1997 was the year Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died; the year Microsoft became the worlds most valuable company; the year I watched Titanic six times and created a tiled poster wall in my bedroom. Pulled exclusively from TV Hits magazine’s special “Poster Power” issues, the wall reflected my fluid and discerning pop culture tastes. From Hanson to Party of Five, Leonardo DiCaprio to Savage Garden, these floppy haired heroes watched over me while I hogged the family phone line and chatted on MSN.
In pride of place on my poster wall was an A3 poster for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Against a swirling plume of red smoke, the heavy-browed Vampire-without-a-cause, Angel, eyes cast down, reached for Buffy’s neck. Buffy, blonde, lithe, in a tank-top, gazed coolly out into the distance. My parents hated it; the poster was tacky and just a little too intense for their daughter’s bedroom wall.
On the surface, a simple mix of teen-romance and horror, Buffy was Joss Whedon’s direct response to the trope of “the little blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed in every horror movie". Instead of a wan victim in a nightgown, the titular Buffy was a pretty 16 year old with an iron will, super-human strength, a quippy Clueless vernacular and a team of misfit friends. The series followed the “Scooby Gang” as they struggled to get through high school and college, all the while battling, and occasionally dating, an array of demons and vampires. A little (ok, a lot) silly, by the final season in 2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a bona fide cult hit, acclaimed by critics, academics and fans for challenging clichés and pushing the boundaries of the medium.
BUFFY: So lemme get this straight. You're ... (in Dracula's accent) "Dracula". The guy, the count.
DRACULA: I am.
BUFFY: And you're sure this isn't just some fanboy thing? Cause ... I've fought more than a couple of pimply overweight vamps that called themselves Lestat.
- Buffy vs Dracula, season 5, episode 1
As a fledgling teenager, nerdy with a big mouth, Buffy the Vampire Slayer sang to me. The show was gleefully camp, schlocky with terrible special effects. You needed pop-culture expertise to enjoy the throwaway lines, winking intertextual references and genre subversions. The regular concerns of teen dramas – popularity, prom, exams - were at turns amplified and downplayed as the Scoobies dealt with them in the wider context of their high school being built on a literal hellmouth. How do you live a normal life when the world around you is descending into the abyss? This overarching concern gave Buffy an adult-friendly depth, and paved the way for other genre shows like Lost, Battlestar Gallactica, and, of course, True Blood.
Buffy: So it was blue and sorta short.
Willow: Not too short, medium. And it had this weird, sorta fringey stuff on its arms.
Giles: What's that, a demon?
Buffy: A prom dress that Will was thinking of getting. Can't you ever get your mind out of the hellmouth?
- The Prom, season 3, episode 20
In Our Vampires, Ourselves, Nina Auerbach wrote “what vampires are in any given generation” is part of “what I am and what my times have become” – their vampiric traits mutable, reflecting social anxieties of the time. The Romantics had the Byronic vampire, all swirling capes and dark eyes. Victorian vampires sent ladies into fainting swoons on chaise-lounges. In the early 90s we had Lestat, a throwback Byronic type played by the toothsome Tom Cruise in Interview with the Vampire. By 1997 we had Buffy, and the vampire genre shifted again. With a couple of notable exceptions, the vampires on Buffy were soulless, twisted reincarnations of their former selves – a little sassier than normal, perhaps. For the first time, they weren’t the interesting part of the story; just bodies for staking with “Mr Pointy” while Buffy’s meta-narratives of friendship and redemption began to unfold.
If, as Auerbach says, each generation gets the vampire it deserves, isn’t it great that we scored Buffy, a show Whedon created to celebrate "the joy of female power: having it, using it, sharing it"? Teenagers today have only just come out of the throws of a Twilight obsession, in which sucking on deer blood is seen as a curative to boring, middle-class life. Twilight’s vampires don’t behave like vampires at all: they’re beautiful, rich, conservative, peace loving, reflective (in both mirrors and mindset) and can walk in daytime with few problems. They make the world a better place, instead of, as Buffy’s vampires are wont, constantly trying to destroy it. With their limitless wealth and saintly lifestyles, Twilight’s vampires, are, theorist Angela Stapleford writes, “the American dream personified”, reflecting America’s current “fantasy of aspiration – a conservative, consumer heaven”.
Buffy, meanwhile, shows the failure of that dream. In Buffy, vampirism was a curse, and a world with vampires in it, it all boiled down, was depressing and hellish. In Twilight, over the course of four books about vampires and werewolves, no main character died. In Buffy, they died all the time, and sometimes, as in the case of Buffy’s mother, of natural causes. During the series, characters experienced sexual violence, addiction and depression, school shootings and terrible jobs in fast food restaurants. Having superhuman strength and magical friends didn’t stop pain, poverty or death.
Buffy: I was happy. Wherever I was... I was happy... at peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time... didn't mean anything. Nothing had form. But I was still me, you know? And I was warm. And I was loved. And I was finished. Complete. I - I don't understand theology or dimensions, any of it really... but I think I was in heaven. And now I'm not. I was torn out of there. Pulled out, by my friends. Everything here is hard and bright and violent. Everything I feel, everything I touch. This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that. Knowing what I've lost. They can never know. Never.
-After Life, season 3, episode 6
It sounds bleak, but it wasn’t. And for teenagers like me, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a salve. Finally a show that didn’t underestimate how funny, sad and true teenagers could be. Finally a show that knew life wasn’t a “very special episode”, ending neatly, with everyone happy, problems resolved. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, life is hell, inexorably leading to certain death, so you might as well not take it so seriously.
This feature was originally published in our August-September issue, 'Young & Restless'. Buy a copy of the print issue (or subscribe because it's cheap! You get free things!) over here.
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