It’s probably not shocking to anyone reading this that we are fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer here at TalkDeath. A show that primarily takes place in cemeteries AND is all about feminine power? No wonder we are obsessed with it!
Yet, our love for the show isn’t just for its aesthetics or the subversive way it turned gendered horror narratives on their head. BVTS was revolutionary in so many ways, but something that stands out to us almost 25 years after its premiere is how it took people’s fears and attitudes towards death seriously. Throughout its seven seasons, the show cast a critical eye on how its characters dealt with many manifestations of grief—over their own deaths, the deaths of their loved ones, and the threat of mass death via the end of the world. Much has been said on its takes on feminism and navigating the pains of growing up, but something that is less highlighted is the fact that Buffy and the Scoobies were constantly confronted with loss in a manner that allowed us as the audience to think through our mortality.
This legacy is so important in a media landscape where death has historically been depicted very narrowly. Of course, a lot has changed for the better over the past two decades, but it is still quite common for films and television to favor violent and bombastic death rather than the natural. While BVTS certainly featured its fair share of what we might call “cinematic death,” the fantastical elements of the show provided what scholar Douglas Kellner calls “access to social problems, issues, hopes, and anxieties that are often not articulated in more ‘realist’ cultural forms.” It was so powerful because it used monsters and apocalypse to explore our subconscious fears about death with sometimes brutal honesty, rather than sweeping them under the rug.
So, as we enter the perfect season for a rewatch, we want to take a look back and reflect on what BVTS can teach us about death and grief. There are so many scenes we could talk about, but here is a sampling that exemplifies how Buffy and so many of the characters we love come to grow and discover who they are through confrontations with death, dying, and loss.
Death and Dying in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Universe
Buffy’s First Death
When we first meet Buffy Summers, she is a 16 year old girl very much struggling to balance the future she had imagined for herself with the one she is dealt. She is the epitome of the teenage queen archetype: beautiful (i.e., white and thin), popular, prom royalty, a cheerleader. This identity is almost wholly taken away from her when she becomes the Slayer: the one girl in all the world chosen to stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness (yes, we had to quote the credits at least once). Buffy tries to live a “normal” life as much as possible throughout the season, trying out for the Sunnydale High cheer squad, hanging out at The Bronze with her new friends Willow and Xander, and performing in a school talent show—all with mixed results.
This tension over her destiny comes to a head in ”Prophecy Girl” (1997) when Buffy eavesdrops on Angel and Giles discussing the prophecy that she will die facing the Master, the season’s Big Bad. Upon hearing the news, she begins almost hysterically laughing:
Buffy: So that’s it, huh? I remember the drill: one Slayer dies, the next one’s called. I wonder who she is. Will you train her or will they send someone else?
Giles: Buffy, I…
Buffy: Does it say how he’s gonna kill me? Do you think it’ll hurt?
[Angel walks to her and she jumps backwards, throwing up her hands to stop him] Buffy: Don’t touch me! Were you even gonna tell me?
Giles: I was hoping I wouldn’t have to, that there was some way around it.
Buffy: I’ve got a way around it. I quit.
[Buffy wipes back tears] Giles: It’s not that simple.
Buffy: I’m making it that simple! I quit! I resign! I’m fired! You can find someone else to stop The Master from taking over.
Giles: I’m not sure that anyone else can. All the signs indicate…
[She throws a pile of books at Giles] Buffy: Read me the signs! Tell me my fortune! You’re so useful, sitting here with all of your books! You’re really a lot of help!
Giles: No, I don’t suppose I am.
Angel: I know this is hard.
Buffy: What do you know about this? You’re never gonna die.
Angel: You think I want anything to happen to you? Do you think I could stand it? We just gotta figure out a way…
Buffy: I already did. I quit, remember? Pay attention.
Giles: Buffy, if the Master rises…
Buffy: I don’t care! … I don’t care. Giles, I’m 16 years old. I don’t wanna die.
[The music swells, and she throws the cross necklace from Angel on the floor]
Of course, Buffy is responding to an extraordinary situation, but her anguish and fear of dying reveal themes that many of us non-Slayers can understand. She is afraid of the pain, and although she never says it explicitly, of dying before her time (“Giles, I’m 16 years old.”) The threat of Buffy’s death, which is framed as premature through Joss Whedon’s writing and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s heartbreaking inflection, is such a poignant example of how it can be so easy to assume that we will live to a certain age. These widespread expectations about the future and what constitutes a ‘full’ life structure many of our lives and heighten fears about what it would mean to die ‘early’ (including fear of missing out).
Such a dynamic is only amplified by Buffy’s circumstances, in which she already feels like her life and agency have been taken from her. While she ultimately faces the Master, dies, and is revived to see another day later in the episode, we can interpret her journey in “Prophecy Girl” as one in which she confronts this fear of death and becomes a more self-assured young woman in the process.
As many of us probably vividly still remember, grief becomes a significant theme at the end of Season 2 and the beginning of Season 3. After multiple episodes of bearing witness to the murder and emotional torture wrought by Angelus, Angel’s soul is restored by the Scoobies right as Buffy and Angelus fight to the (almost) death in the season finale “Becoming – Part 2” (1998). However, it’s too late, as the demon Acathla has already awakened and begins to swallow the world. Buffy and Angel passionately kiss and profess their love for each other before she gently instructs him to close his eyes and plunges her sword into him to close the portal. The pain and shock are written across her face, the realization that her loved one is gone almost too much to bear.
In the next scene, Buffy numbly crosses the brightly lit Sunnydale street in front of her house, cars zooming by as usual while her whole world has been turned upside down. She leaves a note for her mother, Joyce, before catching a bus to Los Angeles to start a brief new life as “Anne.”
In many ways, Buffy’s flight from Sunnydale can be understood as an acute stress response to the grief and the trauma of having to kill the man she loved to save the world. Many grief theorists understand acute stress as the first step in the processing of grief, with an increasing number emphasizing on the physical changes one goes through while reeling from loss and an irrevocably changed reality. This reckoning looks different for everyone, but for Buffy, it’s escape and emotional disengagement. It’s easier for her to run away and exist in a sort of stasis for a few months rather than answer probing questions from her friends and relive Angel’s death, as well as confronting how her power as the Slayer restricts the agency she has over her civilian life.
It takes Buffy being pulled in to help homeless teen Lily and others enslaved by a demon on the mean streets of Los Angeles in “Anne” (1998) to shake her from this state. In fighting the demon overseers who insist she is “no one,” Buffy realizes she can no longer run away from her emotions or identity and soon returns home to face the reality that Angel is gone, demonstrating how important it is for us to work through our grief.
Faith and Accidental Death
Buffy is far from the only character on the show who struggles with loss and coming to terms with the violence and death that defines life in Sunnydale. Within this chaos, there are also supposedly clear boundaries. We see hundreds of vampires, monsters, and demons die over the course of the show, many effectively vanishing as they die when they turn to dust. These deaths are rarely tragic, and the absence of their bodies is important thematically. As scholar Martin Tomlinson writes, “Having vampires basically just disappear after they’re killed makes the killing clean and uncomplicated, essentially consequence-free in a way that having to look at and deal with the body would not.” Whedon even acknowledged this in a 2002 interview, saying, “It shows that they’re monsters; I didn’t really want to have a high school girl killing people every week.” This functions in stark contrast to the consequences of violent human deaths, perhaps most thoroughly explored in Faith’s arc on both BVTS and Angel.
Faith is often framed as Buffy’s “evil twin” (even called that directly by series writer Doug Petrie in 2003), although we would argue that her journey is much more complicated and nuanced than such framings might let on. Faith supposedly lives on the wild side by dancing at The Bronze, having sex, and not going to school—all of which cover a traumatic past such as a difficult childhood, poverty, and the murder of her Watcher. The show wants to show us that Faith more easily crosses lines than Buffy does, which comes to a head in “Bad Girls” (1999) when Faith accidentally stakes and kills human Allan Finch, the deputy mayor of Sunnydale. The moment is visceral, with Faith’s stake making a horrific squelching sound that isn’t followed by the typical screech as a vampire turns to dust. Faith frantically shakes her head and stutters, “I didn’t know, I didn’t know.” What follows later in the episode particularly illustrates Faith’s denial after the initial shock of Allan’s death:
Buffy: “How are you?”
Faith: “I’m all right. You know me.”
Faith: “There’s nothing to talk about. I was doing my job.”
Buffy: “Sooner or later, we’re both going to have to deal.”
Buffy: “We can help each other.”
Faith: “I don’t need it.”
Buffy: “Faith, you can shut off all the emotions you want, but eventually they’re going to find a body.”
Faith: “… there is no body. I took it, weighted it, and dumped it. Body doesn’t exist.”
Buffy: “Getting rid of the body doesn’t make the problem go away.”
Faith: “It does for me.”
Buffy: “Faith, you don’t get it. You killed a man!”
Faith: “No, you don’t get it. I don’t care.”
The rest of the season centers on Faith’s embrace of darkness, although we see multiple glimpses that Faith’s inner journey is more complicated than her actions might initially let on. Faith and Buffy are written in a way that delineates their philosophical differences, but they are incredibly similar in that Faith avoids confronting her emotions for as long as she can. We watch her cycle through familiar grief experiences like rage and denial, eventually reaching what could be interpreted as bargaining and acceptance on Angel. In a desperate confrontation with Angel after she has been contracted to kill him by Wolfram and Hart in “Five By Five” (2000), she reaches a breaking point. They fight, and after a long struggle, she screams and sobs, “I’m evil… I’m bad… I’m evil! Do you hear me? Angel, I’m bad… Do you hear me? I’m bad! I’m bad! Angel, please, just kill me. Just do it. Just kill me… Just kill me.”
The scene is difficult to watch; Faith’s agony palpable in her face and body language as she collapses into Angel’s arms. His refusal to kill her—and thus end her pain and grief—reveals a distraught and empty young woman, not the brash and vibrant Faith we are used to seeing. Of course, there is so much happening here, such as explorations of the seductive and corruptive nature of power and its consequences. Still, we want to highlight how in some ways, the aftermath of Allan’s death illustrates just how difficult it can be to look death in the face, as well as all of the coping mechanisms we can develop to avoid it. This denial is only heightened for Faith by the fact that it was a death brought by her own hands, even if it was accidental.
Reckoning with death can be hard and painful work, and for Faith, it acts as a catalyst for her to face her demons and unhealthy behaviors. We see a glimpse of this process when Angel tries to advise her on how he lives with the things he’s done and how he tries to redeem himself through doing good in the world—a path she continues in prison and later on in Season 7 against the First Evil.
Joyce’s Illness and Death
While there is so much to say about loss in the BTVS universe, we feel confident that the most impactful is Joyce’s illness and death in Season 5. Throughout the season, we see Buffy implore Giles to find out if the origin of her mother’s brain tumor is magical or demonic, struggling for an explanation or greater meaning when there is seemingly none to be found. Despite her power as the Slayer, there’s nothing Buffy can do to save her. Death is the one thing she can’t triumph over, unlike the endless vampires, demons, and monsters that she slays.
Buffy’s helplessness leads to the gut-wrenching viewing experience that is “The Body” (2001). In the words of writer Sophie Gilbert, the episode is one of the most sophisticated and realistic analyses of the impact of death ever produced on television. Filmed entirely without music so as to not tell the audience how to feel, “The Body” unflinchingly explores the potentially difficult and confusing hours after a death. We see Buffy return home from a day out, walking through her front door and commenting on some flowers that have been delivered from Joyce’s latest date. She calls out to her, but Joyce is still, lying on the couch. When Buffy sees that her mother is motionless, she pauses and her expression shifts, her face tightening and eyes growing wider. “Mom?” she asks. She repeats the word more urgently. Then, even softer: “Mommy?”
The rest of the episode is a methodical study of the surreal: Buffy’s futile attempts to resuscitate Joyce, her ribs cracking. Bright sunshine that seems too happy shines through the Summers’ home windows. A closeup of a ringing phone. Blurred camera shots of the paramedic’s face and closeups on his mouth as he tells Buffy that Joyce has been dead for awhile and that there isn’t anything she could have done. Between these scenes, alternative scenarios play in Buffy’s mind, such as a miracle of Joyce waking up after intubation and past Thanksgiving celebrations with all of the Scoobies. These flashbacks are interrupted by her mother’s body, an inescapable marker that Joyce really is gone. Buffy vomits on the carpet as wind chimes sound in the breeze.
This dreamlike sense of airlessness continues when the Scoobies gather to meet Buffy, Dawn, and Giles at the morgue. Willow struggles to choose an outfit that feels appropriate for the occasion, crying and exclaiming, “Oh god! Why do all of my shirts have to have stupid things on them?” Anya stands awkwardly in the corner of Willow and Tara’s dorm room and asks if they will cut open the body; Willow recoiling in horror at what she interprets as Anya’s insensitivity.
And here is when we get one of the most powerful monologues of the series:
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.”
Meanwhile, a parking enforcer tucks a ticket into the windshield of Xander’s car, a harsh reminder that the world does not stop for death or grief.
It’s moments like these that remain a testament to why BVTS was so unique. So often, deaths in television or film are a device to achieve certain ends: to heighten the drama, raise audience response and ratings, or accommodate the shooting schedule of an actor. Rarely are they a true meditation on the actual experience of death and dying. Joyce’s death and various characters’ responses remarkably show in live-time the myriad of intense emotions that one can go through after a sudden death: shock, detachment or numbness, sorrow, anger, hopelessness, and more. Importantly, they also normalize grief and searches for meaning in a world that often forces people to hide their authentic experiences for the comfort of others. This is due in part to the fact that Whedon’s mother’s death inspires the episode. “I wanted to show not the meaning or catharsis or the beauty of life or any of the things that are often associated with loss, or even extreme grief, which we do get in the episode,” he said in a Season 5 DVD commentary (how retro). “But what I did want to capture was the extreme physicality, the almost boredom of the very first few hours. I wanted to be very specific about what it felt like the moment you discover you’ve lost someone.”
Of course, Slayers are not the only ones who struggle with the meaning of death. Willow wrestles with mortality and what she perceives as its limits throughout the series, especially as she becomes a more powerful witch in later seasons. She resurrects Buffy at the beginning of Season 6 largely to assuage her own grief, not stopping to truly consider whether this is what Buffy would want or determine if she is in Hell. Willow never fully faces the prospect of living on without one of her best friends, waiting until Giles leaves Sunnydale and killing a fawn for the ritual without telling the rest of the Scoobies.
Using her powers without truly considering the consequences reaches a pinnacle when Warren accidentally murders her girlfriend Tara in “Seeing Red” (2002). Willow tries to resurrect her, demanding Osiris to bring her back, who refuses by saying that it violates the laws of natural passing. For the rest of the season, Willow wreaks havoc and murder as “Dark Willow,” brutally skinning Warren alive and attempting to kill the other members of the Trio before she nearly destroys the world in her all-consuming grief. (Much has been said on Xander’s toxic masculinity, but he saves the day in this instance!)
In many ways, Willow’s journey highlights how clinging to the thought that we can conquer death is so harmful. The idea that one day we will overcome death has obsessed humanity for centuries. We are particularly seeing this in our current times—from tech billionaires funding startups almost daily to “cure” death to the death denial that makes so many people avoid talking about their mortality. By refusing to accept death’s inevitability and clinging to a false sense of control, Willow causes so much harm and suffering, both to herself and others. (We also find it telling that Willow spends the beginning of Season 7 rehabilitating herself by reestablishing healthy relations with the nonhuman world, rather than seeing herself as a sole powerful individual.)
Her arc underlines how important it is for us to express our grief and embrace human death in community, rather than seeing ourselves as separate (and above) from the world around us. Grappling with Tara’s death and its aftermath ultimately brings her back to the Willow we loved all along—someone who is clever, curious, and a true friend willing to use their talents to help others rather than serve their personal wants and desires.
The Grief of Apocalypse
While there are so many more moments we could talk about in BVTS, we thought it would be appropriate to end on how the show grapples with another form of endings that we have become all too familiar with as of late: the end of the world. Buffy and the Scoobies live in a reality continually at the precipice of demise, bringing it back from the brink of collapse at least six times (standard practice for living on top of a Hellmouth). Unlike so many other forms of media that take place in post-apocalyptic worlds, BVTS centers on the specter of mass death as an ongoing lived experience that is constantly made and unmade through the actions of those in Sunnydale. World-ending threats do not render everyday life irrelevant, for both good and bad. Demon dogs can attack prom, and a demonic mayor can try to eat all the seniors on graduation day, but life still goes on!
We particularly see how normalized disaster can become when we move our focus from the show’s core characters to the broader Sunnydale community. In the first three seasons, violent deaths of teenagers are almost a weekly occurrence at Sunnydale High, which doesn’t seem to raise many (if any) alarm bells in the town. Many residents seem oblivious to the demons and vampires that live among them, going about their lives as if there were nothing to fear, perhaps as a way of coping with what could otherwise be paralyzing fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, there is little recognition or action, which seems to be a frightful corollary to what we see going on in our own communities as the pandemic continues to rage without end and climate disasters strike with increasing regularity.
Even Buffy is not immune to the kind of fear and the overwhelming grief one can feel when truly reckoning with the end of life as we know it. In “The Weight of the World” (2001), Buffy falls into a catatonic state on the eve of yet apocalypse when hell-god Glory kidnaps Dawn to use her blood to return to her home hell dimension. Willow uses magic to enter Buffy’s brain, where she finds her in a quasi-dream sequence, meditating on a moment in which Buffy stands at a bookshelf and calmly slides a book back into its place, over and over again. After a few rounds of this eerie repetition, Buffy pauses, her hand still on the spine of the book:
Willow: “What happened here?”
Buffy: “This was when I quit, Will.”
Willow: “You did?”
Buffy: “Just for a second. I remember. I was in the magic shop. I put a book back for Giles. Nothing special about it. And then it hit me.”
Willow: “What hit you?”
Buffy: “I can’t beat Glory. Glory’s going to win.”
Willow: “You can’t know that.”
Buffy: “I didn’t just know it. I felt it. Glory will beat me. And in that second of knowing it, Will, I wanted it to happen.”
Buffy: “I wanted it over. This is… all of this… it’s too much for me. I just wanted it over. If Glory wins, then Dawn dies. And I would grieve. People would feel sorry for me. But it would be over.”
Willow bristles at this response: “You’ve carried the weight of the world on your shoulders since high school, and I know you didn’t ask for this, but you do it, every day. And so, you wanted out for one second? So what? … But your sister, not dead yet.” This exchange—and the episode as a whole—is a manifesto for both action and hope. Glory may win, but Buffy and the Scoobies can still do something. The entire world hinges upon it.
It’s unlikely that any of us will face a singular threat like Glory, the Mayor, or the First Evil, but that was never the point. We all have Big Bads in our lives, whether it’s COVID-19, climate crisis, racial violence, the loss of a loved one, or other forms of hardship and loss. Like Buffy, we have our own fears around death and dying and have moments where it all feels too difficult to move forward. Grief and even hopelessness can be normal consequences of loss, but as BVTS repeatedly emphasizes, the best we can do is hold space for these emotions and ultimately face them together. In the immortal words of the Slayer, “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”