A Hidden Racism in American Horror Story: Roanoke
“Everybody who lives in North Carolina knows the history of the Lost Colony. It’s a ghost story people told around a campfire. 116 settlers disappeared without a trace. No bodies, not a single thing was ever found.”
-Lee Harris, “Chapter Three”
Fall is synonymous with change. The temperature begins to cool as the once vibrant green leaves of deciduous trees are replaced by a subtle array of yellows, browns, and reds before falling down to the earth in heaps. Pumpkins are picked and occasionally baked into pies, bread and cookies or ground into the coffees sold at the shops scattered across the American suburban landscape. Apples are made into cider, dipped in caramel and sometimes nuts, or given out on Halloween by health-concerned neighbors to disappointed costumed children. Corn and other crops are harvested. Combine harvesters flatten land where once tall plant life ruled the fields unchallenged. It is the yearly cycle signifying the passing of the autumnal equinox, the approaching winter solstice, and the arrival of the newest season of the anthology television series American Horror Story on FX.
For those unfamiliar with the program, American Horror Story utilizes a themed format that allows each season to function as a distinct, independent body of work. To watch American Horror Story: Coven, an audience member needn’t watch American Horror Story: Asylum, American Horror Story: Freak Show, or any of the other seasons in order to understand Coven’s plot and character motivations. The mythology of a given season is all one needs to become enveloped within that season’s narrative, although the show’s creators reward longtime viewers by occasionally incorporating references and cameos.
Fictive Voice and Natural Discourse in American Horror Story
World-building is something the creators of American Horror Story clearly take seriously, granted the nesting the showrunners runners build into their stories across the seasons, but the underlying problem within this world-building lies with its eerie similarity to the reality American Horror Story’s audience inhabits. Although anyone who has watched the Freak Show season of American Horror Story can attest that the American Horror Story universe takes place within a different timeline than the one its viewers occupy, this does not prevent the show from using what literary critic William T. Andrews refers to in his essay “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative” as “fictive voice” (26). Fictive voice is a story-telling device that blurs together what the reader knows to be fiction with elements of reality, what Barbara Smith calls “natural discourse” (Andrews 26). Natural discourse may be understood as those artifacts from a period, such as letters, editorials, and legislature, that authenticate a work as belonging to the real world.
In other words, natural discourse involves those pieces of history and culture that make fiction believable and realistic. The fictive voice blurs together the real with the fiction, giving a work authenticity. For American Horror Story, this fictive voice utilizes historical events and personages in order to make its more supernatural and theatrical elements appear as natural and reasonable. Sometimes this authentication is directly lifted from history and culture.
Examples of this authentication occurring across the show’s seasons include Stevie Nicks in “The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks” episode of Coven, Jeffrey Dahmer in the “Devil’s Night” episode of Hotel, and the inclusion of Operation Paperclip in the Asylum episode, “I Am Anne Frank, Pt. 2.”
While incorporating real world personages and events into American Horror Story elevates its narratives into a more realistic experience for the audience, by appropriating these real texts within a fictive voice, the showrunners create myths wherein what is true and what is invented are no longer as easily identifiable. Certainly there are particular elements of the series that the audience will be able to differentiate easily between real/fantasy.
It is doubtful that most members of the audience will think that there is a hotel in California populated by ghosts of serial killers, vampires, and the charming Transwoman Liz Taylor, nor is it likely that viewers will confuse the real Stevie Nicks from her fictive incarnation or believe that Tate Langdon from the first season is a real person, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee this differentiation will always be easy to make. Marie Laveau, Delphine LaLaurie, the Axe Man of New Orleans, the Black Dahlia, Papa Legba, and Edward Mordrake are all examples of characters who have some cultural/historical presence prior to their appearance within the American Horror Story universe, but these characters are not as readily available to their audience as some of the more contemporary characters and events are.
It is within these characters who are not as familiar to their audience wherein myth blurs reality the most, making it so these characters either 1) appear fully fictional, invented to give a particular season added depth or 2) make it so that the fictional versions of these characters override the preexisting personage within the audience’s consciousness (unless an audience member is well educated within particular historical/cultural context). While there is a particular tragedy in being unable to recognize a particular character as having a historical/cultural precedent, it is this misinformative view that conflates the fictive with natural discourse that makes shows like American Horror Story problematic. When viewers can no longer separate the real from the myth, they come away from the program changed, with a perspective of history that aligns more with fiction than with what scholars come to call fact within a given era.
Although one may argue that history is somewhat tangential- that history is an invented fiction itself, it is important to recognize that history concerns itself with probability. History’s realness or historicity may be confirmed using primary documents from a given period or context. History is not purposefully misinformative, or rather, scholarly history is not purposefully misinformative; otherwise what we have is not history, but propaganda.
American Horror Story is neither history nor propaganda, but by combining the fictive with historical natural discourse, American Horror Story makes scholarly history less accessible to its viewers. While American Horror Story may certainly inspire members of its audience to investigate the original inspirations for its characters and plots, the show also can perpetuate myths that have been discredited within scholarly history or are less credible and given credence only amongst historians who occupy the fringe of credible research. This is the dilemma undermining the most recent season of the show, My Roanoke Nightmare, also referred to simply as Roanoke.
The Mythology of My Roanoke Nightmare
My Roanoke Nightmare utilizes a fictive voice to ground itself within the historical legacy of the lost Roanoke colony. While Roanoke’s history is the natural discourse that the fictive voice utilizes, the history that the showrunners choose to incorporate into series is not the scholarly history of Roanoke, but a popular myth surrounding the colony’s supposedly “mysterious” disappearance. This information is relayed within the “Chapter Three” episode of the season, when the viewers discover that the lost colony of Roanoke, led by Thomasine White (played by Kathy Bates), haunt the land that protagonists’ house is built on.
According to the mythology of My Roanoke Nightmare, Thomasine White, affectionately referred to as The Butcher, is responsible for the colony’s disappearance. After exchanging her soul to the mysterious forest witch character Scáthach (played by Lady Gaga), White returns to the colony and stages a coup, taking over Roanoke and killing everyone who had turned against her when she originally ruled as reagent governor in her husband John White’s place. The only person from this traitorous lot Thomasine spares is her son, Ambrose White.
John had returned to England to gather food and other supplies for the colony as the colony had run low on both and entered into a time of dire need. Because Thomasine refused to move the colony inland due to John’s promise to return, the conspirators disposed Thomasine of power and her left to die in the forest. Thomasine’s violent return to power, however, does not remedy the situation that led to her exile. The colonists still are starving without the proper supplies to ensure their survival, so Thomasine White’s orders the Roanoke colony to move inland to where the protagonists’ house is eventually built, leaving the original settlement abandoned. The only sign left behind in the settlement is the word, Croatoan- the same word used by Cricket the psychic in this episode to dispel the colonists’ presence.
In “Chapter Four,” this mythology is complicated further, after Scáthach the witch reveals to Cricket the Roanoke colony after its initial abandonment. The new settlement provided the Roanoke colony with plentiful harvests, but this haven of plenty did not come without a cost. In order to ensure the continuous bliss, Thomasine White must offer a child sacrifice to Scáthach, a young girl named Pricilla. This practice does not bode well with all of the colonists, including Ambrose, who view this practice as deviltry and against their Christian faith. They express this discontent with Thomasine after the ritual has completed.
Under Scáthach’s influence, Thomasine hosts a banquet in response, feigning pretense that she feels regret for allowing the harsh circumstances to turn her against Christian principles. As the colonists begin to eat, a poison in the food, perhaps magical in nature, causes wild coughing fits to overtake everyone but Thomasine. Thomasine takes advantage of the colonists’ incapacitated state to butcher them one by one, beginning with Ambrose, as part of the Blood Moon ritual that will render the slain colonists as eternal slaves to Thomasine’s will. Scáthach completes the ritual by slaying Thomasine and binding her spirit to the land.
The Problem Restated: My Roanoke Nightmare’s Natural Discourse
While viewers will more than likely recognize that this mythology is invented for the series, what may not be immediately recognizable to the audience is that My Roanoke Nightmare’s fictive voice utilizes a racist history in place of its natural discourse. This specific claim is not due to the narrative’s plot or how the series portrays race within the characters themselves, but the natural discourse, the purportedly real life narrative that gives the series a sense of authenticity.
Although it makes for good television and innovative storytelling, the disappearance of the Roanoke colony is the source of a racist history. This is because the disappearance of the Roanoke colony is likely not a mystery at all, and according to sociologist Dr. James W. Loewen, this myth persists from a racist origin. As Loewen writes within Lies My Teacher Told Me,
The first English settlement in North America, Roanoke Island in 1585, probably did not die out but was absorbed into the nearby Croatoan Indians, “thereby achieving a harmonious biracial society that always eluded colonial planters,” in the words of historian J.F. Fausz. Eventually the English and Croatoan Indian may have become part of the Lumbees. The English never learned the outcome of the “Lost Colony,” however. Frederick Turner has suggested that they did not want to think about the possibility that English settlers had survived by merging with Native Americans.. Instead, Fausz tells us, “tales of the ‘Lost Colony’ came to epitomize the treacherous nature of hostile Indians and served as the mythopoetic ‘bloody shirt’ for justifying aggressions against Powhatan years later.” Triracial isolates have generally won only contempt from their white neighbors, which is why they have chosen rural isolations. Our textbooks isolate them, too: none mentions the term or the people. (126)
Loewen’s research is grounded within primary documentation and secondary authorial scholarship, but this presentation of history, even if it is scholarly history, does not fit with the natural discourse found within popular culture and within American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare. Instead, the false history, what I refer to as “bad history” and “hidden racism” in the title of this essay, is what viewers will commonly perceive as factual and a true account, and I no less doubt that the showrunners share this sentiment.
The racist origins of this false history does not necessarily indicate that the showrunners or the viewers who buy into the narrative are racists, but it does serve as testimony as to how effectively this meme has invaded natural discourse and asserted itself as authentic history. This therein lies the problem. Culturally, the “Lost Colony” narrative is incredibly persuasive due largely to the fact that it is presented as an “unsolved mystery” without a probable answer. Yet if we are to read Loewen’s work, or Fausz’s, in conjunction to this narrative, we find that there is a plausible solution to this mystery.
By presenting this mystery as the natural discourse for My Roanoake Nightmare, the “Lost Colony” myth not only takes precedence over the historical counter-narrative that Loewen and Fausz provide, but this history remains regulated to the periphery. Were it the case that Loewen and Fausz’s treatment of the Roanoke Colony was commonly taught in schools when My Roanoke Nightmare’s audience members were introduced to the subject, then the showrunner’s choice to prioritize the mythic mystery or the scholarly history would be less problematic, just as it is less problematic that Coven features Stevie Nicks as a witch and Asylum features a Nazi Doctor creating mutant monstrosities. When the dominant social narratives are aligned with scholarly history, there is far less at stake when a series like American Horror Story emulates a more fringe perspective in their story-telling. When the dominant social narratives and the scholarly history do not align, that is where the process of mythmaking proves to be the most detrimental.
 These are peoples who are of black, white, and Native American decent.
 For context, Lies My Teacher Told Me is the result of a study Loewen conducted across eighteen of the most commonly used high school textbooks at the time of his research.
 What Richard Dawkins refers to within his 1976 publication, The Selfish Gene, as a unit of culture (192).
Andrews, William L. “The Novelization of Voice in Early African American Narrative.” PMLA, vol. 105, no. 1, 1990, pp. 23-34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/462340. Accessed 18 November 2013.
“Chapter Three.” American Horror Story: Roanoke, episode 3, FX, 28 September 2016. FX Now, http://www.fxnetworks.com/video/775280195642.
“Chapter Four.” American Horror Story: Roanoke, episode 4, FX, 5 October 2016. FX Now, http://www.fxnetworks.com/video/780036163703.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. 1976. Oxford UP, 1999.
“Devil’s Night.” American Horror Story: Hotel, episode 4, FX, 28 October 2015. Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/watch/863265.
“I am Anne Frank, Pt. 2.” American Horror Story: Asylum, episode 5, FX, 14 November 2012. Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/watch/707109.
Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me. 1995. Touchstone, 2007.
“The Magical Delights of Stevie Nicks.” American Horror Story: Coven, episode 10, FX, 8 January 2014. Hulu, http://www.hulu.com/watch/710336.
Murphy, Ryan and Brad Falchik, creators. American Horror Story. 20th Century Fox Television, 2011-2016.
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