Vampire Slaying and Cultivating Insanity
Paul F. McDonald - March 15 2002
In a rather ironic twist, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has once again proven to be the one show that has its creative fingers on the pulse of Western culture. On the day that Normal Again aired, one Andrea Yates was convicted of murder after drowning her five children - one by one - in a bathtub. The defense stated that she was insane, and it was her schizophrenia coupled with post-partum depression that led her to commit such a horrible act. For her part, she apparently honestly believed that she was in fact saving her children from the devil by murdering them. On a side note, this should finally cause someone in a position of ecclesiastical authority to step forward and at least question whether interpreting ancient religion in such a literal manner that it causes people to commit infanticide is indeed the right thing to do in a post-industrial society at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But this being the real world - allegedly anyway - it's not going to happen. Fortunately, Buffy is once again there to pick up the slack that organized religion has just sort of left hanging.
Normal Again is not the first Buffy episode to deal with mental illness, but it is one of the most powerful. Over the course of an hour, it delves deep into a very serious contemporary problem, and because it operates inside the framework of a carefully constructed modern myth, it gets its audience much emotionally closer to it than any number of public television documentaries could ever hope to. Buffy begins the show by fighting a demon, which actually is not anything unusual, at least in the town of Sunnydale where she lives. Over the course of six years, Buffy, as the Chosen defender of humankind against the forces of darkness, has patrolled the streets and cemeteries of Sunnydale almost every night. She has developed a group of friends, the self-appointed "Scooby Gang," most of whom have magical powers themselves, who have helped her save the world at least once a season. Her world is in a constant state of apocalypse because unknown to most of the townspeople, Sunnydale is built on a Hellmouth, a mystical portal that connects Earth with thousands of horrific demon dimensions. Buffy has fought vampires, fell in love, and has even died and been resurrected twice during her hero's journey.
But that all seemed to change in Normal Again. The demon she fought at the beginning of the show injected her with a poison, a poison which infected her and soon began to drive her insane. Before the opening credits rolled, Buffy found herself in a mental institution. Her dead mother and absentee father were both there, and she was soon informed that everything that had happened to her over the last six years was a hallucination. Her entire role as a vampire slayer had been a delusion that her own fragmented psyche had created for her, and the life that she had believed was real was a result of a powerful and dangerous form of schizophrenia. In order to break free of it, the doctors in the asylum informed her she would have to destroy what they basically considered her imaginary friends in Sunnydale. Torn between two worlds, not knowing which was the sane or delusional one, Buffy very nearly did so, producing some very tense scenes as she stalked down her friends and even her own sister in her house.
Though mental illness has not always been recognized, certainly is it is more prevalent now than it ever has been. According to recent studies, some twenty million Americans suffer from clinical depression. Paxil and Prozac have become as familiar to a lot of people as Tylenol and Alka-seltzer. Mental illness has reached literally epidemic proportions, and the only alternative seems to be a world in which people are drugged out of their minds in order to simply function on a day to day basis. The roots of the problem most likely go back and back, but they are finally reaching critical mass. Going to the "analyst" has become almost trendy in certain parts of the country. Fortunately, the psychosis of Andrea Yates is far from typical, even as mental illness is decreasingly a local problem. The infamous philosopher Nietzsche called such a degree of psychosis the "epileptics of concept" - in other words, people who have gotten hold of an idea - often a religious one - that literally drives them insane.
It is not too much to say that perhaps schizophrenia is really at the very heart of how we go out and greet the world. Fostered by both Greek dualism and orthodox religion, everything we think about exists in a state of dissociation. And by dissociation, I don't mean dualism. Certainly, everything in Nature has a dual nature. There is both a light and a dark, a winter and a summer, and rainy days as well as sunny ones. Dissociation is when human thinking dictates that the opposites the universe is made up of are somehow completely irreconcilable. The fall into the world of opposites outside the garden of Eden might best be understood along these lines. The problem comes when one does not have a balance - when one wants all sun and no rain, or all long and no short. Nature doesn't work that way, and so human beings spend much of their time being quite frustrated. We are all creatures of two worlds, but the West largely sides with one against the other. We talk about the War of the Sexes and all this kind of thing - but not only are male and female in a constant state of tension, so is everything that has an opposite. Humans are likewise at war with Nature, and consequently their own Nature. The desires of the flesh rage against those of the spirit, the mind is separate from the body, the body is divided against Nature, and so on. We largely define the universe in very hostile language, and where we should see complements, we see only contradiction and conflict. It is completely artificial, but right now human beings are so buried under words and concepts that reality - and reality as it stands without lines of latitude and longitude literally etched across it - is almost totally lost. This is known in child psychology as "splitting," and while it is perfectly normal, it can easily translate into increasingly worse states of neurosis if taken to an extreme. The end result of this is schizophrenia, where the psyche mentally breaks into two halves and alternate personalities are perhaps even formed.
The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once stated in the famed PBS series The Power of Myth that the old stories that humankind invented to express the wonders and mysteries of life were once used to put the human mind in accord with the requirements of Nature. One of the biggest criticisms he had of organized religion was that it now operated in precisely the opposite way. It is now used to guide people away from Nature and into the supernatural. Perhaps his biggest contribution to the understanding of myth and religion was his idea that all these stories of heroes and gods and magic quests were in fact about the natural world, but the natural world disguised to correspond with the inner realities of the psyche. He felt that interpreting myth and the stories religion as metaphor was in fact getting closer to the truth in them than merely assigning them as actual historical events. If interpreted factually, spiritual texts were little more than newspapers that did nothing to correspond with contemporary inner needs. It should be obvious that myth and religion are not a loose assortment of historical events. If they were, everything from the French Revolution to World War II could be a religion. For Campbell, myth and psychology were largely one and the same. While the orthodox community did not agree, it is obvious that when the inner world of the spirit meets with the outer world of history and the two are completely incongruous - as inevitably happens when one tries to ignore two thousand years of scientific progress - there is going to be a collision, and sometimes of September 11th proportions.
In an earlier essay, I noted that Buffy was basically playing the role of televised psychotherapy, and Normal Again only served to strengthen that conviction. What is so wonderful about things like Buffy and Star Wars is that they are what I like to call self-aware myths. They are myths that know they are myths, and never even attempt to have valid use when interpreted outside the mind and emotions of a modern person. When viewed as metaphor, Buffy becomes more delightfully sane and realistic than any show on the air. There were some great lines in the Campbell-Moyers interview in The Power of Myth when they were discussing the knights of the Arthurian tales who use to ride about killing dragons. Campbell revealed that the dragons were symbolic of certain limiting ego-systems, and "killing" one was a metaphor for finding a broader base of psychological realization. The same could certainly be said for the vampires that Buffy fights. For those of you who know of the interview, it is easy to imagine Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell discussing Buffy. "So when Buffy goes out and slays vampires, does that mean we have to as well? There might not be real vampires out there, but - " "The real vampires are inside you!"
As we all do as we live life and try to harmonize our inner fears and longings with the outer world of sense and experience, Buffy has always found herself balanced between two worlds. Normally, it has been between the everyday world of the adolescent and the night world of the Hellmouth. Yet when she had to go so far as to almost give up that reality, the situation actually became even more horrific. As many have noted, the idea that Buffy had been in a mental institution for the past six years hallucinating all her fantastic adventures was really much more plausible than the extraordinary reality that the show's myth was built on. It was a very clever example of meta-narration when the doctors in the mental institution were describing the world in which Buffy believed she had been living to her parents - it basically sounded like captions out of TV Guide or reviews in Entertainment Weekly. Joss Whedon, the show's creator, has always been good at winking at and nudging the audience, and this just seemed to be a heightened example of that. It also served to remind everyone not to take the series literally - Buffy has and always will be about inner work and realization.
Perhaps Normal Again did its job a little too well. The scene in which the real Buffy pours out the antidote for the demon poison and decided she wanted to stay in the world where she was in a mental hospital was quite chilling. That she reversed this decision in the end was really a profound thing on a number of levels. On the most basic, her true psychological work is in the Buffyverse. Campbell talked about encounters with demons and such in an interview in An Open Life, interpreting them in terms of metaphor, just as Whedon intended. "Our demons are our own limitations, which shuts us off from the realization of the ubiquity of spirit. And as each of these demons is conquered in a vision quest, the consciousness of the quester is enlarged, and more of the world is encompassed. Basically, the vision quest involves getting past your own limitations, which are within even as they appear without." The monsters on Buffy have been metaphoric of the adolescent fears and doubts everyone has while growing up since the beginning. Buffy had to go back to her reality as a vampire slayer because that is where she herself performs the role of the psychoanalyst, deconstructing the dark side of the unconscious by facing it.
There is a deeper aspect to this episode however, and it presents a profound new way of looking at our own world. For a long while now, some have drawn parallels between Buffy's journey and the vision quest of the ancient shamans. As the world's oldest religious practitioners, shamans existed in primitive human societies, and according to Campbell, these medicine men were likewise the first psychoanalysts. The initial calling to be a shaman manifested itself as essentially mental illness. At some point in early adolescence, a person's entire unconscious would open up and they would be psychologically consumed by it. An elderly shaman would be called in on the young person's behalf, but instead of curing them of the madness, they would in fact encourage it. It is said that the difference between the mystic and the madman is that the mystic swims in the water the madman drowns in. A person going insane is allowed to go completely insane in these traditions, and contrary to common sense, embracing it sometimes leads to a breakthrough, where it is translated to a blissful state of inner realization. The person's experience is not disqualified, nor are they given pills to be cured of it. The shaman would "ride it out" so to speak, and when it exhausted itself, he would then become a healer for his tribe or village.
This is essentially what happens in Normal Again. Buffy follows her own madness to its roots, and essentially forces its hand. There is something to be said for this. We've all had experiences where dreading something and trying to squirm away from the inevitable only makes things worse. I have written much about last season's finale, The Gift, and Normal Again has echoes of the psychology represented in it. How does Buffy master death in that episode? She masters it by giving in to it. Rather than struggling against it, she goes with it, and after her graceful dive off the tower when she falls into the portal, a look of calm and peace comes over her face as she dies. Her mind was put in accord with Nature. This is the principle we find in the martial art known as Judo - you defeat an opposing force by yielding to it. This flies in the face of everything in our contemporary road rage-inducing society, but it genuinely works in some cases. Though this is a hallmark of Eastern philosophy, it can likewise be found in Western theology. What else could the symbolism of the crucifixion possibly mean? That one has to lose their life in order to find it is the primary paradox not only in religion, but in Nature as well.
One of the greatest Western interpreters of Eastern thought, Alan Watts addresses this in his book The Wisdom of Insecurity. In it, he likewise advices forcing the hand of anxiety. Much like Buffy, we are all victims of the double-edged sword of self-consciousness, and the modern mind is constantly digging traps and falling head-first into them. If you're sad, Watts advices, simply be sad. If you feel upset, then be upset. If you're depressed, then be depressed. In the West, we say that if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. In the East however, there is an old Chinese saying, and it tells those who can't stand the heat to walk right into the center of the fire. The thinking behind this is that the mind is trying to get away from the one thing it can never get away from - itself. "The pain is inescapable," Watts insists, adding, "And resistance as a defense only makes it worse." It is a big part of Zen philosophy that the experience and the person experiencing it are one and the same. This should be obvious, but because of the acute nature of our self-consciousness, we have dissociation instead.
As a lot of people have figured out, much of pain - no matter the kind - derives from trying to fight against it, as opposed to the actual pain itself. This never works, because as Watts reasons, "you are the pain." The central epiphanies of Buffy's journey have come as a result of much the same thing, when she sees her fate not as something to get away from, because from this perspective "you are your fate." Escape can only come to those who realize there is no escape. It's the hope of no-hope, you might say, or the security of insecurity. However strange that may sound on paper, it is a very real part of Nature. Unfortunately, due to what some psychologists have labeled the "European dissociation," we do not trust Nature. And it is for this reason that a cat can fall out of a tall window, hit the ground, land on its feet, and go on about its business. Meanwhile, a human being can fall out the same window, allow his self-conscious mind to tense up all his muscles bracing for impact, and as a result, hit the ground and break half the bones in his body.
When her illusionary mother is counseling her in the mental institution, she tells Buffy she has faith in her and the extraordinary strength that resides in the core of her being. This is in the end what saves Buffy. She regains what she lost all season, namely faith in her own nature. In Dead Things, she pleads with Tara, and the desperate, heart-wrenching words she spoke are relevant to every one of us. "Please tell me there's something wrong with me." That there wasn't was Joss Whedon's symbolic refuting of the doctrine of original sin. The entire concept of the soul in the Buffyverse revolves around the idea that human beings are essentially good, and take pleasure in doing good works. This is key. In Buffy and in life, one has to be able to trust themselves. The mind can act as a shock absorber and deal with pain, but only if it has "give" in it, and only if it is trusted. As the Chinese sages once inquired of Western missionaries, if you can't trust your own nature, how can you possibly trust your mistrusting of it? This condemns you to a life of second, third, fourth, ad infinitum guessing.
"We suffer from the delusion that the entire universe is held in order by the categories of human thought," Watts explained, "fearing that if we do not hold to them with the utmost tenacity, everything will vanish into chaos." In other words, the exact scenario Buffy is faced with in Normal Again. Of course, this line of thinking is in reality very much like when one is driving along and hits a patch of ice or standing water on the road. The self-conscious mind starts screaming to slam down on the brakes as hard as possible, and thus do the one thing guaranteed to spin you even farther out of control. Modern society teaches us this behavior. We spend our lives slamming on the brakes, not having the common sense to go with the situation that we're going to have to go with anyway. All this is largely inevitable, for when you see yourself as far removed from Nature - as coming into the world rather than out of it - that sets up the mentality that it must be conquered or suppressed. This will never work, and societies that try it end up keeping their citizens on perpetually accelerating treadmills, where they have to run faster and faster to simply stay where they already are. This mentality was certainly manifest in Willow this season. She saw Nature as something that needed to be manipulated at every possible turn, and used magic rather than technology to do so. The burned-out end result was nevertheless the same.
In his most famous work, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts spoke of what is known as the "double-bind." This is another bit of charming social indoctrination doomed to end in defeat and frustration. Some psychiatrists (such as Gregory Bateson) have recognized Watts' work on this concept to be a great contribution to their field, noting that it is perhaps one of the leading causes of schizophrenia. To put it simply, a double-bind is a request or more likely a command that contains an inherent contradiction. Early childhood for most living in an urban-industrial world consists of nothing but a long parade of double-binds. "Be yourself, and do what we tell you." "Try to go to sleep." "Act natural." And so on. Double-binds eventually get into political and religious systems, too. The primary patriotic bind in American is "You must be free." There are all kinds of religious binds, such as "You should love God." This can only lead to a lot of tripping over our own feet. Often, the so-called "problem child" is not a problem because they are willful or rebellious, but simply because what's being demanded of them is impossible. Freedom can't be commanded, love can't be forced, etc. Being raised in such a scenario, it is little wonder that young people grow up to be perpetually confused by the time they reach adolescence. Whether intentional or not, Whedon certainly addresses this dilemma through Buffy.
Buffy's bouts with depression have been relatively isolated, but they have shown up throughout the course of the series. Certainly she is clinically depressed at the beginning of season three after she has to kill Angel and then leave town. It seems to me the double-bind is very much the cause in most cases. She has had two main sources of adult authority presiding over her. One is parental, and the other is the Watcher's Council. The former demands that she must be a normal teenage girl, and the latter demands that she must be a vampire slayer. The conflict between these two have been there from the pilot episode, when in The Harvest she is grounded yet at the same time she has to go out or the world will end. Adolescence is always a double-bind, for one is often being told to be an adult while at the same time everyone insists on continuing to make all their decisions for them. In Buffy's case, it is intensified a thousand times over, and she could very easily have been little more than a puppet being yanked on a string. But when she cheats death in Prophecy Girl at the end of season one, we sense she's going to be different. The Master tells her that she was destined to die, that it was written - Buffy merely shrugs and replies that she flunked the written. This is a girl who defies prophecy - prophecy in this case being all the plans that her parents, teachers, and society as a whole have mapped out for her. She explicitly rejects the double-bind the Watcher's Council has held over in Graduation Day. She does the same thing with the prophecy in The Gift, sacrificing neither her sister or the universe but herself.
It is this steadfast refusal to play by contradictory rules that sets Buffy apart from all the other Slayers. What causes her to be like this could be a subject of great debate. Her sense of humor is certainly part of it, humor being the idea that one's self and the world are not to be taken too seriously. But where does this come from, when everything around her constantly screams death and destruction? Why does she think for herself rather than allow herself to simply be defined by her society? In my opinion, it stems from her remarkable, glorious, and unswerving self-involvement. There are a few Buffy critics out there, and most of them complain about and thoroughly detest her tendency to be self-centered. I can't argue with them that she's not, because they are right - I just feel it's quite possibly her single best quality.
Joseph Campbell once said that a person who didn't live by the demands and instincts of their "heart-life," or their inner life, would most likely suffer a nervous breakdown at some point. Society has corroborated this a number of times. To live solely for the outer world - the world of politics, religion, society, business, achievement - while completely ignoring the cultivation of the inner one seems to me to be a disastrous double-bind. Maybe even the double-bind. It is to live in a world of nothing but conscious intellectual attention, one that completely disregards the "living impulses" Walt Whitman once talked about. To be sure, there are things that can only be achieved by directed thinking and striving, but we are very, very bad at figuring out which things those are. Let's take a look at some real world examples of those who never took their own hero journeys, but rather lived on the echo of those who have gone before them. The current situation in the Middle East is really symptomatic of those living only for the outer world. On a daily basis, Israelis and Palestinians tape powerful explosives to their bodies, walk into each other's territory, and set off the bomb where it is most likely to kill the most people. These are suicide bombers, and they live a life dedicated to defunct political and religious systems handed down to them by their environment. They in no way, shape, or form think for themselves, merely interpreting themselves as cogs that serve a machine, careless of their own individuality. The sphere they live in is the sphere "out there" - the sphere of God and country, the sphere of someone else's interpretation of reality rather than their own. We saw the exact same thing up close and personal in America when the World Trade Center was destroyed.
Needless to say, a genuinely self-involved person would never kill themselves by hijacking an airliner and flying it into a building. Quite frankly, it seems to me the world would be a much better place if people stopped falling prey to whatever social system happened to be popular that week, and instead dedicated time to cultivating their own inner life. Maybe even spend more time listening to their own heart than what some babbling idiot on C-Span is saying. Buffy is self-involved. So what? From that point of view, couldn't the same criticism be leveled at Christ? Or the Buddha? The fact of the matter is, every single person that we admire was and is completely and utterly self-involved. To live in a world where no one is self-involved is to live in a world where no would create art, develop philosophy, play music, or even speculate on spirituality. That's yet another paradox of all this. All this horribly self-centered people go on to make the world a better place for the rest of us, whereas the responsible, conservative, even selfless people usually just go around doing what they're told, and that increasingly becomes blowing each other up. It is again a double-bind. The disparity this time falls between the professed and the actual. Everyone is led to believe that being self-centered is a bad thing, when in reality, it improves the whole lot enormously!
The person who condemns ego-centric behavior is indeed relying on their own ego for advice. It's asking "Why can't that other person be as ego-less as I am?" In many cases, the ego wants to get rid of itself so it can take more pride in itself. As Alan Watts pointed out, using the ego to get rid of the ego is really the most invincible form of egotism! Dancing around and calling the ego bad names often results in nothing but more ego in the form of spiritual pride. Trying to get rid of the ego that way is like trying to grab yourself with your own hands and throw yourself off a roof. It will never work. Again, the only way to diffuse the ego is to allow yourself to be self-involved. It works by virtue of what the Taoist sage Lao Tzu might call the "law of reversed effort." In the spirit of all this, I hereby select Buffy as the Patron Saint of Self-Involvement. May many more follow in her footsteps. I know I have. Can you imagine me sitting down and writing this essay, confident that people are going to read it? How much more self-centered can you get?!
(For those of you in our studio audience who aren't paying attention, I just gave you a working example of the philosophy I was advocating earlier. I didn't reject the argument, I just embraced it, used its strength and momentum against itself, and handily flipped it flat on the mat. I like to think of it as Intellectual Judo)
In closing, the core of strength Buffy's mother tells her that she has in Normal Again is a very real thing. But it was that very strength which allowed her to reject the mental asylum reality, or in other words, as she has done countless times before, to assert her own individuality against the faceless, monolithic system. This proves that her strength derives from living, and living not from a concept system "out there," but by a life one inside her. The call to adventure is simply that - to live one's own life on one's own terms. The consequences of not heeding the call ends in various degrees of Andrea Yates drowning her children. She obviously believed what society told her to believe, and never followed her bliss. On the other hand, Normal Again both addresses and answers the problem of what to do in a world where there is no permanence, where everyone was essentially kicked off the edge of a cliff the moment they were born, and where the only things offered are various levels of insanity. The road society as a whole appears to be heading down is the one Buffy is on in the insane asylum, torn between two worlds, futilely trying to determine which one is real. The scene at the end is magnificently played by Sarah Michelle Gellar, her performance speaking volumes about what is actually happening. The image of her in a hospital gown, trapped in a joyless room, and banging her head repeatedly against a wall makes for a superb visual symbol of what life in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been like for society as a whole. Watching her come out of her psychosis is like watching a butterfly taking flight when it first emerges from its cocoon, her eyes focusing immediately and becoming bright and clear once more. The very thing that provides her with salvation is her self-involvement, a self-involvement so strong that it doesn't need to be constantly fed by the support of her society, and one in which she again has complete faith. In some sense, her entire career as a Slayer led up to that moment, as all she's ever done is deconstructed delusions.
The scene in which Buffy goes back and saves her friends from the very demon she set loose on them is very powerful. Rising from her near catatonic state, she approaches the demon, and kills it by punching a hole through its chest, making for a scene quite difficult not to cheer at. While it is slightly undercut by the final shot of her still in the mental institution since she has yet to take the antidote, it plays to me as if she is finally leaving that horribly troubled part of her behind once and for all. That she chooses her "insane" reality is quite interesting. She goes back to her old life on the Hellmouth, with all its monsters and horror, over the "normal" and "healthy" life that could have been hers had she recovered from her insanity. I think the reason is simply that it was her life, rather than the one everyone told her was hers. It reminds me of a great line by William Blake, a poet who was by all accounts intensely self-involved, that states "Thy heaven doors are my hell gates." I think Buffy's actions reflect this mentality perfectly. She has to live her own life and, like the shamans, even if she is insane, at least it is her insanity. Metaphorically, the show was once again stating in the most extreme way possible that institutional authority must not be allowed to completely discredit the individual experience. It likewise reflects what Campbell said about this being an age of creative mythology, in which everyone has the opportunity to create their own myths to describe their lives. This may lead to more than a few societal question marks, for whether it is a Jackson Pollock or a Pablo Picasso or a Buffy Summers, creativity always looks like insanity to the outsider. Still, the new myth is to develop from within rather than be dictated from without. This calls for the individual to completely trust the validity of their own personal experience - their experience of what life is, what love is, what society, what spirituality is, and what the universe is. In Normal Again, Buffy sounds this trumpet quite loudly.