‘Family Blood is always the Sweetest’: The Gothic Transgressions of Angel/Angelus – Lucy Nevitt & Andy William Smith

The stylistic properties of Buffy the Vampire Slayer visualise the supernatural as a counterpoint to the cultural apparatus of American teenage life. Lucy Nevitt and Andy William Smith explore how the mise en scene and narratives of Buffy The Vampire Slayer draw upon a set of ‘Gothic’ conventions: the use of doubles, obscured family ties, incest, religious iconography and dreamlike states are all explicitly grounded in the fictional worlds of BTVS and its spin off series Angel. Rather than simply reiterating Gothic form, the series develops a ‘new Gothic’ that is dependent upon a shifting of audience expectations: the familiar cinematic genre of horror is combined with the recognisable cinematic genre of American high school drama/comedy. The ‘new’ Gothic is reliant upon a culturally resonant understanding of indexical monstrosity in order to achieve slippage between these genres – a recognition of the transference of the Gothic uncanny from 18th and 19th century fiction to 20th and 21st century cinematic representations.

“You know, I’m the Chosen One, it’s my job to fight guys like that. What’s your excuse?”

The opening credit sequence of series 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer juxtaposes a visual field of graveyards, crucifixes, ancient texts, demons and vampires against American High school rituals: cheerleaders, basketball teams and prom queens. In a montage of fast cuts these opening images of Buffy the Vampire Slayer present a visualisation of the supernatural as a counterpoint to the cultural apparatus of American teenage life. The framing and use of quick edits positions the blonde cheerleader as a figure of action, fighting the aforementioned demons and vampires.

This credit sequence introduces the mise en scene of Buffy The Vampire Slayer (hereafter referred to as BTVS) by drawing upon a set of ‘Gothic’ conventions. The critic Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick describes the “characteristic preoccupations” of the Gothic literary form as, among others, “the priesthood and monastic institutions; sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial; doubles; the discovery of obscured family ties… possibilities of incest… nocturnal landscapes and dreams” (1986: 9).

How is this world of the ‘Gothic’ created in BTVS? Within the indexical and conceptual modes of BTVS, these Gothic conventions outlined by Sedgwick operate as repeated motifs, not only in the mise en scene but also in the narrative structure of the series. The use of doubles, obscured family ties, incest, religious iconography and dreamlike states are all explicitly grounded in the fictional worlds of BTVS and its spin off series Angel. This is part of these show’s attraction as a subject for academic study, setting in place a range of epistemological and ontological debates surrounding form, style and meaning. In this context BTVS can be seen to extrapolate contradictory interpretations surrounding the term ‘Gothic’. Michelle Callander has described the form of BTVS as ‘new’ Gothic. [1] What exactly is ‘new’ about the use of Gothic modalities in BTVS?

This “new Gothic” is dependent upon a shifting of audience expectations surrounding the recognisable cinematic genre of American high school drama/comedy against another, equally familiar cinematic genre of horror. The ‘new’ Gothic is reliant upon a culturally resonant understanding of indexical monstrosity in order to achieve slippage between these genres, a recognition of the transference of the Gothic uncanny from 18th and 19th century fiction to 20th century cinematic representations. During the course of BTVS we see the introduction of vampires, Frankenstein monsters, werewolves, witches, ghosts and zombies in a knowing play on the cultural signifiers of filmic horror.

Gothic tropes of the spectral, the uncanny and the sublime abound in publicity stills for the show; its utilisation of what could be described as ‘Romantic Gothic’ remains a major merchandising strategy for the makers of BTVS. As Fred Botting notes about the historical status of the Gothic: “Existing in relation to other forms of writing, Gothic texts have generally been marginalized, excluded from the sphere of acceptable literature… however, in the realm of popular culture, Gothic writing thrived and exerted an influence on more properly literary forms” (1996:15). This use of ‘popular’ Gothic in BTVS, another competing term, rests partly on the ironic disjunction created by the title of the show. How can a ‘vampire slayer’ be called Buffy? The ‘new’ Gothic joke, of course, is on the vampires, monsters and demons: the blonde cheerleader of the opening credit sequence is the ‘Chosen One’.

“I’m destiny free” (Buffy):The Interplay of History and Modernity in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As the complex bearer of secular and metaphysical, historical and contemporary forces, Clarissa takes her place, in effect, as the first gothic protagonist. (Backus 1999: 55) Margot Backus’ positioning of the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1747 – 48) as the “first gothic protagonist” is interesting when applied to BTVS and Angel. Both of the eponymous characters, whilst existing in the present, are defined by familial and social history. The differing ways in which Buffy and Angel relate to, and are portrayed within the context of their histories open up a series of questions surrounding the uses of historical discourse in BTVS and Angel. We will examine the case of Angel at a later point, but the way Buffy is constructed by her ‘Gothic’ history suggests a tension between the secular/contemporary and metaphysical/historical that Backus posits as the starting point of the Gothic protagonist.

Buffy is the disinterested student whose struggles to pass her school courses, especially history, is an ongoing reference throughout the early seasons of BTVS. Buffy nonetheless lives as the current representative of a line of vampire slayers. Her lack of interest in history extends to her metaphysical heritage, an active rebellion against her destiny as a vampire slayer. In the early seasons of BTVS Buffy defies the Watchers Council, the regulatory body that controls the actions of the Slayer and her Watcher. [2] She rejects the traditional solitary life of the Slayer by gathering around her a group of friends that become known as ‘The Scooby Gang’ or ‘The Slayerettes’. This ‘friendship family’ assist Buffy in fighting the forces of darkness by taking on the apparatus of Gothic signs: Willow becomes a witch, Oz is a werewolf and Anya is a 1000 year old demon. Finally, in the midst of a dreamlike state, Buffy fights the spirit of the first Slayer in a literal attempt at the violent suppression of her own history: “It’s over, OK? I’m going to ignore you and you’re going to go away. You’re really going to have to get over this whole primal power thing. You’re not the source of me.” (BTVS S4 Restless)

Buffy ‘bears’ (in the sense of surviving, or suffering through) the modern, secular fears of adolescence, school, first love, sexual maturation and the separation of her parents whilst simultaneously battling demons, slaying vampires and fighting to combat events contained in prophesies thousands of years old, including her own death. (BTVS S1 Prophecy Girl) She has to combine ‘normal’ pubescent anxieties with her responsibilities for saving the world; as she says to Rupert Giles, her ‘Watcher’ [3] before leaving for a date: “If the apocalypse comes, beep me”. (BTVS S1 Never Kill a Guy on a First Date) This quote typifies the slippage between the contemporary and the Gothic, the movement between genres that creates the ‘new, popular Gothic’ of BTVS.

In the early seasons of BTVS the balance between the two opposing forces of the ‘new’ Gothic is, in the character of Buffy, explored externally – in rejecting the traditions of the Slayer, Buffy lives only in the contemporary present. David Punter writes of the relationship between internalised Gothic states and its relationship to transgression: “In Gothic fiction we see a prolonged contemplation of the objects in the internal world; and at the same time a repeated vindication of the individual’s ability to survive despite transgressive threats to boundaries”(1989:11). Buffy’s rejection of her identity as a Gothic archetype is also an attempt at affirming her other self, outside of transgressive boundaries. Buffy’s refusal to internalise her ‘metaphysical history’ is part of the conflict set up in the early seasons of BTVS, a struggle to reconcile history with modernity. This brings into doubt whether Buffy is, in her own perception, an active Gothic protagonist, a “bearer of both secular and metaphysical, historical and contemporary forces”.

Writing about the ways in which the central characters of Wuthering Heights relate to their Gothic “doubleness”, Sedgwick identifies an opposition that perfectly sums up the difference between Buffy and Angel/Angelus:
If Catherine’s relation to herself, and to her language, is a forceful and insistent denial of doubleness, Heathcliff’s is just the opposite, a sort of Manichaeanism of suppression and expression. It is Heathcliff’s plunging into doubleness that makes his Gothic affinities so obvious (1986:107). This conflict is synthesised in Buffy’s relationship with Angel/Angelus: Buffy’s loss of virginity to Angel results in his transformation back into evil Angelus; the continuity between the supernatural past (Angelus) and the contemporary present (Angel) is made horrifyingly explicit and ‘real’ in the context of the series.

“Spike, boy – you never did learn your history” (Angelus):The uses of Pastiche in Buffy The Vampire Slayer – Towards a Post Modern Gothic?

In BTVS the self conscious deployment of Gothic tropes exhibits a self-reflexivity that leaves the show open to issues of affectivity and pastiche, an intetextuality that absorbs and comments upon the referents of popular culture. As Judith Halberstam writes: the very popularity of the Gothic suggests readers and writers collaborate in the production of the features of monstrosity… Gothic novels… thematize the monstrous aspects of production and consumption – Gothic creates a public who consumes monstrosity, who revels in it (1995:12). Halberstam’s point about the monstrous aspects of production and consumption is thematized in BTVS by the very site of supernatural terror: the Hellmouth both produces the horrors of Gothic fiction and consumes anxiety created by this dread. In her essay Chaos at the Mouth of Hell Kathleen McConnell writes of the significance of the Hellmouth to the structural form of the show, quoting Joss Whedon: “…we need a reason why every monster would come to Sunnydale. The Hellmouth became sort of the central concept for us because it allows us to get away with anything” (2000:121). In effect the Hellmouth acts as a cosmic magnet for evil, and provides the show with crucial indexical and conceptual Gothic conventions.

Buffy must fight the forces of evil centred on the Hellmouth and in doing so regulates for the viewer the cultural anxieties produced by this Freudian metonym. In this sense, BTVS operates within the conservative ideological systems of early Gothic fiction in that this regulation is by necessity an act of repression, a closure of chaos by the restitution of moral order. The fact that the Hellmouth is contained within the school is both an indicator of the subtext of pubescent anxiety and also the referent for a Gothic contemporaneity, referring up another set of competing definitions of the Gothic in BTVS.

The character of Spike is introduced in Season 2 but gradually attains the status of a major character by season 5. This character best demonstrates the way Gothic conventions are subsumed within a postmodern knowingness and parody of form in BTVS. Spike’s undercutting of the vampire myth and playing up of it on occasions demonstrates his ability to inhabit the world of the secular and metaphysical; perhaps he is the only character in BTVS that can do so comfortably. Angel/Angelus is unable to ‘perform’ the vampire in the way that Spike does, and lacks the popular cultural referents of Spike: a combination of punk and English ‘wide boy’; his killing of a slayer on the New York subway appropriately happens in 1977, the year the Sex Pistols released God Save The Queen (BTVS S5 Fool for Love).

This cultural referent is indexical of Spike’s ideological positioning in BTVS; he is outside of social norms as a vampire and Gothic norms as an anti-establishment punk. Spike: We like to talk big. Vampires do. ‘I’m going to destroy the world.’ It’s just tough guy talk. Strutting around with your friends over a pint of blood. The truth is, I like this world. You’ve got dog racing. Manchester United. And you’ve got people. Billions of people walking around like happy meals on legs. It’s alright here. But then someone comes along with a vision. With a real passion for destruction. Angel could pull it off. Goodbye Piccadilly, farewell Leicester bloody Square, you know what I’m saying? (BTVS S2 Becoming, part 2) Spike’s vampirism is purely performative and expressive in the service of pastiche. Utilising the cultural referents of British society, Spike positions himself as both ‘foreign’ in nationality and ‘foreign’ in terms of his vampirism. Angel/Angelus is constantly parodied by Spike as the quintessentially brooding vampire (“I used to be a bad-assed vampire but love – and a pesky curse – de-fanged me and now I’m just a big, fluffy puppy dog with bad teeth” – Angel S1 In the Dark) and generally operates outside of the sphere of self – reflexivity, [4] but his actions as Angelus are far more threatening and disturbing than Spike’s affectations of horror. For all his posing, Spike has yet to achieve the chilling verisimilitude of Angelus snapping the neck of Jenny Callender. Framed by the arching school window, this one image is perhaps the moment that BTVS announced itself as more than just another teen horror show (BTVS S2 Passion).

This movement towards what could be termed a ‘post modern Gothic’ is how BTVS can be read as an aesthetic form that comments on why and how meaning is constructed. Allan Lloyd Smith writes of the relationship between the post modern and the Gothic: “Multiple pastiche without enabling commentary is doubtless self-cancelling, yet, at the same time, each element of pastiche calls into temporary being what and why it imitates” (1996:12). As seen through the characters of Spike and Buffy, the use of pastiche in BTVS “calls into temporary being what and why it imitates”. This ‘post modern Gothic’ is directly opposed to a meta-history that chronologically accounts for the creation of a specific set of cultural transgressions, located within the character of Angel/Angelus. This ‘historicised’ Gothic can be mapped not through an episode or series but via a complex chronological structure that throws into question the placement of BTVS as an exemplar of the ‘new’ Gothic.

“I did a lot of unconscionable things when I was a vampire” (Angel): The Eruption of the Monstrous Double

Angel/Angelus is a character that operates almost uniquely amongst the cast of BTVS. He exists in the present and yet has a complex historical chronology that is frequently revealed by the use of flashbacks. This use of flashbacks is important in distinguishing the character and his role; it fixes Angel/Angelus within an historical referent that makes the relationship with the Gothic transparent. This historicisation of the Gothic is made concrete by the use of flashbacks that traces the chronology of Angelus, starting with his transformation into a vampire in 1753. We often see other characters referred to or visually represented in the flashbacks: Darla, the Master, Drusilla, Spike and the vampire hunter Holtz; what they have in common is the figure of Angelus, whose story becomes the main focus of the chronology. This chronology generally opposes pastiche and self-reflexivity and employs the visual indexicality of gothic signs to comment upon conceptual issues: the family as the site of repression, the use of doubles, the taboo of incest and the ambivalence of monstrosity.

Like the character of Ambrosia in Matthew Lewis’s classic Gothic novel The Monk (1796), the vampire Angelus finds himself transfixed by the spectacle of eroticism evoked by Catholic ritual and icons, acquiring a taste for the devouring of nuns and priests. Shown through a series of flashbacks, Angelus sires Drusilla in a confession box on the day she takes Holy Orders, having first driven her insane by murdering her family. Angelus, we are told, liked to mark his victims with inscribing the sign of the cross into their cheeks. These sacrilegious impulses are predicated on the social contexts of Angelus’ background – his Irish antecedents (his gift of a claddah ring to Buffy, the friendship with the Irishman Doyle, the naming of his son Connor) are intended to throw into relief the violation of Catholic probity.

In season 1 of Angel , a serial killer is marking his victim’s with a cross carved into their cheeks. Angel realises it is his vampire ‘son’ Ben, who is imitating Angelus’ tactics. In response to a detective describing the actions of the killer as “doing God’s work”, Angel replies “It’s the opposite. This is about mocking God.” (Angel S1 Somnambulist) This character development of Angel/Angelus is grounded so explicitly within an historical context that any attempt to reflexively play with the boundaries of temporality is almost impossible; the use of flashbacks places the action within the mise en scene of the late 18th and 19th century and creates a self contained mythology for the vampire family of Darla/Angelus/Drucilla/Spike.

The eruption of the monstrous into the domestic frame of BTVS is part of its structural significance; the binaries of Angel/Angelus sets up the delicate balance of desire and terror that posits the visible representation of his monstrosity as “an aesthetic based on pleasurable fear” (Sedgwick 1986:11). It is at the point where Angel becomes Angelus that the demon is subsumed within adolescent anxiety, as Buffy’ s bewilderment at her rejection by Angelus gradually turns into abject horror. The inappropriate boyfriend becomes horrible – literally. Angelus to Buffy: “Dream on, schoolgirl. Your boyfriend is dead.” (BTVS S2 Innocence).

This reification of the 19th century monstrous double [5] exposes a major change in how Gothic transgression is represented in the world of BTVS: no longer is the monster oppositional to the slayer, but becomes integral to her emotional life. Buffy’s dilemma – does she stake her boyfriend? – forms part of the spectator’s ontological questioning of who constitutes the ‘real’: Angel or Angelus? Angel/Angelus embodies these opposing forces. He is the literal ‘bearer’ (in the sense of carrying or containing within himself) of both (Gothicised) history and the modern world; secular existence and the metaphysics of monsters, but without the pastiche and affectivity of Spike.

In the spin off series Angel the spectator receives a very different interpretation of the Gothic from BTVS. This is partly due to the need by the creators Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt to define a world distinct from that of BTVS. Angel combines traces of the detective story (Angel Investigations) that has its origins in the 19th century Gothic tradition, a tradition that was popularised by Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In Angel the narrative is focused on the redemption of the central character, employing Gothic tropes in much more distinct and oppositional modes than BTVS. The series Angel appears to contradict the ideological patterns of Gothic fiction that are most clearly exposed in BTVS: key amongst these are the eradication of boundaries between good and evil, most obviously represented in the figure of Angel himself. In series 1 of Angel Cordelia tries to assure Angel that he is good: “People change”. Angel’s reply reveals his fear of his monstrous double: “Sometimes they change back.” (Angel S1 Somnambulist).

Los Angeles, the city of angels, where the series is set, becomes the city of demons: there is no Hellmouth, and no regulatory attempt to contain the monsters within. Instead, the eruption of monstrosity is predicated on the city as the site of disruption and terror, a malign force metonymic of modernist cultural anxiety with its attendant factors of race and violence. The mise en scene of Angel is a reminder of this trope: it is a dark labyrinth that is ideologically and indexically opposed to the conventional locale of Sunnydale with its suburban streets and classic Gothic graveyard. If the early location of Gothic narratives centred on churches and graveyards, the later forms of Gothic fiction were to be found in the industrial wasteland of the city. Fred Botting has written of the ambivalent play of oppositions in certain types of Gothic fiction, and this analysis is germane to how Angel operates within the Gothic framework: This play of terms, of oppositions, indeed, characterises the ambivalence of Gothic fiction: good depends on evil, light on dark, reason on irrationality, in order to define limits. The play means that Gothic is an inscription neither of darkness nor of light a delineation neither of reason and morality nor of superstition and corruption, neither good nor evil, but both at the same time (1996: 8-9). This ambivalence of oppositions in Angel can be seen in a comparison of the ways in which family structures are produced as ideological critiques, utilising a Freudian/Marxist analysis of familial oppression through a close textual reading of the historicised chronology of Angel/Angelus.

“The same love will infect our hearts even if they no longer beat” (Darla): Vampire Families and Ideological Transgressions

Backus has identified “the emergence of a constricted, univocal, and impenetrable patriarchal family, unified and ideologically homogenised under the Law of the Father” (1999:71) as a feature of eighteenth century social development that strongly influenced the emergence of the Gothic form in literature. With the nuclearisation of the family in the eighteenth century came the literary preoccupation with the family as a unit of patriarchal and capitalist repression, themes which emerged in the Gothic through the symbolism of the monstrous and the supernatural. In the context of modern film horror, Tony Williams identifies the same patterns, defining ‘family horror’ as ‘the return of the repressed within a specific cinematic context’ (1996:15).

As an institutional prop of bourgeois capitalism, producing colonised subjects and reproducing ideological values, the family is extremely dangerous… Despite existing within capitalism, some families attempt alternative strategies by nurturing their children’s talents and inspiring oppositional thought; other families brutally reproduce oppressive structures within their own spheres of influence, literally becoming “hearths of darkness” (1996:14). Williams’ analysis places this materialist oppression within the context of familial horror films, and it remains a useful template for analysing how the family operates in BTVS and Angel, and in particular the ‘colonised’ family of vampires that become the major oppositional focus across the two series.

“You see, how we all work together for the common good? That’s how a family is supposed to function” (BTVS S1 Angel). So says the Master to the Anointed One in season 1 of BTVS, identifying one of the major features of family in the context of the Gothic. By “the common good” he means the good of the ‘family’ – in other words, his clan of vampires, sired through him, and of whom he is the patriarchal head. This core family is further problematised through what Halberstam has described as “the discourse of racialized monstrosity” (1995:4). The figure of the Master, the primeval vampire in season 1, is undisputedly foreign, un-American, marked by his monstrous vampiric features that he claims is his ‘true face’. The Master’s family is marked by racial, temporal and geographic difference: of a clash between the Old World/Europe and the New World, of the modern and the atavistic, of traditional Gothicism against the forces of modernity.

With the defeat of the Master by Buffy in the conclusion of season 1, his vampire family becomes the trangressive focus with one character at the centre of this unit: the contradictory figure of Angel/Angelus. In the context of Buffy’s ‘families’, Angel/Angelus is an external force, a threat both to her kin-family (specifically her mother Joyce) and her friendship-family, the Scooby Gang. He is the monster from without – the symbolic manifestation of fears connected with the family, but not specifically originating from within. Within his own ‘families’, however, Angel/Angelus is the central figure, and the fact that he embodies the monstrous double has complex implications. While he threatens Buffy’s two ‘families’ as an outsider, his own familial structures must of necessity contain him, threat and all.

In the extended chronology of BTVS and Angel , both Angel/Angelus’ character and the tension between the oppositional concepts he embodies are defined and explored through the representation of familial transgression: Angel/Angelus’ violation of families becomes a concurrent theme in the representation of an historicized Gothic. This family structure is itself complex, as the figure of Angel undergoes three distinct identities and three families related to those identities: Liam (human self / human family), Angelus (evil vampire / vampire family) and Angel (vampire with a soul / friendship family of Angel Investigations.)

Through the established conventions of flashbacks the spectator can map the changes that occur in Angel/Angelus, although these changes occur discontinuously across different episodes, seasons and series. [6] As a human (Liam) he is the insubordinate son of a disappointed father (1753: Angel S1 The Prodigal). His response to his father’s law is rebellion, delinquency and running away – all ‘normal’ and familiar examples of adolescent behaviour within the perceived repression of the bourgeois (patriarchal) kin-family structure. Neither his behaviour nor the structure of his family can be seen as trangressive: dysfunctional, perhaps, but dysfunctional in a way that, taken in the context of the accepted norms in BTVS, is acceptable. It is precisely these ‘normal’ repressive family structures that create the monster Angelus: after being sired by Darla he returns to destroy the family that made him, endlessly recreating the repressive and destructive patterns with surrogate victims: “I killed my family. I killed their friends. I killed their friends’ children. For a hundred years I offered ugly death to everyone I met…” (BTVS S1 Angel)

With this transgressive act of patricide, Angelus marks his transition between families, his new identity, and his self-perceived freedom from familial repression. He gains his new name from the sister that he murders: “She thought I had returned to her an Angel”. In his perception this symbolic act of transgression is a victory (“He can’t defeat me now”) but Darla knows better: “Nor can he ever approve of you, in this world or in any other… his defeat of you will last lifetimes”. Darla, the whore turned vampire, is the one who identifies the family-related core of Angelus’ monstrousness: “What we once were informs all we have become. The same love will infect our hearts even if they no longer beat. Simple death won’t change that.” (1753: Angel S1 The Prodigal).

In another flashback (1760: Angel S2 Darla) Angelus rejects the patriarchal rule of the Master, against whom he loses a physical fight (again, the transition is marked by violence between ‘father’ and ‘son’ – or, in this case, ‘grandson’) but succeeds in breaking away with Darla to begin the formation of their own vampire-family. Angelus and Darla’s family will extend to include the ‘children’ Drusilla and Spike, and will also, at various times, include James and Elizabeth (1767: Angel S3 Heartthrob), and Ben, sired by Angelus seemingly to replicate and re-enact his own struggle against kin-family/patriarchal repression. What Angelus whispers to Ben is a recreation of the devouring of his own family: “A feast, excellent. When he invites you in, savour it. You’ll never recapture the moment. Family blood is always the sweetest.” (late 1700s: Angel S1 Somnambulist).

The vampire family are both horrific and trangressive because they embrace those desires/behaviours that are repressed by ‘normal’ society. They are both Oedipal and incestuous. They are narcissistically individualistic. They literally feed off others, always taking with no responsibility to give. Perhaps most significantly, they are immortal. Unrestrained by the need to reproduce in order to perpetuate themselves/their family, they have different reproductive motivations – generally these are sexual, and they reveal an interesting dynamic of sexual power relationships: the sexual partner is created – given ‘birth’ – by the one who desires her/him. The sexual partner/child is created to fulfil specific sexual and/or narcissistic desires.

Angelus’ transition to Angel is triggered by violence, but not marked by it. Instead Angel spends most of the 20th century in an extended period of social and familial isolation. Rejected by his mother/lover Darla (1898: Angel S1 Five by Five) because his guilt and refusal to kill after gaining his soul transgress the nature of vampirism, he exists in solitude until, with his meeting with Whistler and decision to help Buffy, he resolves to make amends for his transgressions (1996: BTVS, S2 Becoming, Part 1). It is through Angelus’ vampire family that we see the consistent transgression of ideologically sanctioned notions of the family, through the breaking of the few remaining family taboos: parricide and incest.

As the chronological flashbacks begin to connect up over the course of different episodes and series, the spectator can see how Angel/Angelus becomes a figure of increasing moral ambiguity. He commits patricide as the evil Angelus and matricide as the repentant Angel (killing Darla: 1997: BTVS S1 Angel). The killing of a parent becomes the common denominator for the doubled self. What Sedgwick writes about the relationship of doubleness to Gothic convention is interesting in how it relates to the figure of Angel/Angelus: It is the position of the self to be massively blocked off from something to which it ought normally to have access. This something can be its own past, the details of its family history… This… is a fundamental reorganisation, creating a doubleness where singleness should be. And the lengths there are to go to reintegrate the sundered elements – finally, the impossibility of restoring them to their original oneness – are the most characteristic energies of the Gothic novel (1986:13). The restoration of Angelus’ soul in 1898 creates Angel; his subsequent loss of soul a hundred years later reverts him back to his monstrous double. The concerns of Angel the TV series revolve around this doubleness, and “the impossibility of restoring them to their original oneness”. Angel is told by Wesley of the prophecy that the vampire with a soul will one day become human (Angel S1 To Shanshu in LA). It is this desire of Angel’s – to return to the state of singleness that constitutes his humanity – that sets up the interplay of ambivalent boundaries in Angel, suggesting a more problematic vision of family relationships and their effect on the individual than BTVS.

“His defeat of you will last lifetimes” (Darla): Angel/Angelus and the Vampiric Oedipal Crisis

The structure of the vampire ‘family’ is incestuous and/or narcissistic: Darla is both mother and lover to Angelus, shown most clearly by his siring; after Darla bites into Liam, she draws a line of blood across her breast and gets him to drink from it in an obvious replication of motherhood/sexual partnership. This is further exemplified by Darla’s term of affection for Angelus: “My darling boy”, frequently evoked at times of sexual passion. Drusilla is his daughter and sexual partner. Ben is a narcissistic creation for Angelus, but the very fact of his similarity positions him also as a protestation against (and thus proof of) Angelus’ insecurity. A Freudian reading of incest is useful here for mapping out the complex transgressions of this family: Freud’s definition of an Oedipus complex, generated within a family situation, still usefully explains psychic mechanisms operating within an exploitative patriarchal capitalist system. The family is the ideal launching pad for producing gendered beings (Williams 1996:15). According to Williams, the repressive status quo, of which Freud’s Oedipal crisis is a symbol, is the key determiner of family horror. Backus positions the Oedipus complex, within the context of the Gothic family romance and the eighteenth century nuclearisation of the family, as the internalisation within the nuclear family of the previously external incest taboo (1999:43). In these contexts it is particularly interesting to consider the nature and structure of the vampire family in BTVS and Angel and, especially, the incestuous and Oedipal nature of their family ties.

Liam’s transition to Angelus is a clear and straightforward enactment of the Oedipus crisis. He kills his father in exchange for a mother (Darla) who is also a sexual partner. Later, as Angel, he kills Darla, but the Oedipal mother cannot be removed so easily. Darla is brought back to life by Wolfram and Hart (Angel, S1 To Shanshu in LA) in an attempt to seduce Angel and return Angelus to the sundered self. This event further complicates the incestuous ties of the vampire family and leads to a sexual union between ‘mother’ and ‘son’ that leads to the birth of Connor, (the ‘impossible’ baby as vampires are unable to procreate), who, because he is human and therefore not defined within the taboo-breaking norms of the vampire family, could be read as symbolising the unacceptable child of incest.

As Darla knows, the murdered Oedipal father cannot disappear, and Angelus’ obsession with the destruction of families clearly connects, in the Freudian and the Gothic contexts, with his ‘defeat’ by his human father: a defeat that cannot be overcome, but which, formed by repressive or abusive treatment in early life, turns the repressed into the symbolic monster of metaphysical horror: The Oedipal trajectory is not a natural course of individual development. It results from social manipulation… What appears as instinctual actually results from an oppressive behavioural pattern within bourgeois society (Williams 1996:16). In Freudian-Oedipal terms, then, Angelus’ act of patricide is an act both of rebellion and reinforcement of the patriarchal family structure: by literally devouring his father he both removes him and ingests him, makes him a permanent fixture within his own existence. This motif is one that is echoed in season 3 of Angel; Angel unwittingly consumes the blood of his son Connor, in another attempt by Wolfram and Hart to turn him ‘back’ into Angelus: “The barrier between the self and what should belong to it can only be caused by anything and nothing; but only violence or magic, and both of a singularly threatening kind, can only ever succeed in joining then again” (Sedgwick 1986:13). These patterns of abuse and consumption within a familial context are indicative of the complex systems created by the historicized Gothic, a way of assuming a position to Gothic modalities that returns the form, like the monster, to a sense of ideological interrogation.

“We are Defined by the Things we Fear” (The Master): Conclusion

The interplay of Gothic forms in BTVS is more complex than the opening credit sequence would suggest. The underlying subtext of BTVS concerns adolescence, burgeoning sexuality and adapting to colonised institutional systems (school, family, work). Combined with supernatural narratives spanning tales of vampirism, spectral apparitions, and uncanny doppelgangers, the show suggests that the everyday is in relation to the sublime, a positing of binaries that marks out clearly the gaps between good and evil, light and dark, a mise en scene of Manichaean doubleness.

The ambivalence of Gothic tropes is more pronounced than at first it seems: Buffy relies upon the help of a werewolf (Oz), vampires (Angel and Spike), witches (Willow and Tara) and demons (Anya) in order to ‘fight the forces of evil’. Similarly, in Angel , the complex moral issues raised by the central character’s doubleness is at times simplified by narrative short cuts: the episode where Angel temporarily becomes Angelus in an artificial state of bliss brought on by narcotics (Angel S1 Eternity), ignores the multifaceted historical and mythical patterns of transgression and redemption created by the historical chronology. It would also be facile to suggest that BTVS is self reflexive and Angel modernist; both shows borrow freely from the stylistic devices set up by Joss Whedon.

Where they do differ is in the portrayal of family as the source of horror. In Angel , the convoluted chronology of the character is fashioned around the violent repositioning of families in an historicised Gothic context. In BTVS the most disturbing and horrific moment is the natural death of Buffy’s mother Joyce, (BTVS S5 The Body) an event unmediated by the agency of the supernatural. Coming chronologically full-circle, Buffy must here face up to the impossible question, first posed by Angelus and Darla in a note to the vampire hunter Holtz after they murder his family [7] (1764: Angel S3 Offspring): “How can you hope to save others when you cannot save your own?”


1. See Michelle Callander’s essay “Bram Stoker’s Buffy: Traditional Gothic and Contemporary Culture”, http://www.slayage.tv/siteindex.shtml
2. ‘Her’ because the slayer is always gendered female.
3. Unlike vampire Slayers, the tradition of the Watchers is genealogical – passed down through families.
4. Twice in BTVS Angel pretends to be Angelus – a deviation from his behavioural norm which works on Faith the rogue Slayer (3, 17, Enemies) but fails to fool Spike (2, 3, School Hard).
5. Two examples of the 19th century Gothic doppelganger can be found in James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) and R.L. Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)
6. As a way of creating a sense of continuity we shall give both the episode title and the date line that it forms in the chronology.
7. Angelus and Darla come up with a particularly transgressive form of familial repositioning: they sire Holtz’s daughter Sarah, turning her into a vampire so Holtz is forced to kill her himself.


  1. […] Buffy’s high-school lover, vampire with a soul Angel, moved to L.A and to his own spin-off series Angel, which creates an intersecting but unique universe, extrapolating the Buffyverse. Angel is somewhat darker than Buffy and ostensibly pitched at a slightly older audience. [Enter the city of Angel] or read a review / synopsis of the show here by Bubblegum Aesthetics. For a useful academic critique of Angel’s Noir aesthetics and sexual politics, see article by Nevitt and Smith in online journal Refractory. […]