Some parents take their children to church to teach them what “hell” is.
Not me! In fact, I think it’s a shitty thing to do to a kid. We don’t learn much, if anything, from being threatened and spooked. We learn who we are from leaps of faith, though; that’s a fact. So I’ve unrepentantly turned my young female progeny on to… oh, just say it: The Josspel.
I didn’t grow up with Buffy. When it premiered I was pushing thirty. And I wasn’t expecting to like it: I’d seen the mass-casualty film version and thought, “Shit, they’re really going to bite that mealy-ass apple again?”
Hell (as it were) yes. The movie had cleverly obscured Joss Whedon’s epic universe-architecture skills as well as his lightning-like wit, not to mention the undercurrent of melancholy and penchant for magical realism I should have recognized even through the film’s murk, given the number of weekends I spent with a slutty, Faith-esque sidekick in shadowy corners of Alpha Delt and Eclectic at Wesleyan in the early ‘90s (Joan: I know you were the one who stole my ring. Did the karma police locate you?) Anyhoo: Resurrection accomplished. The show still ranks #1 on the list of “Scripts Amy Desperately Wishes She Had Written.”
I’m not exactly a Buffy. In fact, if you ask Buzzfeed, I’m usually considered a Giles. Nonetheless, there was a parallel there I could not ignore. I’ve been a demon magnet all my life, and it has always seemed oddly karma-saturated and metaphorical. My “Mister Pointy” is my mouth; ask anyone at an extended-family dinner or any wingnut who ignores the words “No, thank you” at a bar—but if there’s a vampire in the room, you can bet its inner compass will send it gunning for me. And like Buffy, I have never had the luxury of simply not seeing them or refusing to deal with them. If it bares its cuspids, I’m pretty much going to engage. And yes, it’s exhausting and has often left me wondering why this cannot be someone else’s karma. I had an Angel. I had a Riley (who unfortunately confirmed that, like Buffy, I wasn’t destined to be satisfied with “normal”). I had Parker Abramses beyond number; hell, they come out of the woodwork to this day. Speaking of which, I even had a Principal Wood—cute as hell, but with Oedipus-grade Mommy Issues and a shit-ton of repressed rage. I’ve dealt with more than one Caleb and had a traumatizing relationship with a Ben/Glorificus combo. That archetype thing is real, people.
(I am still waiting for re-ensouled Spike. That would be so cool.)
I am now raising two girls. One’s 14 and was showing interest in major social justice issues at a developmentally improbable age (she was the only kid in her kindergarten class who knew what California’s Proposition 8 was and could wipe the floor with any adult stupid enough to suggest there was a pro-8 argument that held water). The ten-year-old’s Mister Pointy is a seriously advanced grasp of dramatic irony and a wicked sense of humor. They’re both attractive, and the vampire population is definitely not on the decline, and if Demon Magnet is a heritable trait they are likely screwed. So I figured they ought to know that Facing Your Demons can be shockingly literal.
Welcome to the Hellmouth, ladies.
Yes, we come for the comedy and goofball teen romance and stuff. Sure. We groan collectively every time Xander manages to hook up with a demon (Girl #1 is still pissed off at him for kissing Willow). Both girls squeal every time Oz opens his mouth. Girl #2 can still be put into doubled-over hysterics at the mere mention of Gachnar the Fear Demon.
But the girl-power life lessons of Buffy are no joke. We’re currently in Season Four, and I’m wondering if we’ll need a hiatus soon because the younger one will lose her shit over “The Body”—Paste’s choice for the best Buffy episode of all the narrative level, and the older one will do likewise when I explain that the power source for that heart-slayer episode was Whedon’s own mother’s untimely death. And yes, I do explain that stuff, because one of the series’ meta-lessons is that kung fu is not our only defense against life’s Big Bads. We also have art. Hell, if we aren’t kung fu masters, we might only have art, so it’s a good thing it’s powerful stuff.
As of Season Four, episode 16 (at which the Faith/Buffy body-swap is reversed but its consequences are not), here’s what we’ve learned:
1. Adolescence is hell. No, seriously. Hell. Deal with it. The metaphors would probably be pretty top heavy if Whedon’s sense of geeky comedy weren’t so pitch-perfect, but he handles it like a geeky, magical-realist figure skater. User guys who suck the life out of you? Vampires. Not just figurative. Lust can turn you into a monster? Well, yeah. Your own parents are such control freaks that it feels like you’re the subject of some kind of witch hunt? Not only might you be the subject of an actual witch hunt, you might discover you’re an actual witch. At any given moment you might have to be a mystical warrior and still find time to study for your math test, and there’s nothing you can do about either of those things. And all your choices count, because what you don’t deal with will come back to haunt you. Figuratively. And literally.
2. No one knows what it’s like (Behind Blue Eyes reference deliberate). But also, everyone does. I don’t know if you’re one of those people who are generally just crazy-tormented even though, from other peoples’ perspectives, you seem to have it made. But most teenage girls are that person, at least for a while. And again, Whedon deftly normalizes it by making it a writ-large mystical supernatural karmic obligation. Buffy is most thoroughly screwed when she dwells on how no one can understand her burdens or lift them from her, and at her most powerful when she trusts her friends to help. That’s not just true for slayers. Find me a teenager who doesn’t think they’ve been saddled with a completely unfair load of responsibilities simply because they’re too self-centered to realize they’re just like everyone else. Ask Angel: For an intangible, ineffable thing, a human soul can weigh a ton. No one can ever really understand what you’re carrying around, and you can’t ever really understand what they’re carrying around. That’s why giving what you wish to receive is so important. Love? Be loving. Acceptance? Accept. Forgiveness? Forgive. The truth? Be honest. Justice? Be fair. Sometimes the people to whom you give these gifts will not “deserve” them, but that’s not the point. You do it for you.
3. Vampires are often very charming. And if they’re on your couch, it’s because you invited them in. Hey, no one really had all the info. Due to the inherent secret-identitude of Slayerdom, and Jenny Calendar’s own “I’m not at Sunnydale High by accident” thing, and teenagers not being so hot to telegraph that they’re taking things to the next level with their 250-year-old boyfriend? Everyone had something they weren’t saying. None of them could individually have foreseen that Angel would go totally homicidal whackadoodle like that! I mean, come on. So sometimes, you have someone who, though a vampire, is generally good and an asset and super helpful. And if his Gypsy curse kicks in and makes him revert to soulless demon form-well, first of all, it hurts. Second, you might have to kill him. Third, he might torture and kill a bunch of people first, including some characters you really care about. Fourth, when he magically reappears from the depths of hell several episodes later? Maybe you have some split loyalty issues. The point is, once you’ve let someone into your life, it can be permanent, and it can be permanent in torturous ways because they might become evil but there’s no lock that can keep them out. They know how to get to you. So you need to focus not on what the vamp is doing, but on what you’re doing. Because you can only control one of those things. And obsessing over things you can’t control is a recipe for eternal torment, even if the object of your obsession has the graciousness to get a spinoff and leave for Los Angeles.
4. Trust is a choice. Love really isn’t. If you happen to fall wildly in love with someone who falls wildly in love with you, and you manage to spend a long and happy life of co-creativity and mutual support and generosity and emotional maturity together and never stop finding each other impossibly hot and full of amazing surprises and you die painlessly in each others’ arms at the age of 103? Awesome sauce. But guess what? It was sheer chance, not a cosmic reward for being such a badass. The most likely scenario is that you’ll be drawn to the wrong people, you’ll make crazy choices, the people you love the most will break you the most, and reason, pragmatism and self-awareness will not rise up and help you. Attraction is like gravity, and passion will possess you like some kind of supernatural being, and imagine how empty your life would be if that never happened even once! What’s right at one point in a life can stop being right later. Yes, being vulnerable can be dangerous. Never letting your guard down is a hell-dimension all its own.
5. Adulthood is hell, too. You thought being a teenager was bad? Couldn’t wait to be independent? Funny, right? We’re responsible for our choices from what psychologists refer to as the “age of reason,” the point in our development at which we are capable of discerning right from wrong. (It’s generally considered to be around age seven.) That responsibility does not change, but man, the size and complexity and ramification-ripple of your choices sure does. The stakes (figurative) only ever go up. So keep your stakes (literal-figurative) sharp, because apocalypses are like buses. (You know; there’s always another one on its way.) From the vantage point of college, the cosseted life we led as children seems so simple—even if your high school was on the Hellmouth, because honestly, there are just as many demons at your college, not to mention commando super-soldiers and hybrid monsters and evil-genius professors and roommates who are demons in disguise (mine played lacrosse and was super worried I would turn out to be a lesbian for some reason). And frat boys. So many frat boys. You want to talk about evil? One word: Amherst. But I digress! By the time Buffy’s partway through college she’s had to survive more monsters and more apocalypses, personal and global, than seem possible. And my daughters have no idea how much tougher it’s about to get. I kind of don’t want to tell them, but we’re not going to get to witness the epic splendor of “Once More With Feeling” until we get through some serious Ouch.
6. You are not alone. Ever. Even if the title sequence specifically says you are.
Upshot? Hell is real, but it’s also in your mind. Or, at least, hell is other people. Or hell is in your head. Or you make your own hell. Hell, I don’t know. But we’ve got plenty to chew on with regard to where torment does and doesn’t come from.
You and only you can slay your demons—but you’ll be much more likely to succeed at it if you enlist the help of people you love and trust. Paradox. (Hey, what big thing isn’t?)
It never gets easier, but you’ll get better at reacting to it—and if you don’t, you’re toast.
Everything is a metaphor. Take responsibility for your actions. And inactions. Understand that there is a little angel and a little demon in everyone. Forgive. Love. Appreciate. Avoid snap judgments, accept that people change and that one of those people is you. Give that which you would wish to receive. Understand that you are part of Something Bigger whether you can see that or not. Attempt to pierce the veil and see that there are multiple realities, all of which are in fact valid to someone. If you date demons, don’t expect them to act like humans; that’s just stupid. Own your power. Understand that black-and-white thinking is for weenies. Be kind, but not afraid to kick some fucking ass. And as the Greeks inscribed over the doorway of the temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself. And we’re not even to Season Five yet! Not too shabby.
Still, we’re going to get into the whole death and self-sacrifice thing and the embracing your inner darkness thing and the needing a little monster in your man (or woman) thing and the addictive powers of magic, power and being too big for your britches thing in the advanced seminar. Because I don’t want my young mystical warrior girl-power superheroes to have nightmares, right?
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.