Category Archives: Horror

Sick World

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Back in May of this last year, I got an email from an Art Director named Florian Mihr at a pretty big record company, Fearless Records, out of LA. He’d found one of my old 365-Photos that I’d done over a year before, with a creepy arm coming out of my mouth, and wanted to do something along those lines for the album art for a band they’d recently signed called My Enemies & I. They thought my background and style fit with the band’s, and I had to agree! I loved the band’s sound immediately and jumped on the opportunity.

ME&I had a music video out for one of their songs that featured a creepy, oily black hand, and I knew I wanted to match that stylistically. What would I use for the goop? My first thought was chocolate syrup. Though messy and a bit gross, my old days working at a summer camp that features messy activities (which includes kids covering themselves in the likes of chocolate syrup) prepared me to take a dip into the stuff.

I also knew we’d be relatively close-up on the face for this shoot, and so I wanted to make the model anonymous and with a feeling of something eerie, and so I went with a gauze wrap over the upper half of the face. The gauze also called to mind echoes of illness, which would match the album title, Sick World.

A bit of test work and photoshopping later, and I got two mockup images.

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The images quickly reassured me that my photo abilities had definitely improved in a year and half to where they needed to be, and I jumped on finalizing the idea, getting two of my friends together to do an only slightly awkward shoot, with syrup everywhere, handprints, and of course, my buddy CJ’s corgi running around trying to figure out just what the hell we were up to.
Corgi

The lighting was simple. I wanted to go with high contrast and drama because we were going for that horror movie feel, so I lit it with one canon speedlite on camera left with a soft white umbrella modifier against a plain white wall.
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I did some quick edits in photoshop to put it all together and color grade the way I wanted before sending them off to Florian. He and the band loved them (here, we took a break to work on the new BlessTheFall art, which came up suddenly and needed all of our attention). From there, we made small tweaks to hand placements and which base image they preferred. I sent the file along so that Flo could work on the title design, and we had our finished product. 12032854_1231629103529278_3119624340908748732_oThe EP dropped yesterday on iTunes, which you can check out here.

It’s a badass blend of different hard rock and metal genres, and I dig the shit out of it. If Metal is your jam, give it a listen! I think these guys could seriously be big.

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10 Years Later: Revisiting the Village

It’s always around this time of year that I break out my Halloween movies. Nightmare Before Christmas. Trick r’ Treat. Sleepy Hollow. And, of course, The Village, which has in past years grown to be one of my fall staples. And it was in watching it just tonight that I wanted to type up a blog defending this movie, and encouraging any readers to revisit it if it’s been a while now.

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The Twist

Now, first off, I want to dive into this blog by talking about why so many people didn’t or don’t like this movie. What it seems to repeatedly return to is, well, it’s a Shyamalan movie, and his time was coming to a wane. Shyamalan, after breaking out with the Sixth Sense, and following with Unbreakable, Signs, and later the Village, he quickly established himself to be a really talented director with a knack for twist endings… twist endings that start to weigh on people. And it’s the Shyamalan gimmicky twist that seems to be what bothered many reviewers, especially after quickly perusing Rotten Tomatoes.

Why do people hate twists? Well, they’re gimmicky, and they’re an easy way to startle audiences. Want an emotional reaction in a thriller movie? Pull the rug out from under them at the end. The problem with this is fairly obvious. The twist often is easy (IT WAS ALL A DREAM!), but it worse, it undermines the work the movie had done leading up to it. If the whole movie was a dream, all the conflict and drama and themes are often left discarded completely.

By the fourth twist-ending movie from a director whose name actually started to mean something with his breakout first movie, the meaninglessness was quickly attached to his name. And it didn’t help that after the Village, starting with Lady In The Water, Shyamalan’s talent seemed to utterly dissolve. This only fueled the belief that if there was a twist, it was simply a gimmick: that Shyamalan had been fooling us all along.

But, here, I want to look at the twist itself, and try to get away from writing the movie off because it had a twist, and because Shyamalan has quickly become a gimmicky household name associated with no skill and cheap tricks. Because he certainly didn’t start out that way. And here, with the Village, he actually had something good going.

The twist of the Village is that the quaint, sleepy, early 19th century town that the movie focused on was not actually located in that period of time, but was actually hidden away in a nature reserve of modern time, unbeknownst to the residents. And the scary monsters stalking the woods? A farce put on by the town elders to maintain their secrets and maintain their town’s innocence and ignorance about the darker ways of the world.

A bit ridiculous? Sure. Could something like that ever happen? Sure, probably not. But we’re in thriller genre. Movies are often about the unrealistic. But that’s not a bad thing. No, a big part of the ridiculous conclusion here is because it was presented as a twist, and people rolled their eyes at the gag, at the man behind the curtain, and left disappointed, failing to consider it as much beyond a twist.

But this is where I encourage viewers to watch the movie a second time. Because the pitfall of the twist movie is that it makes the movie worthless. But with the Village, the twist added a new layer to the story, and it was a layer that had been there all along. Shymalan wasn’t fucking with us for a gimmick, he was telling a story that changed levels throughout. Indeed, the very first lines spoken on-screen were about whether the elders had made the right decision to settle there. Though you don’t know it, the dialogue that had been happening the entire movie was always about the twist. You just didn’t know. Each time the elders discussed the “Ones We Don’t Speak Of”, it’s loaded. It’s ambiguous and layered with a deeper meaning. This is a facet of the good twist movie: it adds new value and multiple layers to a story already told. And a great twist movie doesn’t stop with the two layers of meaning, but it makes you think further about the very premise.

On the first layer: Monsters are attacking the town, what do we do?

On the second layer: We’re pretending to attack the town, what do we do next?

On the third layer: How far do we take this farce and is it even moral and right to do so?

But to write the movie off as bullshit because of the twist is to miss those deeper conversations that were actually happening the whole time.

Did I once think the movie was better when I liked only half the movie: the half when it treated the monsters as real? Yes. But to leave it at that: a movie about a town dealing with a monster problem… it’s simple. It has potential. But it’s simple. How many times has the good little town/group of friends/strangers battle the evil invading force, though? How many times does that plot turn into most of the people dying, with Evil being defeated (or at least, leaving just enough left over to come back for a sequel)?

Here, Shyamalan took the story to a new level, examining the nature of innocence, of lies for a greater good, of the way those lies, which were in good faith, can turn right back to the very evil they were attempting to avoid. In a very post-9/11 movie, this was an examination of governmental lies, order, intention, backfired intention, conspiracy, innocence, and endurance. Especially reflecting on the Village as a post-9/11 movie, there’s something that really comes alive here.

The alternative though, the one without the twist… it’s probably just another random, meaningless thriller with some monsters.

The Frights

The other problem the Village quickly runs into, on the heels of it being a Shyamalan film, is that it’s a thriller. It deals with scary elements. And, as I’ve discussed in many a review before, scares are hard on critics. People go to scary movies to get scared. Everyone is scared by something different. And so, movies or television shows judged on their scare merit alone are apt to have a very divided audience.

I, personally, thought these monsters were very effective. Shyamalan’s monster imagery was great. Hooded, red-cloaked beasts with strange quills coming from their backs, slowly stalking a sleepy town, lit by torch-light amongst the spindly tree branches? I’m in. And, to boot, Shyamalan shot it very effectively, showing just enough to make the monsters frightening, but not so much that we saw too much and lost our suspension of disbelief.

Now, that effect was lost toward the end, when Adrian Brody Monster did his sprint toward Bryce Dallas Howard. A little too tribal-looking. A little too much shown. But first, that thing was fucking creepy before the sprint, when it stood, hunched, while we waited to see what it would do. When too much was shown, we were only moments from learning that it wasn’t as it seemed anyway.

And certainly, while looking at the scares, I have to consider my earlier viewpoints, yes, maybe having a second twist was bothersome — how many times does Shyamalan have to twist it for us? It seems more gimmicky when it’s real — nope, not real — real — just kidding, not. And look, now it’s the modern day!

But when you’ve moved past the first screening, and you go along with the story rather than watching for twists, it actually works.

It works because Shyamalan is actually a really good writer (or used to be). Here, he wrote a movie that took its time, with each scene and shot being both gorgeous and deliberate. His use of parallelism was what tied this movie together so nicely.

The Filming

Examples: The scene in which Ivy and Noah had a footrace: simple, fun, you got to know these two’s relationship. It was paralleled at the end as Noah-Monster, mentally challenged and playing a prank, tried to lure Ivy into another footrace.

The elegant, creepy, torch-lit scene in which Jesse Eisenberg stood with his back to the forest to test his bravery against his imagination? Paralleled by Ivy later standing with her back to the monster, testing her own bravery as to when to move, finally killing Noah-Monster. Indeed, Ivy and Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) even discussed how Lucius held the record, and how Ivy longed to be like a boy, to be able to test it herself. Well she got her chance.

And how powerful, the way Shyamalan framed this little town against the eerie woods. His return to very specific and intentional use of color. Was Red being the “bad color” ridiculous? Perhaps, but, like the Sixth Sense (and, I’d say, not so much like the Sixth Sense that it was discredited), there was symbolism there. The symbolism of blood. The way the community tried so hard to avoid it. The use of yellows to balance out the red, creating such a lovely autumnal feel. The way he filmed Ivy, often out of focus and close up, to put the viewer in her experience of her blindness, especially in the suspense scenes when it mattered as much for her as it did us.

These are very intentional decisions that work for movies. They’re designed to keep a movie tight, effective, meaningful, and deliberate, and they’re sadly too often left out of most Hollywood releases today.

But it’s not just the film-work, but the writing and acting combined with that. Lucius, the shy, awkward, but somehow bold and fearless faux-main character. Perfectly played by the awkward-but-noble Joaquin Phoenix, and in a way that was different enough from Signs that both roles worked, despite their similarities. But how much more moving were those two moments in which he took Ivy by the hand in times of danger? I’ll admit it, they were powerful enough to make me shed some fluid from my eye holes. Maybe it’s a taste thing, but I found it spot on. That’s good directing. When an actor can come out of nowhere, grab his costar’s hand, and at least one audience member cries? That’s successful filmmaking.

But how smart as well, ten years before the feminist dialogue has really taken off online, we see Shyamalan twist his story to strip down his shy-but-fearless male hero, substituting a blind woman to brave the woods. While she might’ve had insider info, she was still terrified (Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance was fantastic). Did the two young men keep up? Sure didn’t.

In a time when movies feel the need to spoonfeed us old cliche’s in the first ten minutes so that we can get to know characters with the least possible amount of engagement in order to get to the action, here we have Shyamalan both taking his time to illustrate these characters, this town, this place of innocence, and following the well-shared advice to show and not tell.

Look at the way Ivy tells Lucius how she knew he liked her because he wouldn’t touch her? His confirmation was silence. Shyamalan’s confirmation was when Lucius shared the same information with his mother a scene or two later, confirming to us that Ivy had shared a truth about him, in that he’s now sharing it to his mother. There are no tired tropes here to establish the relationship. This was one that took its time and hit its beats in a subtle way. Maybe too subtle for some reviewers, who found character depth to be fairly flat.

And last, but not least, the score. James Newton Howard knocks it out of the park. One of the most gorgeous film scores I’ve ever heard. It carries through the movie like a breeze in a creepy forest.

Conclusion

So what do we have here? Ignoring the Shyamalan legacy, and treating this movie on its own, ten years later, through my eyes, we have a gorgeously filmed movie. It’s eerie. It’s autumnal. It’s smart and takes its time. The scares are subtle and goooood (my substitute for “frightening”, since I know this movie too well to recognize if its scary anymore). The twist has a good reason. And the themes are intriguing enough to chew on.

That’s a damn good movie, in my opinion.

Maybe there are parts of this you would like to nitpick, or feel differently about, and that’s fine. Each has their own tastes. But, knowing the twist, I encourage you to watch the film as what it is: a movie about a town that’s faking a monster problem to ensure the innocence of its citizens. That’s an interesting premise. And it’s one that holds up, especially on the second, third, or fourth viewing.

Move beyond the gimmick, and watch it enough to let it all settle over you at once, and I hope you’ll find the depth and value in it. Then we can all go back to wondering just what the hell happened that every movie after The Village sucked so much.

Karl Pfeiffer is the author of the books Hallowtide and Into a Sky Below, Forever. He won the first season of Ghost Hunters Academy and  worked briefly with the Ghost Hunters International team. He now lectures about approaches to ghost hunting across the nation, leads the weekend ghost hunts at the Stanley Hotel, and works as a portrait photographer. You can find more at http://www.KarlPfeiffer.com

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Future Seasons of American Horror Story

I wrote a post very similar to this one after the end of Season Two and, while I kept that post updated, it’s beginning to fall a bit out of date, and so I wanted to revisit the post with some new ideas and sexier photoshop work.

So, a bit of a recap, shall we? American Horror Story is a show defined by iconic marketing imagery, a frantic-yet-elegant cinematic style, an ensemble cast that’s always excellent, pitch perfect thematic studies, and interwoven anthology plots.

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In season one, we visited the Murder House. The setting was a haunted house in California, and it allowed the writers and directors to study such American Horrors that the supernatural horrors are only caught up within: the real horrors — the way people react to and perpetuate social issues. Adultery. Abortion. Gay rights. The 21st Century family. School shootings. Depression. Teenage romance. Bullying. The themes that circle the home.

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* * *

With second season, we had a big switch, moving into the Asylum. Though first season was dark, it was so in a sexy, elegant, nature. The scares crawled around inside your head a bit. But with season two, Murphy and Co. turned it up to eleven. The sexiness was out the window. The show was a period piece for the 60’s, a time that’s beginning to seem almost pre-historic to us. The setting and time period allowed the writers to explore the big issues of the time (many that are unfortunately still very prevalent), and what made the season brilliant by the final episodes was the way the writers spring-boarded from social issues to philosophical issues. Women’s rights, civil rights, gay rights, the role of the Church in the world and within institutions, the treatment of the mentally ill, the ways science can twist and corrupt, and the ways science can redeem. We got some supernatural scares, but not so much of the ghostly, super-powered variety. We saw aliens as a brilliant stand-in for God, we saw possession unrecognized in a place of god, and of course we saw our seasonal historical murderer.

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And then season three happened. Drawing mixed reviews from critics, season three moved us down south, with Coven. Coven aimed to iron out some of the kinks with Asylum: to give the audience a breath of fresh air from the deep darkness of the Asylum, to shave off some of the abundant themes and plotlines that slowed the second season in the middle of its run. They went after feminism and racism in the south, tracking the split of two witch clans and the battle between them as it was reignited. The first episode was a powerhouse, but the show stumbled along after that, missing the opportunities to sneak in genuine frights, and, sadly, instead of deconstructing many of these themes, wound up reinforcing them by season’s end.

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And now, in the late summer of 2014, we move into the fourth season, where we’ll step right up to the Freak Show. I’m utterly pumped for this season (and utterly disappointed in myself that I never thought of the carnival/freakshow idea in my earlier blog post: thanks commenters!) Where Murphy first confessed he was going for a lighter tone and a funny feel the way of Coven, he realized as he got into the plot that this season was, in fact, darker than Asylum. And, I hope, more on track with its thematic study of the nitty gritty. The promos are already exceptional. The clown is going to be scary as shit. And for the first time in more than half a century, we’re really going to get a piece of film/television that digs around in a very much overlooked piece of American history: the sideshow carnival. Looks for more civil rights type issues, post-WWII racial scares, and another season where the monsters are never the monsters.

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(And of course, the alternate title card used with the actual-footage teasers)

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So where do we go from here?

Ryan Murphy has on multiple occasions mentioned that the season following Freak Show was going to be followed by something very much out of left field. While I’ve got a few good ideas, I don’t think any of them are quite as out-of-left-field worthy for the fifth season as Empty Space. Space has a myriad of setting-style titles, so it could be tough for fans to guess this subtitle. But space is a rich American horror soil, and very much do-able for Murphy and Co. I have regular debates with my good buddy CJ about the possibilities of such a season. He argues that aliens shouldn’t make an appearance to throw viewers, whereas I think they can. Granted, AHS has already done aliens in Season Two, but they were brief and very much an image-centric stand-in. They could easily do some creatures heretofore unseen. But with the potential for deep space survival, fear of unknown planets, rebellious robots, rebellious other ships, and with a wealth of horror-movies to nod to and reference, I think we can count on seeing Empty Space in the near future for AHS, hopefully as near as Season Five.

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Almost equally as obvious and overdue as space in the AHS franchise as my vote for Season Six? I’ve subtitled it the Woodlands. (Part of me fought with debate over calling it “Sticks” — a play on the folk phrase for the backwoods mixed with the River Styx from Greek mythology, a thematic allusion very much up Murphy’s alley). The Woodlands locale is rich for AHS. It’s the setting of many in the classic staple of American Horror: the Slasher film. We set this at a cabin or lakeside retreat, and let havoc play out. We’d get the classic slasher killer (likely somebody historical), but there’s room here to play with more modern manifestations from the woods, like Slenderman or cryptid beasties. Murphy has spoken in recent interviews about the nature of death on television, and how it’s different than in movies. Because of the way a 13-episode television run connects you with characters for six times longer than the average movie, you become far more attached, and so those deaths are more meaningful. While in many ways this can be a deterrent for a slasher season, I think it’s territory to play with those losses as the horror that they are.

Thematically we’ve got play by looking no further than Lars von Trier’s disturbing film, Antichrist. Von Trier, in interviews, pointed out that one of his main thematic goals with the film was to explore the dichotomy between the woods currently illustrated in Romantic tones, as a place of peace and finding one’s self, as a Walden, but whereas historically, the woods are a terrible, terrible place of darkness. That’s where you go to fight for your life, where the food chain spins endlessly, and human wit is tested against animal ability.

So I say, let’s do that. Let’s pit the humans against the wild. (And don’t even get me started on what a gorgeous season that would be to watch, cinematically).

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* * *

THE season I’ve been waiting to see from Murphy. This show had better not run dry by the time we make our detour into Lovecraft Country (perhaps a better subtitle, but it’s clunky). Innsmouth of course is the setting of HP Lovecraft’s classic tale, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, about a small community of inbred and hybrid creatures living on the coastal shores of Massachusetts. Lovecraft has been one of the most defining characters in modern horror, introducing us to Cosmic Horror and a strange philosophical place of Nihilism and mysticism. This topic is hot right now after being constantly hinted at in HBO’s first season of True Detective, so I think it’s time for something more overt to hit the airwaves. Certainly themes are easy enough to play out. Let’s look at science and religion, cults and isolation, the power of nature, sprinkle in some Storm of the Century and tales of epic sea monsters for flashbacks, and we’ve got one of the tightest, darkest, rainiest, and creepiest American Horror Stories yet. Perhaps the topic will dry up by Season Seven, but I doubt it. Lovecraft never leaves us.

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Okay, fine, Maize isn’t a setting, but it was the best I had, and I loved the play on Maize meaning corn, as well as the wordplay of Maze. Look no farther than the Shining for the maze/minotaur trope in classic horror. Mash it up with Children of the Corn and we’ve got something special. Now, though Murphy says he has as many as 13 different settings in mind, I’m worried themes come less varied than settings, especially if he continues to pack them in the way he did in season 2. Eight seasons is already a bit long, but I think these are the quintessential settings that absolutely have to be covered, and the Maize season would be the quintessential finale, wrapping us up for season Nine. The Native American connection brings the end back to America’s beginning. Dig around in America’s roots, explore the monsters in the soil,  Native American legends, the horror stories from before the genocide, then toss in some Dark Romanticism and Sleepy Hollow, maybe pepper in some Celtic Halloween roots to stir the melting pot, and we’ve got an incredible finale to an incredible show.

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American Horror Story: Freak Show (Conjoined Twins)

Just realized that we put this poster/art together two months ago, but that I never tossed it up on the blog (and hence, it’s not showing up on Google), and now has missed the big conjoined casting announcement revealing that Sarah Paulson would play a two-headed/conjoined twin this season, that went out last week. Balls. But here you guys go if you haven’t seen it over on my Facebook page.

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

American Horror Story Freakshow Conjoined Twins

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American Horror Story Freak Show: Nails

Still on a roll with our American Horror Story: Freak Show fan posters and teasers. This video might be my favorite we’ve done so far.

As always, huge thanks to our director, CJ, over at Something Random Media for getting everybody together to do these!

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American Horror Story: Freak Show

(Edit: I’ve added in the more recent couple posters to this post, in order to bring them all together for you guys into one epic AHS:Freak Show post. The one starting us off is a recent re-design on the original that I did in black and white. I was hoping to just change it up to include the new hashtag and real release date — had a fifty fifty chance, sorry — and it pains me that I didn’t see the potential originally, because this one is awesome. )

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Freakshow Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show : Beauty

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown

American Horror Story Freak Show Abracadabra

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AHS-Nails-2So I’ve spent a couple looong days working on this project with my buddy CJ from Something Random Media. Of course it’s just a fan project. American Horror Story has a really immersive and rabid fan-base. That — in addition to the ultra-stylized and image-heavy marketing promos FX releases for each season — pushes a lot of fan speculation on both promo videos, as well as their own posters. Because CJ and I are so passionate about photography and video, we thought we’d toss our hats in to up the fan standard (and, if we’re honest, maybe fool a couple people!) We’ll be posting some behind the scenes type info about how we did certain elements, and we’ll be posting more posters and videos in the coming weeks as we execute more ideas. So definitely stay tuned. But do let me know what you think in the comments section down below! And then a couple wallpapers for you too. Because I’m a photoshop addict. American Horror Story Freak Show Title Card

American Horror Story Freak Show Beauty Wallpaper

American Horror Story Freak Show Clown Wallpaper

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AHS-Nails-Wallpaper

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Unsettling

Another quick rundown of the last few days of 365 photos, where I focused on a bit of a different style, lightening the blacks and playing with the more surreal and the more disturbing. 29C-Headless-For-Web

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Creepier Things

Thought I’d toss up some of my portrait-a-day shots for my 365-day photo challenge. A big part of my plan this month was to dive into creative/conceptual photography and do some really cool, subtly supernatural, eerie type of photography, and slowly build a photoshopping skillset. My first forays blew my mind a bit.

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American Horror Story: Coven – “Boy Parts” Review

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Following the smash premiere of the third season of “American Horror Story” (the numbers registered at five and a half million viewers, more than doubling season two’s finale), episode two, “Boy Parts,” hits the ground running, as the season’s plots begin to take off (like a witch on a broomstick, perhaps?). But I’m already starting to wonder… what’s on the way? Check out the full review over at ParanormalPopCulture.com  http://www.paranormalpopculture.com/2013/10/american-horror-story-coven-recap-boy.html

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