Welcome to Words for Wednesday! Below is a paper I presented at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Antonio, Texas in April of 2011. I’ve included the images used in my original power point presentation. I originally wrote it the paper for graduate school in 2009 and revamped it for presentation to a Whedon-y audience. Enjoy!
Joss Whedon created a contemporary mythology for a modern audience through Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Within the storylines of this mythology lie powerful characters and endless parallels to issues individuals face in society today. Throughout the seven seasons of Buffy, Whedon offers metaphors that speak to the trials and tribulations of life. These include everything from the teen angst of high school to the loss of loved ones. As a series that involves vampires and other demons, Buffy constantly depicts the metaphor of life eating on life (an idea frequently discussed by mythologist Joseph Campbell), and symbols of death abound. In the fifth season of the series, death becomes an exceptionally poignant element as Buffy suffers the loss of her mother and later the Slayer sacrifices her own life. Ultimately, Joss Whedon utilizes season five to depict the pain of such loss and show viewers how to embrace death. Like all useful mythologies, Buffy reflects the current societal state, giving viewers something to relate to, while also offering another approach to dealing with concerns of life and death, an important concern also addressed through ritual.
In our modern American society, our funerary rituals do not grant us the time needed to effectively manage the loss of loved ones. Americans do not have the opportunity to embrace the experience of death and loss for months or years. The process of the funeral and the return to “normal” daily life is rushed. The experience of the shock and grief involved with losing a loved one is powerful, and the fifth season of Buffy aptly and necessarily demonstrates this experience.
According to religious historian Mircea Eliade, “the supreme function of the myth is to ‘fix’ the paradigmatic models for all rites and significant human activities” (98). While a television series does not offer viewers new rituals, it opens a space for individuals to consider and contemplate events they have experienced and reflect on how they respond to those experiences. Whedon speaks to the American way of encountering death and ultimately embraces ideas from traditions outside of America, accepting “[t]he challenge death poses for the cultural community” and working “to integrate it into cosmological schema” (Grillo 22).
Before sacrificing her own life, Buffy faces the loss of her mother, Joyce. Whedon masterfully captures the horrors of this event. Though Buffy has faced death and tragedy throughout the first five years of the series, nothing compares to this loss. “The Body,” which includes no musical score, is arguably the most powerful episode of the fifth season of Buffy because of its chilling realism. As the title reveals, the episode sharply focuses on the image of the dead body. The episode begins with the moment Buffy finds Joyce dead on the couch and ends when she again sees her mother’s body in the morgue.
When Buffy finds her mother’s body, she promptly calls 911. She explains to the dispatcher that, “She’s cold.” When the dispatcher questions if, “the body is cold,” an offended Buffy declares, “No, my mom!” Before the paramedics enter, Giles arrives and rushes towards Joyce. Buffy exclaims, “We’re not supposed to move the body!” (“Body”) She raises her hand to her face in shock of what she just said. That shift in her language signifies that ghastly moment of realization – her mother is not coming back. This episode is painful to watch; however, it demonstrates reactions experienced with loss, reactions we sometimes try to hide.
When the episodes show the Scoobies reaction to the loss of Joyce, Anya poignantly articulates the pain and confusion of death. Though she often fashioned death and destruction during her thousand years as a vengeance demon, it never personally affected her. Anya expresses frustration with the mystery of death:
But I don’t understand! I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this. I mean, I knew her, and then she’s, there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And, and Xander’s crying and not talking, and, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well, Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever, and she’ll never have eggs, or yawn or brush her hair, not ever, and no one will explain to me why. (“Body”)
This discussion impeccably echoes Joseph Campbell’s discussion on death: “The question is, What has happened to this body? It was walking around, it was warm, it lied down, it was cold. Where has it gone? This idea of where it has gone is the first clue we have to a mythological thought” (Hero’s 70). Through Anya’s questions, Whedon is discussing prominent mythological concerns.
Why are people supposed to avoid asking the questions Anya presents? “Are we going to see the body? . . . Are we going to be in the room with the dead body? . . . Are they going to cut the body open?” (“Body”). Willow declares, “It’s not okay to ask these things.” This is the American approach. However, “Death, a fundamental, inevitable, physiological fact, seems to point to the most objective aspect of human existence – that we are material creatures subject to the physical conditions of the physical world” (Grillo 21). We should not be afraid to talk about it openly and directly. In addition to addressing mythological thought, Anya’s questions open the door to questions we are not “supposed” to discuss. Whedon intentionally makes viewers uncomfortable throughout “The Body.” In America, we do not have an appropriate manner of coping with death. By making us uncomfortable, Whedon demonstrates the need for change in our culture.
In her essay on “Funerary Rituals,” Laura Grillo explains, “the Toradja ‘cult of the dead,’ far from being a horrifying or morbid preoccupation with death, can be understood to affirm the continuity between the animated world of the living and the spiritual world beyond which it depends” (5). The Day of the Dead and the Cult of the Dead are examples of communities embracing death and allowing the processes of acceptance and transformation to take place over time. The Day of the Dead allows members to “memorialize [the dead and give] ritualized attention . . . to the deceased” (Turner and Jasper 139). The Texas-Mexicans are able to “use the tools of tradition to externalize their encounter with death and loss” (Turner and Jasper 149). They allow the time needed for coping. The Toradja keep their dead for up to a year, allowing for the process of moving from one realm to the next. This also allows for an unrushed grieving process: “Death must be apprehended, its chaotic and terrifying potential arrested and regulated by culture. The Toradja funeral rituals recognize death as a consumption but regulate it with prescribed steps circumscribed by the determinative meaning that culture ascribes” (Grillo 16-17). While the Toradja way will not likely become the American way, we are in need of a longer progression for our death rituals.
In the episode after “The Body,” Buffy has to make the arrangements for her mother’s funeral. Afterwards, Buffy explains to Angel, “The funeral was . . . brutal, but it’s tomorrow that I’m worried about . . . Tomorrow the stuff of everyday living resumes” (“Forever”). In America, the rituals and traditions typically end after the funeral. There may be a gathering after the funeral to share memories and a meal, but then life must go on. In “Intervention” Buffy explains to Giles that she is considering taking a break from slaying because she doesn’t like what it’s doing to her. “To slay, to kill, it means being hard on the inside. Maybe being the perfect Slayer means being too hard to love at all” (“Intervention”). Giles informs Buffy that previous Slayers went to “a sacred place in the desert” for “regaining their focus, learning more about their role.” Buffy accepts Giles’ offer to take her to this sacred place. Of course, as Eliade explains, “men are not free to choose the sacred site . . . they only seek for it and find it by the help of mysterious signs” (Eliade 28).
Giles takes Buffy into the desert and performs a ritual to invoke Buffy’s guide. He cannot take her any further. A mountain lion soon appears to lead Buffy to the sacred site. According to the philosopher Macrobius, “lions are emblematic of the earth” (qtd. in Cooper 98). Since the Earth “is the universal archetype of . . . sustenance,” the symbol of her guide indicates that this spiritual quest is going to provide her the nourishment she needs to move forward with her life and cope with her loss” (Cooper 59). Whedon and his team of writers masterfully utilize these symbols to affect a resonating image for viewers. Whether Whedon or the readers are consciously aware of the meanings can be argued; regardless, the collective unconscious, to use Carl Jung’s term, recognizes them.
After the lion leads Buffy to the sacred location, she awaits the arrival of her spirit guide. This guide appears in the form of The First Slayer. She speaks to Buffy’s fears and informs her, “You are full of love. You love with all of your soul. It’s brighter than the fire, blinding . . . Love is pain, and the Slayer forges strength from pain. Love, give, forgive. Risk the pain. It is your nature. Love will bring you to your gift.” While this sentiment initially comforts Buffy, the First Slayer then reveals to Buffy that death is her gift. Buffy argues, “Death is not a gift. My mother just died. I know this. If I have to kill demons because it makes the world a better place, then I kill demons, but it’s not a gift to anybody” (“Intervention”). According to Joseph Campbell, “We live by killing, which is what you do even when you are eating grapes. You are still killing something. Life just lives on life. And it’s the one life in all of these different heads of mouths eating itself. It’s a fantastic mystery” (Hero’s 12). Buffy must reconcile herself to the role she has a Slayer. The acceptance of death as a function of life is imperative for Buffy. Whedon utilizes this episode to set up the climactic conclusion of the season, but also to demonstrate the time of reflection we need to take for ourselves after facing death. Buffy’s spiritual quest presents the difficulty of accepting death and represents the post-funerary rituals that America is missing.
After the presentation in season five of various mythological and ritualistic elements, Whedon speaks directly to the significance of sacrifice and ritual in the season finale “The Gift.” To begin with, Glory prepares to sacrifice Dawn and, consequently, unleash hellish dimensions. In Read’s discussion, she indicates that “people must calculate their actions so that they do not upset their family’s, city’s, or sun’s spiraling motion” (152). Buffy must work to spare not only her remaining family and her city, but her world and many others, from spiraling into a destructive atmosphere.
Concerning the ritual, Glory forces Dawn to change into a ceremonial dress, honoring the sacredness of ritual sacrifice. When Read discusses “ritual costume” in “The Cosmic Meal,” she indicates that every “costume . . . embodie[s] a particular force” (147). There is an “exchange” made to create “a new force” (147). Although Dawn was not born human, she is a completely innocent creature, another element typical of ritual sacrifice. As Joseph de Maistre explains, “sacrificial animals [are] the gentlest, most innocent creatures, whose habits and instincts [bring] them most closely to [being] human in nature” (qtd. in Girard 241). Dawn characterizes the notion that “the ritual victim is an ‘innocent’ creature who pays a debt for the guilty party” (241). It is important for Whedon to demonstrate such elements of ritual here because he has been speaking to the ritual processes involved with death throughout season five.
When the ritual has begun and Dawn’s blood is being drained, Buffy realizes what she must do, how “death” is her “gift.” She will sacrifice herself to stop the ritual, rescue her sister, and save the world from great destruction. Buffy gracefully jumps off the tower, sacrificing her blood and body to the mystical portal. After Buffy dies, a series of shots show the grief of her friends while a voice-over indicates what Buffy said to her sister before she jumped: “Dawn, listen to me . . . I will always love you. But this is the work that I have to do. Tell Giles . . . I figured it out . . . and I’m okay . . . You have to be strong. Dawn, the hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live. For me” (“Gift”). In this moment of clarity, Buffy reconciles the pain of life and passes her wisdom on to her younger sister. Buffy’s death reflects Campbell’s view that “death . . . is understood as a fulfillment of our life’s direction and purpose” (Thou Art That 34). Whedon uses the mythological and ritualistic elements of death and sacrifice to show viewers ways of accepting the painful and unpredictable nature of life alongside the certainty of death. Like the Toradja’s “conception of death [it is] not as an end but . . . a metamorphosis that leads to life” (Grillo 11). After Buffy struggles with the loss of her mother, she embraces her own death and the unknown that lies ahead of her.
“Who someone or something is, then, is a matter of the kind of powers that one’s mahceua has. And while in the course of a person’s life she is given a great deal of merit that helps determine her nature, she also can determine to some degree her own merit through her actions and the rituals performed at appropriate times and places” (Read 152). Buffy has no choice about having Slayer powers. She is automatically elevated to the role of hero. However, in her continual choices to embrace that role, she demonstrates her own merit. We too can make these choices. It is inevitable to discuss the importance of the hero when discussing death. As Campbell indicated, “one part of the mythological motif of the hero’s journey is acquiescence. For instance, I am moving toward death, as we all are. That’s also yielding. And the hero is the one who knows when to surrender and what to surrender to. The main theme is to yield your position to the dynamic. And the dynamic of life is now this form eats that form. Yield” (Hero’s 12). Of course, we are not all to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good, but to consider the metaphor that Buffy offers us, which is akin to the Mexica sacrifice: “Sacrifice was a way of re-forming things in order to create an appropriate order again” (Read 153). Literal sacrifices are metaphors for the emotional sacrifices we all make in life to bring forth balance and harmony.
According to Campbell, “the fourth function of mythology is psychological. The myth must carry the individual through the stages of his life, from birth through maturity through senility to death. The mythology must do so in accord with the social order of his group, the cosmos as understood by his group, and the monstrous energy” (Campbell, Pathways 9). Buffy functions so powerfully as a mythology because it fulfills this function, demonstrating Buffy’s life as a Slayer and her death, specifically in modern America. Surely one of the greatest mysteries we cope with is facing death.
Finally, we should remember that “Death is a paradox – it can be understood as both a changeless state and transforming process, as a definitive end or harbinger of new beginnings and rebirth” (Grillo 20). Buffy demonstrates both aspects of death. Although Joyce loses her life, her death functions to transform Buffy. While Buffy herself then sacrifices her own life, she provides new beginnings for those she loves. The sixth season of Buffy, then, deals with another prominent issue – rebirth and resurrection. Buffy faces what Campbell refers to as “the rescue from without” when her friends resurrect her from the dead (Hero 170). Future projects will explore the significance of Buffy’s unwanted resurrection and the implications it has on the cosmology of Buffy and the minds of the viewers. That discussion will also include an analysis of the afterlife as presented by Whedon and its relationship to the various depictions of heaven.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero’s Journey. Novato: New World, 1990.
— The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato: New World Library, 2008.
— Pathways to Bliss. Novato: New World Library, 2004.
— Thou Art That. Novato: New World Library, 2001.
Cooper, J.C. “Earth.” An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Cooper, J.C. “Lion.” An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Florida: Harcourt, 1967.
Girard, Rene. “Violence and the Sacred: Sacrifice.” Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L. Grimes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996. 239-256.
Grillo, Laura S. “‘Rambu Solo’: the Toradja Cult of the Dead and Embodied Imagination.”
Read, Kay. “The Cosmic Meal,” Time and Sacrifice in the Aztec Cosmos. Bloomington: Indiana UP 1998. 123-137; 144-155.
Turner, Kay, and Pat Jasper. “Day of the Dead, the Tex-Mex Tradition.” Halloween and Other Festivals of Death and Life. Ed. Jack Santino. Knoxville: U of Tennesse P, 1994. 133-151.
Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1960.