To say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a unique show that ended up changing my life forever would be an understatement. Much like how the Doctor from Doctor Who has two hearts, I have two great loves in my life: My Catholic faith and my obsession with fandoms, especially Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So imagine my surprise when I found out that a book like this one existed.
What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide is a collection of essays by Jana Reiss, a Mormon writer who specializes in writing things relating to religion and spirituality. It really boggles the mind that a show like Buffy, created by well-renowned atheist Joss Whedon, would have spiritual and religious themes that would lead to a Mormon writing essays on it, among other things.
The essays in Spiritual Guide are split into three sections: Personal Spirituality, “Companions on the Journey” (Interpersonal aspects of spirituality), and “Saving the World” (broad spiritual themes). The essays in the first section are the most accessible to understand. “Be a Hero, Even When You’d Rather Go to the Mall” looks into the theme of self-sacrifice, using the characters of Buffy, Angel, and Xander as examples. This essay ties self-sacrifice with the Buddhist concept of the bodhisattva, “beings who are more concerned with the welfare of others.” Although it includes the prayer of St. Francis as a quote (the same prayer also used in the end of the Buffy season 6 finale “Grave”), it neglects to mention the Christian aspect of agape and altruism, especially this verse from John 15:13 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“Change Makes us Human” looks into how vampires were originally conceived in the show: as metaphors for the selfish tendencies we have and the obstacles we have to deal with in the process of growing up. Spike is used as an example of this inability to change. In the episode “School Hard, Angel confronts Spike, saying “Things change.” Spike replies “Not us! Not demons!” The essay goes on to show how Spike becomes one of the most dynamic characters in the show, starting with the fact that Spike was the vampire with the most humanity. He cared for Drusilla for over a century and it’s through love (his love for Dawn and Buffy) that compels Spike to get his soul. Willow, Xander, and Giles’s character arcs are also examined. What makes Buffy unique is that how slowly the show changes and evolves and the characters (and the audience) are forced to adapt and adjust to the change.
One aspect of change that this book looks into is death, examined in the essay “Death is Our Gift.” Death is shown as something to be feared initially in Buffy and gave rise to the running joke of Joss Whedon killing off everyone the fans love. However, the darkness that death brings is one of the themes in season six. Sarah Michelle Gellar said that she felt uncomfortable with Buffy’s story arc in season six as it didn’t feel like the character she knew and loved. Marti Noxon, one of the writers and producers, called seas on six Buffy’s “Dark Night of the Soul.” Sadly, that’s the only mention of the Dark Night of the Soul in this entire book.
There is an essay on darkness in the third section of the book entitled “Taming the Darkness Within Ourselves,” but it looks into darkness from a more thematic and psychological perspective and not a spiritual one. Given that Spiritual Guide was published in 2004 and Mother Teresa’s struggles with her interior darkness wouldn’t be published until 2007, it’s somewhat understandable why the idea of spiritual darkness wasn’t fully examined in this book. The essay on humor “The ‘Monster Sarcasm Rally,'” also neglects to examine the ties between humor and faith. Then again, humor and religion have only recently shown to go hand in hand.
This book is a wonderful read as far as examining the various themes and the complexity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the spiritual roots are soaking in shallow water, probably so that the book would be accessible to a general audience. I would love to see a follow-up to this book, some kind of anthology with essays from people of all denominations. On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing that this book has me asking more questions than answers, leaving me wanting to dig deeper and continue down the path towards integrating my favorite show with my belief system.
In the last episode of Buffy, “Chosen,” the power of the Slayer is given to every girl in the world and ends with Dawn asking Buffy “What do we do now?” When I finished watching the show for the first time, I was left wanting more and eventually found a community of fellow fans who love Buffy. To my surprise, these friends are also people whom I can discuss my Catholic faith with openly. I think the Vampire Slayer Spiritual Guide serves a similar purpose. It’s not meant to give straightforward answers, but to act as a conversation piece for people like me who have both faith and fandoms in their lives. It might be a good way to introduce the show to those who wouldn’t watch something with horror and modern themes.
Tl;dr: Read this book and have a good discussion with your fellow philosophy and theology majors. And then watch Buffy. It will make you laugh, cry, and change your life forever.