It’s 20 years today since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens. Russell Dornan celebrates the progressive, poignant, hilarious and scary series, drawing out unexpected parallels with Wellcome Collection.
Are you sure this is a good idea?
Those are the first ever lines of dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the greatest television show ever made. It’s also an accurate summary of my own internal dialogue when starting an article exploring Buffy’s themes through Wellcome Collection. But after writing a similar piece about how Britney Spears relates to Wellcome Collection, which is slightly more of a stretch (!), Buffy seemed like a no brainer.
For anyone not blessed enough to know Buffy (we can’t all be perfect), here’s a wee summary: in every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.
Buffy Summers is also a sixteen year old high school kid in California, at first seeming like the archetypal blonde girl we’re used to being a victim in slasher films. But this girl slashes back. Balancing school, first relationships, friends and the apocalypse, the series sees Buffy go through the final years of high school, off to college, dropping out and trying to hold down a job; finding and losing love several times.
All the while she protects the (mostly unaware) public from the constant threat of demons, evil and the end of the world. And she’s not alone: her friends (and frenemies) support and hinder her in equal measure, their strength as a group often winning out over the monster of the week. Their victories are often thanks in part to the research they carry out together in the library. Wait, we have one of those!
“You kids really dig the library, don’t you?”
We’re lucky at Wellcome Collection to have a world-renowned library specialising in the study of medical history. We’re even luckier in the way the subject is explored in our collections, from life to death and everything in between, including charms, magic, contagions, demons, folklore, sexuality, monsters and the apocalypse. The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s group of friends and helpers) would be right at home carrying out their research with us.
You always know whats going on. I never know whats going on.
Unusually for a television show aimed at teenagers, characters in Buffy spend a lot of their time poring over books and manuscripts, trying to find the answers they need to fight the current threat. I won’t go into any more detail about this here because Mark A. McCutcheon wrote how Buffy “routinely dramatises research in action as a public good” and it’s worth a read on his blog.
Below are just some of the demons the gang on Buffy might research at Wellcome Collection.
My focus instead is a specific episode of the show. Buffy and series creator Joss Whedon (Avengers) were known for pushing what a television show could be, regularly re-thinking how a 45 minute episode could challenge its own set up (and writers, directors, actors), offering the audience treat after treat whilst transcending its genre conventions.
Standout episodes include The Body (exploring the initial shock, grief and brutal physicality of death after opening with Buffy’s mother’s sudden passing); Once More With Feeling (the very clever musical episode where a demon compels Buffy and Co to sing their hearts out, revealing their most guarded secrets to one another in ways that are funny, heartbreaking and true-to-character); and Restless (a low-key and surreal dream sequence season finale exploring the lead characters’ psychologies, looking at their past, present and foreshadowing their futures).
Despite there being myriad episodes I could focus on, there was always one that stood out for me. Not just for its own sake, but because its (Wellcome Collection friendly) themes ripple through the wider Buffy series in different ways. Which brings me to revealing that the episode is…
The tenth episode of the fourth series, Hush takes place when Buffy is in college and is widely recognised as a landmark episode of television (and is the only one in the series to be nominated for an Emmy Award for writing).
In Hush, a group of ghoulish fairytale villains called The Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale. They steal everyone’s voices, leaving people unable to scream or call for help when The Gentlemen kill them. Buffy and friends have to solve the mystery of the deaths, as well as the town-wide silence, all the while communicating without speech.
After routinely receiving high praise for his dialogue, Joss Whedon wanted to challenge himself by writing an episode largely without any; in the 44 minute episode, only 17 minutes contain any dialogue. Come with me now as I explore Hush, drawing out links with Wellcome Collection and what it means to be human…or otherwise.
“If the apocalypse comes, beep me”
The episode begins with a prophetic dream sequence, vaguely foreshadowing what is to come. This trope is employed many times in Buffy, as it happens to be one of the special abilities of the slayer. In fact, the very first episode starts (after the opening credits) with Buffy dreaming about things she’ll encounter later in that series. You can read more about Buffy’s visions here. The series regularly features prophecies of great evil emerging and ending the world.
An interesting side note, The Gentlemen (the villains of the piece – more on them later) came to Whedon in his own dream.
“To read makes our speaking English good.”
The dream sequence begins with Buffy sitting in an auditorium at college. Buffy’s psychology Professor Maggie Walsh introduces the topic of the lecture, which turns out to echo the overall theme of the episode: language. Walsh says:
Talking about communication, talking about language. Not the same thing. It’s about the way a child can recognise and produce phonemes that don’t occur in its native language. It’s about inspiration: not the idea, but the moment before the idea; when it’s total, when it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything, before the coherent thought that gives it shape, that locks it in and cuts it off from the universal. When you can articulate it, it becomes smaller. It’s about thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.
Joss Whedon wrote the episode to show how people do or, rather, don’t communicate. The first third of the episode is full of dialogue; it’s almost frantic with characters miscommunicating or reflecting on their inability to speak to certain people (e.g. Buffy and her current love interest, Riley). Each line of spoken dialogue enforces the idea that once talking stops, communication can really begin.
Take this exchange between Xander and Anya:
I care about you. ANYA
How much? What do I mean to you? XANDER
Well, I… we, you know, we spend… we’ll talk about it later. ANYA
I think we should talk about it now! XANDER
If you don’t know how I feel… ANYA
I don’t! This isn’t a relationship. You don’t need me! All you care about is lots of orgasms! XANDER
OK… remember how we talked about private conversations? How they’re less private when they’re in front of my friends?
Xander can’t express himself to Anya and use words to tell her how he feels; meanwhile all Anya wants to do is talk, but she says something inappropriate because, as an ex-demon, she’s “newly human and strangely literal”. Meanwhile, father-figure Giles just wants everyone around him to shut up. Language gets in the way of communication because it limits people’s expression of the sometimes unspeakable ways they feel. Joss Whedon explains further:
As soon as you say something, you’ve eliminated ever other possibility of what you might be talking about. All of these [character moments] fed into the main theme, in a way that nothing I write will ever again. It is so inevitably coherent because it’s about, not writing, but about talking.
The revelation that they’ve lost their voice hits each person differently: some think they’re suddenly deaf, others blame members of the group. But everyone is initially horrified and confused, and this is even more pronounced in the wider town. Buffy and Willow walk through Sunnydale, passing crowds of scared people unsure of what’s going on. As communication becomes more difficult, the sense of community starts to erode: they walk passed a closed bank but see people hurrying into a still open off-licence; religious fundamentalist groups gather in the streets. Read more about communication and community in Hush here.
The Gentlemen have stolen their voices, but they’ve also taken away much more: the silence isolates members of the community, rendering them even more ineffective in the face of this horror. The political overtones of miscommunication and the silencing of the people are clear (and as relevant today). As Noel Murray wrote for A.V. Club:
…the way The Gentlemen do their business—by making sure no one can scream before they start—could be read as a metaphor for the way evil spreads. When dissent is stifled, or people fail to tell the truth, or when we’re just distracted by other concerns, things can get out of hand.
During the episode a news bulletin announces the events in Sunnydale are caused by side-effects of a flu vaccine leading to a laryngitis epidemic. In response to this Rhonda Wilcox writes:
[H]ow many times will we see those in power maintain such a silence while evil proceeds? It is not surprising that [The Gentlemen’s] attendants wear straitjackets; their garb suggests the insanity of such behaviour—the pretence of civilised politeness while killing is accepted is a matter of course.
Thankfully the show also uses people’s silence to comedic ends, with the scene below being particularly memorable.
Buffy’s prophetic dream ends by showing a little girl holding a small, wooden box and (eerily) singing this rhyme:
Can’t even shout.
Can’t even cry.
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors…
They need to take seven and they might take yours…
Can’t call to mom.
Can’t say a word.
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.
So, who are The Gentlemen and what are they after?
In the show these demons are said to come from fairytales, roaming from town to town to steal the voices of their inhabitants in order to collect seven hearts, presumably to sustain themselves. There are the tall, floating Gentlemen dressed in smart, black suits; they have bald heads and an unnervingly cheery permanent grin, flaunting silver teeth.
Whedon based them on Victorian men, their eerie politeness and grace terrifying. Their silver teeth were also inspired by the Victorian era, the industrial and medical advances of the time manifesting in these ghouls as a sort of “cavity-defeating” breakthrough. They were inspired by a nightmare he had as a child; in fact, he specifically wanted them to be frightening to children (Whedon suggests the most scary thing to us as children is the fear of getting old).
Accompanying these Gentlemen are footmen of sorts: bumbling, shuffling figures wearing straitjackets who do the heavy lifting. They’re the ones who grab and restrain the victims, allowing The Gentlemen to claim their hearts. Some Buffy scholars suggest The Gentlemen and their minions represent class disparity: The Gentlemen in dapper Victorian suits move effortlessly to accomplish their skilled, technical task while the footmen do the hard labour.
Despite the town of Sunnydale beginning to crumble into silent chaos without their voices, The Gentlemen are masters of silent communication, employing graceful hand gestures and nuanced head nods. They understand each other clearly and their rhythm and physicality are both exquisite and dreadful to witness. This is especially true in the way they collect hearts.
I’m sure having your heart cut out of your body while you’re conscious and incapacitated will chime with the fear many of us have of not being fully under anaesthetic during an operation (or waking up during). But the addition of being wide awake and unable to scream, staring at their maniacal grins as they lower the glinting scalpel towards, you just adds to the terror. It certainly gives me the wiggins.
The clip below gives a sense of The Gentlemen’s uncanny grace, the way their hands move so precisely, almost dainty, as well as their heart retrieval method (word to the wise: although there’s no gore or graphic scenes, there is mild peril and extreme spookiness).
The clever amongst you will have noticed that I’ve chosen an episode of Buffy that doesn’t even feature vampires. Although a mainstay of the series (obviously), we have written about vampires before.
The only thing that can harm The Gentlemen is a human voice, specifically a scream. Once the voices have been returned to people, Buffy lets out an almighty and sustained shriek, resulting in The Gentlemen’s heads exploding violently.The irony that the voice used in such a primal way, without language, saves the day. This resolution is more similar to traditional or folkloric fairytales than is often used in Buffy. The majority of demons across the series are bested through physical means, while magic is also commonly utilised.
“Bunch of wanna-blessed-bes”
Although Willow has been exploring and using magic since the end of season two, by the time Hush takes place she has an increased hunger for it. She seeks out a Wiccan group on campus, hoping to meet other witches and flex her growing power.
The use of magic is a stand in for a variety of themes throughout the series, such as love, power, relationships and addiction. There’s no moral judgement offered by the show regarding magic or witchcraft generally, but the results of its uses are often tied to the intention of the user. Willow is frustrated in Hush because the Wiccan group is more interested in bake sales than exploring true magic. But it’s an important meeting for her character nonetheless, because it is here she meets Tara.
When in trouble later in the episode, Tara seeks out Willow. Escaping The Gentlemen, they end up in a dead end room and try to push the vending machine against the door, but can’t shift it. Willow attempts to move it with magic, but only manages to make it wobble. Tara tentatively touches Willow’s hand with hers, slowly locks fingers and with a sharp turn of their heads, they launch the vending machine against the door. Watch the video below for the full, powerful scene.
Whedon talks about his vision for this moment:
…we wanted this to be a moment that was very physical and very empowering and very beautiful between the two of them. It’s a very empowering statement about love. Two people together can accomplish more than when they’re alone. A great deal more…It really is one of the most romantic images we’ve put on film.
It marks an important milestone: this is the beginning of one of the most genuinely realised same sex relationships on television. And this relationship is inextricably linked to Willow’s magical abilities from the first moment.
In earlier seasons, when Willow is in (unrequited) love with Xander, she is powerless. Her later relationship with Oz brings her out of herself a lot and her powers start to manifest, but with many false starts. It’s only when she meets Tara that her full capabilities are hinted at, and it’s Tara (or rather, tragic things that happen to her) that inspire Willow’s full power to be realised, terrifyingly, in later seasons.
This burgeoning of her powers can be seen in relation to her sexual awakening. Both magic and sexuality are empowering for Willow. The focus is always on their relationship, as opposed to them coming out; watching two people find each other, fall in love and empower each other after years of never fully feeling “themselves”.
Despite other (straight) characters being much more physical with each other on the show, Willow and Tara’s magical connection was sometimes used as a proxy for their physical one, since there was only so much the network was be able to show of the latter. But still, as someone unsure of my own sexuality growing up, seeing strong, loving, well-rounded characters whose alternative sexuality is bound to magic (making them the most powerful individuals as a result!) was inspiring to fifteen year old me.
“The hardest thing in this world…is to live in it.”
The episode ends shortly after Buffy saves the day, restoring everyones voices. Finally able to speak to each other, she and Riley sit in her dorm room and agree that they need to talk. They sit in silence. A bit too much time passes to be comfortable and…the credits roll.
“Here endeth the lesson”
So what have we learned from Buffy and the amazing Hush episode? Speak to each other, but don’t just talk: communicate. In the face of evil, don’t let silence or miscommunication (or alternative facts) get in the way of action. Always ask yourself “what would Buffy do?”
And finally, let’s not forget how librarians, and their charges, are often our last line of cultural defence.