Buffy the Halloween Celebrator

October 29, 2011 — I owe Mark Beard an apology, wherever he is. Mark was a friend from my college days who kept trying to get me to watch some series called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I refused, citing various legal precedents, but mostly because I couldn’t believe that somebody decided it was a good idea to stretch what was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek, one-off movie gag into a serialized semi-drama on the WB network.

Fast forward a decade or so, and I’m 13 states away from where I went to college, WB has further devolved into the CW, Mark has gone on to whatever fortune that such strong critical insights into teen-marketed television has gotten him, and me and my wife discover that all seven seasons of Buffy were on Netflix streaming and we weren’t dating any other shows seriously at the time.

Oh, and most important, in that intervening decade, we’d watched Firefly, and, as a result, were willing to give any show Joss Whedon put together an honest try.

By the end of that first 11-episode season, we were hooked. Over the course of the next ten months, we watched all seven seasons. It was our go-to when there was nothing else to watch or do. “How about Buffy?” became almost a mantra in our house, and not just in the realm of our television habits. It’s a pretty flexible question.

Now, that’s not to say the series is as great as I’d been led to believe by Mark and all the Internet references that had flown over my head in the intervening years. I now dig it enough to fight someone to, if not quite death, at least a coma over it, but it really is almost a more frustrating series than it is excellent. The show never quite rose to a potential it had.

The group just never gelled. Buffy was mopey and inconsistent, everybody was too self-centered at odd times to really get what they were doing, and too much unnecessary drama came from within the team, wasting screen time that could’ve been invested in the actual story lines. And that trend just got worse, instead of better, as the series progressed to the much lower-quality of its later seasons.

Still, a bunch of kids in a high-school library making jokes with a seemingly harmless British librarian about how to bring down the powers of darkness ended up being a real good time and made me sorry I was late to the party.

Anyway, the Buffy era of my life is over, but before completely locking it away in a place I visit rarely and only when I’m alone, I went back a few weeks ago and rewatched its three Halloween episodes.

Season 2, Episode 6: Halloween

Ah, the glory days of Buffy. Everybody’s in high school, Spike’s a bad guy, Buffy and Angel are still trying to stick square pegs into their respective round holes, Cordelia’s becoming more interesting, Oz is finally on the scene, and Xander has an unrequited thing for Buffy.

Basically, this episode sets up the idea that real spooks don’t spook on Halloween. They don’t explain why, really. It’s alluded to that they find it tawdry or beneath them, that maybe its union rules, etc. But the why doesn’t really matter. No self-respecting ghoul would be caught out on such a night.

However, that rule apparently doesn’t apply to human wizards. One such named Ethan Rayne opens up costume shop full of enchanted costumes. Everyone who wears one on Halloween night becomes what they are dressed up as. Which is overall fine and not too panic-inducing, except that the sworn protector against evil that is Buffy basically dressed up as a damsel in distress.

Once a humble frat house, now a place where Dylan McDermott walks around nude a lot.
I’m a fan of any variation on the Halloween fundamentals, which this is, and even though I feel like I’ve probably seen this concept before, it worked well, especially in that it shifted everybody’s usual roles in the group. Buffy doesn’t save the day, Xander and Willow, who dress as a military figure and a ghost, respectively, both access an inner confidence that, being in the shadow of a super-powered stake-driver like Buffy, doesn’t often have the opportunity to thrive.

The shift even, in a thematic sense and not a literal one, affects the character of Giles, who we learn might not be as porridge-like as we’d been led to believe so far. The episode also becomes an official plot point going forward, since Xander retains some of that military knowledge for future Scooby Gang capers.

Season 4, Episode 4: Fear, Itself

Now we’re in the first year of college, Buffy is reeling from learning that some dudes just want sex, Willow’s in her cute stage of witchery and Oz has wolfed out (and they’re both monster mashing that together in a relationship), the ex-vengeance demon that is Anya has become post-coital with Xander, and Giles is in his unemployed phase since the burning down of the high school.

And all of us viewers are acutely homesick for the high school library.

In this episode, instead of costumes becoming the real thing, we have a frat-sponsored haunted house attraction becoming the real thing when the boys accidentally use real demonic symbols alongside the fake cobwebs and bowls of peeled grapes. Again, a variation on a Halloween fundamental.

Still unsure of that ending...

This time, anybody who enters the house ends up having to face their worst fears about themselves, all of which are pretty much just versions of losing control of their lives. Xander goes invisible, Oz wolfs out, Willow's magic overwhelms her, Buffy fights what she does every episode...being trapped in her unenviable role as the Slayer (also monsters).

Oh, and Willow and Oz pick one of the best "couples" costumes I've seen: Joan of Arc and God.

It’s the best of the Halloween episodes and one of the show's better ones overall in its ability to balance comedy and horror, although I still haven’t decided what I think of the ending. Mostly, though, the episode illustrates how much the show suffered by the departure of Oz when Seth Green left Buffy shortly thereafter.

As a side note, the exterior of the house used as the haunted house is the same one used as the much more vicious haunted house from the new American Horror Story series, which just recently debuted this month. Oh, and the original black Power Ranger is in this episode.

Season 6, Episode 6: All the Way

The series is dizzying down its quality spiral by this time, even though the very next episode is the series highlight Once More, with Feeling. Xander and Anya are engaged, Giles runs a magic shop, Buffy is recently returned from the dead for, I think, the third time, Spike’s character has been completely eviscerated of all interest, Willow’s firmly a lesbian and firmly abusing her witch powers (I guess. This is one of my pet peeves with the series. Buffy is supernatural, Giles runs a magic shop, and they rely on Willow’s magic countless times…but they all get pissed when she decorates with it. Again, more unnecessary internal drama).

Oh, and Buffy’s mom is dead and Buffy suddenly has an annoying sister in an actually clever twist that should have only lasted a few episodes and not the rest of the series.

Basically, a lot that’s annoying about this episode is what’s annoying about every Buffy episode from the later years. Everybody is self-centered, petty, and a little pathetic. Nothing really happens of interest except for a badly used red herring. The main drama is people hanging out at an impromptu engagement party while a bunch of teenage vampires break the tacit rule of staying in your crypt and watching telly on Halloween.

I did appreciate Xander’s pirate costume foreshadowing, though.

Basically, the three Buffy Halloween episodes form kind of a microcosm of the timeline of the show. In the first, you see the huge potential of it, in the second you’re excited by what seems like a show that’s finally coming into its own, and in the third you stand appalled by how far off the series went.

And I still haven’t watched any episode of Angel. I mean, a spin-off of a semi-drama on the WB network that was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek, one-off movie gag? Please.

Grr. Argh.


  1. What about "Hush"? That was my favorite of ALL the Buffy episodes. I guess it's not technically a Halloween episode (it aired in December), but it is actually quite terrifying.

  2. Oh man...trashing Buffy just a bit, why don't you just say that most X-File episodes were trite! LOL! I love LOVE the first few seasons of Buffy, but yes...once they bring a "kid" into it and the bad guy is on your side? Jump. The. Shark.