by Berni Phillips
One of television's best-written fantasy series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, featured a lead character who was usually seen wearing a cross around her neck. I was fascinated by a character who in her high school days prominently wore a religious symbol in every episode, yet no mention was ever made of the fact. In the real world, most women wearing crosses profess to be Christian. Is Buffy? If not, can the show be considered Christian?
The intent of this paper is to examine the use of Christian symbols in the seven seasons of the television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Its spin-off series, Angel, will not be considered, nor will the original movie, original novels, or graphic novels. And since my particular Christian filter is Roman Catholic, that is the slant from which I'm approaching the topic.
Buffy is a slayer, the one girl of her generation chosen to be gifted with the strength and skills necessary to fight vampires and other demons. The slayer is always a girl. Since the task she is given is very dangerous, most slayers do not live very long. When one slayer dies, the next potential slayer is immediately chosen in a manner which has never been precisely defined.
Buffy lives in Sunnydale, California, a location which corresponds with the real world city of Santa Barbara.1 Both towns boast beaches, a University of California campus, and a particular distance to Los Angeles. It's not known whether Santa Barbara also has twelve cemeteries, 43 churches, and is sitting on a "hell mouth."
Sunnydale's original name was Boca del Infierno for it sits upon a "hell mouth", a center of mystical convergence which has the potential to be opened to one of the many hell dimensions. Several season-long arcs have had plots relating to various villains trying to open the hell mouth. Appropriately for the teens' point of view, Sunnydale High School is situated on top of the hell mouth, making it a focus for all sorts of supernatural events that Buffy and her friends encounter. This hell mouth and the monsters Buffy fights serve as a metaphor for high school and finding one's way to adulthood.
We are told at the very beginning (in "The Harvest," the second half of the original two-hour pilot), that this world is not our own. The Buffyverse, as its fan base lovingly refers to it, has a history that contradicts the book of Genesis in the Bible. Giles, the school librarian and Buffy's newly-assigned watcher, her mentor and trainer, tells her,
This world is older than you know. Contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the earth and made it their home, their hell. But in time, they lost their purchase on this reality. The books tell, the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a... human form possessed and infected by the demon's soul.
It is thus established that vampires are hybrids of demons in dead humans. There is no mention of God in this tale. Buffy fights on the side of Good, but it appears to be a very anonymous Good. Evil gets the spotlight. The slayer, the chosen one, is presumed to be good because she is always supposed to be in opposition to Evil. Yet we saw Faith, another slayer, turn evil in the third season. The slayer is imbued with supernatural physical powers but no supernatural spiritual powers. Her only ally in her fight against Evil is her watcher, an ordinary human who is part of a guild which trains its members in obscure languages, martial arts, and knowledge of magic. The slayer wears and wields a cross, but she does not worship at it.
"We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world." Response spoken at each of the Stations of the Cross, a popular Catholic devotion.
Buffy's two primary weapons, the first offensive and the second defensive, are the stake and the cross. Considering the cross first, we have seen over the years that anyone can wield a cross to repel, at least temporarily, a vampire. Buffy and Giles use it regularly in the first three seasons. They have never mentioned any religious affiliation but may have had some type of Christian background. So, too, has Xander, whose family is identified as Episcopalian. But other cross-wielders include Willow Rosenberg, who was raised Jewish and becomes Wiccan in college (in season four), and Jenny Calendar, a self-professed "technopagan."
This tells us that the power of the cross bears no relation to the faith of the person carrying it. Indeed, it is treated as another weapon, as Buffy stores her non-jewelry crosses in her weapons chest. When the cross touches a vampire in the Buffyverse, the vampire's flesh starts to sizzle and burn where it comes into contact with the cross. As an object, a cross is simply a geometric shape of two intersecting lines. The power of the cross as a defensive weapon in the Buffyverse must be in what Christians call the power of the cross: a symbol of the enormous love of God, a love so great that he came down and died for us so that we might live forever. Christians believe the power of the cross allows them to live forever with God in heaven. The vampiric immortality we see in the Buffyverse is a sad parody of that promise. No wonder its symbol makes them flee. The cross ultimately has the power to destroy their demon-infested bodies, given long enough a contact with it.
The Roman Catholic liturgy for Good Friday includes a veneration of the cross. As the cross is lifted three times, each time a little higher, the congregation intones, "This is the wood of the cross, on which hung the Savior of the world. Come, let us worship." Whereas in various pagan mythologies, wood can have several connotations, to us Christians, the wood is always the wood of the Cross.
Buffy's primary weapon is the stake, a pointed piece of wood. Over the many episodes, stakes have been improvised from various things: broken chairs, broken pool cues, slats from a fence, etc. The one commonality is that it has to be wood. The most common way to slay a vampire is a stake through the heart. If you miss the heart with a wooden stake, the vampire continues its existence. If you pierce the heart with a piece of metal or plastic, the vampire continues its existence. To the Christian, the connection is clear: only a piece of wood will kill the vampire because it points to the Cross and Jesus' sacrifice for us.
Other items in Buffy's weapons trunk which have Christian origin are holy water and communion hosts. Holy water has been used in several episodes in some rather imaginative ways. In season three's "Lover's Walk," a large supply of glass bottles containing holy water have been used as holy hand grenades, acting as Molotov cocktails to the vampire as the liquid from the broken bottle comes into contact with the demon. Season three also had the most innovative use of holy water in the episode, "Helpless," which centers on Buffy turning 18, a rarity for slayers. In a test of her skill, Buffy was deprived of her slayer powers and defeats a vampire by tricking it into drinking holy water, whereupon it ignited from within. Holy water has also been used for comedic effect as the one weapon to give someone who can't be trusted not to hurt himself with anything a little more substantial. This can be seen in "Showtime" in season seven as the nerdy and not-quite-trustworthy Andrew demands some sort of protection. After all the potential slayers are given cross-bows, swords, and axes, he is reluctantly handed a jar of holy water.
Communion hosts, while they have been seen in several episodes, have never been used in action on the series and a good thing that is. Christians who believe in transubstantiation that upon consecration the bread actually becomes the body of Christ while retaining the appearance, feel, and taste of the bread would be greatly offended by the sacrilege of such an act. (Not to mention the fact that they must have been stolen from a church because no one would sell consecrated hosts.) If they are unconsecrated, they would have no effect, being just bread.
Blood is an important symbol in the series. It is the food of the vampires, the reason they attack humans to begin with. Humans are cattle to the vampires, lambs to be slaughtered. This has resonances with Old Testament sacrifice and the prohibition against the eating of meat which has blood in it. Lambs are ritually slaughtered to take away the sins of the people. The ultimate blood sacrifice, Jesus, the Lamb of God, is also a blood sacrifice as he bleeds copiously in his Passion and crucifixion. "Good" vampires, like Angel with his soul and Spike with his chip (and later a soul) can only partake of blood from non-human sources, such as pigs.
The fifth season's story arc centers around Buffy's new sister, Dawn, who is mystical energy transformed into a human. Glory, a god from a hell dimension (the Buffyverse features a wealth of various hell dimensions) has been searching for Dawn, for her blood will open and close a portal to the demonic hell dimension from which Glory was expelled. In the final episode of the fifth season, "The Gift," Xander wonders why it's always blood2 and is answered by the vampire Spike, who by this time has a chip implanted in his head that prevents him attacking humans. Spike tells Xander, "'Cause it's always got to be blood. Blood is life." Blood connects one generation to the next. And blood makes a sacrifice.
Buffy is a Christ figure. Jesus says at the Last Supper that there is no greater love than to lay down one's life for one's friends. Buffy does this time and again.
The first time Buffy literally lays her life down for her friends is in "Prophecy Girl," the final episode of the first season. She overhears Giles telling of a prophecy that if she fights the Master, an enormously powerful vampire, she will die. She confronts Giles in a scene reminiscent of Jesus' agony in the garden: she's only 16 and she doesn't want to die. She is resolved not to go to her death until she comes upon her friend Willow, who has been traumatized by finding the dead bodies of classmates who were killed by vampires right in the school. Seeing Willow's pain, she knows she has to fight the Master and prevent his ascension3 even if it results in her death.
She goes to fight the Master, not even stopping to change out of her prom gown, and she does die.4 He mesmerizes her and is able to drink her blood until she loses consciousness, then he tosses her into a pool of water in which she drowns, cruelly mocking her with "Nice dress!" as he does so. Xander, utterly devoted and utterly without super-powers, saves her. He gets there in time to perform CPR on her and she is reborn. The pool has become her baptismal font from which she emerges in her long, white prom gown (reminiscent of a christening gown) stronger than before. Angel, who has reluctantly led Xander to the Master's lair, tells Buffy, "You're still weak." She replies, "No. I feel strong. I feel different." She has lost her fear and gained new strength in her resurrection. The Master no longer can mesmerize her and she defeats him.
The second time Buffy literally dies is in "The Gift," the fifth season finale. Dawn has been bound to a towering contraption and her skin sliced so that she freely bleeds, and her blood opens a portal into one of the many hells the Buffyverse offers. Demons fly out of the portal and start ravaging the town. Only Dawn's death can now close the portal, we are told. Buffy decides that since they share the same blood, her blood will suffice for the sacrifice. She dives into the portal, arms spread in imitation of Jesus on the cross. She dies closing the portal, and the headstone on her grave later reads, "Buffy Anne Summers, 1981 - 2001, Beloved Sister, Devoted Friend. She saved the world a lot."5 Buffy is resurrected by Willow and the others through dark magic, and she continues for two more seasons. The last season's main villain, or "Big Bad" as is the common nickname, is the First, as in the First Evil. The First can take the form of any dead person, although it remains intangible. Since Buffy has already died a couple of times, the First can take Buffy's own form. In the final episode, "Chosen," Buffy takes a sword wound that should kill her. The First takes Buffy's form, down to her outfit and wounds, and mocks Buffy with "Oh, Mommy, this mortal wound itches!" Instead of dying, Buffy rises like a phoenix from the ashes and fights some more.
What is remarkable about "Chosen" is that Buffy and Willow change the rules of the Buffyverse. Instead of "one girl from every generation" (which had already been violated by the second slayer who had been activated upon Buffy's brief death in "Prophecy Girl"), every girl who was a potential slayer was activated and made a full-strength slayer. Buffy has the idea upon receiving a mystical axe which she is told contains the essence of the Slayer. Willow performs the magic spell which carries it out, transferring the magical essence to all the potential slayers, redeeming herself in the process.6
This sharing of the power strikes me as another particularly Christ-like action of Buffy's. Going back to the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he calls them friends, and they're being sent out into the world to be Jesus to the world. Buffy isn't alone in her fight against evil any more. There are all these countless slayers to help in the battle, slayers multiplied as Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.
Xander, too, becomes a Christ figure, if only briefly. He saves the world by love. When his best friend, Willow, is out of her mind with grief and rage and wants to destroy the world at the end of season six, he stops her. Identifying himself as a carpenter (linking himself to the humanity of Jesus), he says that she must first kill him if she want to end the world. She rages at him, slashing him magically until he bleeds like Christ on the cross. He persists in his love until it wins through her rage and he is able to connect with the Willow he has known all his life as a musical setting of the prayer of St. Francis7 plays in the background.
While Buffy the Vampire Slayer embodies Christian elements, it is not a Christian show. The Buffyverse is more Gnostic (used broadly), with its equal and opposing forces of good and evil and the importance of secret knowledge possessed by the watchers and other secret societies (such as the Knights of Byzantium who show up in season five to destroy the key.) As I've stated, there are nonetheless many instances of Christian themes and symbols. The final theme I'd like to mention is the importance of community. Roman Catholicism stresses heavily the importance of church, or community. For us, the relationship with God is less "me and Jesus" than "us and Jesus." It has been suggested time and again in the series that it is Buffy's sense of community that has led to her longevity as a slayer. Other slayers have operated alone, in secret. Buffy has friends and family, a community, who support her. She would have stayed dead in "Prophecy Girl" if not for Xander's concern for her. Her community is as much as source of strength for her as is her mystical heritage as the slayer, and this is a source of strength we can all tap into.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer all seven seasons, created by Joss Whedon.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy: Fear and Trembling in Sunnydale. James B. South, ed., especially the essay, "Prophecy Girl and the Powers That Be: the Philosophy of Religion in the Buffyverse" by Wendy Love Anderson, Carus Publishing Company, 2003.
Presented at Mythcon XXXIV in Nashville, TN, July, 2003. Copyright © 2003, Berni Phillips
After my presentation, someone from the audience pointed out that the instance of Buffy transferring the essence of the slayer to all the potential slayers could also be likened to Pentecost. Insert one of those "Duh! Why didn't I think of that?" expressions.
1. Thanks to David Bratman for confirming this. Various episodes have had city maps of "Sunnydale." A close inspection of the map in a stilled image revealed it to be a map of Santa Barbara.
2. Xander asks why it's not a lymph sacrifice, in his typical flip manner. This is echoed in season seven by Caleb, musing about red wine and Jesus proclaiming that this wine is his blood. Caleb ponders if we would have white wine at communion if Jesus had proclaimed the wine to be his lymph. This evidently caused a flurry of complaints to the network about the sacrilegious nature of the comment.
3. Many of the villains Buffy battles have ascensions planned. Besides the Master, there's the mayor in season three, whose ascension results in him turning into a giant snake demon.
4. This has the effect of introducing a second slayer. Buffy's momentary death activates Kendra the Vampire Slayer, who appears in the second season. Kendra dies and Faith, the rogue slayer, is next activated.
5. This "she saved the world a lot" is a reference to the many apocalypses which Buffy averted through the years. Willow and Xander had become so used to averting apocalypses that their response to Giles' "It's the end of the world!" was "again?" in season four.
6. While she is performing this spell, Willow's hair goes white and she is lit up until she positively glows. This contrasts with "Dark Willow" who, in season six, was so enraged with grief that she tried to destroy the world by dark magic, which made her hair, eyes, and clothing go black.
7. "Make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me bring love," etc.
[Home] [Creativity] [Genres] [Resources] [Links] [About Us]
[Art Gallery] [Essays] [Stories]
[A Fresh Path to the Grave And Beyond] [Strangers on the Border Between Two Strange Lands] [Christian Symbolism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer] [The Theologian's Spreadsheet] [Christian SF?]