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'American Horror Story'

The returning drama premieres Wednesday, Oct. 9 at 10 p.m. on FX

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Jessica Lange is once again clad in black and doling out painfully severe punishment on the set of FX’s American Horror Story. But while last year she portrayed the severe nun (and caning enthusiast) Sister Jude on AHS: Asylum, this go-round Lange stars as the glamorous Fiona, a powerful witch (and couture enthusiast). Standing on the New Orleans set of AHS‘ latest incarnation, Coven, Lange lectures her young student witch Madison (Emma Roberts) about a recent public display of magic that went awry. ”You were a sloppy little witch bitch,” chides Fiona, decked out in a Gucci peplum dress. ”And sloppy’s going to put us all in jeopardy.” Counters Madison, ”Go to hell, you stupid hag!” With a casual flick of the wrist, as if she were swatting away a fly, Fiona sends Madison flying across the room into the wall. No cutesy Bewitched-style nose crinkles in this world. ”I just came up with that this morning,” Lange says later of the magical hand gesture. ”I thought maybe the best thing is just to keep it as simple as possible and make it like a mother scolding a child. I don’t want to make it into too much hocus-pocus.”

Don’t worry, Ms. Lange — when it comes to American Horror Story, too much is never enough. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s acclaimed, devilishly outlandish anthology series — nominated for a field-best 17 Emmys this year — is rebooting once again with a fresh premise (witches living in modern-day New Orleans) and several returning cast members (Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters, Taissa Farmiga, Denis O’Hare) in new roles. While last season, set in a 1960s mental asylum, was unapologetically bleak (see: a legless, boil-covered dying Chloë Sevigny crawling toward a playground of children), Coven will be a little more fun. Says executive producer Tim Minear, ”I would say it’s not as grim…. It’s definitely horror and it’s definitely intense. But there’s more of a wink.” (Case in point, the first episode is called ”Bitchcraft.”) New faces this season include a stellar roster of actresses: Roberts, Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett, Patti LuPone, and Kathy Bates. But one thing hasn’t changed about AHS: the level of secrecy employed by Murphy and his team…even for those stars who came to the table with an Academy Award. ”I’ve only read the first four [scripts],” says Bates, who asked her friend Lange last year to lobby Murphy for a job on the series. ”I have no idea where it’s going to go, but it’s just a kick-ass season.”

As with the previous installments, the idea to tackle witches came from Murphy’s wild imagination. But the topic also seemed a natural fit given the show’s ongoing theme of female empowerment. That said, adds Minear, ”female power doesn’t always necessarily mean good power. I mean, Dorothy’s great, but the Wicked Witch of the West is awesome.” In Coven‘s universe, the WWOTW would be Lange’s Fiona. Labeled a ”Supreme” for her mighty magical abilities, Fiona is witch royalty, descended from Salem, Mass., spell casters.

The murder of a young witch near New Orleans inspires Fiona to return home from L.A., where she’s been living the high life, and reunite with her estranged daughter, Cordelia (Paulson), the headmistress of Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies. (Like an all-girls Hogwarts, the school has been a safe haven for young witches since 1868.) The student body — and witchy bloodline — is dwindling due to coven members who are fearful of reproducing and passing on their powers, as well as forces determined to destroy the lineage. Teases Minear, ”Let’s say that Miss Robichaux’s Academy is set upon by multiple outside adversaries.” One enemy faction is the voodoo witches. ”There’s sort of two formidable clans of witches in New Orleans,” continues Minear. ”The voodoo witches were there first, and the Salem witches fled to the South from the persecution of the North, and these two factions are ancient enemies.”

But before dealing with the external threat, Fiona and Cordelia must find a way to coexist. ”I think the key thing about Cordelia is she is completely a person who lives by the rules and by the book,” says Paulson, ”and Fiona is the opposite of that.” With the coven at risk, Fiona wants to prepare the girls for battle, while Cordelia would prefer peace. The pair also lock horns over their instruction of the school’s four remaining students: troubled teen star Madison, tough girl Queenie (Sidibe), enigmatic Nan (Jamie Brewer), and shy Zoe (Farmiga). In the premiere, Zoe enrolls after a tryst with her boyfriend turns dangerous and leads her to discover a unique ability. ”She’s kind of this sweet girl — except she kills people with her vagina,” says Farmiga, who’s returning to the series after skipping season 2. The dysfunctional coven must survive not only one another and the voodoo clan but also a Tulane frat (Peters plays Kyle, a Greek who crushes on Zoe).

As in the first two seasons, Coven will juggle time periods, including the 1970s, when enrollment at Miss Robichaux’s was thriving, and New Orleans in the 1830s. This latter era is where we meet society woman Madame Delphine LaLaurie, a historical figure known for torturing her slaves. The Coven version of LaLaurie, as played by Bates, is equally terrible (she even uses slaves’ blood as wrinkle cream), which makes her an enemy of voodoo queen Marie Laveau (Bassett). ”The history of LaLaurie and the history of the voodoo witches and the Salem witches are entangled throughout the ages,” says Minear. The dark role is intense, but Bates says the real struggle has been the brutal New Orleans humidity: ”The downside is wearing 19th-century dresses in heat.”

But for this to be a true season of AHS, it has to get wilder than just witches. So how do producers plan to top their previous nightmare-inducing villains Rubber Man and Bloody Face? Well, there’s Spalding, the school’s dental-hygiene-challenged, long-haired, mute butler, played by O’Hare. Says the actor, ”Ryan approached me and said, ‘I got a part for you. It’s really weird. You’re not going to want to do it.’ I had him explain it to me and it was indeed really weird, but I did want to do it.” In addition to Spalding, there’s some sort of grotesque monster lurking about in New Orleans. ”Oh, we have something this year,” hints Minear. ”We have an iconic creature we’re creating, and it is connected to Kathy Bates’ [character].”

One thing Coven viewers shouldn’t expect is typical witch stuff (e.g., no brooms). Says Minear, ”We’re not doing Bewitched. We’re not doing Charmed. And we’re not doing Harry Potter. We try as best we can to do our own version of magic and keep it a little more horror-based and psychological. They’re not hurling fireballs or lightning bolts.” Even so, the young cast in particular is over the moon about channeling their witchy sides. ”I’ve always wanted to be a witch,” says Sidibe. ”I would use all of my witch powers to creep on boys that I like, to make people pay that hurt my feelings, to be rich. I would be so rich! I would sneak in and out of Beyoncé and Oprah’s bodies.” Adds Roberts, ”There’s something so cool about magic. I’m just going to say it: I feel like witches are the new vampires.”

Meet Coven‘s Crew

The Teachers

Descended from Salem witch royalty, Jessica Lange’s Fiona is a ”Supreme,” meaning she has mastered many powers. Her daughter, Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), now runs Miss Robichaux’s, a private school for young witches in New Orleans.

The Students

Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is sent to Cordelia’s school after her parents discover her magical traits. There she meets the three other students: the telekinetic Madison (Emma Roberts); Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe), a human voodoo doll; and Nan (Jamie Brewer), who can predict the future.

Old New Orleans

Coven will flash back to the 1830s, where we’re introduced to Kathy Bates as Madame LaLaurie. Says exec producer Tim Minear, ”She was a society woman, a slave owner, and a sadist.” Though she’s not a witch, her story will intersect with the spell casters’. But first she’ll come up against Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett), a voodoo priestess with a vengeful streak.

The Wild Card

Stage icon Patti LuPone plays ”another one of the outside forces that comes up against Fiona and the house,” says Minear, who hints, ”Not all the outside forces are supernatural.”