The Slayer’s Journey:
Buffy Summers and the Hero’s Life
Rattletrap - December 11 2001
Joseph Campbell’s 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces identifies common strains in the mythology of all world religions and cultures. Campbell concludes that all are different and varied manifestations of one “monomyth,” a universal story with roots in the universal human experience. One key component of Campbell’s analysis is the recurring hero’s journey that appears at the heart of most stories. The hero always passes through several phases in his quest; regular stages that Campbell identifies and defines. Modern writers such as Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, have recognized the value of Campbell’s scholarship in the creation of modern popular stories on film, in novels, and on the small screen that is our concern here. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is deeply resonant with its audience, in part because it is a modern retelling of the timeless journey of the Hero; a journey that parallels our own individual life journeys. At the same time, the monomyth is updated to reflect some of the realities of life in the postmodern world.
Campbell divides the Hero’s Journey into three phases: Separation, Initiation, and Return. I will borrow his terminology regularly during this essay, though I have also borrowed indiscriminately from Vogler’s book and other sources. In brief, the Hero is offered a call to adventure during the Separation phase, and, after several refusals, she accepts. The period of Initiation is the bulk of the story, in which the Hero faces a series of increasingly difficult challenges, both outer and inner. Finally the Hero experiences a literal or metaphorical death and resurrection and begins the long road back—this is the Return phase. Many scholars have noted that the heroine’s journey differs slightly from the hero’s. The female journey tends to be spiraling or cyclical, rather than linear or curving in one large, gradual circle as does the journey of the male protagonist. This generalization also holds true for Buffy. Each episode contains within itself a small hero’s journey, in miniature. Each season contains a longer adaptation of the journey. The entire series is its own journey, which will be the focus of this essay. Finally, each of the main characters struggles through her or his journey that intersects the larger story at many points along the way. Please bear in mind that the Hero’s Journey is not a hard and fast law of writing, but a form that generally appears, with an almost infinite number of variations. This analysis is open to other interpretations, most of which are not mutually exclusive.
Separation and the Call to Adventure - (Season 1)
The opening moments of “Welcome to the Hellmouth” set the stage for the entire series. An establishing shot shows us Sunnydale High School after dark, and we are transported inside to find a young man and a young woman breaking and entering, ostensibly for a make-out session. While this sequence is, in many respects, a horror movie cliché, Joss Whedon turns it on its head almost immediately when the young woman, vampire Darla, devours the unnamed young man. This prologue foreshadows many of the elements that become commonplace in Buffy over the next several years—juxtaposition of ordinary with fantastic (e.g. high schools and vampires); repeated use of clichés from movies and television, but with some modification; and, perhaps most importantly, a role reversal with a dominant, female heroine.
Returning after the credits takes us to the World of Common Day (or the Ordinary World). This is Sunnydale High School during the daytime on a regular class day. This sequence serves several purposes. First, it introduces our dramatis personae—we meet most of the characters who will become allies and nemises over the next several years. The scene also establishes the basic geography of Sunnydale, a one Starbucks town roughly two hours on the freeway from LA’s shopping district, and gives us a glimpse of the social hierarchy that defines SHS. Also, several conversations during the first few scenes of “Welcome to the Hellmouth,” give us the background on our heroine. Sixteen year-old Buffy Anne Summers, kicked out of Hemery High School in Los Angeles after burning down the gym. Whedon establishes Buffy as a damaged heroine from the outset—one who has traveled the hero’s road and returned ladened with cynicism and battle scars, and with no desire to set out along the road again.
The opening sequence in SHS also issues the first Call to Adventure. Buffy enters the library for the first time. The soundtrack subtly shifts, eliminating the background noise of the halls for the quiet silence of the library and cueing us in that this is special space, terrain on the edge of the Ordinary World. Buffy meets with Giles, who will function as her Mentor figure for most of her journey. In this instance Giles also functions as a herald, offering Buffy her first Call to Adventure. Our heroine, weighed down by her expulsion from one school and the loss of her friends and her social status, bluntly refuses. The discovery of the dead body later in the day prompts Buffy to return to the library, where Giles issues a second Call, which Buffy again refuses.
Despite Buffy’s persistent refusal to accept her destiny, forces beyond her control push her out on the road. The seemingly innocuous decision to go to a club that evening takes her to the Threshold of Adventure. She meets with another Herald figure in Angel, who appears only as a tall, dark, handsome stranger; but of whose character we know nothing. Buffy again refuses the call, but, in the time honored tradition of Heralds on the Hero’s road, Angel leaves her with a parting gift, a small silver cross necklace.
In The Writer’s Journey, Vogler notes that the transitional point on the Threshold is often a bar or watering hole of some type. Buffy is no exception. The dark, noisy, crowded world of the Bronze contrasts with the daylight world of classes at SHS. The conditions make it a perfect hunting ground for vampires, reinforcing the show’s juxtaposition of mundane and mythical elements. Here Buffy is given the call she can no longer refuse. Willow, one of Buffy’s very few friends at this point, is abducted while acting on Buffy’s advice to seize the moment, because life is short. Feelings of responsibility toward her friend finally force the reluctant Hero into her journey. Before the journey can begin, however, Buffy must confront another archetype along the road. She encounters Cordelia and the Cordettes outside the bathroom in the Bronze and is confronted with a decision: rescue Willow and sacrifice her social status or ignore her calling and embrace the normal life of a high school student. Cordelia, in this context, represents the Guardian of the Threshold, a figure that stands in the way of the Hero’s passage, but is not necessarily a malevolent figure.
Buffy successfully rescues Willow and stops the Harvest from occurring. This places her on the road of the Hero’s journey, but the stage of Separation is not yet complete. In keeping with the mythological tradition, the Hero must find allies and prepare for the journey before completely leaving the World of Common Day behind. The remainder of Season 1 consists of just such a process. The Scooby Gang first begins to function as a unit in episode 1.3, “The Witch.” This episode also establishes the formula for the remainder of Season 1. A catalyst event, such as the discovery of a body at Sunnydale High (a staple of the series) pushes the gang into action, the gang goes to the library to do research, and based on the new knowledge gained confronts the baddie. While Season 1, like all Buffy seasons, had its big bad, the Master did not figure prominently in most of the episodes, and did not directly confront Buffy until the season’s final episode. This season focused more on the “High School is Hell” metaphor that defined the early years of the series and on the emerging relationships in the Scooby Gang.
The characters that appear in the Scooby Gang are also important archetypes in the Hero’s Journey, because sidekicks, too, serve an important function in literature, TV, and film. Like many Heroes, Buffy finds herself accompanied by people of a lower social status—Don Quixote’s companion Sancho Panza and Frodo’s servant Sam are both literary examples of this phenomenon. Buffy refuses to shun Willow and Xander despite their lower status in the SHS social structure, and they wind up as her most loyal supporters on the Hero’s path. Xander, especially, embodies a common archetype in literature—the Trickster. The Trickster usually appears as a comic sidekick, and often as a permanently immature boy who refuses to grow up. He represents the funny, playful side of the Hero and reminds us never to take any calling too seriously.
Angel, too, fulfills a specific function on the journey. His character appears sporadically through the early part of Season 1, usually warning of some impending doom and then vanishing back into the woodwork. In episode 1.7, “Angel,” he is revealed to be a vampire, but one with a soul fighting on the side of good. Vampires are a common embodiment of a form that Campbell refers to as the Shapeshifter, an ambiguous character whose intentions are never entirely clear and may appear as either an ally, an enemy, or swing back and forth between the two. Angel’s human appearance, demonic nature, and gypsy-restored soul make him a near perfect embodiment of this archetype.
Cordelia, as I have already suggested, fulfills the role of Threshold Guardian, an obstacle that must be overcome before the Hero can set out on her path. On BtVS, Cordelia serves as the symbolic reminder of the life that Buffy has forsaken. Threshold Guardians are rarely enemies to be defeated; instead the Hero must often co-opt or assimilate them as part of the group. Buffy does just this. She saves Cordelia’s life several times during the first season, and by the end of that season, Cordelia can no longer deny Buffy’s ability. In the season’s penultimate episode, (1.11) “Out of Mind, Out of Sight,” Cordelia is threatened by invisible girl Marcie and solicits Buffy’s protection. Her once adversarial character comes to a mutual toleration, if not respect for, the Scooby Gang.
By the end of Season 1, then, Buffy is ready to set out on her Hero’s Journey, to complete the process of separation and leave the World of Common Day. In the final episode of Season 1, “Prophecy Girl,” Buffy makes a willing decision to accept her calling and face the Master, even knowing that it will mean her own death. Buffy’s death, in the larger scope of the series, is not the death and resurrection experience that the Hero must experience. In represents, instead, the crossing of the threshold and the willing acceptance of the Slayer’s calling and all of the risks and consequences contained therein. While Buffy regularly relapses and longs for the life of a normal girl, subsequent episodes suggest that she also never seriously considers abandoning the slayer’s journey.
Initiation - (Seasons 2, 3, and 4)
In Campbell’s structure, most of the Hero’s Journey occurs within the phase known as Initiation. During this phase, the Hero faces a series of tests or ordeals, each usually more intense than the last, building toward one final crisis. Seasons 2 through 5 of Buffy carry our heroine on just such a journey. The early episodes of Season 2 appear to roughly mimic the pattern of Season 1, but serve increasingly to remind our characters of the darkness within each of them and the dangers of the Hero’s road. This season, perhaps more than any other, is emblematic of the Hero’s inward journey. “The Dark Age” shows us the Campbellian archetype of the Shadow. Rarely cast as a person, the Shadow instead embodies the ever present darkness within each of us. Giles, once the stable, reliable Mentor is revealed to be a one-time practitioner of the black arts. “What’s My Line” introduces Kendra, the Vampire slayer, called at the moment of Buffy’s death and serving as a subtle reminder of the dangers the journey poses to the Hero.
The second season takes its most severe turn with the “Surprise” / “Innocence” two-part episode. Angel, already a Shapeshifter, reverts to his evil nature after knowing a moment of true happiness during a night of sex with Buffy and begins terrorizing her and the Scooby Gang. In so doing, he becomes the homme fatale, a common archetype in literature and film. Campbell’s Hero often must face a lover that turns to an enemy (or vice versa) on the Journey. Angel’s turn to evil drives Buffy into a period of intense self-examination during the end of Season 2, culminating in the stirring metaphor of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” during which she finally accepts what has happened and what she has to do to fix it. In that season’s finale, “Becoming” (2.21, 2.22), Buffy is driven away from home, expelled from school, and forced to send a resouled Angel to hell. The final shot of the episode shows her riding a bus out of Sunnydale for parts unknown, unable to stand the emotional strain of the journey.
Season 2, then, might be summarized as a period of internal focus. That season’s big bad originated from within the group and forced the Hero to draw on her deepest emotional reserves to survive the journey. The first several episodes of the following season explore Buffy’s attempts to make peace with her mother, her friends, and her past; all key components in the hero’s journey. Again, we are reminded of the Hero’s own internal darkness by the arrival of Faith, a character embodying the archetypes of Shadow and Shapeshifter, and showing us what direction Buffy might have gone with only a slightly different course of events. This continued inward journey is only a part of the larger movement through the Hero’s ever-expanding special world.
In keeping with Campbell’s form the next stage of the journey takes her toward a broader, more external focus, one that includes the entire town and the people she protects. In Season 3’s main story arc, Sunnydale’s immortal mayor, Richard Wilkins III, has built the town for demons to feed on in preparation for his own ascension. The Mayor embodies yet another common archetype. Campbell’s Hero must often face and defeat a powerful father-like figure. The Mutant Enemy writing staff especially emphasized this facet of the Mayor’s personality with his peculiarly gentle paternal relationship to Faith. It is doubly fitting, then, that the Mayor’s transformation into the demon Olvikan should cause him to become a giant snake, an ironically fitting phallic symbol that further emphasizes his status as the father figure.
Season 3 is also fairly unique among Buffy seasons in that it ends on a positive note with few unanswered questions, offering our group a brief respite before the next stage of their journey. Season 4 expands the Hero’s special world even farther. The narrow constraints of high school class and living at home give way to the more open intellectual and individual freedom of the college campus. This greater freedom also leaves the Scooby Gang more disoriented than they have ever been, each more isolated and weighed down with her or his individual problems and less focused on the journey at hand. The process of reorganization and redefinition midway through the story is integral to the journey.
That season’s big bad is not revealed until fairly late in the season. Ultimately, however, his story is only part of the ever expanding world view of the Hero. The main adversary for most of the season is the mysterious, government operated “Initiative,” operating clandestinely from beneath one of the dorms. Activities in Sunnydale have moved beyond the concern of local authorities and attracted the attention of national ones. Frequently along the Hero’s Journey, a perceived threat turns out to be a competitor, but one that shares a common goal. Such is the case with the Initiative. Both the Initiative soldiers and the Scooby Gang share a common interest in demon hunting, but they differ wildly on methods and ultimate objectives. Buffy is able to work alongside the Initiative for a while, but finds her view of the calling remarkably different from theirs.
The Initiative produces the monstrous Adam that becomes the main antagonist of the season, but his plan is not fully revealed until episode 4.20, “The Yoko Factor.” The Scooby Gang unites to defeat him in (4.21) “Primeval,” and is forced to summon the power of the first slayer to do so. This act forces them to tap forces more powerful than anything they have used before, as each stage of the journey grows progressively more difficult.
Season 4 also ends on an unconventional note, but one critical for the journey. Vogler notes that the stage before the final ascent often entails a brief interlude, often the Hero and allies gathering around a campfire to share stories. Buffy and the Scooby Gang instead settle into a nice evening of movie-watching in the Summers living room, perhaps the modern-day equivalent of a campfire. The dreams they share reinforce their unity and set the stage for the final stage of the Initiation.
After years of struggle, the Hero survives her ordeal and prepares to face one final, ultimate conflict, the climax of her journey. Before she can do that, however, she is given a reward, something powerful that offers some pay off for the struggle to this point and foreshadows greater rewards ahead should the journey be completed. Our heroine receives a new lease on life for the fifth season. The dream encounters with the first slayer during (4.22) “Restless,” leave Buffy curious about the deeper source of her power and longing to explore the slayer’s true nature. That internal reward is paralleled by the external reward in the arrival of the slayer’s mystically created younger sister Dawn—literally the creation of a new life in the middle of the journey.
Season 5 also continues the Hero’s steadily expanding worldview. Season 2 dealt with internal demons, Season 3 with local ones, and Season 4 with national ones. The only thing larger could be a confrontation with a god. If Season 3 was embodied by conflict with a father figure, then Season 5’s big bad is the embodiment of a mother figure—a goddess known as Glory—created by Joss Whedon and his writers, but recalling the countless spoiled, arrogant, and evil goddesses of ancient mythology. Here Mutant Enemy places a curious twist on the traditional Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s Hero must always face a goddess or a maternal figure (one symbolic of the feminine aspect of Self, just as the father figure symbolizes the masculine aspect), but that figure traditionally appears fairly early in the journey. The father figure traditionally arrives much later, usually in connection with the Hero’s ultimate conflict. The reversal of roles in BtVS that has become the hallmark of the show continues even into the structure of the Hero’s journey. A woman is the great Hero; therefore a woman must also be the great enemy.
Midway through Season 5, our Hero faces another experience common on the Hero’s journey—the reversal of fortune. The early episodes show Buffy getting stronger as a slayer and more focused on her journey. Her mother struggles with, but apparently defeats a brain tumor. On the evening after her successful surgery, however, the conflicts long suppressed in Buffy’s relationship with Riley come to a head, culminating in Riley’s departure on a helicopter for demon fighting in the jungles of Central America. From that point, Buffy’s fortunes begin a downward spiral. Two months later, she discovers her mother’s lifeless body, dead from complications from the surgery. Buffy is forced to take on the duty of caring for an increasingly rebellious Dawn in addition to her already formidable slayer workload. What began as a new lease on life at the beginning of the season spirals out of control into an almost unbearable burden. Glory’s capture of Dawn at the end of (5.20) “Spiral” drives Buffy into a catatonic state.
Buffy is pulled out of her catatonia only by Willow’s intervention. This, too, is a common occurrence along the Journey. The Hero frequently finds himself inadequate to the task and must rely on the special skills of his allies to confront the final challenge. Buffy realizes that she, alone, simply cannot win; but with the aid of her “big gun” Willow, Xander’s skills as a construction worker and bowling virtuoso, and Spike’s fighting prowess they might have a chance. Ultimately, however, the Hero is still required to perform above and beyond.
The apocalyptic battle of (5.22) “The Gift” culminates with Buffy’s sacrificial death in Dawn’s place. The passage through death and resurrection/rebirth ushers in the final stage of the Hero’s journey, the Return. All Heroes experience some sort of death and resurrection—sometimes a literal death as in Buffy’s case, in others a journey to the land of the dead as Odysseus performed, in others an apparent death later revealed to be false (Frodo in Shelob’s lair), in still others a symbolic or metaphorical death.
Return -(Season 6)
The Return stage of the Hero’s journey deals with the Hero’s reintegration into the Ordinary World. Buffy’s return embodies the common theme of the reluctant or refused return. In her death, she finds peace and fulfillment only to have that tragically destroyed by her forced return into the World of Common Day, a world in which the common day is so bright and violent it seems like hell. Campbell notes that heroes often become so accustomed to life on the journey that they do not smoothly reintegrate into their Ordinary World. This, so far, has been the theme of Season 6. It is instructive to note that the writers have not tried to come up with a bigger or badder antagonist, but rather an inconsequential group of stooges that slide in below the radar and annoy Buffy more than they threaten her. The real story of this season deals with Buffy’s reintegration into the Ordinary World—the assumption of the mundane tasks that characterize all of our lives, such as bill paying, home repair, and working—and finding the balance between those tasks and the special calling of the Hero.
Frequently, the Hero is required to return home and restore order or set things to right (Odysseus, Frodo, etc.). The slayer’s ordinary world in Season 6 is badly in need of such reordering with her long-time allies more alienated and alone than ever, each drowning in their own difficulties. We can safely assume Buffy will again rise to the occasion, but when and how remain to be seen.