I’ve always had a particular affinity for Buffy Summers, the eponymous Slayer of the hit late 90’s/early 00’s television show. Perhaps it’s because she too is a short, blonde female who is perceived by the world to be weak just because she fits the bill of the classic ‘damsel in distress’ trope. However, as I’ve gotten older I have learnt to recognise the importance of Buffy’s character on an entirely new level; as someone who is fighting a lot more than simply just the real demons and vampires who emerge from the Hellmouth of Sunnydale. The subject of Buffy’s depression is directly tackled in the show’s sixth season, but allusions to mental illness are present from the show’s very first episode.
First of all, let’s examine the concept that the vampires, demons, and occasional possessed ventriloquist’s dummy that make up the show’s antagonists may act as a larger metaphor for mental illness. Throughout the show’s seven seasons, we see Buffy attempt to balance her life as the Slayer with her ‘normal’ life, the latter often deteriorating due to her commitment to the former. Buffy struggles with school, her social life, her relationship with both friends and family, and her working life due to her constant battles with those drawn to Sunnydale’s Hellmouth, much as a young adult living with mental illness may also struggle with such seemingly normal commitments. Buffy’s life as the Slayer is also a taboo subject, only revealed to those closest to her and hidden even from her own mother (until it becomes absolutely necessary for her to know); again, this may be linked to the secrecy often experienced by those struggling with their mental health, who oftentimes choose to keep details of their struggles to themselves. Even though Buffy’s Scooby Gang have knowledge of her Slayer life and help in whatever way they can, it is emphasised that this is ultimately a task that is Buffy’s burden alone.
Although the vampires of Sunnydale successfully attack humans on many occasions, their presence is not publicly known to the general population, making their persistent threat an invisible one. Again, this personifies the continuous ‘threat’ of ill mental health in the physical sense of the vampires. Indeed, just as vampires suck the life out of their human victim, so does depression – a likeness that is surmised in the song Die Vampire, Die! from the 2006 off-Broadway musical [title of show].
So, with this link between depression and vampires made, let’s next look at the actual depression that plagues the show’s titular character.
At the end of season 5, Buffy dies. And at the beginning of season 6, five months after her death, Buffy is resurrected and is seen to literally crawl out of her own grave. Buffy has returned from the dead, and her friends expect her return to be a happy one – they have saved her from death after all. However, the Buffy who has returned is numb, merely existing in this world. As stated in the season 6 musical episode Once More, With Feeling, Buffy is just “going through the motions” of life; she may be alive again physically, but mentally she has been lost. This is a symptom commonly attributed to depression; the feeling of not necessarily being sad, but rather just feeling nothing at all. This feeling is again emphasized in the lyrics “I touch the fire and it freezes me/I look into it and it’s black/Why can’t I feel?/My skin should crack and peel/I want the fire back”. Later on in the same episode, Buffy states “I live in Hell/Cause I’ve been expelled from Heaven”, revealing that when she died, she was in Heaven, finally free from the demons and vampires that tormented her in her living life, and now she has returned to the real world, she has returned to Hell.
Later in season 6, Buffy’s mental health and her life as the Slayer are linked in the episode Normal Again, in which she confesses that, before she came to Sunnydale, she confided in her parents about the existence of vampires and they admitted her to a mental institution. This again ties into the subject of secrecy that surrounds mental health; the fear that others will condemn and dismiss those who confess issues of mental illness. This determines Buffy’s ultimate fear, that the vampires and demons that make up her world as the Slayer are nothing more than hallucinations of insanity.
What’s important about mental health in Buffy – both real and metaphorical – is the fact that it is emphasised that it’s okay not to be okay. Buffy recovers somewhat from her depression after season 6 but she never will be completely alright- and that is accepted. Her relationship with Spike becomes paramount to her recovery because of the understanding they share of what it’s like to literally crawl out of their own grave – yet another element of the show that can be read as a metaphor for depression. Buffy continues to live in her world of demons and vampires and yet she does not allow this to beat her. Buffy states that “the hardest thing in this world is to live in it“, and though we see Buffy on the brink of giving everything up, she battles on. So maybe Buffy’s power as the Slayer isn’t super strength or enhanced agility or any of that; her true power is the ability to be strong in every sense of the word, and to continue onwards no matter what demons may surface. As a Buffy fan, the most empowering message of the series for me comes in the final ever episode;
“So here’s the part where you make a choice: What if you could have that power…now? In every generation, one slayer is born…because a bunch of men who died thousands of years ago made up that rule. They were powerful men. This woman is more powerful than all of them combined. So I say we change the rule. I say my power…should be our power. Tomorrow, Willow will use the essence of the scythe to change our destiny. From now on, every girl in the world who might be a slayer…will be a slayer. Every girl who could have the power…will have the power…can stand up, will stand up. …every one of us. Make your choice. Are you ready to be strong?”
I know that it’s fictional, but the idea that we all have the power of the Slayer in us makes me feel a little better about the world, and about my ability to face the vampires of reality. So thank you, Buffy.