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Buffy the Vampire Slayer was famously “a teen drama…with vampires,” equally involved with representing realistic teens as with showing these teens fighting monsters and demons. Creator and show-runner Joss Whedon once said that his original conception of the landmark show came from an impulse to give substance to the buxom blonde so easily disposed of by monsters in horror movies.


To view Buffy, then, as a revisionist entry in the fantastical horror genre would seem apt. But it’s interesting to notice that it’s not the fantastical elements Whedon inherited from horror movies that are most revised, but the realistic ones. Buffy is original for focusing on realistic characters—their language, their psychological motivations, their humanity—as much as on their involvement in a fantasy world. Buffy is traditionalist in the horror genre, but innovative in attending to realism as readily as fantasy. And the show’s success as fantasy illustrates the importance of a strong sense of reality in effective fantasy stories.


To even begin to talk about a fantastical world, one has to seriously consider its relation to reality. There is reality as it actually exists; there is a facsimile of this reality as we experience it, projected into a medium that bends to the whims of imagination; and finally there is a fantasy world that makes certain alterations upon this facsimile. The latter two both take place in “fiction,” or the not-real. But the enjoyment of fantasy worlds always requires a groundwork of necessary plausibility. For us to go into a wonderland, we must first understand what a “land” is; for us to enjoyably follow the exploits of a superman, we must first know what a “man” is, and how the superman differs from him. One imagines passing through a series of doors into larger and larger rooms, the structural integrity of each subsequent room depending entirely on that of the former. Fantasy stories require of their audience two concepts of “the real,” one of which is “actually real” and commonly experienced in reality and another that is an abstraction of the real, which constantly references this common experience but which also has a certain imaginative malleability.


Also, one notices right away that the subtler the malleability of abstracted realities, the greater their artistic effect. While great fantasy stories make un-real claims upon literary projections of real experiences, the demands of their un-reality end up being really not very great. For instance, consider the dragon. Here is a creature quintessential to many fantasy worlds but the novelty of which rests entirely upon the combination of very normal creatures. Broken into parts, the dragon is a cat, a snake, and a bat. The dragon’s most fantastical attribute, breathing fire, is also an amalgam of two very normal things. We know of fire; we know of breathing. To suppose that something could breathe fire is not an exercise in recreation but rearrangement. Given these observations, does the dragon seem more or less real than, say, Blair from Gossip Girl, whose novelty occurs within the projected realities that fantasy uses as its substructure? Blair supposes a “new woman,” (and very effectively, too), whereas a dragon only supposes our old conceptions of fire, breathing, cats, bats, etc. and combines them. Whereas “realistic” stories rewrite history, fantasy is much more indebted to history as it has already been written.


The giant is a man whose bigness gives humanity a beastliness, makes him “other.” But his menace is his sameness, not his otherness. The vampire is the human form given aspects of certain parasites, worms, insects, and bats. But we are more frightened of vampires when they take the form of a man than when they appear as mists. Very little actual fantasy is required for a fantasy story, and subtle forms of fantasy are much more effective than those that go over the top. One could tell a story about a “normal day”—a character working in an office, fighting traffic, paying too much for lunch—and then have him bump in to only one unicorn, after meeting a thousand objects and people of everyday quality, and presto change-o, the story barrels headlong into fantasy. This is only a short stretch of the imagination, in some ways much smaller than to suppose an ordinarily fictional “something that could have happened but did not.”


This is significant to Buffy, because while the show would seem an “innovation” or a “revision,” it is really more a throwback, a return to form…


Dear reader:


Joss Whedon’s importance in contemporary pop culture can hardly be overstated, but there has never been a book providing a comprehensive survey and analysis of his career as a whole—until now. Published to coincide with Whedon’s blockbuster movie The Avengers, Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters (May 2012) covers every aspect of his work, through insightful essays and in-depth interviews with key figures in the ‘Whedonverse’. This article, along with previously unpublished material, can be read in its entirety in this book.


Place your order for Joss Whedon: The Complete Companion by PopMatters, published with Titan Books, here.


Spotlight: Joss Whedon
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