The problem with doing a series retrospective on a show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t the fact that it’s hard to find a spiritual connection, but that it’s hard to choose which spiritual connection to go with. Joss Whedon is a self-proclaimed atheist, yet he is also the perfect case study for the fact that God is “hardwired” into men’s hearts. If we are created in God’s image, then much of His character and essence is part of the fabric of our being and will come out in our art. In an episode of Alias, Sydney Bristow was exhorting a dying man to give her some information. She says, “I don’t know what your beliefs are. If you have a faith. If you expect that something follows this life. You might have none. But if there is a chance that there is something else, that we face the consequence of our actions in this lifetime . . . this is your last chance to do what’s right.” That pretty much summarizes much of what was the core theme of BtVS.
When seen as a whole, which is easily done now that the show is out on DVD, one can see that Joss Whedon has woven an entire theological and redemptive model into the show’s mythology (and it bears little resemblance to the eponymous movie that spawned it). The theology of the show starts by acknowledging the reality of evil. One of the best things about the horror genre is that it most starkly, of all genres, paints in hues of Good versus Evil. That conflict is not only at the heart of all stories, it is the universal story. We live in a world of suffering and sin. Taken to an extreme point would be Buffy’s hometown, the ironically named Sunnydale, which sits on a Hellmouth, a symbol of life as a portal between one reality and the next. It’s a convergence of mystical forces that serves as the excuse for monsters to appear so commonly. Not only is evil real and accepted, it is meant to be opposed.
Another tenet of this theology is that evil is the fault of the evildoer. People, and demons, have choices and are accountable for them. One of the best things that the show does is show the consequences of people’s actions, typified by this exchange between Buffy and Giles:
“I told one lie, I had one drink.”
“Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words ‘let that be a lesson’ are a tad redundant at this juncture.”
Not only is evil to be opposed, but it can’t be opposed with evil, because that only strengthens the cause of evil. Evil must be opposed with good. The show does interesting things with the idea of redemption and forgiveness. Those that at different times have given in to the dark forces? Angel, Faith, Willow, and Spike?have to be redeemed, and then they set about to atone for their sins. These are not presented as easy paths, nor is forgiveness easily earned.
From the beginning, Buffy Summers is set up as a messiah figure. She is, after all, the Chosen One: “Into each generation a slayer is born. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One. One born with the strength and skill to hunt the vampires, to stop the spread of evil.” She has been given a cup that she doesn’t want to drink from: her mission, her calling, is one she would rather run from or ignore rather than embrace. It’s not wrong to long for a “normal” life. Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero Has a Thousand Faces, would call her the prototypical reluctant hero, in the tradition of Frodo or Luke Skywalker. It’s tough for a teenager to be burdened with the idea that she’s the fulfillment of prophecy:
1) as the slayer/Chosen One and
2) that she is destined to die. This idea of responsibility for others, using your special abilities for the sake of helping others, sets the course for Buffy’s role in the show.
Though Buffy is one in a line of slayers, what sets her apart from all the other slayers, the isolated heroes of their times, is her friends. Dubbed the “Scooby Gang,” they are her closest friends, a fantastic foursome of Buffy (the slayer), Willow (the witch), Giles (the mentor), and Xander. On the surface, Xander seems the odd man out, capable of little more than wisecracks. But only in the seventh season is his role fully defined: he’s the heart and the vision. It is the fact that Buffy is grounded in love?love of her family and friends, that she has a community and is not as strictly isolated as previous slayers?that makes her great. Theirs is the power of presence, a power that literally proved to be the tide turner in the climactic battle in Season Four.
For the first three seasons, the show played on the metaphor of high school as hell. Themes of humiliation, alienation, confusion, and loneliness taken to the proportions of the demonic. Buffy is like Spider-man’s alter ego, Peter Parker. She has these cool powers, but is burdened with this overwhelming sense of responsibility. She struggles with school life, and her personal life, but she has the hero part down. Still, she was misunderstood, even mocked, by those she was there to save. Nor were her friends, her disciples, the cream of society’s crop. They were the nerds and outcasts of the world.
The show is a meditation on death (“I live in the action of death,” the Primitive, the first slayer proclaims) and the afterlife (Angel had been consigned to hell for a time and Buffy brought down from heaven, with vampires and other demonic forces trapped somewhere in between). Horror revolves around not only the idea of death, but exploring the very real human fear of it. When told that she was prophesied to die at the hands of her enemies, she had her Gethsemane moment of reluctance, then went willingly to her death. Upon her resuscitation, she was more powerful than ever. In a later episode, she descended into hell to free some captives. Death and resurrection are constants in the show. The whole idea of vampires is wrapped in these notions and steeped in religious imagery. It’s as if God is ever-present, yet off camera. In one episode, “School Hard,” a vampire says “This is the most fun I’ve had since the crucifixion.” Think of the iconography of vampires as true anti-Christ figures: they are people who die and three days later are resurrected and, through the sacrifice of blood, born into eternal life. They can be killed by a wood stake through the heart, by holy water, or by the sun’s light. The cross is lit
erally Buffy’s salvation.
Spirituality as commonly practiced in our Western, individualistic mindset has been about one’s personal salvation. While preaching a “gospel” of honor, loyalty, and friendship, Buffy exemplifies a less self-centered mindset: she’s out to save everyone. While she lives by Mr. Spock’s code from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” she goes out of her way to save even the one, “not willing that any should perish.” Whereas the BtVS spin-off, Angel, has redemption as its central focus, at the center of Buffy is the theme of sacrifice. This culminates in Season Five. The “Big Bad,” as the major villain of each season is sometimes called, is a mad god named Glory. She seeks to bring down the walls that separate realities, in essence, break down the gates of hell. The blood of the “savior’s” family line is needed to stop the ritual. Rather than sacrifice her sister, Dawn, which was intended, Buffy sacrifices herself. self-sacrifice, rooted in love, is the only act to bring salvation.
Season Six examines the ramifications of Buffy’s condescension from heaven. What am I talking about? As the season opens, Buffy is dead. Dead and buried dead, not the technically her-heart-stopped-beating dead of Season One. Her friends set out to rescue her soul from hell. While the precedent had been set, Angel had been consigned to hell (expected, since he did spend over two centuries as the scourge of Europe), you kind of have to ask yourselves what your friends must think of you if they assume that at the moment of your death, you must be in hell. The arrogance/naivete of such an assumption has tragic consequences as her friends succeed in yanking her from “heaven.” This is reminiscent of what is called Jesus Christ’s condescension in Philippians 2:5-11?the idea that God would take His essence, wrap Himself in human likeness, and humble Himself by coming from heaven to be like one of us on earth. However, Buffy is not Christ, and being yanked from “the powers that be” (the stand-in for God in Whedon’s mythology) sends her into a tailspin, and the darkest season of the show (though it did produce the greatest episode of the series, the musical Once More with Feeling). Part of this is the realization, or acceptance of the fact, that part of the burden of her chosen calling is the fact that it will always cut her off somewhat from those around her, even her family and friends. Because there can be only one, only one to make the tough decisions with no rule book to guide her.
Only one, until Season Seven.
In this, the last season and a return to a lot of what made Buffy great, Buffy goes missional. The “Big Bad” of the season was actually a villain let loose in Season Four: the First, the original evil. During the course of the season, Buffy and her compatriots come to realize how overwhelmed they are: the nature and perniciousness of this evil is too pervasive. The plan that they come up with involves drawing on Buffy’s essence. The mythology of the show tells us that only one slayer can operate at a time, but there must be many potential slayers at any given moment since, should the current slayer die, one must rise to take her place. The Scooby Gang in essence lets loose the “Holy Spirit,” a scene very much reminiscent of Pentecost, activating all of the potentials to carry out their divine mission. Buffy as Christ figure is still present, especially in the series finale as her side is pierced by a sword and later the shadow of a cross forms on her blouse.
Buffy is in the line of “The Suffering Servant.” Hers is a life of constant struggle. Hers is a life that by necessity forgoes any hope of a true personal life. Another hallmark of the hero’s journey is true love denied or sacrificed, in this case, the doomed romance of Buffy and Angel. Think Romeo and Juliet, if Romeo was undead and Juliet was given the charge of killing him. She loses family (her mom) and friends (Ms. Calendar, Tara, Anya). She loses her life both figuratively (her life, due to her calling, is no longer her own) and literally (she dies, twice). She is called down from the peace of heaven for the sake of her mission and humanity.
What I don’t want to be lost in all of the analysis is the fact that the main reason that Buffy the Vampire Slayer worked for so long is because of its great writing, great acting, and great dialogue. It is one of the wittiest shows, full of pop culture references and witty repartee, to ever hit the airwaves. However, in a lot of ways, BtVS is a truly postmodern religious experience. What we ultimately learn from Buffy is that true spirituality is about the journey. On the show, everyone is on a journey and along the way, the characters increase in complexity if not likeability. But it’s the journey itself that shapes them, not the distance not even the destination or completion of the goal or defeat of the villain. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is in essence, a parable with Buffy as messiah, the Scoobies as her church, and the demons as the temptations of life. Or, as Willow says (in the episode “Lie to Me”), “The dark can get pretty dark. Sometimes you need a story.”
The Complaints from the “Religious Right”
As with many things, there are those who cannot watch shows like Buffy. They have defined what lines they cannot cross for themselves insofar as what they can watch and handle. That is fine. This becomes less fine when they define their lines as the only “proper” lines that everyone should follow. The chief complaints center around two things prevalent in the show: the use of magic (the occult) and sex. But let me start off by saying that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not a Christian show. It doesn’t espouse a Christian cosmology (not a Christian version of creation, demons, or the afterlife), but it does leave much open as springboards for dialogue.
The show embraces a reality that we would more comfortably like to deny: we live in a mystical world and there are spiritual forces in play. Too often the show is seen as not being a true battle of light versus darkness, but as using the occult to banish the occult, evil to fight evil. One of the things overlooked is that our very existence is defined by a battle between our own “good” (our spiritual selves) and “evil” (our human nature).
Magic, like many other concepts in the show, is symbolic of other things. At times it has been a symbol of growing romantic or sexual interest (as in Willow and Tara’s relationship). Sometimes it has been used to explore the nature of addiction (including Willow falling in thrall to a magic “dealer”). It has been a symbol for the nature of absolute power to corrupt absolutely (as in Willow’s “Dark Phoenix” storyline that culminated season six. As
an aside, it is no accident that I reference the “Dark Phoenix” storyline taken from the X-Men comics. Joss Whedon is not only a huge fan of comics, and currently writes Astonishing X-Men, but patterned the character of Buffy on one of his favorite X-Men, Kitty Pryde). The main lesson always presented is that magic isn’t something to be trifled with or approached lightly. It’s very real and very dangerous. And the show has always been clear on one thing: it is not moral to use evil, to use the powers of darkness, even to a good end. This is a constant source of temptation and the show never shied away from discussing the attraction of the darkness. Faith, another ironically named vampire slayer, succumbed to this temptation early on, falling in love with her power and the thrill of combat.
And there is the idea of consequences.
Magic is something that Willow started to dabble in during Season Two in order to contribute something to this ongoing fight against evil. In Season Six, she pays the consequences of such dabbling.
There are positive lessons to be learned from Wiccans. Thoreau said that with a keen awareness of the natural world one could find truth. God has created all things and declared them “good” (even “very good”). We’ve abandoned the a sense of “creation spirituality” from our spiritual walks, so it’s little wonder why people return to older religions in an effort to reclaim it. All spiritual people should enjoy God’s creation, embracing it the way God intended for us. We need to recover the mystical part of spirituality, learning to exist in harmony with God, others, and creation.
Then there’s the sex. By the end of the third season, all the major characters have lost their virginity and in the fourth, Willow engages in an ongoing lesbian relationship. Sex, especially repressed sexuality, is commonly linked to horror. That being said, sex not only plays out as a metaphor on the show (beyond its own titillating aspects) but the show does something that few others do: deal with the consequences of it. When Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, the consequences are tragic. Angel turns evil, first becoming a cad, the typical guy who doesn’t call the next day, before fully returning to his murderous self. And as his return to evil plays out, Buffy is forced to kill him and send him to hell. When Oz, Willow’s one-time boyfriend, runs around with a female werewolf, he realizes that one cannot live totally in thrall to one’s desires without leaving wreckage in the wake.
Look at the lexicon of the show: heaven, hell, the apocalypse, souls, evil are all taken as givens. The show, while never preachy, is a series of cautionary tales about what happens when you go too far, too fast. It is also a show that rewards a viewer’s patience and intelligence: none of its themes are tidily wrapped up within the hour, and some take episodes, if not seasons, to play out. It is simpler to live in a black-and-white world, to have a series of rules to live by. Living in the freedom of the gray areas is uncomfortable. The show refuses to take the easy route. A lot can be learned about how to tell stories, the use of visual imagery, and even the power of dialogue from watching the show. In this media-savvy world that we live in, the show resonates because it allows culture to infiltrate it, digesting and absorbing it, then turning around and infiltrating culture.
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