sam resurfaced. What would it take for something to change?
After college, I moved to a nearby city teeming with alumni from our small liberal arts school. One evening, I went to dinner with new friends and fellow alumni. In the car afterward, drowsy and loose after ice cream sundaes, we talked about dating. I tensed in anticipation of the moment when the spotlight fell on me—what would they assume, how would I react—but another friend steered the discussion. She talked about the men and women she went out with and said, “Why limit yourself? I like who I like.” I was struck by how breezily she discussed sexuality. Maybe this didn’t have to be so hard. Maybe I didn’t have to explain myself. Even now, bisexuality is a label I bristle against. Sometimes I’ll adopt it for simplicity’s sake, but I prefer the umbrella of queer .
I started trying on these other labels, non-labels, as I came out to my closest friends. It was liberating to say, “I like who I like.” Though I’d only told a few people, I could finally join in when queer friends celebrated our icons or moments of visibility in film or music. My friends and I started going to eighties night at this club in town. The first time was electric, one of those dreamy nights we put on a pedestal: the music was perfect, everybody looked good, we called it a night when we were still on top. Soon, we began going every Friday. We’d dress boldly—matching windbreakers, acid-washed jeans—to get in free. My body would loosen into “Fake” and “Pump Up the Jam,” my dance moves growing goofier and less self-conscious. Going out with people I’d only vaguely known at our small college, I felt released from those past versions of myself. Maybe they knew me one way then, but now they would know the me of today.
That fall, amid all these nights out, Madison reappeared to the cool, sexy synth and strings of “Glory Box” in AHS ’s eighth season, Apocalypse . In a melding of the show’s universes, she stoops before a new character and delivers her much-memed line: “Surprise, bitch.”
I was overjoyed to see her again. Madison’s second resurrection felt like a celebration. While I was making room for my desires, these parts of me that had always been there, I got to watch this character I’d so admired—now on her third try at life—attempt to do some good. In Apocalypse , Madison is back from hell—an experience that changed her perspective. She’s more of a softy than we’ve ever seen her. She uses her magic to heal tortured ghosts’ eternal wounds and is first to fight the Antichrist in their final showdown. Unburdened from her obsession with becoming supreme, Madison emerges from hell and finds real purpose. She, too, defines herself again. We could do it together.
There was this one eighties night at the club. Ask my friend, she knows the one; we soaked our hangovers with chicken fingers from our neighborhood superette the next day at noon. That night, I went with an out friend, one of the only people I’d told at that point. We danced totally free and slowly merged with a group of strangers. I said no when this guy offered us poppers, but that didn’t mean the night had to end. When he asked me to dance, I could actually consider it, yelling into my friend’s ear over “Raspberry Beret.” We could dance. We could choose what we truly wanted. We could end the night in bewitching joy.