Thursday, October 30, 2014

Nothing Ever Happens on Halloween: A "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Marathon (Guest post!)

Holiday Film Reviews presents a special Halloween guest post courtesy of Victoria Willis, co-editor of the recently published book Geek Rock: An Exploration of Music and Subculture.  She also happens to be an old friend of RigbyMel's (they've known each other since elementary school) and a talented photographer and essayist.    We hope you enjoy this essay about the Halloween episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  - RigbyMel & J.A. Morris


I’ve discovered that it’s impossible for me to write about Buffy the Vampire Slayer without making some sort of argument. This is probably largely due to my involvement in the Whedon Studies Association, a fantastic organization devoted to scholarship about all things Whedon-y. So if you enjoy (and/or disagree) with anything that you read here, check them out. And if you’re planning to marathon the Buffy Halloween episodes, then know that you are automatically awesome, and have chosen your Halloween activities wisely. The Halloween episodes are excellent. They are also easily marathon-able, with three Halloween episodes in Buffy (discussed in more detail below) and one Halloween episode in Angel (which I’m not discussing below, because even though it’s in the Buffyverse, it’s in Angel, not Buffy. But in case you’re wondering which episode it is, it’s “Life of the Party,” Season 5, episode 5.). Viewed together, these episodes create an interesting statement about identity, masks, and the mundane. After all, nothing is supposed to happen on Halloween in the Buffyverse. 

Each Halloween episode of Buffy is, appropriately enough, about masks. Keeping up appearances.Saving face.Whistling in the dark. While it’s hard to say conclusively how the tradition of Halloween evolved, it is fairly clear that masks, candy, and carved pumpkins are central to the holiday. Whether the masks and disguises were to ward off the dead, protect against the dead, celebrate the dead, remember the dead, or ridicule the dead and/or death, the tradition of dressing up has continued, only now with costume contests and prizes. As Buffy tells Willow in “Halloween” (Season 2, Episode 6), wearing a costume is a chance to “come as you aren’t.” Buffy also points out that, for women in particular, Halloween is the opportunity for a woman to dress as sexy as she pleases without repercussion (an observation that is particularly interesting (and ahead of it’s time) in light of current discussions about slut-shaming). Willow dresses sexy, but loses her nerve and covers her sexy outfit with a ghost costume.

In this episode, we first meet Ethan Rayne, worshipper of Chaos and Giles’s former demon-raising chum. Ethan opens a costume shop in Sunnydale and sells enchanted costumes (he likes to sell enchanted things, evidently. See: “Band Candy”). Buffy, who has been lamenting that she is not an ordinary girl/ fancy noblewoman that Angel would have liked, buys a ballgown from Ethan’s shop and gets her wish. Willow’s ghost costume, also from Ethan’s shop, kills her and she becomes an actual ghost (wearing her sexy outfit that was underneath her ghost costume). Xander becomes an army guy because he bought a toy gun from the shop. 

In “Halloween,” the enchanted costumes allow the wearer to become who they are. Cordelia, whose cat costume was purchased elsewhere, is already a catty character, mocking the uncool and priding herself on her dating skills. Cordelia is what she is, a point that continues to be made throughout the series. But the others are still negotiating their teenage identities, trying on activities and interests, much like one tries on costumes, in order to become what, and who, they are. When Willow dies and becomes her ghost costume, Giles looks at her sexy outfit and asks, stuttering a bit, “The ghost of what, exactly?” Even as Willow becomes what she is, who she is remains in question. But for identity negotiation, neither costumes nor teenagedom is required. Giles’ identity also comes into question when he confronts Ethan Rayne to break the spell, and the viewer learns that the tweedy librarian is not only connected to a sketchy, Chaos loving sorcerer, but is also quite the badass.

In the second Halloween episode, “Fear Itself” (Season 4, episode 4), Buffy and the Scoobies head to a frat party where the fear demon Gachnar has been brought forth. The fears of everyone in the house, including Buffy and the Scoobies, are made manifest. Buffy is alone. Xander is invisible to his friends. Willow can’t control her magic. Oz wolfs out. The only ones who are “immune” are Anya and Giles. Arriving late to the party, Anya discovers that the door to the frat house is missing. She is dressed as her greatest fear, a bunny, but her fear of losing Xander propels her to Giles. In another unexpected moment of badassery, Giles chainsaws his way into the frat house. They both run upstairs, find Buffy, Xander, Willow, and Oz, and Giles begins to explain how to defeat Gachnar. Buffy destroys the Mark of Gachnar, mistakenly bringing forth the fear demon, who, as it turns out, is tiny and squashable. 

“Fear, Itself” follows the same pattern of identity negotiation as “Halloween.” Anya and Giles are never affected by the haunted frat house. Somewhat like Cordelia, Anya’s identity negotiation is different from the other Scoobies. After all, she is a thousand year old ex-vengeance demon. She is trying not only to discover who she is as a teen, but also who she is as a human. The other Scoobies are trying to deal with their fears, and with how they compensate and react to their fears. Their fears are teenage fears, superpowers notwithstanding: the fear of being unimportant and lesser than one’s friends, the fear of being alone, the fear of losing control. And these fears don’t really ever go away as we grow up. Giles, the adult, is still negotiating his identity. He keeps his chainsaw hidden, but reveals it when necessary. He’s learning how to be an ex-librarian just as much as Anya is learning how to be an ex-demon. His fears, and Anya’s fears, are much like the fears of the Scoobies--being unimportant, unwanted, out of control, and alone. Fear is human. And we  learn to cope with our fears, much like Buffy and the Scoobies do: by wearing costumes, keeping our chainsaws in our gym bags, seeing our fears for what they are, and squashing them as best we can.

Giles creates a door into the frat house
We wear costumes every day. We put on work clothes, we put on brave faces, we put our best foot forward. Identity is not just about who we are, but about how we are. “All the Way” (Season 6, Episode 6) is the final Halloween episode in Buffy. The episode opens with a Halloween sale at the Magic Box. Xander and Anya are in costume, spirits are high, and Xander finally announces to the rest of the Scoobies that he and Anya are engaged. Willow uses magic to decorate Buffy’s house for an engagement party, which upsets Tara, who says Willow’s magic usage is getting out of control (and which is, incidentally, Willow’s manifested fear in “Fear, Itself”). Dawn goes out with Janice under the guise of spending the night at Janice’s house. Together, Dawn and Janice meet up with Zack and Justin, two boys from school. Dawn, trying to impress the boys, smashes an old man’s pumpkin. Her pumpkin smashing is fairly outside of the Dawn norm, and her action is her attempt to be someone the boys, particularly Justin, will like and find cool. Her identity negotiation has become more teen than paranormal (see “Blood Ties” for the Key to paranormal identity negotiation). The boys that she tries to impress, however, turn out to be vampires. The teen vamps, like all vamps, wear masks of humanity, and Dawn has to see through the mask and stake her first kiss. This is how coming of age works in Buffy. Appearances are stripped away. Because masks, costumes, appearances--these things are important for how negotiate ourselves and the world around us.  

Dawn dusts her first kiss
And, much like Halloween in the Buffyverse,  these negotiations are important and also, at the same time, nothing terribly special. Nothing ever happens on Halloween that doesn’t happen on any other day. We put on our work costumes. We ask for rewards. We negotiate who we are, in small ways and large ways. We squash our fears and get on with our lives as best we can. In the Halloween episodes of Buffy (and, arguably, the series as a whole), the real magic is in the allegory of becoming who we are. In the case of the Halloween episodes, it’s spookier magic, with added treats. 

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