Thursday, 30 October 2014

2014 Halloween Blog Series, Part One

As you'll no doubt be aware, today is October the 30th: a date known around the world as All Hallows Eve... Eve. It's when the witches are scrubbing their cauldrons, the vampires are checking their reflections (and swearing a bit), the werewolves are consulting lunar calendars and adjusting their costume accordingly and the giant helmets are being hoisted into the sky on big invisible cranes.

To celebrate, we've chosen All Hallows Eve... Eve as the starting point for a special series of blogs. If Halloween is about the annual influx of the Gothic into popular culture (with costumes, parties, and the odd dodgy cinematic cash-in) then there's no better time to think about the way in which modern popular media itself marks the occasion of Halloween.

So, in the first of a series of blogs, GRG regular and first year PhD student, Mary Going, is going to begin looking at how a classic of modern 'Gothic' television takes up the opportunities offered by the 'Halloween Episode'.


Halloween and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part One

by Mary Going 

For those of you who are, somehow, unfamiliar with Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS, 1997-2003), or who perhaps simply want to revisit the show, Halloween is the ideal time to get (re) acquainted with Buffy, the Scoobies, and the wealth of gothic and horror tropes exploited by the series.  Since it first appeared on our TV screens in 1997, BTVS has become a cult classic.  The show spans seven seasons, inspired a spin off series (Angel, 1999-2004) along with several comics, and there are still plenty of BTVS references to be found scattered amongst our current TV shows:

(The Big Bang Theory, S06E21)

So what makes a series about a teenage girl come vampire slayer so enduring? And, more importantly, what can its Halloween episodes tell us about the progression of Gothic and horror tropes into the twentieth century?

Everything’s switching; ‘Halloween’, S02E06

The first of three Halloween episodes of BTVS (occurring in the second, fourth and sixth seasons) is simply titled ‘Halloween.’  BTVS is a series where the extraordinary – vampires, magic, and the supernatural – appears alongside the ordinary, and arguably within the fictional world of the show, it is the ordinary.  However, this episode playfully challenges the expectations of a Halloween episode within the supernatural TV genre. 

At first glance, this episode is about the American tradition of Trick-or-treating.  Buffy, Willow, and Xander are roped into some seasonal volunteering by Principal Snyder, and help out by taking groups of local children Trick-or-treating around Sunnydale: cue lots of children, and lots of Halloween costumes.  But, in a show with ‘vampire’ in the title, where are the creatures of the night? Or, at the very least, where are the supernatural monsters that the premise of the show, and the backdrop of Halloween in this episode, seems to promise?

This all too apparent lack of the supernatural is quickly accounted for.  Halloween, Buffy explains, is ‘the one night a year thing’s are supposed to be quiet for me,’ and according to Giles, the viewer is told that ‘tonight is like dead to the undead. They stay in.’ Traditionally, Halloween is night where the dead are thought to walk the earth, and we may appreciate Xander’s reaction this unconventional take, as he exclaims, ‘Those wacky vampires.  That’s why I love ‘em.  They just keep you guessing.’

The relationship between Halloween and the supernatural is immediately destabilized.  Of course, this is a key feature of the Gothic novel, where the boundaries of the real and the fictional, the natural and the supernatural, the human and the nonhuman are continually challenged and blurred.  Yet even this unconventional notion, that the undead stay in on Halloween, is itself challenged through the episode as a spell is cast, the result being that ‘everything’s switching. Outside to inside.’  Or in other words, the wearers of costumes bought from one particular store literally become the costume they are wearing.

Willow becomes a ghost; Xander turns into a macho army soldier; and all of those innocent children out Trick-or-Treating transform into little monsters.  Moreover, in this destabilized space, Buffy, the vampire-slaying hero(ine), who literally fights her own battles, metamorphoses into an eighteenth-century girl who proceeds to spend much of the episode cowering behind various people.  This ‘new’ Buffy quickly reveals herself to be a caricature of the traditional Gothic heroine.  Whedon’s heroine is made to verntriloquize an outdated view of women, and his vampire slayer ironically states ‘I wasn’t meant to understand things.  I’m just meant to look pretty, and then someone nice will marry me.’  Buffy even channels Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794) by appropriately swooning at the first sight of danger.  

However, the danger for Buffy is that she is trying to be someone that she is not, and her image of an eighteenth-century noble woman appears strikingly out of place in the modern world.  Through ‘Halloween,’ Whedon is able to allude to his fictional precursors using the tropes of the Gothic, Horror, and the ghost stories and traditions surrounding Halloween, whilst also acknowledging the need to be constantly pushing boundaries and progressing forwards, not backwards.  

This episode plays with the supernatural expectations of Halloween, and in true Gothic style the undead are seen to both reject the assumption that Halloween should be a ‘big old vamp scare-a-balooza’ and also reject, for one night only, this rejection.  Similarly, Buffy is plays the roles of a traditional and a more modern gothic heroine, and at the end of the episode, we perhaps share her sentiment as she states, ‘you know what? It’s good to be me.’



Mary Going is a first year PhD student in the school of English, working on eighteenth-century Gothic. The odds on a musical 'episode' of the GRG, incidentally, are so far undisclosed.


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