It's a pretty balsy move to chop off the head of an Academy Award-winning actress. But American Horror Story, the ever-changing, ever-shocking anthology series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, does not lack for swagger. It's a Monday morning in November on the New Orleans set, and witches Fiona (Jessica Lange) and Cordelia (Sarah Paulson) are standing over a cardboard box containing the decapitated head of the immortal sadistic society maven Madame LaLaurie (Kathy Bates). Bates cries out, "Heeelp meee!" while Lange and Paulson, who play mother and daughter, can't help but break character and crack up. "You're gonna be here alllll day," Lange drawls at the Misery star, who to create the effect for the Nov. 27 episode is lying on a table with a box over her head. But Bates doesn't seem to mind the tight quarters. ("Hey, Betsy!" she calls to the boom-mic operator chirpily from her prone position.) Later she says with a laugh, "I'm just hoping that they don't chop me into too many pieces, 'cause I'd like to stay on the show for as long as I can."
You can't blame her for wanting to remain in this Coven. The witch-centric show has become one of the most talked-about series of the fall, and the highest-rated installment of FX's franchise to date, with 7.4 million viewers. Where season 1 of AHS saw haunted-house owner Connie Britton gettin' it on with a man clad in a full-body rubber suit and Asylum had Lange playing a nun in charge of a mental ward where visitors included aliens and Anne Frank, Coven (Wednesdays at 10 p.m.) centers on the students and teachers of Miss Robichaux's Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. The school is a haven for descendants of the Salem clan, whose bloodline is dwindling in part due to an ongoing battle with the voodoo witches, as well as an organization of witch hunters called the Corporation. So in addition to learning how to master their powers, the sorceresses have had to contend with a frat-boy Frankenstein, zombies, and a mute butler with a baby-doll fetish. "It's a Grimm fairy tale pushed to the very outer limits of our imagination," says Bates. But there's a message inside this madness, explains Angela Bassett, who plays vengeful voodoo queen Marie Laveau: "We're touching on issues of race and ageism and youth."
The concoction has certainly proved seductive to viewers. Ratings are up a whopping 75 percent from last season at a time when most series are seeing their numbers drop. Says Twentieth Century Fox Television chairman Dana Walden, "This season the show broke into that category of zeitgeist. People are talking about it it's in the air." It likely helps that Coven's tone is decidedly more playful and its look more glamorous these devilish witches wear Gucci which was a conscious choice made by producers after the brilliant but bleak Asylum. "I just think it's more inviting," says Murphy. "A lot of people loved Asylum, but it was sometimes something to endure rather than enjoy. So I wanted Coven to be slicker and more fun." Adds Lange, who's been in all three seasons of AHS, "It's been wonderful to be able to play humor to have somebody as sharp-witted [as Fiona]." EW spent two days deep inside Coven's house of horrors for an intimate peek at TV's wickedly wild hit. All aboard the crazy train!
''To me, the more insane, the harder, the more challenging, the better.''
Frances Conroy has the Robichaux witches in stitches. It's early afternoon on Coven's soundstages, located in the lower Garden District, and the actress' eccentric character, Myrtle Snow, who speaks in high-snob and rocks a wild mass of crimped red hair, is leading a circle of spell casters, including Cordelia (Paulson), Zoe (Taissa Farmiga), Misty (Lily Rabe), Nan (Jamie Brewer), and Madison (Emma Roberts), in a ritual called the Sacred Taking. The women, clad in red capes and mantillas, clasp one another's hands in the living room of Miss Robichaux's and listen to Myrtle wax on about their ancestors. "Can you imagine those poor Salem witches, traveling all the way down here in covered wagons without a proper charcuterie platter or bidet? Absolutely savage..." Take after take, the actresses burst into laughter at Conroy's grandiose delivery.