On late ’90s and early ’00s TV horror and centuries-old traditions of superstitions regarding murder.
(I had this post planned for a while, but given that the 20-year anniversary was on March 10th, it feels especially fitting. For the anniversary Fox Consumer Products released new branded merchandise related to the franchise. The whole series is also on Hulu as of this post’s publication, so if binge-watching 6,500 hours of TV is your thing, have at it.)
Historically and thematically, Buffy’s concerns are primarily domestic. The first few seasons of the show devote entire episodes to domestic violence, abuse, and interpersonal violence. In addition to problems at home, the series also encompasses conflicts that are less mundane: bombing, (literally) monstrous authority figures, and grand conspiracies, government and otherwise. The show’s main conceit can be summed up in the wonderfully campy explanation given to the audience in the pilot: “In every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer.” The “she” that the prophecy refers to in this case is a teenage cheerleader from Beverly Hills, who wears a lot of pink and who likely inspired many of Britney Spears’ later hairstyles in the 2000s.
The show’s charmingly over-the-top baseline, with spikes of soap-opera-esque melodrama, is a remarkably effective backdrop for serious discussions of trust and violence in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. By immediately dispensing with any presumption of realism, Buffy allows the audience to grapple with anxieties, fears, concerns, and biases in a hermetically-sealed, imaginary space that they can step into for 50 minutes every week—and then step back out of, and into, their lives.
As per TV (and specifically mystery/procedural TV) convention, each episode of Buffy necessarily begins with a death, tragedy, etc. and then proceeds to explain what happened and why. What makes the show formally/structurally interesting is that it contextualizes this imperative in terms of a much, much older concept: that murder must always become public, that the murder can always be found, some way, somehow. This concept has been with us for centuries, but is specifically articulated in the phrase “murder will out” by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales (in Group B, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” roughly lines 284-96). In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” concealed murder is uncovered as the result of the narrator’s dream, in which he witnessed his traveling companion’s murder. This provides the phrase with a specifically supernatural power, one that can be divine, but is mostly just other. The conviction that the truth of suspicious death must eventually reveal itself is thus connected to the criminological method of discerning guilt in a murder trial: Cruentation. Cruentation was used up through the 1700s, and is mentioned in Malleus Maleficarum, or the Hammer of Witches (the preeminent manual for exterminating witches in the 1500s and 1600s). In short, it’s the belief that a corpse would begin spontaneously bleeding (or sometimes talking) if the murderer were nearby. Buffy blends this superstitious, spiritual tradition with modern criminological methods of solving mysteries: start with a body and progressively track the steps that lead to and away from it, once you’ve found something, hold the body (or accompanying information, in case the corpse is too heavy) up to that person or vampire or Nyarlathotep, and judge guilt based on the reaction. But this is just as much a fantasy now as it was when Chaucer wrote:
O Blessed God, Who art so true and deep!
Lo, how Thou dost turn murder out alway!
Murder will out, we see it every day.
Murder’s so hateful and abominable
To God, Who is so just and reasonable,
That He’ll not suffer that it hidden be;
Though it may skulk a year, or two, or three,
Murder will out, and I conclude thereon.
Immediately the rulers of that town,
They took the carter and so sore they racked
Him and the host, until their bones were cracked,
That they confessed their wickedness anon,
And hanged they both were by the neck, and soon.
The audience can’t literally step into and out of a psychological chamber, work through our collective fears, and then leave those fears behind when we exit. Similarly, there is no necessary condition of death, murder, deceit, war, violence, abuse, and the list goes on, that states that bad things must eventually reveal themselves. “Truth will out” is a lie. The truth does not have to come out, and in many cases, part of the violence and trauma has to do with the very fact that a person’s suffering, or the full extent of it, is never made public. I started this series on TV horror with the ‘50s and ‘60s, specifically looking at the impact of the Cold War on television. Where the horror of the 1950s and ‘60s expresses a fear of isolation, Buffy presumes that there is some cosmic, guiding hand that works to uncover and expose. Buffy shows us that true and complete isolation isn’t possible. Where the 1950s and ‘60s horror shows were primarily based on either literal or allegorical considerations of how science separates and threatens us, Buffy returns to a spiritual (if not religious) worldview, presuming that even while the government, economy, and other institutions are not to be trusted, there is still some greater good that must necessarily triumph. A good like, say…neoliberal multiculturalism?
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: The WB Television Network © 1998