As a television-obsessed preteen, one show that happened to fly under my radar was The WB (and later, UPN) hit, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And, despite it now being my favorite show of all time, I’m glad that I didn’t discover it until a friend recommended the supernatural dramedy to me in college. The show began its run when I was just 8 years old, and in addition to having been scared of anything remotely related to horror and monsters at the time, I believe that many of the subtle (and not-so-subtle) nuances of Joss Whedon’s phenomenal writing would have escaped me at the time.
However, when I did get around to watching the show at 22, I was enthralled. Buffy and the Scoobies showed what high school, college, and adulthood were really like – but with the addition of vampires, demons, and other creatures that only exist in fairy tales and ghost stories. The metaphorical elements were not lost on me, and I was able to fully appreciate the show for its witty dialogue, nuanced characters, and, at times, heavy foreshadowing, much of which I only discovered in subsequent viewings.
As I’m currently re-watching the series for a fourth time, and getting the fresh perspective of my boyfriend while doing so, I thought I would recount some of my favorite metaphors and symbolism from Buffy. And of course, if you’ve never seen the show, but think you may want to in the future, I would refrain from reading further, as I will definitely be spoiling some major moments.
1. High School Is Hell
The movie Buffy the Vampire Slayer, off which the show is based, is built upon turning the premise of the blonde, female victim on its head. When Joss decided to create a TV show after his movie script was essentially shredded into very campy pieces, he decided he would take that idea and origin story, and add in one simple premise: High school is like hell. Or, in Buffy’s case, high school is literally built on the mouth of hell.
You see, we all come face to face with “demons” in high school, and struggle with taking on big responsibilities when we’re still quite young. Buffy and her friends face monsters of every shape and size, battling teachers that are insects, and bullies that are hyenas … literally. All of these are creatures are symbolic of the true demons that we face. Everything comes down to graduation at the end of the third season, where the Scoobies and their classmates band together and end up blowing up the school – the final act of leaving this hell behind.
2. Sex and Demons
Buffy, like so many of us, falls for the older “bad boy” when she moves to Sunnydale. Angel is there to protect her, and help her battle the forces of darkness, but as she falls in love with him, those around her warn her of the dangers of this romance. In this case, Angel is actually a 200-year-old vampire – but most of us have, at one point or another, fallen for someone we knew we shouldn’t.
One fateful night, Buffy loses her virginity to Angel, and the demon inside of him comes out. While Angel lost his soul due to a gypsy curse that forbade him from experiencing one moment of true happiness, some guys may quickly withdraw or lash out after finally scoring with a girl they’ve wooed, leaving their partner destroyed and confused. Buffy cries and mourns the loss of the man she thought she knew, but she gets her revenge in the end – while us average humans only joke about killing our exes, Buffy literally lunges a sword into his chest and sends him straight to hell.
3. Lesbian Magic
When Willow first begins to dabble in the black arts in high school, it seems to be a progression from her scientific and technological pursuits, and a small way in which she can help Buffy beyond researching the demon of the week. But in Season 4, she meets Tara in her Wicca group, and the connection between the two is apparent immediately. College is often seen as a time of experimentation, and Willow’s deepening interest in spells aligned almost too perfectly with her interest in spending time with Tara in her room. Alyson Hannigan herself even made a comment on the matter, calling the subtext here ‘Oh come on, hit-yourself-over-the-head-with-the-it’ text.
However, it was a different time, and thorough and respectful portrayal of a lesbian relationship on television was, at best, limited. Joss has said that he fought with the network executives over their resistance to grant allow a kiss between Tara and Willow, which was finally granted approximately a year into their relationship. When Tara’s family comes to take her away in “Family,” they refer to “the evil inside her,” as she is supposedly part demon – another symbolic reference to homosexuality.
4. Drug Addiction
Once it becomes clear that Willow really isn’t experimenting (and the performing spells = lesbian sex metaphor had been worn thin), we begin to see Willow’s increased magic use as more than an interest – it’s become an obsession. She uses magic for simple tasks that don’t require it, and she dabbles in far darker magic than ever before, leaving her with a “hangover” afterwards. Buffy and the gang express worry, but are frequently distracted by other, more pressing matters.
That is, until Willow begins to spin out of control. She lashes out at those who love her, denies her problem, and even begins to see a “dealer.” She attempts to rehabilitate, but when forces outside of her control cause her anguish, she once again searches to fix her problems with … magic. Willow is only able to face her addiction with the help of her oldest friends, and later, seeks to make amends with those she’s hurt.
5. Bigotry/Racism (Against Demons)
We first see this parallel with Xander in the first season. Distraught over losing his crush, Buffy, to a handsome older man, he’s further disgusted to learn that Angel is actually a vampire. Despite the latter having a soul, Xander never really warms to Angel, especially after his soulless stint in Season 2. When Spike joins the gang, Xander frequently refers to him as a thing, and tells him how he’s not good enough for Buffy when Spike’s love for the slayer is brought to the surface.
In fact, the only boyfriend of Buffy’s whom Xander approves of is also guilty of bigotry. In the episode “New Moon Rising,” Riley judges Willow for dating Oz, a werewolf, talking about how dangerous it is to date a demon. Buffy responds by calling him a bigot, and is afraid to tell him about Angel, the demon she dated. Riley ends up apologizing at the end of the episode, admitting that he was being bigoted, and was seeing things as “black and white.” Though this is an apt colloquialism, it certainly fits as a nod to racism.
But back to Xander – his own primary love interest in the later seasons is Anya, a former vengeance demon who unintentionally becomes human after a thousand-year reign. She pursues Xander, and though he resists, the two date, and eventually are engaged to be married. At their wedding, Anya’s many demon friends and Xander’s human family don’t get along due to the Harris’s intolerance for “circus folk,” which is what they’re told the demons are. This is sort of a wake-up call for Xander, who then sees himself becoming his father, and calls the wedding off.
If you’ve enjoyed this, stay tuned for part two! And if you’re craving a rewatch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, catch it on Netflix.