'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' in the Fantasy Canon

In Buffy the Vampire Slayer Joss Whedon intentionally set out to blur the boundaries between genres, creating a show that was part drama, part comedy, part horror, part SF, and very definitely part fantasy. Here "Buffy" is analyzed in terms of nature as fantasy.

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.