Friday, 29 September 2017

‘In her mind, she's the central figure in a fantastic world beyond imagination’ – Considering Sunnydale as Buffy’s illusion

Concluding our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Six posts is another blog by Dana Alex, this time exploring 'Normal Again' and the idea that Sunnydale and the Buffyverse is in fact a delusion of the very normal Buffy Summers. You can read Dana's previous posts in this series including her exploration of Jekyll and Hyde in Season Three (which you can find here) and her exploration of Adam in Season Five (which you can find here). Don't forget to check out our other Season Six post by Mary Going discussing Buffy's final Halloween episode 'All the Way' (which you can find here), and don't forget to share these posts and your thoughts using the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

In this blog post I would like to shortly talk about the Season Six episode ‘Normal Again.’ I must admit that I have a love-hate relationship with this particular episode. It is one of those episodes that I love because it demonstrates the multiplicity of layers within the Buffyverse perfectly, yet I hate it because it is also an episode that I cannot forget as its plot completely overthrows the way I look at the entire show.

A short summary: Buffy is patrolling and is attacked by a demon – up until here, a normal day in the office for the Slayer. Yet, she suddenly finds herself as a patient in a mental institution. The audience is told that Buffy has been hallucinating for the past 6 years, constructed a world (Sunnydale) in her mind and is now stuck in this place. Back in Sunnydale, Buffy is asking herself whether Sunnydale is indeed only a made-up place, as she remembers that, when she first became the Slayer and started talking about vampires and demons, her parents sent her to a mental hospital until she stopped mentioning these creatures. She fears that she has never actually left the hospital and has ever since been trapped in her own illusion. Throughout this episode it is up to her to decide which “reality” Buffy considers to be real and in which universe she would like to live.

As a fan of the show, I do not want Sunnydale to be an illusion of the main character. And I know that there are quite a few reasons why it is not an illusion. But since this episode is one of the most controversial ones, I want to at least consider the rather unpopular opinion that Sunnydale is, in fact, only a made-up place in Buffy’s mind. 

There are many reasons that indeed convince me that the Buffy that we can find in the mental hospital is the real-Buffy and Slayer-Buffy is simply the ideal version that she created of herself. In this blog post, I will demonstrate those reasons that convinced me the most.

One reason is the fact that Buffy simply cannot die as she is, after all, the protagonist of her own illusions. In Season One, Buffy dies but manages to come back to live shortly after. At the end of Season Five, however, Buffy dies a second time but for a much longer period, before her friends bring her back into the world of the living. The latter is even addressed in the episode ‘Normal Again’ as the doctor says that she was getting better a few months ago before she got lost in her hallucinations again. In the episode ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Buffy sings about how her friends in Sunnydale took her out of a heaven, a place where she felt happy and loved. This place is most probably reality. Ever since she came back from ‘heaven,’ she constantly mentions how difficult has been for her to be in Sunnydale. The fact that she feels trapped in there could be understood as her being helpless and unable to escape this place on her own terms. Buffy is imprisoned in her own mind and can only leave the place she created temporarily.

In one particular scene in the asylum, Joyce tells Buffy that the only way to go back to reality is to get rid of her friends as they are the ones keeping her in Sunnydale. As mentioned above, it is her friends that will not let Slayer-Buffy die. But why is it that her imaginary friends will not let go of her? I have been thinking about this and even though this might just be my personal interpretation of it, I believe that it is the other way around: despite complaining that her friends took her out of ‘heaven,’ Buffy cannot and does not want to let go of them. I consider Buffy’s friends to be representing her personal needs and desires that Buffy can only satisfy in Sunnydale. Let me give you an example of what I mean:  The most obvious character to use as an example is Rupert Giles. As we know, Buffy’s real father is … well, let’s just say that he will not get a ‘Best Daddy in the World’-mug for Father’s Day. Thus, Buffy has created Rupert Giles, who represents the father figure that she urgently needs. This man, a Watcher, is literally taking care of her and is watching her actions at all times. Leaving Sunnydale would mean to leave her much-needed father figure behind. Each of her friends represent an aspect that is lacking in Buffy’s real life. The doctor in ‘Normal Again’ even validates this thought when he talks about the fact that Buffy only created Dawn to ‘to accommodate a need for a familial bond’ (S06E17). 

Another indicator for the fact that Buffy created this illusionary place is that throughout the series, we only learn very little of Buffy’s past. This might hint at the fact that she is desparately trying to repress her past entirely and thus created an imaginary place where she can seemingly leave this past behind her. Yet, a version of past-Buffy can still be found within her constructed world: Cordelia Chase. In a process called projection, Buffy has attributed her shallow cheerleader-self onto another girl, in this case Cordelia. By doing that, Buffy is clearly distancing herself from the girl she once was and does not want to be anymore.

As I have mentioned in the beginning, Buffy has created an ideal version of herself, which gives her a significant power. It is a common theory that The-Monsters-of-the-Week are merely metaphors that represent issues that young girls face during their teenage years. Buffy is literally fighting her demons that are embodiments of her personal fears. Her Slayer-self is able to overcome these fears easily, which her normal-self could not do. By incarcerating herself in her own imagination, she stays in denial of her weaknesses in real life and thus wants to stick to being the Slayer.  

The last reason that convinces me that Sunnydale only exists in Buffy’s head is that in ‘Normal Again,’ she is extremely aware of the fact that vampires, witches and demons should not exist in reality. This awareness is missing throughout the rest of the show. I know that many people have brought up this aspect over the years but it is indeed interesting that nobody in Sunnydale is ever questioning the fact that dozens of teenagers have died at Sunnydale High, that a candy bar turned every grown-up into children and that basically hundreds of demons walk about Sunnydale every single day. Sunnydale as Buffy’s illusion is therefore the only reasonable explanation.

At the end of ‘Normal Again,’ Buffy has to decide whether she wants to completely immerse herself in her hallucinations or whether she wants to face the real world. In the end, we know that she will stay in resistance towards any attempts to leave the world she has created in her mind and therefore stays in Sunnydale. What we will never know is whether this decision was the right one.

What do you think? Is Sunnydale only a made-up place in Buffy’s mind? Or do you want to hold on to the thought that it all real? 
You can use the hashtag #BuffySlays20, so that we can discuss this controversial episode.

Dana Alex is a first-year PhD student at Kingston University, London. She is interested in madness and asylums – may it be in literature, film, television or video games. Other research interests include vampires, postmodern Gothic, and she is a bit too interested in critical and cultural theory (honestly, this cannot be healthy). Dana would like to emphasize that she was certainly not using this blog as an excuse to re-watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Halloween and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Part Three

Kicking off our Buffy Blog Series this week, in our exploration of Season Six, we have a previously unpublished Halloween post exploring third and final Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  This is the third part of Sheffield Gothic's 2014 Buffy Halloween Series by co-organiser Mary Going (you can read part one here and part two here): yes, our blog may be haunted! As always, if you want to share your thoughts on Buffy and Halloween, or any of our previous posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

The final episode in the trio of Halloween specials of Buffy the Vampire Slayer occurs in the sixth and penultimate season.  This is the season that literally brings Buffy back from the dead, and the show itself is similarly resurrected onto a new TV channel, UPN, following a decision from WB not to renew the show.  

(Reactions to Season Six)
It is in this season that we are given the infamous musical episode ‘Once More With Feeling’ (we’ll get back to you on a Sheffield Gothic Musical) that inspired sing-along viewings and an album release.  However, this season also deals with a lot of darker themes.  Buffy becomes less metaphorical and more literal as it leaves behind childhood and moves more clearly into the realm of adulthood, addressing themes such as addiction, kleptomania, the consequences of misogyny, and death (and resurrection) are addressed.  Even mental illness is explored through the episode of ‘Normal Again’ as the very reality of the world of Sunnydale, that has become so familiar to Buffy and the viewer, is questioned.  As a result, the sixth season is often considered to be the darkest season of Buffy.

 I bet you say that to all the girls; ‘All the Way’ S06E06

So how does the final Halloween episode fit into a season that is undeniably so much darker in content that the previous seasons?  Moreover, how does this episode compare to the first and second Halloween specials?

This episode opens with a scene featuring the now obligatory Halloween costumes.  Giles has chosen a rather fetching blue Wizard costume; Xander is decked in the attire of a pirate; and Anya is dressed as an Angel.  Or more specifically a Charlie’s Angel, and the ex-Vengeance demon elaborates, this is a ‘special kind of angel called a Charlie.  We don’t have wings, we just skate around with perfect hair fighting crime.’

(Xander and Anya, dressed as a Pirate and Charlies' Angel)
Not everyone in this scene, however, has donned a Halloween costume, and there is an immediate sense that Halloween has lost some of its charm for the Scoobies.  The scene is set in the Magic Box, a shop now owned by Giles following a brief spell of unemployment.  And at this busy commercial holiday, the Scoobies have been roped into help.  The shop itself is packed with customers and children Trick-or-Treating, all suitably adorned in Halloween attire.  For Buffy and her friends, though, they are there to serve customers, hand out sweets to the children, and restock the shelves.

Naturally, this is something that Buffy tries to get out of.  As we have discovered through the BTVS Halloween episodes, an informal rule exists in the supernatural world whereby on this night ‘supernatural threats give it a well-deserved rest.’  Buffy cunningly uses her experiences in which this rule is broken to offer to patrol instead of helping out at the shop. Yet contrary to her wishes, Giles reminds her that ‘if anything calamitous should happen, history suggests it’ll happen to one of us,’ and Buffy is stuck in her retail nightmare.

However, history does have a strange way of repeating itself, and as the episode unfolds the unspoken rule of Halloween is, of course, broken.  It is interesting to note the difference between the previous Halloween episodes and the way this rule is broken.  The violation of this all important rule is typically brought about by magic – first by Ethan Rayne casting a spell over the costumes sold in his shop, and then by the accidental summoning of the Fear demon Gachnar. However, in the final Halloween installment, it is a group of local vampires who choose to disregard traditional Halloween etiquette; not magic, but simply a rejection of societal customs.   

(Dawn out with some boys, who are definitely not vampires, on Halloween)
Perhaps here, then, is the crux of the episode: the notion of choices and responsibility.  This is also fundamental to the season as a whole, as it addresses the liminal area between childhood and adulthood.  Aptly titled ‘All the Way,’ this episode follows the Scoobies and their decisions, or their struggles, with the concept of commitment and following through with their decisions in a more adult context.  Xander publically reveals his engagement to Anya, and then wrestles with the reality of this decision.  Willow and Tara struggle with their differing ideals of magic and its use as it begins to impact their relationship (foregrounding Willow’s later addiction to magic).  Buffy herself is revealed to be adapting to, or failing to adapt to, her role as a parental figure to her sister Dawn in the wake of their mother’s death.

But central to BTVS as a series is figure of the teenage girl, and it is through Dawn that this is played out.  Questioning her lack of Halloween costume in the opening scene, Dawn responds to Anya by stating, ‘Like I’m six years old? Halloween’s so lame.’ As the episode progresses, it is clear to the viewer that the teenage Dawn is attempting to appear as grown up, as adult, as possible.   

Disregarding her assertion to Buffy that ‘I’m not gonna be roaming the streets,’ this is exactly what Dawn ends up doing.  Rather than staying over at her friend’s house, Dawn and her friend Janice instead meet up with some older boys.  The group proceeds to prank some local houses, including throwing eggs and letting the air out of car tires, before heading over to the woods in a stolen car.

(Dawn and the not-just-a-boy-actually-a-vampire Justin)
What Dawn and Janice do not know, however, is that these boys are vampires.  The viewer is made privy to private conversations between the boys, out of Dawn and Janice’s earshot, as Zack first asks Justin, ‘what about, uh, you know, going all the way?’  This euphemistically refers to sex and the ritual of losing virginity (and innocence), which can further be regarded as a progression from childhood to adulthood.  However, unlike your average teenage boys, the predatory nature of these boys is emphasized through their vampiric identity.

Another scene reveals, again only to the views, Justin’s vamp face. The group is invited into the house of an old man for some special Halloween treats, and under the guise of helping him in the kitchen Justin sucks his blood.  Running from the house, Justin exclaims to Zack ‘Dude, that guy was rank,’ to which Justin replies, ‘Bet a spritz of Dawn would wash that right out.  So what do you think? Lunchables? Or should we go all the way and turn ‘em?’

Here, the previous comment regarding ‘going all the way’ is transformed, or perhaps simply its latent and more sinister nature is revealed.  The vampire, and the act of drinking a person’s blood and turning them into vampires themselves, becomes a metaphor for sexual consent.  While it does of course have ramifications for sexual relationships of all ages, sexual consent and virginity are specifically considered here within the context of the teenage sphere, as teenagers begin to explore their own sexual identities amongst a backdrop of various social pressures. 

This theme is crucial to many early Gothic novels.  Again, we can look back to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) where rape is a constant threat to Emily in the castle of Udolpho.  The threat of rape is, however, more explicitly portrayed through the Matthew Lewis’ The Monk (1796).  In this novel, the eponymous Monk exploits the disguise of his religious habit to seek out the heroine Antonia.  As his habit hides his true face (which we can compare to the vamp faces of Justin and Zack) he attempts to seduce and then rape Antonia, an act in which he is eventually successful.  

Returning to Sunnydale, Dawn and Janice are inevitably rescued by Buffy with the help of Giles, and Spike.  Giles interrupts Zack as he is biting Janice, and responds to the vampires retort of ‘Like you weren’t asking for it’ with the simple but powerful phrase, ‘I feel certain she wasn’t’ before staking the vampire.  Here, Giles is not only protecting a helpless victim, but he is also protecting her agency and ability to choose whether or not she is bitten, whether or not she is turned into a vampire, and whether or not she consents to sex.

Spike, too, gets involved in the fight.  Although a vampire himself, he berates the vampire gang for not following the rules of Halloween.  One vampire proudly states ‘Me and mine don’t follow no stinkin’ rules! We’re rebels!’ which seems to offend Spike’s vampiric pride.  Naturally, Spike quickly replies ‘No.  I’m a rebel.  You’re an idiot,’ and he then proceeds to kill the ‘rebel’ vampire with a crossbow. 

But again, like the episode itself, the focus within this scene is upon Dawn.  As her sister Buffy is fighting vampires alongside Giles and Spike, Dawn is left alone with Justin the vampire.  Physically pinning her to the ground, Justin attempts to pacify Dawn in an attempt to achieve his objective of ‘going all the way.’  Yet while Dawn agrees with Justin’s comment that ‘you like me too,’ her refusal to consent to his (sexual) desire is made clear as she stakes him.  In a way, Justin impales himself as he leans down to bite Dawn, who holds a stake in her hand, pointing upwards.  Nevertheless, the stake is undoubtedly in Dawn’s hands, and this understated act further reveals the key message of BTVS: women are not helpless victims to be killed off or raped: they can, and will, fight back.  
To return to the original question set out in my first post, what makes a series about a teenage girl come vampire slayer so enduring, the answer can be found here and in the previous Halloween episodes.  This is not a show simply about teenage girls, and this is also not a show simply about vampire slayers.  BTVS combines the two, as it is simultaneously a show about a teenage girl and a vampire slayer, meshing together the ordinary and the extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, to create a show that continues to resonate with audiences today. 

Mary Going is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield researching the representation of Jewish figures in eighteenth and ninteenth century fiction, and she is also co-organiser of Sheffield Gothic. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer. 

Thursday, 21 September 2017

“He wears cool leather coats and stuff”; The Origin of Spike’s Duster

Carrying on our Buffy Blog Series, which this week is exploring Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Five, we have Steph Mullholland's exploration of Spike and the Origins of his leather Duster. Check out our previous post on Spike by Holly Dann discussing his cockney accent in Season Two (which you can find here) and our other Season Five posts by Adam Smith who discusses whether or not Xander is a monster (for part- one click here, and part-two click here). And, as always, if you want to share your thoughts on this or any of our posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

*Apologies in advance for any puns. Couldn’t resist. 

Spike’s duster coat has been part of ‘the look’ since Season Two, so you may ask why this blog focuses upon the fifth season. Origins. We are introduced to Dawn, we learn more about the First Slayer’s cryptic warnings, and ultimately, we are left in Season Five with the most sobering of truths: “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it” and in the midst of all these beginnings, we end with Buffy’s death (again). However, one look that will never die is Spike’s duster and it is also in the fifth season that we are shown their bloody origins.

(Spike and his trademark leather coat)
Originally, duster coats were an item of protection at the turn of the twentieth century, its intention was to ensure mobility when riding horses or motorcars whilst protecting the wearer from the elements along the journey. It seems juxtaposed upon Spike as a vampire who brings death to be entrenched in an item of clothing whose function it is to maintain the boundaries of the body, to shield against wounds or marks. Spike’s role as “Big Bad” is also at odds with the hero figure in Western cinema who was the traditional wearer of the duster coat. The coat was also a unisex item of clothing, and true to this, Spike does not hesitate to take the coat from Slayer, Nikki, demonstrating the fluid nature of the garment. Spike’s wearing of the duster then takes on many ambiguous allusions, it does not “fit” his character as villainous vampire and yet to think of Spike without his coat seems impossible. After all, he confesses: "It's my second skin. It's who I am" (Angel, 5:20) - and fans would likely agree. Indeed, the aim of the blog is to show how the duster uncovers much more about Spike than just his (excellent) fashion sense.

(Spike taking the leather coat from Nikki)
We learn in Season Five, specifically the episode “Fool for Love” (5:7), exactly how Spike killed his second slayer on a subway train in New York in 1977 and took the coat from her dead body, but the sequence in which we learn this information shows yet more ambiguity in Spike’s character. Whilst we see Nikki’s death in flashback we also flash between the present with Buffy and Spike re-enacting the same fight so Buffy can learn how to avoid Nikki’s fate. At this point we have two very different Spikes; in the past he killed a slayer, in the present he moves in to kiss her. Drusilla even tells Spike in another flashback during this episode: “You’re all covered with her, I look at you and all I see is the slayer” (5:7). She is right, he wears the ‘skin’ of the dead slayer, just not the slayer she is referring to. Death may be on the Slayer’s heels, but Spike wears it upon his back.

If Buffy’s “ties to the world” are the people she loves then Spike’s tie in many senses becomes the duster. It becomes a part of him through which we access his inner feelings and his truths, some good and some bad. Tellingly, he does not wear the coat in the immediate episodes after regaining his Soul in Season Seven, it’s a reminder of his bloody past and the monster he was/is. In the absence of his duster during parts of the final season, we see Spike lose himself.


A telling reveal comes via Buffy-Bot after she exclaims “Spike, it’s Spike, and he’s wearing the coat!” (5:18). She is of course alluding to his attractiveness in the coat but this is only because presumably Spike has instructed this to be part of her programming, he wants - or at least thinks, that Buffy finds the duster (and by extension, him) attractive. In his duster, Spike imagines his chance to be happy with Buffy, despite his evils. In linking attraction to the coat in this way Spike cedes to its ambiguous quality; when he tells Riley “the girl [Buffy] needs some monster in her man” (5:10) revealing that he feels he is capable of being a man worthy of Buffy, and a monster.

(Buffy and Spike)
The coat is what Spike feels he needs to be ‘Spike’, which is interesting because he only got the duster relatively recently (in vampire age) – indeed, he coined the name ‘Spike’ long before the coat. Therefore, the coat is the part of him he needed in our present. Contrary to his own perception of himself as “always bad”, he is a little bit of both; good and bad. If the continued proliferation of ‘sympathetic’ vampires after the millennium are anything to go by, maybe he was the Spike we needed.

Certainly, the pairing of the duster and vampire swept us off our feet.

Steph Mullholland is a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her research interests involve skin within the Post-Millennial Gothic, self-fashioning (and fashionable!) monsters, and Gothic film and television. Like the best Buffy fans, Steph is Team Spike, and while she hasn’t murdered for a coat (that we know of), she does have her own folder of Spike gifs.