Monday, 3 November 2014

2014 Halloween Blog Series, Part Two

Halloween doesn't necessarily end on the morning of the 1st of November. Much like Christmas there's a hazy afterglow: a period in which the festivities seem to linger whilst the world slowly gets back to normal.

 Of course, in the case of Halloween, this is less likely to involve messing about with presents or spending a bit more time with treasured family and far more likely to involve not being able to get all the fake cobweb stuff off the windowsill, working out who to give all the leftover lollipops and haribo to and wondering what on Earth to do with the giant pumpkin that's slowly decomposing across several of your front steps. 

Do not despair, however. The good things about Halloween have also remained with us, including the next installment in our special series of blog posts. So sit back, forget about recycling the pumpkin, don't worry about getting the fake blood out of the tablecloth (you won't be able to)  and let Mary take you back to Sunnydale:


Halloween and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part Two

by Mary Going

The fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BTVS) marks the expansion of the Buffyverse.  Angel leaves both the show and Sunnydale as he moves to a new city, L.A., and his new show, Angel.  Disconcertingly, this season is not only missing its friendly (and occasionally evil) vampire, but it also lacks the traditional backdrop of Sunnydale High and the school library.  Buffy, Willow, and Xander have all now graduated from high school, and the show therefore moves away from the library scenes familiar to the Scoobies and the viewer. 

Moreover, Giles is no longer Buffy’s Watcher in an official capacity, and he is also no longer the school librarian.  This may have something to do with the fact that the school is literally blown up at the Graduation ceremony that takes place at the end of the third season, which of course is the only way to stop an evil mayor who has transformed into a giant snake monster.  Physically destroying the school building, Whedon is able to signify, very dramatically, a move into the world beyond High School. 

 Don’t taunt the fear demon; ‘Fear Itself’ S04E04

Following on from the first BTVS Halloween episode, the second Halloween episode ‘Fear Itself’ depicts the seasonal activities of Trick-or-treating and pumpkin carving, along with the obligatory costumes.  However, these are all secondary to the main attraction of the episode: the haunted house. 

Carving jack-o-lanterns in Xander’s basement, the Scoobies discuss their Halloween plans.  While many of his friends moved away to university, Xander moved into his parents’ basement, and immediately his suggestion of a ‘second annual Halloween screening’ reveals the distance emerging between him and his friends.  Willow and Oz have another idea besides watching a film, and suggest a Scary House hosted at a university fraternity.  Oz plays up the Scary House experience, stating that, ‘You have to go through the Scary House maze to get to the party.  Which is usually worth getting to.  Those guys go all out.’

Haunted houses are an integral feature within horror and the Gothic.  Along with the abundance of haunted castles and houses that appear throughout Gothic narratives, the nineteenth century also saw a rise in the popularity of shows of phantasmagoria.  The growing attraction of these shows is largely due the success of the immersive magic lantern shows of √Čtienne-Gaspard “Robertson” Robert.  At these shows, audiences were treated to performances by live actors, with smoke and mirror effects and Robertson’s now infamous phantasmagoric projections of ghostly apparitions, which often took place in a ‘haunted’ deserted convent.  Here the building itself is transformed into a theatrical stage for a performance of terror. 

Fast-forward a few hundred years, and it is clear to see the influence of these shows in the ever-popular live action horror attractions and tours.  Perhaps one of the most notable to exploit this tradition of a performance of terror is the Saw franchise, which launched its rollercoaster ‘Saw-The Ride’ alongside the attraction ‘Saw-Alive,’ a live action horror maze.

So how does BTVS fit in with this tradition?  The Scary House of the Alpha Delta Frat is designed to be an immersive experience: every inch of the house is decorated (predictably) with lots plastic skeletons and cobwebs; there is a professional sound system courtesy of Oz playing realistic and (naturally) scary sound effects; and the pinnacle of this house of horrors is at the top of house, as the tour finishes in the attic with a bowl of peeled grapes.  As one Frat guy says, ‘blindfold chicks, and have them stick their hands in the bowl, and tell them its eyeballs.  They love that.’

Perhaps in list form this all sounds quite tame, but it is easy to imagine the enjoyable terror felt by a participant experiencing a strange house adorned with the appropriate scenery, props, and atmosphere.  And of course, as we already know from the first Halloween episode, and as this episode is quick to remind us, ‘Creatures of the night shy away from Halloween.  They find it all much too crass.’  So this Scary House has nothing to worry about from the supernatural.

However, this isn’t just any Scary House.  This is a BTVS Scary House, complete with a pentagram-styled icon copied out of a mysterious book, and an unlikely sequence of events that accidentally begins the summoning of the Fear demon, Gachnar. What could go wrong?

The Mark of Gachnar

As the Mark of Gachnar is triggered, the house itself is transformed into a living agent.  The house feeds off the fears of the terrified students within, trapping them inside and causing each person to experience their personal fears: ‘The house separated us.  It wanted to scare us.’  For Xander his fear is that his friends will ignore him.  Willow is afraid of losing control of her power as a witch.  Similarly, Oz is afraid of losing control over himself as he transforms into a werewolf despite the lack of a full moon.  Buffy’s fear is that she will be alone and abandoned. 

Trapped in a house literally haunted by their fears, their fears become real.  It is Xander who notes the all too real nature of the metamorphosing Scary House: ‘If we close our eyes and say it’s a dream…it’ll stab us to death! These things are real!’

The only solution for the Scoobies appears to be to leave the house, the question being how.  In a timely fashion Giles enters, literally bursting through the walls with a chainsaw and bringing along Anya dressed in a Bunny costume (if this doesn’t convince you to watch the episode I don’t know what will).  Together, the gang are finally able to summon the Fear demon Gachnar, and with much ado and a lot of fighting the Fear demon is eventually defeated.

Well, actually, the Fear Demon is defeated with very little ado and no fighting at all.  In fact, Gachnar is simply a few inches tall and, like most fears, he is easily squashed.  Before he is squashed, however, Gachnar is subject to ridicule as his little voice shouts ‘I am the dark lord of nightmares!’  Buffy laughs, Willow calls him cute, and Xander mockingly asks ‘Who’s a little fear demon?’  ‘Don’t taunt the fear demon’ Giles warns – apparently it’s tacky.  

The Haunted House in BTVS is equated with our own personal fears, but it seems to suggest that the power of fear is located in the performance surrounding them.  Certainly, the key condition required for any haunted house (and perhaps therefore our fears) is our acceptance of its performance, and our ability to immerse ourselves fully in the experience.  And Halloween is of course the ideal backdrop for the haunted house experience. 


Mary Going is a PhD student in the School of English, researching representations of Judaism in early Gothic literature. She'll have the leftover haribo if you won't want it. Not the pumpkin though. You keep that.

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