|History as Nightmare
University of Bristol
A spectre is haunting Sunnydale; the spectre of historicism.1 Modern society, born through struggle from the dark ages of human history, believes that it has overcome the past and escaped its demons, but it has not. It seeks to create a new world after its own image, unencumbered by the burden of history, but the old conflicts have not been resolved, the ghosts of the past will return to haunt the present, the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.2 ‘Zombies. Werewolves. Succubi. Incubi. Everything you ever dreaded was under your bed but told yourself couldn’t be by the light of day. They’re all real’ (1.1).
A key element of the power that the literature of the supernatural has over the imaginations of its audience is the way that it draws upon and explores modern anxieties about the return of the past upon the present.3 Indeed, such fictions take delight in confronting modernity with the shadows it thought it had escaped or dispelled. They deal in the realm of the ‘uncanny’: ‘that which ought to have remained secret and hidden’, in Schelling’s terms, or, as Freud argues in his classic essay on the subject, ‘when something actually happens in our lives which seems to confirm the old, discarded beliefs of our ancestors’.4 Ghosts, vampires and their kin embody the continuing power and awful fascination of a supposedly dead past, and the threat it still represents to modern society: ‘The old centuries had, and have, powers of their own which mere modernity cannot kill’.5
This representation of the past as a supernatural, undead force is not limited to popular fiction: the two great nineteenth-century critics of modernity, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche, also use images of revenants, spectres, ghosts and gravediggers to explore modernity’s problematic relationship with history. ‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare (lastet wie ein Alp) on the brains of the living’: the ‘Alp’ with which the tradition is compared in Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is not a mere bad dream, as the English translation might suggest, but a malevolent demon who disturbs people’s rest. For Nietzsche, in the preface to his essay on The Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, the past moment ‘returns as a ghost’ to disturb the peace of the present.6 However, where Gothic fiction seeks in the end to reassure its audience by staging the defeat of the dark forces of the past by the heroic representatives of the present, the message of Marx and Nietzsche holds little comfort for the present state of affairs. They argue that, for all its claims to have banished such revenants, modernity remains inescapably haunted by history and historicity; only a radical transformation (of society, or of the self) can free it (us) from the dead hand of the past.7 This paper argues that the ghosts and vampires of Buffy serve a similarly critical function, not only reflecting but also reflecting upon modernity’s uneasy attitude towards the past.
That attitude is encapsulated by James Joyce: ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’.8 The past is a source of terror, defying sense and reason, and it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to escape it, even as we know, or tell ourselves, that science and rationality should have set us free. In modernity, the past stands for ignorance, superstition, intolerance, arbitrary power; its stock figures are lascivious monks, corrupt noblemen, the Inquisition and the despot, all that was supposed to have been overcome and rendered impotent by enlightment science and the values of liberal democracy, but which still retains some uncanny authority. Bourgeois triumphalism co-exists uncomfortably with a sense of the fragility of its achievement; the fear that modern society may revert at any moment to barbarism, that apparently enlightened, rational people may succumb to the beast inside, that the past may return and re-assert its hold on people’s minds. In the United States this anxiety is situated geographically as well as temporally, in the Europe its founders fled to create a New, uncorrupted, world.9 In political rhetoric as in popular culture, Europe is eternally caught in the past, a place of ruins, vendettas, corruption and decay. The decadent, seductive, aristocratic European seeking to ensnare and destroy honest but naïve Americans is a staple of American fiction from Henry James to Die Hard.
Buffy’s philosophy of history similarly identifies the past as a major, if not the major, source of danger. Its ‘grand narrative’ establishes that the rule of humans is a relatively recent, almost accidental and, by implication, extremely tenuous development, and that most of past history is truly dark and terrifying. ‘This world is older than any of you know, and contrary to popular mythology it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth, and made it their home, their Hell’ (1.2). The Old Ones may now have lost their purchase on this reality, creating a space for the upstart homo sapiens, but their influence has not been dispelled utterly; vampires still walk the earth spreading terror and death, and many of them are striving to return the world to its original hellish state — to drag it back into the dark ages. Other remnants of this not quite conquered past — spells, artefacts, curses — present the same threat of apocalypse, while demons continue to reappear unexpectedly from the realms to which they had supposedly been banished. The comfortable, sun-drenched lives of the people of Sunnydale are shown to depend on illusion and the power of forgetting, as they repress all knowledge of the old world and all evidence that it is not quite dead and gone, and retain a naïve belief in the power of their civic institutions and technology to protect them against any possible danger.10 They exemplify the vulnerability of modernity, not least in their susceptibility to the corrupting influence of the past and their tendency to revert to more primitive forms of behaviour.11
The past breeds monsters — and some parts of the past breed more than others. A significant number of the monsters in Buffy are shown to be specifically European in origin. Vampires are of course traditionally portrayed as decadent European aristocrats; Buffy ironises this tradition to some extent, directly with its portrayal of Dracula (5.1) and indirectly with the depiction of vampires who are redneck hobos, streetwise urban hustlers, petulent students and so forth. However, the Master, Angel, Darla, Spike and Drusilla are all presented as European; Drusilla in particular is associated with such classic traits as religious mania, perverse sexuality and the symptoms of consumption, while Angelus appears more ‘European’ than Angel in his emotional coldness and propensity for de Sadean cruelty. ‘Fairy-tale’ monsters like Der Kindestod (2.18) and the Gingerbread demon (3.11) crawl out of the dark woods of Germanic folktales, examples of the nightmare superstitions that were supposed to have been left behind on the other side of the Atlantic but which have somehow smuggled themselves into American society.12 Even in its positive form — Giles, most obviously — European identity is seen to be mired in the past (‘Rupert, you have to read something that was published after 1066’ (2.3)); in most cases, it signifies the past as an unambiguous threat. In contrast, it is striking that two of the monsters specifically identified as American in origin, the Inca Mummy Girl (2.4) and the Indian spirit Hus (4.8), are treated by the programme with greater sympathy and moral ambiguity. Their violent acts are seen as a response to specific circumstances (the wish to survive and live a ‘human’ life, the desire to avenge injustice and atrocity) rather than due to sheer malevolence. The American past is clearly more troubling, if equally threatening to the present; it cannot be so easily repudiated as an entirely separate Other.
Modernity’s anxieties about history are not confined to its fear of revenants; it fears the historical process itself. Many of its writers have indulged in the self-congratulatory habit of viewing modernity ‘in historical perspective’ as the culmination of all human development.13 However, such an approach may raise the unsettling thought that modern society too may one day be seen in retrospect, whether as an earlier, lower stage of human development that had to be overcome just as modernity overcame feudalism, or as a brief flowering of civilisation before the cycle of historical development turned once again into barbarism and darkness.14 Some apologists of modernity (most notably the economists) have responded to this anxiety by asserting the universality of bourgeois values and social forms, stressing continuity even in the midst of apparently dramatic change.15 Others have taken refuge in teleology, arguing that history has now reached its conclusion and so change and conflict will cease (see most recently Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man).16 Many, above all in science fiction, the quintessential literature of modernity, have looked fearfully for the agent which will bring about our destruction, partly in the hope of anticipating it and partly through sheer apocalyptic fascination. Most have identified it in technology, which helped to bring about the overthrow of the old feudal order and the triumph of bourgeois capitalism but which now threatens to continue that process of transformation and dissolution, even at the expense of the society which has nurtured its development.17
Buffy shares some of these anxieties; the Frankenstein motif, the archetypal anti-science myth of meddling with things with which man was not supposed to meddle, recurs regularly and with the inevitably dire consequences.18 Technology is portrayed as morally neutral, but it can always be turned to evil ends — whereupon it becomes clear, as most obviously in the case of the Initiative, that it would have been better not to have started the experiment in the first place. The programme has offered a take on virtually all the conventional ‘science-anxiety’ topics: genetic engineering, behaviour modifying drugs, androids and the Internet. Scientists are presented as well-intentioned, even idealistic, but blind to the possible consequences of their activities and often all-too-willing to abandon society and its rules in pursuit of their research. Their inventions bring pain, suffering, death, world domination by demon robots and Armageddon.
So far, so clichéd. For all its radicalism in the field of gender, making the blonde teenage girl victor rather than victim, when it comes to history Buffy can often seem like a simple reflection, rather than a critique, of modernity and its prejudices.19 At times the programme even takes on the reactionary role of providing comfort and reassurance to its anxious audience: the world in general, and the past in particular, are constructed as a threat to the American way of life, and then forcibly put in their place. ‘We both know there are real monsters. But there are also real heroes, that fight monsters’ (2.18). The police and government may be helpless in the face of the threat, and even implicated in it, but ‘our’ enemies can still be defeated through rugged frontier individualism and copious violence. The moral issues and colonial guilt associated with ‘home-grown’ enemies like Apata and Hus are negated in the narrative by making the creatures a direct threat to key characters, so that destroying them becomes a simple matter of survival and protecting one’s friends. The rhetorical move is all too familiar from Western foreign policy.
Thankfully, this is not the whole story. The programme is always most at home when exploring ambiguities and uncertainties; the human qualities of the most monstrous monsters, the monstrosities of human behaviour, the effects of even necessary violence on the perpetrator. ‘I don’t always use violence, do I?’ ‘The important thing is, you believe that’ (2.4). This might be read as a comment not only on the Slayer’s role — a theme explored in more detail in later seasons — but also on the self-deceptions of the West. In its relation to the past and to history, too, Buffy departs from the songsheet of modernity in important and interesting ways.
Firstly, where modernity seeks only to overcome, repudiate and repress the past, Buffy seeks to establish a productive relationship with it. In contrast to the goldfish-like approach of most television series, where the memories of audience and characters are assumed to last little longer than a single episode, actions in the world of Buffy have long-term effects, and the need to come to terms with the past is a common theme. At various points Buffy, Angel and Giles all have to confront the consequences of their actions, and what is seen to matter is not so much repentence as acceptance and acknowledgement; otherwise, the past will always claw its way out of the grave and wreak more havoc.20 On the other hand, an obsession with the past and its consequences can be equally dangerous, an impediment to action and an enemy to life.21 The series offers object lessons in the dangers both of repression and of assuming that the past can be simply and painlessly overcome; ‘When She Was Bad’ (2.1), for example, highlights the limitations of the short-term and simplistic ‘we saved the world; I say we party’ attitude to dealing with one’s enemies.
The past produces monsters, but it also produces the means to defeat them — spells, weapons, knowledge — where modern resources are useless. Synthesis is the key: ancient tomes and the Internet, rocket launchers and ‘a sharp stick’ (4.12). This is seen most clearly in Buffy’s struggle to come to terms with the traditions that govern the role of Slayer. She seeks a middle way between the narrow conformity of Kendra and the Watcher’s Council (‘Giles, twentieth century. I’m not gonna be fighting Friar Tuck.’ ‘These traditions have been handed down through the ages.’ (1.7)) and the ultimately self-destructive repudiation of all rules and customs exemplified by Faith. Tradition is seen not as an indivisible whole, to be accepted or rejected in toto, nor as an end in itself (contra the Watchers’ Council team in 4.16), but as a toolbox from which Buffy can select what is most useful for present circumstances. Being the Slayer is a matter of living up to the ‘spirit’ of the role, rather than conformity to rules and rituals, but even that spirit needs to take account of changing historical contexts: as Buffy says to the Primitive, ‘You are not the source of me . . . There’s trees in the desert since you moved out, and I don’t sleep on a bed of bones’ (4.22).
One might compare the ways that both Marx and Nietzsche drew on the heritage of classical antiquity in developing their critiques of modernity. The question of how to respond to the tradition of Greek and Roman ideas, literature and art had concerned European writers and artists since the sixteenth century. If treated with excessive reverence, it could overwhelm the unwary and smother their own creative instincts — as Nietzsche describes modern reverence for the Classics, ‘it is not a real culture at all but only a kind of knowledge of culture’. Used in the right spirit, however, with the aim not of reproducing or perpetuating the past but of building the future, classical antiquity offered a new way of looking at the world and avoiding the blind spots of modernity, a set of tools (theories, concepts, artistic forms) and an inspiration to action.22 ‘I do not know what meaning classical studies could have for our time if they were not untimely - that is to say, acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come’.23 The tradition — of the Classics, of the Slayer’s role — unavoidably exists, and is potentially a source of strength and power far greater than anything the modern world can offer; it is simply a matter of how one negotiates a proper and productive relationship with it.
‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.’24 We cannot ignore the past, but acceptance of its continuing influence does not imply passivity or powerlessness. A key theme in Buffy is the struggle against determinism and teleology, represented above all by infallible prophecies of doom (‘This is The Pergamum Codex. There is nothing in it that does not come to pass’ (1.12)) and by the agents of apocalypse (‘Tonight will be history at its end’ (1.2) ‘My friends, we’re about to make history . . . end’ (2.22)). It would be easy to interpret this theme in terms of a struggle against the crude determinism and Year Zero rhetoric of Marxist-Leninist revolution, and to see Buffy as an agent of reactionary forces seeking to destroy anything that threatens the present order of society. However, it must be stressed that the status quo is as much a threat to Buffy as the opening of the mouth of hell would be. Perhaps her greatest enemy is historical precedent, the traditionally poor life-expectancy and limited horizons of Vampire Slayers.25 She fights to preserve the possibility of change, above all in her own life; either version of the ‘end of history’, apocalypse and armageddon or Fukuyama’s vision of the eternal continuance of the present order of things, implies her untimely death.26
The second historically-related theme that I want to consider is the critique of what might be termed the ‘mythical’ function of history, the way that accounts of the past may serve to conceal or disguise the realities of the present. The past matters to people; stories told about the past underwrite a sense of individual, social and national identity, as well as being used to legitimise customs, institutions and actions. Modernity claims to offer an authoritative account of the ‘real’ past, which just happens to confirm its sense of its own superiority and the universality of its values. Marx and Nietzsche present devastating critiques of such pretensions, and expose the ideological function of these versions of history; the role that such stories play in normalising and universalising conditions that are in fact historically specific and contingent, and their role in disguising modernity’s dependence on exploitation and illusion — disguising this even from modernity itself.27 Marx sums up the problem in his preface to Capital: ‘Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.’28
Buffy shows its awareness of such issues, above all in its depiction of the ‘normal’ world’s wilful ignorance of the darkness that surrounds it; exploding the myth that ‘bad old science made the magic go away’ (1.8), highlighting the processes of selective memory (‘People rationalise what they can and forget what they can’t’ (1.2)) and noting, in Nietzschean terms, the necessity of lies and illusion for the continuation of normal life for the majority of people: ‘The dark can get pretty dark. Sometimes you need a story’ (2.7).29 At the level of the story, the illusion is, as far as possible, maintained; Buffy works hard so that others can remain unaware and enjoy their ‘normal’ life. From the perspective of the television audience, however, Buffy strips away ideological veils and uncovers reality — including, along with myriad threats to peaceful existence and the future of humanity, the sinister activities of the military-industrial complex and the literally hellish conditions of industrialised production that are obscured from view by the works of charity (3.1).30
Particularly striking is the programme’s ongoing critique of the bourgeois mythology of the golden age. In the nineteenth century, nostalgia for a lost paradise tended to be the preserve of anti-modernists like William Morris. Since the First World War, however, modernity too has been pervaded with the sense that the times are out of joint and with a nostalgic yearning for ‘the good old days’, whether these are then located in Victorian values, the Edwardian era or — especially in the United States — the 1950s. Buffy explicitly rejects such a move. The embodiment of Eisenhower values, Ted, turns out to be an obsessive, psychotic robot, driven by a refusal to accept female autonomy (2.11); ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ (2.19) depicts the terrible consequences of 1950s sexual repression in the name of respectability; the ‘family values’ promoted in ‘Gingerbread’ (3.11) quickly lead to book-burning, totalitarianism and witch-hunts; a pious old lady’s ‘love’ for her ‘kids’ in ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (4.18), located specifically in the period 1949-1960, conceals violent child abuse. In the course of the third season, the greatest threat is seen to come not from the very modern problem of vampire globalistion — ‘We stay local . . . but we live global,’ Mr Trick proposes, noting the advantages of ordering express-delivery victims over the internet (3.3) — but from the far more insidious homespun rhetoric and folksy mannerisms of the Mayor. The idealised values of the 1950s, including miniature golf and glasses of milk, are shown to be a façade, a cover for darker motives and violence. The repercussions of events in that decade continue to affect the present, and are made more dangerous by an initial failure to see behind the respectable image and realise what is really going on. No comparable critique is offered of the alternative ‘myth’ of the counter-cultural 1960s — but neither is it indulged, or presented as a lost paradise. Buffy takes on the far more difficult task of creating values for the here and now, and of trying to live in the present.
‘She lives very much in the now, and history, of course, is very much about the then’ (1.7). Giles’ comment is potentially misleading, or at least becomes so over the course of later seasons. For Buffy, as for Marx and Nietzsche, living in the now does not imply the absolute rejection or disavowal of the past, but its deployment in the service of the present and the future. Buffy confronts the ‘nightmare’ of history with the knowledge that, as Nietzsche put it, ‘the unhistorical and the historical are necessary in equal measure for the health of an individual, of a people and of a culture’ — and for the future of the world.31