Buffy Summers and the Rise of the Vampires
If you’re a vampire, chances are that your fortunes have improved in the last few years. Not long ago you were wearing unfashionable capes, living in a dank castle, and speaking in an accent of ambiguous Eastern European origin. No offence, but you weren’t exactly cool. But vampires are hot stuff now and, with your Hammer Horror days behind you, it seems like every teenager out there wants to know you. The reason why isn’t hard to fathom. It’s mostly because of a television show called Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Whether the sexification of vampires began with Buffy the Vampire Slayer or whether it built on a pre-existing trend isn’t the question. The role that it played in the process is indisputable. Buffy’s impact on pop culture has been huge, and if you don’t believe me just look at the amount of academic study it has produced. More papers have been written on Buffy than any other television show, and that’s a fact that speaks for itself.
Although Buffy the Vampire Slayer took vampires and transformed them from pantomime villains into a credible threat you wouldn’t laugh at, it was really the romance between Buffy and Angel that first made them cool. The very definition of dark and brooding, David Boreanaz’s portrayal of Angel had girls swooning all over the place.
More than that, he wasn’t just a vampire, he was a cool vampire, and his hopelessly tragic love with Buffy was the backbone of the first three seasons. It endured numerous apocalypses, several betrayals and murders, and Angel losing (and then regaining) his soul – only to end as inevitably as it had begun. So huge was the fandom around the Buffy-Angel romance that Buffy’s next love interest, the straight laced soldier Riley Finn, was pretty much booed off the show after a season and a half.
Of course, it wasn’t long before Buffy fell for another vampire. William the Bloody, better known as Spike, was introduced at the start of season two as replacement villain for the laughably poor Anointed One, who he promptly burned to death. When Spike strolled onto the show, it was immediately obvious things were going to pick up. Punk rocker, slayer of Slayers and all-around bad boy, he made Angel look tame. Fast-forward a few seasons, he’s changed sides to become one of the funniest anti-heroes television has ever produced. Buffy, who apparently had a thing for guys without a pulse, ended up falling for him.
The general point of all this is that when Buffy wasn’t busy slaying vampires, she was perfectly happy to do a whole host of other unmentionables with them. Human-vampire interaction didn’t have to involve biting or bloodsucking. In fact, you could even have relationships with them! Add to this Willow and Xander’s relationships, with werewolf Oz and ex-demon Anya respectively, and all of a sudden the dating scene is looking good for people of a supernatural persuasion.
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing about all this, though, was how Buffy the Vampire Slayer dealt with it all. It walked a tightrope with the utmost precision, giving every issue the gravity it deserved while never forgetting – or taking too seriously – its pulp horror roots. It showed people that monsters and magic weren’t just for children and lonely middle-aged men who live with their mothers. It made them look at it through a different prism.
It’s inevitable that where one show blazes a trail, others will come scurrying along behind, salivating at the thought of all the trendy young types just waiting to be glued to their screens. The number of supernatural dramas that have followed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s wake might not be as numerous as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand upon the shore, but I could certainly fill up the rest of this article by listing them (though that would make it very boring indeed).
Vampires have profited the most, with bloodsucker-centric shows including True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, and even a recent reimagining of Dracula. Other creatures of the night have had their time in the light too, if you’ll forgive the muddling of expressions. Being Human features not only a vampire, but a werewolf and a ghost too. Lost Girl centres around a succubus, while Joan of Arcadia, realising that the good guys were being ignored, is about a girl who speaks with God.
Not all of these shows are up to the same standards as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and not all of them have the same kind of depth. But some of them have loftier ideas than the pulp horror that vampires and other beasties were assigned to in the past. True Blood is notable for dealing with, and being allegorical for, a whole range of social issues. Joan of Arcadia, unsurprisingly, carries spiritual themes. Being Human treats the situation of its main characters with appropriate gravitas.
It would have been unthinkable that the supernatural could deal with these kind of themes before Buffy the Vampire Slayer appeared on our screens. It was even one of the shows Russell T. Davies most credited as an influence when he brought Doctor Who back to life. Monsters weren’t just about cheap thrills; they were genuine story telling devices.
It’s been eleven years since Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended, but its legacy still survives. What’s more, it’s difficult to imagine that legacy ever coming to an end. Think of Twilight, which is an unfortunate part of that legacy, but has never achieved the same kind of acclaim. Buffy is strong but full of foibles and emotional shortcomings, whereas Bella Swan is both pathetic and emotionally flat. Angel and Spike were real vampires, sexy and dangerous in equal measure, and they never sparkled in sunlight like Edward Cullen. When you treat your characters with the kind of respect and gravity that Buffy the Vampire Slayer did, it will earn you deserved admiration.
The man behind it all was Joss Whedon, who has since gone on to produce a host of other shows and direct Avengers Assemble too. Whedon has a good record of creating empowered female characters, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was where that record began. It became what it did precisely because he wanted to empower women, because he wanted Buffy to be more than a pretty blonde with attitude and super-strength. He wanted her to be a real person.
Perhaps that is a lesson for producers and writers to learn. Treat your characters with respect, no matter what the subject matter might be, and they will be treated with respect in kind. Buffy the Vampire Slayer may have ended, but its memory and its impact are immortal.