Spring of 2017 was the 20th anniversary of the first season of the TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer.1 The show ran for a total of seven seasons and has attracted the attention of academics from all disciplines. Since this spring, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a blog post about the show from a theological perspective and have come up with a few ways to write about the show in relation to Catholic theology.
One way to examine the show theologically is through the motif of the Christ-figure. There is, in fact, a whole dissertation on Christ-figures in popular culture that looks at both BTVS and Supernatural2 and I also did a presentation on this topic back in 2007. What I want to look at in this post is not just Christ-figures in general (though this imagery will be brought in), but what connects the self-sacrifices that these Christ-figures undertake, that is, the importance of self-sacrifice in averting an apocalypse—something that happens in four out of the seven apocalypses in the series. I argue that what these four apocalypses have in common is that they are supernaturally and not humanly created apocalypses and thus, in the Buffyverse, the supernatural apocalypse must be defeated not only by a ritualistic sacrifice, but by a form of self-sacrifice.
Of course, some may object to a theological interpretation of BTVS, especially given that Joss Whedon designates himself as an “angry atheist.” But, as the editors of the book Joss Whedon and Religion also argue, we are not restricted to authorial intent in interpreting books, films, etc.3 In that sense, I argue that it is perfectly reasonable to compare a Catholic worldview to that of the Buffyverse.4
Apocalypses in the Buffyverse
“Buffy. When I saw you stop the world from, you know, ending, I just assumed that was a big week for you. It turns out I suddenly find myself needing to know the plural of apocalypse.”
-Riley Finn (“A New Man,” 4.12)
BTVS (and Supernatural after it) is structured so that each episode has something to deal with—the “monster of the week”—and each season ends with a potential apocalypse inaugurated by a supervillain, the “Big Bad.” For those who are unfamiliar with the series, I will quickly summarize the seven season-finale apocalypses.
First, the Big Bad of Season 1 is the Master, a vampire who has separated himself so much from his humanity that he has become disfigured. He is actually also the grandsire of Angel and the great-great-grandsire of Spike, two of the primary vampire characters in the series. He is trapped under the Hellmouth, but a prophecy says that he will rise, the Slayer will face him, and she will die. Buffy, in the end, accepts her fate as the Slayer and goes to meet the Master under the Hellmouth. However, it turns out that it is her blood—Slayer blood—that gives the Master the strength to escape his prison in the Hellmouth (opening the Hellmouth and letting out other demons in the process). He feeds off her briefly, then tosses her—face down—in a pool of water. But, since her death was due ultimately to drowning, not his feeding off her, her friend Xander performs CPR bringing her back to life, which allows her to face the Master and kill him.
The Big Bad of Season 2 is Angelus, that is, Angel who has lost his soul and returned to his former evil ways as a vampire. Angel was Buffy’s first love and he lost his soul when they made love and he experienced a true moment of happiness. He aims to perform a ritual to awaken the demon Acathla, who will then suck the whole world into hell. To do this, he needs to use his blood on his hand to pull a sword out of the demon. In stopping this apocalypse, Buffy teams up for the first time with Spike to save the world. As Spike explains:
We like to talk big… vampires do. “I’m going to destroy the world.” That’s just tough-guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got… dog racing, Manchester United. And you’ve got people. Billions of people walking around like Happy Meals with legs. It’s all right here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real… passion for destruction. Angel could pull it off. Good-bye, Picadilly. Farewell, Leicester-bloody-Square. (“Becoming, Part 2,” 2.22)
Together, they try to prevent Angel from undertaking the ritual to wake Acathla. She fights Angel, but he is able to pull out the sword and begin to open the portal. Ultimately, the only way to close the portal is with the blood of the one who opened it, Angelus. Except that right before Buffy is about to kill him, her friends successfully restore his soul and Angel is returned to her. In this case, Buffy ultimately has to kill her first love in order to save the world.
The Big Bad of Season 3 is the Mayor, a sorcerer who sold his soul to gain immortality and aimed, in the Ascension, to become a pure demon. As the former vengeance demon Anya explains, “All the demons that walk the earth are tainted, are human hybrids like vampires. The Ascension means that a human becomes pure demon. They’re different. … they’re bigger” (“Graduation Day, Part 1,” 3.21). Because pure demons are so large and powerful, it will take more than Buffy and her friends to defeat him. So, they enlist the entire senior class to team up and fight the Mayor and his associates. Because of the rituals he did in preparation for the Ascension, the Mayor is invulnerable until he changes into his demon form. So, to kill this much bigger and more powerful demon, they place explosives in the school. Buffy leads the Mayor—in his demon form—into the school where he is defeated in the explosion that also destroys the school.
The Big Bad of Season 4 is Adam, a creation of the Initiative, a Frankenstein-type creature that is part-demon(s) and part-human. (The Initiative is an organization within the U.S. military that studies supernatural creatures.) Buffy and her friends magically link themselves together through the power of the First Slayer, which gives her the strength to rip out Adam’s power source and defeat him.
The Big Bad of Season 5 is Glory (or Glorificus), a hell god who is trying to use an interdimensional key which has been sent to Buffy in the form of a little sister, Dawn. This key will allow her to open the portals between worlds and return to her own dimension, allowing all manner of hell-beast into the human world in the process. She ultimately cannot begin the ritual to open the portals because the Scooby Gang (as Buffy and her friends call themselves) prevent her from doing so. But, a minor demon character, Doc, slices into Dawn and her blood starts flowing to begin to open the portals. The only thing that can close the portals is stopping her blood from flowing, but Buffy realizes that as sisters, they share blood, and so Buffy swan dives off the tower to her death, effectively closing the portals.
Often, the Big Bad of Season 6 is described as the individual members of the Scooby Gang, but the one who tries to end the world is Willow. This apocalypse, with an immense number of Christian overtones, is stopped by Xander. He confronts Willow, describing himself as a “simple carpenter” and repeatedly asserts his love for her until Willow ends her attempt to destroy the world. (I could probably, and maybe will in the future, write a whole blog post about the Christian imagery in the finale of Season 6.)
Finally, the Big Bad of Season 7 is the First Evil whose army of Turok-Han vampires is defeated by sharing the power of the Slayer with all the potential slayers around the world and creating an army of Slayers. But the final sacrifice is that of Spike, who at the end of season 6 engaged in a trial to regain his soul. Wearing an amulet intended for someone with a soul who is “more than human,” the amulet feeds off his soul and it creates beams of light that destroy the vampires, the Hellmouth, and the whole town of Sunnydale (and, of course, Spike in the process).
Supernatural Apocalypses and Self-Sacrifice
“I sacrificed Angel to save the world. I loved him so much. But I knew, what was right. I don’t have that anymore. I don’t understand. I don’t know how to live in this world, if these are the choices. … The spirit guide told me, that death is my gift. I guess that means a Slayer really is just a killer after all.”
-Buffy (“The Gift,” 5.22)
Now, I argue that the four apocalypses involving self-sacrifice—seasons 1, 2, 5, and 7—all involve a supernaturally-inaugurated apocalypse while the non-sacrificial apocalypses of seasons 3, 4, and 6 all involve humanly-inaugurated apocalypses. This idea first came to me when I was reading Jeremy Rickett’s essay, “Varieties of Conversion: Spiritual Transformation in the Buffyverse.” In an endnote to this essay, Rickett notes that it is a common motif in BTVS that “blood is the only thing that can close a universe-ending portal.”5 I read that and thought, “Oh yeah, many of the apocalypses are stopped by some form of (ritual) sacrifice!”6 Then, in considering them more I realized that it was always not just a sacrifice, but a self-sacrifice, that stopped the apocalypse. Let’s look at them more closely.
Seasons 1 and 5 both involve Buffy sacrificing her own life in order to avert the apocalypse. In season 1, the apocalypse would be the freeing of the Master and letting him and the demons under the Hellmouth loose on the world. This is a supernatural apocalypse because (1) it is initiated by a supernatural creature, namely, a vampire, (2) there is a prophecy that says it will happen, and (3) there are supernatural portents, like an earthquake and blood coming from the faucets. As Giles, Buffy’s Watcher explains, “Listen. Some prophecies are, are a bit dodgy. They’re, they’re mutable. Buffy herself has, has thwarted them time and time again, but this is the Codex. There is nothing in it that does not come to pass. … Tomorrow night Buffy will face the Master and she will die.” (“Prophecy Girl,” 1.12). Buffy initially rejects this, giving up her role as the Slayer, but then accepts her fate and goes off to face the Master. Of course, the twist is that it is Buffy’s blood that the Master needs in order to give him the strength to leave the Hellmouth.
The thing about the Season 1 apocalypse is that Buffy, even though she accepts her fate and takes up her role as the Slayer, is timid and unsure of herself as she goes to find the Master. She tries to flee, but he uses some form of hypnosis or thrall to paralyze her. But after her “resurrection,” in a clear Christ-figure motif, she is stronger and able to kill the Master. When Xander tells her that she’s still weak, Buffy replies, “No, I feel strong. I feel different” (“Prophecy Girl,” 1.12). The Master tries to use his thrall on her again, and it doesn’t work. By killing the Master, she closes the Hellmouth and averts the apocalypse. In a sense, therefore, without her initial self-sacrifice and death, she would not have had the strength to ultimately defeat the Master.
Similarly, in Season 5 the supernatural element is the ritual using the mystical key to open the portals between dimensions. The characters who attempt to open the portal are also supernatural creatures—a hellgod and a demon. Again, there is a clear Christ-figure motif as Buffy swan dives off the tower where the ritual was being performed—arms out in the shape of a cross—to her death. In this case, it is Buffy’s self-sacrifice and death that ends the apocalypse and closes the portals. (And continuing the Christ-figure motif, Buffy is resurrected at the beginning of Season 6.)
In Season 7, the supernatural element is the First Evil itself, with an army of Turok-Han vampires. Again, there is a Christ-figure-esque self-sacrifice, this time performed by Spike. This is foreshadowed earlier in the season, as Rickett describes, “In the Buffy episode ‘Beneath You’ (7.2) he drapes himself over a cross in a church in a classic savior pose. Just like his soul the cross burns, but his soul allows him to grow throughout season seven and in the last episode to save the world.”7 In the final episode, with his arms spread out in the shape of a cross, Spike, using the amulet he is wearing, defeats the army of vampires and closes the Hellmouth. (And, again, Spike is resurrected at the beginning of Season 5 of Angel, thus completing his Christ-figure motif as well.)
Now, some might argue that Season 2 doesn’t fit into the paradigm that I’ve set out here, as it is the death of Angel(us) at the hands of Buffy, and not her—or his—self-sacrifice and subsequent death that averts the apocalypse. There is a supernatural element here in that there is a ritual that Angelus—as a vampire—performs which will lead the world to be sucked into hell. But, in terms of self-sacrifice, you have to remember that Angel was Buffy’s first love and so that is where the element of self-sacrifice comes in. This is hinted at by Whistler, who helps maintain the balance between good and evil.
Whistler: Angel’s the key. His blood will open the door to hell. Acathla opens his big mouth, creates a vortex. Then only Angel’s blood will close it. One blow will send ‘em both back to hell. But I strongly suggest that you get there before that happens, ‘cause the faster you kill Angel, the easier it’s gonna be on you.
Buffy: Don’t worry about me.
Whistler: It’s all on the line here, kid.
Buffy: I can deal. I got nothing left to lose.
Whistler: Wrong, kid. You got one more thing. (“Becoming, Part 2,” 2.22)
That one more thing, of course, is Angel. It’s not herself in this case, but the one that she loves, so there is still an element of self-sacrifice in that act as well. She has to give up the person (or, rather, vampire) that she loves. As my friend Mollie Wood (a fellow BTVS-fan) noted when she read a draft of this post, Buffy is also giving up something of herself in this act. Buffy is asked throughout the series to kill demons and vampires who are distinctly evil and—the vampires at least (we don’t get a lot of detail on demon ontology in the series)—do not have a soul. In killing Angel, Buffy has to sacrifice what she believes in and kill someone who is “good” and has a soul.8
Thus, we have four supernaturally-initiated apocalypses and four instances of self-sacrifice (three done by Buffy and one by Spike) to end the apocalypse.
In contrast, in the other three seasons it is always a human who is the initiator of the apocalypse and there is, in that sense, less of a supernatural element. In Season 4, the human initiator is Professor Maggie Walsh, Buffy’s psychology professor and the leader of the project to create Adam in the Initiative. In Season 6, the human initiator is Willow who uses her magic to begin a ritual that would end the world. The one questionable human character is the Mayor in Season 3, especially given how long they discover he was alive, but he is human. Although Seasons 3 and 6 do involve magic and rituals to bring about the apocalyptic event, because these events were brought on by a human, not a supernatural being (like a vampire, demon, or hellgod), they do not require self-sacrifice and death to end them.
So, in the end, what we have in the Buffyverse, is a vision of apocalypses that fits well (in some ways at least) with a Judeo-Christian worldview.9 When an apocalypse is brought on by a supernatural event, it is harder to defeat than other apocalypses. It ultimately can only be defeated by an act of self-sacrifice and death, just as it was Christ’s self-sacrifice and death that brought about redemption in Christian teaching. Or, as Spike says, “‘Cause it’s always got to be blood. … Blood is life, lackbrain. Why do you think we eat it? It’s what keeps you going. Makes you warm. Makes you hard. Makes you other than dead. Course it’s her blood.” (“The Gift,” 5.22).
- I got the image for this post from the “Buffyverse Wiki,” here. ↩
- Laura L. Holder, “Common Christs: Christ Figures, American Christianity, and Sacrifice on Cult Television,” PhD diss. (University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 2014). ↩
- Anthony R. Mills, preface to Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, ed. by Anthony R. Mills, John W. Morehead, & J. Ryan Parker (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013), 5. ↩
- I also have to note here the recent criticisms made by Kai Cole, Whedon’s ex-wife, that have caused many fans to reconsider Whedon’s self-designation as a feminist. But, since, first, Whedon’s feminism is not part of this blog post and, second, I am not taking into account authorial intent in relation to religion either, whether or not Whedon is a feminist is ultimately irrelevant for my analysis here. ↩
- Jeremy R. Ricketts, “Varieties of Conversion: Spiritual Transformation in the Buffyverse,” in Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, ed. by Anthony R. Mills, John W. Morehead, & J. Ryan Parker (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013), 26n27. ↩
- As the Buffyverse, through Anya, explains about Thanksgiving, “I love a ritual sacrifice. … To commemorate a past event, you kill and eat an animal. It’s a ritual sacrifice. With pie” (“Pangs,” 4.8). ↩
- Ricketts, 22. ↩
- I use “good” in quotation marks because of course Angel and Angelus are the same person (vampire), just one with a soul that prevents him from doing evil. ↩
- As Roslyn Weaver notes, “Rather than attempting to find in Buffy a slavish adherence to Christian traditions, it seems more productive to note the occasional parallels and more importantly point to the series’ patchwork of Christian, secular, and pagan symbols that represents a contemporary approach to individualized spirituality and religiosity.” Roslyn Weaver, “Apocalypse Now and Again: The Apocalyptic Paradigm and the Meaning of Life and (Un)Death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in Joss Whedon and Religion: Essays on an Angry Atheist’s Explorations of the Sacred, ed. by Anthony R. Mills, John W. Morehead, & J. Ryan Parker (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013), 74. ↩