Graveyard Shift

All About The Real Life Inspiration For Kathy Bates's Butcher Character On AHS  

Melissa Brinks
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American Horror Story is known for melding historical fact with horrific fiction, and Kathy Bates's AHS: Roanoke character, Thomasin White, is no exception. Inspired by a variety of terrifying figures, much of the inspiration behind the character comes from Tomasyn White, the wife of Roanoke settler John White. She's largely absent from records of John White's life, leading to much speculation about what she was really doing when John White was exploring America and founding doomed colonies. 

The Butcher on American Horror Story, then, is primarily a fictional creation with real roots. Though the inspiration for Thomasin White may never have gone to the Roanoke colony, her absence from records allowed the writers of AHS to spin a wild story of witchcraft, sacrifice, and vengeance. The meta-narrative of Season 6 lets Bates's acting shine, as she delivers a performance that mixes history with fiction, obsession with vengeance, and dangerous instability together into a character that's difficult to pin down.

Here's all the real and imagined inspiration for one of American Horror Story's most chillingly evil characters.

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The Butcher’s Powers Come From An Irish Mythological Figure
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Photo: FX

Before she was run out of Roanoke by other colonists, The Butcher of American Horror Story was your average everyday settler. But, left alone in the wilderness to die, she was approach by Scáthach, a witch, who freed and saved her in exchange for her soul. It's this meeting, in the fiction of the show, that leads to the colony moving. But Scáthach herself is an interesting figure - her name comes from an Irish warrior woman and means “The Shadowy One,” giving her (and The Butcher) an interesting connection to classic myth.

While there's nothing in Scáthach's stories that talks about her being a witch or offering strangers pig hearts, it, like the inclusion of figures from history, serves to make the story even more compelling through its twisting of reality.

The Butcher's Strange Chant Comes From An Old Irish Song
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Photo: FX

To tie The Butcher even deeper to Irish myth, the lines that Agnes recites when acting as The Butcher ("Am an theine far gach uile chnoic. Am an sleagh catha.") come from an old Irish song called "The Song of Amergin." The lines of the song are echoed by The Butcher, who says them in English, "I am the queen of every hive. I am the fire on every hill. I am the shield over every head. I am the spear of battle. Who but I am both the tree and the lightning that strikes it."

The song these lines come from is about the reclaiming of a piece of land, just as the ghosts aim to do in American Horror Story. By having The Butcher and Agnes recite an Irish chant, the writers deepened the fictional Thomasin's connection to Scáthach and to real Irish lore.

Witchcraft Was Coming To Prominence In The Roanoke Era
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Photo: T. H. Matteson/Wikimedia Commons

Though the Salem Witch Trials had not yet happened in America, that doesn't mean that fears of witchcraft didn't exist. Witchcraft was considered heresy by the mid-1400s, and trials began in earnest in the 1500s, shortly after the Roanoke colony disappeared. Though the two events aren't related, it's clear that a fervor was whipping up around witchcraft, one that could easily be applied to an insular, uncertain, and religiously driven group like the European colonists.

While there doesn't seem to be any records blaming witches for the colony’s disappearance, mystery and persecution tend to go hand in hand. That's what makes the season work so well; while it might not be based entirely in truth, a character like The Butcher perfectly fits as a settler’s nightmare.

AHS: Roanoke's Bloody Massacres Weren't Far Off From History
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Photo: John Walter Wayland/Wikimedia Commons

Though the particular supernatural massacre of American Horror Story: Roanoke is fiction, it's based on real events. One of the theories behind the disappearance of the settlers at Roanoke is that they were largely killed, whether by Spanish forces or the Native tribes they'd attacked. Though other explanations for the colony's disappearance have become more plausible, Roanoke has been one of America's most enduring mysteries. So it's not surprising that pop culture often assigns the colony a more grisly fate when writing historical fiction.

When AHS turns the disappearance into a ghost story of vengeance and retribution, it's playing into the original legend by way of a modern twist. The foundation is there, just as it is for Kathy Bates' character, but the show infuses the fact with historical fiction.