This is a guest article by Mel Reynolds.
Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been a part of my life, in one way or another, for as long as I can remember. Growing up with two brothers, both significantly older than me (there are seven and ten year gaps between us), I was often exposed to film and TV aimed at much older audiences. More often than not, much to my mother’s dismay and despite her desperate attempts to keep me from seeing things I shouldn’t, it was near impossible to avoid catching snippets from time to time. My eldest brother was an avid Buffy fan, and some of my earliest memories are images from the show that I caught when sneakily peeking out from behind the sofa whilst he was watching it. But it wasn’t until I was nine years old that I became a real fan myself. The show was in its sixth season, and tackling its darkest and most adult themes of sex, addiction, and violence. It’s not surprising my mother didn’t want me watching it.
It’s ironic, but entirely deliberate, that a supernatural show about vampires and demons on the surface is actually one of the most humanistic shows that’s ever been on television. As all Buffy fans know, the ground on which the show was built was the metaphor of “high school as hell”, with Joss Whedon illustrating this by situating Buffy’s school, Sunnydale High, on a literal Hellmouth (i.e. the entrance to Hell itself). I know a few people who actually enjoyed school, but I know many more that hated it, myself included. With this metaphor at Buffy‘s core, Whedon had created a show that was instantly relatable to the millions of people for whom school was a nightmare.
By the time I got to secondary school, I had already been an avid Buffy fan for two years. But it was only at this point—the transition from primary to secondary—that I really began to relate it to my own life. At the end of primary school, my Mum moved me to a new town (much like Buffy’s Mum does), and I left all my friends behind and started a new school where I knew absolutely no one (again, much like Buffy). I saw my situation reflected in hers. I thought, Buffy didn’t know anyone at her school and she made friends, so I’ll make them too…
For me, the first three years of secondary school were hell. I was relentlessly bullied for being a goth, for being “different”, for simply being myself—the only thing I knew how to be. The bullying started when I got on the bus to school every morning and didn’t end until I got off the bus at the end of the day. Apart from the one friend that I actually made at school (and even she turned on me eventually), everyone seemed to have a problem with me for no reason at all.
It would be wrong to say Buffy was my escape from all this. It was more like my hope. Buffy was super strong and could kick anybody’s ass, but she was a nice person too. Most importantly, she was a real teenager with real problems. Not only was she fighting literal vampires and demons night after night and dealing with the burden of having to save the world from evil, but she was fighting her own personal demons and facing all the issues everyone goes through in adolescence. It’s this that makes her so relatable.
The show gave me strength and communicated a deep and valuable message, a message that everyone longs to hear—you are not alone. Most people at Sunnydale High thought Buffy was a freak. What the show did was speak directly to the hearts of everyone who had ever felt like an outsider. Buffy was cool and she befriended the people who weren’t. Willow and Xander, best friends since age five, were the laughing stock of Sunnydale High. Willow was a genius, and Xander was a clown. Both were relentlessly bullied by their peers. Along comes Buffy—the new girl—and after a brief fling with Cordelia, the most popular girl in school and by far the meanest, Buffy chooses to befriend the geeks, and they fight by her side for the next seven years. Willow and Xander are far more than Buffy’s sidekicks; they are her best friends, her loyal battle partners. And they both become powerful human beings in their own right—Willow becomes a kick-ass witch, and Xander saves the world, more than once. Granted, there are times when their loyalty to Buffy and to each other falters, but every friendship has its ups and downs, and this is what makes their friendship all the more real. Ultimately, they are by Buffy’s side, right to the end of it all. This friendship, to me, was so real, and it was something I never had in my school life. I craved it, and with Buffy, Willow and Xander, I could pretend I had it. They were my friends,and they helped get me through those years. And I know many others who feel the same.
In terms of how it affected and influenced me as a writer and filmmaker, it was the first time I’d properly cared deeply about fictional characters. I really loved these people and cared what happened to them. It taught me how to feel for people who don’t exist, and thus ultimately taught me how to write complex human beings that audiences can relate to and care about. When I watch Buffy today, the characters are as familiar to me as my own family and friends. All the characters in Buffy—even the minor ones—are well-rounded, three-dimensional, complex humans. The show is a masterclass in how to create character. It is also a lesson in genre, since it crosses and even transcends genre. It’s as much a terrifying horror and a laugh-out-loud comedy as it is a heartbreaking drama and an astute social commentary. It is rich in subtext and metaphor, and what it does so well is takes metaphors and makes them literal, like the aforementioned “high school as hell”, and one of my personal favourites, when Marcie Ross—the girl who feels invisible because she is ignored by everyone—literally becomes invisible. I truly know in my heart that all the years I spent watching Buffy and subconsciously absorbing the lessons it teaches has informed my ability to be able to create stories and characters of my own.
Buffy taught me some of my greatest and most important life lessons. It taught me about love, about friendship, family, strength, weakness, joy, sadness, depression, addiction, death and life. I watched it during my formative years, and it became part of the fabric of who I am. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the lessons it taught me. I know that throughout my life it will continue to be a source of inspiration and a comfort in my darkest moments. It’s like a faithful friend that you know will never let you down. It will always be there. They often say that the friends you make during your most formative years will be friends for life. With Buffy, I know this to be true.
What Buffy taught people all over the world is that everyone is a slayer fighting a daily battle. Everyone can be the hero of their own life. Buffy always won. She never gave up. She beat every problem that she faced, eventually, with the help of her friends and loved ones. And so can all of us.
“The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”
– Buffy Summers, The Gift.
She saved the world. A lot.