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July, 2004 : Essay:

What the Fang?

Confessions of a Buffy Virgin

I was the last person on earth who hadn't seen the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer. All my friends spent half their time watching it and the other half telling me about it. Whenever I attended a science fiction convention, I found Buffy panels in the program book and heard Buffy discussions in the hotel hallways. Everyone thought Buffy was the best thing since the invention of fiction. My interest evaporated like water on hot concrete. Surely nothing could be that good.

I thought my suspicions were confirmed when I saw part of the Scooby Doo movie, which starred Sarah Michelle Gellar, "TV's Buffy." Her acting was terrible, and she looked about as rugged as Karen Carpenter. Gellar didn't compare favorably to Kristy Swanson, the buff gymnast who played the title role in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (which predates the TV series, and which I'd seen when it was released in the summer of 1992). Gellar offered no reason to venture down into the dark, arctic cellar where I keep my TV.

Then one day the infamous Fry's Electronics opened its first Seattle-area store, and there I unwisely went. All about lay DVD box sets, priced lower than anywhere else, offline or on. "Why not get Season One?" I thought giddily as I raced around the superstore leaving burn marks on my Visa card. "If I hate Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I won't lose that much money reselling it." Then my checkout clerk said, "Oooh, I'm going to buy that, too. Buffy's the best show ever!"

Uh-oh.

Yet I completed the transaction. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

But I didn't want to badly enough, because months passed before I saw an episode, and then only when a friend forced me to. During his son's nap we caught the first episode, "Welcome to the Hellmouth," and the second, "The Harvest."

As "Welcome to the Hellmouth" opens, Buffy is starting her first day as a sophomore at a new school, after being expelled from her previous school for burning down the gym while fighting blood-suckers (all of which happened in the movie). Vampire slaying isn't a typical pursuit for a Valley Girl, but Buffy has no choice: she is "The Chosen One," fated to fight the vampires and other supernatural nasties that seek to destroy the human race. Being "Chosen One" is a lifelong career of considerable brevity, and it's also a secret; no one knows except Buffy and the vampires. They appear in Sunnydale when she does, and instantly start slaughtering students in her new school.

It turns out vampires aren't new to Sunnydale, which sits on a little-known geographic feature called a "Hellmouth." It regularly spews out vampires—except for their bloodthirsty boss, "The Master," who is trapped underground until events align to liberate him. All signs indicate it will happen soon. Of course. I found this rather tedious, and I wasn't impressed with the vampires' dumb face-distorting make-up (wisely not used in the movie), or with The Master, who looks like a down-market ripoff of Clive Barker's infinitely more disturbing Hellraiser villains. If these aren't problems enough, the Hellmouth cavern is an unimaginative, standard-issue Hell. Why, I wondered, was anyone raving about such cheesy, mediocre horror?

Newly arrived from L.A., Buffy is befriended by Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter), queen of the popular girls. If embroidering were fashionable, Cordelia would have a sofa cushion that said, "If you haven't a nice word for anyone, sit down next to me." Buffy is bothered by Cordelia's nastiness and starts socializing with two "losers," nerdy Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and awkward Xander (Nicholas Brendon). Smart, geeky, and fashion-backward, Willow evinces a believable social isolation. Xander just reminds me that in Hollywood, the most unpopular and/or "ugly" character is good-looking, but no one notices before s/he ditches the glasses or gets a new hairstyle. Buffy is a big-busted blonde knockout in hip L.A. fashions, but when she befriends the outcasts and almost drives a stake through Cordelia's heart, she earns Cordelia's contempt and seals her fate at Sunnydale High. It's the high school version of the fate worse than death (or vampirism): unpopularity.

The ruthless pecking order had me liking the first two episodes less and less. High school wasn't so much fun that I wanted its social inequities reenacted with brutal accuracy on the TV screen. But as Buffy alternated between powerless, humiliated high-schooler by day and powerful, deadly vampire-hunter by night, I finally began to understand the show's appeal.

In the story, the Hellmouth is a possibly unique supernatural/geographical feature, located directly under the fictional California town of Sunnydale. Symbolically and psychologically, however, the Hellmouth is high school.

Episodes one and two form a single story, in which Buffy makes friends who respect her secret; meets her new "Watcher" (teacher/mentor), school librarian Rupert Giles (Anthony Stewart Head); and tangles with a new top vampire. Both episodes were written by series creator Joss Whedon, a man so idolized that Buffy fans uniformly call him Joss, even those who've never met the man. I was amused but not surprised that the first two episodes didn't justify his enormous adulation. The high school scenes are witty, knowing, painful, and convincing. And, it must be said, Gellar proves to be a good actress.

But the horror is pedestrian.

Enlightenment

"Witch" changes that. The third episode (written by Dana Reston) replaces the hokey vampire makeup and generic Hell with genuinely creepy imagery from the start, as disquietingly dressed Barbie dolls are immersed by unknown hand in a bubbling, troubling witch's brew. One of the witch's curses steals Cordelia's sight by turning her eyes entirely white, while another seals a girl's mouth with smooth, featureless skin. Such images aren't just unusual and refreshing; they're primally disturbing.

The increased sophistication isn't confined to the imagery. The witch curses the students for a trivial, yet chillingly believable, reason: she'll do anything to get her daughter on the cheerleading squad. With "Witch," season one makes a sharp upward turn in accomplishment and intelligence: from now on, the horrors arise directly from adolescent concerns and fears.

"Witch" showed me why people adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The series does something that is rare not just on TV but in all media: it tells the truth. And it does so by a method that is even more rare, or, rather, rarely done well: it tells the truth by literalizing the perfect metaphors.

The Horror of High School

In "Teacher's Pet" (written by David Greenwalt), a gorgeous new substitute teacher is giving the boys the major hots, and she returns their flattering attention. Meanwhile, Buffy, stalking a vampire, witnesses it fleeing in terror from the teacher. Though she looks like a normal (if unusually attractive) woman, the teacher is a repulsive monster who preys in a dreadful, deadly manner on virgin boys. I hardly need to elaborate on the adolescent fears literalized by this episode.

In episode five, "Never Kill a Boy on the First Date," Buffy experiences the terror of a first date with a cute fellow student she really, really likes. Since she keeps having to slip away to kill vampires, and can't tell the boy what she's doing, she fears standing him up will make him lose interest. But at last they go out on a date. And, horror of horrors, he discovers her dreadful secret, though his reaction is nothing like she expects. He gets off on danger. This means they cannot be together, because Buffy will get him killed. Fear of rejection isn't unique to high school, but scripters Rob Des Hotel and Dean Batali focus on the anxieties of the first date.

Written by Matt Kiene and Joe Reinkemeyer, "The Pack" offers further examination of high school's pitiless pecking order. The new hyenas at Sunnydale Zoo have an unsuspected supernatural aspect, and their spirits possess the souls of a clique of high schoolers—and also of innocent Xander. Xander changes in despicable ways, while the clique—now his clique—becomes even more predatory. It's deeply disturbing to see a pack of vicious high schoolers with the social restraints removed; and it disturbs mostly because the difference isn't all that great.

In episode seven, David Greenwalt's "Angel," Buffy spends the night (chastely) with her unofficial mentor and not-so-secret crush, the handsome, mysterious man known only as Angel. A fear that's universal, but particularly keen in high school, is the fear that your beloved isn't what he or she seems. When Buffy discovers Angel is a vampire, not only can they never be together, they're also mortal enemies.

In episode eight, "I Robot...You Jane" (written by Ashley Gable and Thomas A. Swyden), Willow accidentally releases a demon from a medieval tome by scanning it into a computer. Now the 'net is possessed. Willow doesn't know that, though; nor would she care. She's met a guy on the Internet who really likes her, and accepts her as she is. She's never seen him, but she's never had a date and she's essentially ignored by Xander, the boy for whom she's hopelessly carried a torch for years (Xander, naturally, thinks of Willow as a friend and loves Buffy, who in turn thinks of him as a friend). Being duped by a deceptive chatroom "lover" isn't unique to adolescents, but, young and inexperienced, Willow is particularly vulnerable.

Written by Dean Batali and Rob Des Hotel, "The Puppet Show" features a fear hardly confined to teenagers: the creepy ventriloquist's dummy that controls its puppeteer and may also be committing murder. Buffy, Willow, and Xander find themselves forced to participate in an another horror, one almost uniquely high-school: the talent show.

Episode ten, "Nightmares," returns the storyteller's reins to creator Joss Whedon. A child in a coma makes other people's nightmares come true. Even more than the other episodes, "Nightmares" sounds like a Stephen King idea. The execution of the idea clearly isn't King's, though at their best both King and the Buffy writers expand their art to universal themes. The nightmares include some high-school classics, like taking a test you haven't studied for and finding yourself naked in class. Buffy's nightmares are even more devastating. And turning into a vampire may be less painful than having her father tell her that she caused her parents' divorce.

In the X-Files-tinged "Out of Mind, Out of Sight" (story by Joss Whedon) a student ignored by all the other kids and teachers becomes literally invisible. No one notices that she's vanished until she manifests her distaste for her situation, and especially for Cordelia, by taking up a very sharp scalpel... In a pleasing bonus, Cordelia finally shows a little depth, revealing her insight into isolation and the particular horror of being alone in high school.

Which is Worse?

The first season's twelfth and final episode, "Prophecy Girl" (written and directed by Joss Whedon), deals with the universal fear: death. Buffy's mentor, Giles, discovers an ancient prophecy that foretells the Slayer's death in atypically unambiguous terms. Buffy just wants to go to the Spring Fling dance, but The Master is going to kill her tonight, and she cannot escape her fate. She tries. She realizes that abandoning her responsibilities will kill her friends. She conquers her fear of death and returns to fight The Master. She dies.

Naturally, a show that's produced another six seasons hasn't permanently finished off its lead. But by walking boldly through the valley of the shadow of death and the valley of the shadow of high school, series creator Joss Whedon shines light on a host of darknesses that are often ignored by both television and society. Except for the first American Pie movie (which, interestingly, shares with Buffy the actress Alyson Hannigan), I've never seen a film or TV show that's as honest as Buffy the Vampire Slayer about the Hell of modern American adolescence.

Which is worse, really: fighting demons, or attending high school?


Copyright © 2004, Cynthia Ward. All Rights Reserved.

About Cynthia Ward

Cynthia Ward (http://www.cynthiaward.com) lives in the Seattle area. She has published stories in Asimov's SF Magazine (http://www.asimovs.com/), Bending the Landscape: Horror, and other anthologies and magazines, and has written articles and reviews for Amazon.com, Locus Online, and other webzines and magazines. Her market-news columns appear in Speculations: The Magazine for Writers Who Want to Be Read (http://www.speculations.com) and The SFWA Bulletin (http://www.sfwa.org/bulletin/). With Nisi Shawl (http://www.sfwa.org/members/shawl/), she has written the nonfiction guidebook Writing the Other: A Practical Approach (Aqueduct Press, http://www.aqueductpress.com/), which is the companion volume to their critically acclaimed fiction workshop, Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction (http://writingtheother.com). Cynthia is completing her first novel, a romantic SF mystery tentatively titled The Killing Moon.

COMMENTS!

Jul 21, 22:59 by John Frost
Comments on Buffy, or Cynthia Ward's discussion of the first season...
Jul 22, 00:55 by Niall Harrison
I completely agree that 'Welcome to the Hellmouth'/'The Harvest' is an uninspiring introduction to the series, and that 'The Witch' is leagues better. That said, I think the first season is one of the weaker seasonsl only four episodes of the twelve really hit the high notes, for me (those being 'The Witch', 'The Pack', 'Nightmares' and 'Prophecy Girl'). Other episodes are hamstrung by bits of dodgy plotting and some unfortunately shaky effects ('I Robot, You Jane' and 'Teacher's Pet' are particular offenders).

Other than that, all I can say is that if you've made it this far without finding out what happens next, watch season two as soon as you possibly can...!
Jul 22, 07:19 by Janine Stinson
The actress who played Buffy on the TV series is Sarah Michelle Gellar, unless she's suddenly changed her name order. ;) She has her own Website, too; I just Googled it.

Regards,
Jan S.
professional Pest
Jul 22, 07:40 by Janine Stinson
Now for something completely different....

Being an old phart at 48, I have a lot of trouble visualizing what high school was like for those who went through it in the 1980s and 1990s (and in the current decade). The high school I went to was only a few years old when I started 10th grade there, and the student population was primarily made up of kids from military families (military installations were quite prominent in the D.C. suburban area then), which meant most of them had moved at least four times before they got to high school. The early 1970s saw the continuation of the peace-and-love movement from the previous decade, and that perspective inundated my high-school years.

I cannot recall any bullies bothering me. I was friends with a variety of "clique" members, but no one was actively snobbish, as far as I could tell. The people I considered my closest friends were most likely to be called the hippie type, but not all of them dressed the part. My friends were readers, writers, actors, budding directors. The school administration was fairly moderate, as well.

I think this is the reason why "Buffy" holds no attraction for me. There's no connection between my high-school experiences and those portrayed in the TV series. I like the movie version better, but I wouldn't buy a copy for my personal movie library.

My experience of high school may sound like heaven (or a delusion) to some people. My greatest regret is that it wasn't the same experience for later generations of high-school students. I've always considered myself very lucky to have gone to that school.

Regards,
Jan S.
Jul 22, 08:29 by John Frost
The actress who played Buffy on the TV series is Sarah Michelle Gellar


Thanks Jan, I corrected the text. We like professional pests.
Jul 22, 08:40 by David Bratman
Although I'm a stone Buffy fan, I have a great sympathy for Cynthia Ward's position. It's one thing to watch a show as it's going on over a period of years; it's quite another to have to face what amounts to a two-week long movie (if you spent all day every day watching it, which I wouldn't advise) and try to absorb it. Most shows that I've missed when they were in first run, I never try to catch up on.

I also agree with an earlier poster that season 1 is far from the best of Buffy anyway. Season 2 gets much better, but even it is mixed. At a Buffy panel not long ago, the question was raised, what's the best single episode to introduce a new viewer to the show with?

And the best answer, I thought, was: a second season episode titled "Lie To Me". (For those who know the show but, like me, have trouble remembering titles, it's the one with Ford and the wannabes.) My advice to Cynthia Ward, and anyone in her position is: borrow a friend's copy of season 2 (we all have copies, of course) and watch that episode. You don't really need any background to follow it.

Then, if you're impressed, watch the whole season in order. Do not, under any circumstances, watch the finale, "Becoming", without having watched the rest of the season first: it derives its power from what came before. And perform bodily mayhem on anyone who threatens to tell you what happens.
Jul 22, 08:45 by David Bratman
I would also recommend that Jan S., posting above, watch "Lie To Me". This will show you how Buffy is about more than high-school cliquishness.
Jul 22, 15:22 by Nathan Blumenfeld
I was another Buffy virgin. I watched the first episode when it aired all those years ago and was not impressed. Then when everybody started loving it, I figured it must suck to be so popular. Finally, on a whim, I bought Season 1. I personally didn't like The Witch, but by the end of the season I had enjoyed the show more than I'd though I would, so I picked up Season 2, which is LEAGUES better than season 1 so far.
Jul 23, 00:46 by Farrell McGovern
Greetings:

If you find a lot of Buffy's Hellmouth in your high school experiences, you should check the Hellmouth series of articles on Slashdot.org by Jon Katz. Starting just after Columbine incident, it got huge responses...most computer geeks didn't have a good time in HS, and this provoked a facinating discussion. You can read the series here: http://slashdot.org/search.pl?tid=&query=hellmouth&author=7654&sort=1&op=stories

As well, I co-wrote a song about the whole Columbine incident, and you can download the mp3 of it here: http://stonehenge.homeunix.org/thecat

ttyl
Farrell
Jul 26, 06:21 by marilyn graves
Hi, I did not start watching Buffy till third season and grew to love it. I like the dark sixth season best. It does a good job of illustrating psychological conflicts through beastie action and I think has great emotional appeal. I did a book review of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy at the Metapsychology Online book review site a few months back. It is a good book. Marilyn
Aug 3, 12:28 by will Rinaldi
When I think Buffy, I don't think about high school cliques. For one, only 3 seasons were spent in high school. I've never seen the movie, and don't particularly feel the need to do so. But I have seen every episode of the series and its spin-off ANGEL. I have also followed Joss over to his short-lived series, Firefly. When introducing someone new to the series, I do like to start off with Lie to Me. It gives nothing from the first or second season away, but it is one powerful stand alone. Then I give them season 1, and sit with them through the first 4 episodes so that the quality is less painful. If, by the end of season 3, you are not in love with the series enough that you have to buy ANGEL and the rest of Buffy, just to see what happens to the characters, well, then, at least you gave it a shot. But I would not write it off until then. Unfortunately, I felt the quality of the show went steadily downhill after the writers spilt their time between the 2 shows, and later between 3 (that would be Firefly.) The 6th season was probably one of my least favorite seasons, with the 7th being the worst. Just not that much depth to them, and the dialogue was stale. But I never stopped watching, because you care about these kids, want to see them reach adulthood, and want to see the guys from ANGEL survive it. But in the Whedonverse, that doesn't happen too often. So buy the first 3 seasons from Amazon, though it may sound like a bit much at $90. A word of caution, though: Donít go on any website for the series, don't google it. You could have 12 seasons of show spoiled for you in 2 seconds.
Aug 3, 14:09 by Ed Oetting
Enjoyed the article. I started watching somewhere around Season 3 and was hooked immediately and obsessively. While ver far removed from my high schools years, I have enjoyed both the seasons set in HS and those as young adults.
Interestingly I have finally hooked my daughter on BTVS by watching the seasons backward(6,7,5) and, as she turns 21 this Saturday(yeah!), she has been reluctant to watch the early seasons because of a lack of interest in High School.
I have prevailed, however and we are at The Witch(great episode) in S1. In concert with several others, my favorite season is 6, but like others I strongly urge you to watch them all(and then get started on Angel).
Aug 3, 20:30 by Diana Lee
It's true that Buffy becomes about a lot more than high school and its terrors. The metaphor broadens into other areas, like first love, friendship and loss. Because the show is nothing if not about loss.

But even beyond that, the show is just purely enjoyable to watch. It's entertaining in the best possible sense of the word: witty dialogue, great characters (there's still Faith, Oz and Spike on the horizon) and even better, greater villains.
Aug 6, 10:37 by Terry Hickman
It's extremely difficult to figure out how to sell Buffy on someone who hasn't seen it. Season Two hits some of the greatest heights I've ever seen on series television, but you won't appreciate them as much unless you've taken the journey through the admittedly not quite as good Season 1. My only advice is to have faith that it will be worth it. If you still want to get off the ride by mid-way through Season Two ("Surprise/Innocence"), you probably won't ever enjoy it. My guess is by that point you'll be hooked. Enjoy.
Aug 12, 22:57 by Camden
My sister really loved it. As do most people who watched it at all faithfully. Yet I tried a few and couldn't get into it. I actually liked the movie though, weird huh?
Aug 14, 13:10 by Bluejack
Camden: that's my experience too. I fully understand the concept of using threadbare horror tropes as metaphor for teen angst and high-school power dynamics. It sounds great! But somehow the series just never caught me.

True: I haven't sat down with the first series and just started watching -- but I saw the first episode or two. I've watched an additional episode here or there, mostly later in the series.

Ah well.
Aug 28, 20:18 by Michele D
I was inspired to begin at the beginning, also a buffy virgin. In fact I even signed up at netflix so i could view all the seasons at a reasonable price. While awaiting the first disc, I watched a random rerun on tv - it was about kids in school who all thought vampires were cool and wanted to become vampires too. The leader turned out to have a fatal disease, and Buffy had to stop him from leading the others into disaster. (I'm confused, because the vampires did have goofy-evil faces, but this review hinted that those ended after episode 3.)

Bottom line, it was a stupid episode, and not the mythic genius I'd expected. I returned the first season disc to netflix unwatched. My question is: was that episode representative of the quality of the series?
Jan 28, 23:59 by Allan Rosewarne
some one with the screen name of brightcrow wrote the following
While awaiting the first disc, I watched a random rerun on tv - it was about kids in school who all thought vampires were cool and wanted to become vampires too. The leader turned out to have a fatal disease, and Buffy had to stop him from leading the others into disaster. (I'm confused, because the vampires did have goofy-evil faces, but this review hinted that those ended after episode 3.)

Bottom line, it was a stupid episode, and not the mythic genius I'd expected. I returned the first season disc to netflix unwatched. My question is: was that episode representative of the quality of the series?

LMAO. This cracks me up becaue the identified "stupid episode" is titled 'Lie to me'. The same episode at least three messages identified as being wonderful for its stand alone-ish excellence. I think I'm begining to see why Ann Landers is so amused by the Yalies that write phony letters to her

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