Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mental Illness

Buffy and her crew. Image credit: Mutant Enemy Productions.Buffy and her crew. Image credit: Mutant Enemy Productions.

It wasn’t until I re-watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer after I finished high school that I really found an appreciation for the cult TV show. My carefree nine-year-old eyes weren’t tuned into the subtext of what it meant to be a vampire slayer like my newly independent 18-year-old eyes were.  I devoured the show as if I had never seen it before and I cried more than I thought an adult should as I followed the “Scooby Gang” on their journey from high school to adulthood– and in them I found familiarity. But what was it about a group of teenage kids slaying vampires and casting spells that I related to so well?

I don’t know if it was intentional on Joss Whedon’s part, but to me being the slayer was akin to living with mental illness, and I had a shiny new psychological assessment that basically said that was what I was doing.

Trying to balance having a mental illness and having a life can be incredibly difficult. It can deteriorate relationships, affect your school work, impact your working life and for the most part, you feel utterly and completely alone.  In Buffy Summers I found a familiar figure; a representation of everything I was going through as a young adult living away from home. She was The Slayer: chosen against her will to defend the Earth from evil. The weight of the world was literally on her shoulders, and being grounded could actually be a matter of life or death. Throughout high school her grades suffered, in college she was forced to drop out, and in life she struggled financially and couldn’t keep a basic job working at a burger joint. She was the slayer, the chosen one–  and it was poisoning every aspect of her life just as my mental illness was poisoning mine.

Through the use of effective metaphor in BtVS I was able to confront my suppressed emotions that were the cause of my anxiety and depression. I could sit in my room in a haze of emotional confusion and cry as I watched the characters of BtVS attempt to live out their lives the best they could with a gaping wide hellmouth underneath them. This slightly camp show about vampire slaying and the moral complexities of good and evil was like therapy to me, and realising that even slayers struggle to pay the bills helped me feel ok.

In the book “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy” (a collection of essays edited by James B. South), philosopher Tracey Little explains the extraordinary use of metaphor in BtVS better than I ever could:

“…metaphors have the capacity to help viewers put their own fears and emotions into perspective, deal with such fears and emotions in a more effective way, to provide a point of comparison with the reality of the viewer and that of the show, to recognize that the fears and the emotions played out by the show’s characters may be similar to their own, and finally, to legitimize the feelings of the viewer. The complex nature of such metaphors also allows for multiple interpretations on the part of the viewer, providing the viewer with a means of agency for interacting with the show on a deeply personal level.” (p. 284).

Legitimizing feelings— that is exactly what was happening whilst watching BtVS, and it’s an important thing. Often we feel our thoughts, our actions, our beliefs and our ideations are irrational or silly. We don’t think that our feelings deserve the attention they need in order for us to put up a fight, and because of that we repress them in favour of façade. If anyone was ever the perfect poster child for repressed emotions, Buffy Summers would be it.

But through Buffy we learn that, although we are mentally ill, we can still be heroes—and god knows we have all developed super-strength in order to fight our demons. We wake up every day already fighting a battle with ourselves and we go to bed—though not necessarily to sleep—still fighting. But such is life, a never-ending battle for survival. Whether we have good days or bad, we are all still living on top of a gaping hellmouth. But we can deal with that, because we’re all slayers.

4 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Mental Illness

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  2. sam

    i so identified with this. in high school, buffy helped me through my mom and stepdad’s divorce and the subsequent crumbling of my world because i could relate to her trying to balance being a teenager with a whole other world of scary responsibilities. for me, it was taking care of my depressed mom and younger siblings; for her, it was defending the world from the apocalypse. these things seem comparable with you’re 16.
    what i admired most about her was the fact that she was, physically, magically powerful, but emotionally still a teenager who questioned why she had to do this shit. that episode where she has a talk with giles at the end about how the world kind of sucks and her life is unfairly difficult (pretty vague i know–i wish i could remember). that made a huge impression on me. she could kick ass and still complain without being weak. she loses her virginity and her bf turns into a soulless demon and she still does what she has to do, but not without admitting that it really fucking sucks. at a time in my life when people kept telling me things were going to get better, it was refreshing to see someone else be fed up with how things are without giving up. you don’t have to be pollyanna to be a hero. you can be jaded as hell and still save the day.

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