Vampire Hip: Style as Subcultural Expression in Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Patricia Bieszk

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Patricia explores the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, subculture and style.

White on white
Translucent black capes
Back on the rack.
Bela Lugosi’s dead.
The Bats have left the bell tower,
The victims have been bled,

Red velvet lines the black box.
Bela Lugosi’s dead.
Undead Undead Undead…

“Bela Lugosi’s dead”, Bauhaus.

The media have a long history of using subcultural imagery for its sheer spectacularity factor. It tends to add an aesthetic edge to any program and such constructed images are easily marketable to the mainstream public, always insatiate for something shocking, titillating and new, which would allow the process of slumming to take place and make ordinary citizens feel hip too. The prime time television series is the case in point, television being a medium rarely allowed to be innovative and subversive in itself, and governed by executive laws and censorship. Putting across messages that might normally be considered too controversial for prime time can be tricky and may require a guise. The fantasy genre, which is by definition not taken seriously, offers such a guise: “The fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that, which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made ‘absent’” as succintly put by Rosemary Jackson (4).

In this way a phenomenon like Buffy the Vampire Slayer can arise (pun intended). The silliness of the title itself ensures dismissal from most non-teenage audience members and is non-threatening, but at the same time it reflects the postmodern bricolage nature of the show: it is hardly original, Varney the Vampire was a popular magazine serial published weekly as early as 1896, however, the juxtaposition of various elements and a specific attitude is what gives Buffy its fresh slant. The series turned out to be a favorite amongst academics, surpassing even The X-Files in that respect, specifically due to the layering of meanings, discourses and genres, a foremost feature of the show. In this paper I am interested in the very surface layer, the specific look promoted by Buffy and its spinoff series Angel, and their drawing on subcultural aesthetics of goth, punk and camp.

Joss Whedon, the creator of the Buffy franchise, repeatedly affirmed that one of his main aims was to undercut viewer expectations in every conceivable way, in plot, cinematography, character structure, etc., and again the fantasy genre facilitates this procedure: “Such violation of dominant assumptions threatens to subvert (overturn, upset, undermine) rules and conventions taken to be normative. This is not in itself a socially subversive activity: it would be naive to equate fantasy with either anarchic or revolutionary politics. It does, however, disturb ‘rules’ of artistic representation (…)” (Jackson 14). Buffy succeeds on many levels in its mission of disturbing those rules; its often provoking themes contain some of the subversive connotations and defiant attitudes of the original subcultural sources.

Subcultures are unable to change the dominant order of things, but at the same time they have the power of provocation and subversion. I prefer to think about this relationship between the mainstream and the marginal in terms of a dialogue (which can sometimes turn into a heated discussion): the dominant discourse tends to use and varnish subcultural meanings, absorbing and diffusing them, but marginal discourses use mainstream texts and subvert and appropriate their meanings as well, creating a new language, a code of “secret” meanings in an attempt to resist that order. This continuous tension creates a space of friction, a possibility of a creative clash and a mutual infusion of a chaotic mix of ideas. In that space I would position the untypical mainstream text that is Buffy. The show has rather a specialized, cult appeal, despite the ubiquitous presence of its iconic images. I propose to trace the subcultural presence in Buffy and search for its “gestures of defiance” (Hebdige 1979, 3). Buffyverse takes us into the demon underworld, an “ideological supernatural underground” (Wall and Zryd, 69), its sinister presence hidden under the sunny California surface of a teenage high school soap opera. The look of that underworld and their most spectacular representatives, the vampires, is what mainly interests me here.

According to the authors of “Subcultures, Cultures and Class” (1975), a subculture is recognizable and defined by its distinctive shape and structure, the fact that it is focused around certain activities and values common to a given group, and that it is bound with the parent culture, being based on it structurally and with the mission to transform its values (100-101). The conceptions of masculinity, family and power are reproduced and re-evaluated. The resultant distinctive way of being-in-the-world results in the imprinting of style on objects significant in the group through the process of stylization. The shaping of marginal identities involves specific group dynamics and inter-relations, which depend on situational context and experiences, that are subsequently reflected in the styles of interaction and distinctive look of the members of a given subculture.

Vampires are the ultimate subculture. Dick Hebdige maintains that spectacular subcultures express “forbidden contents in forbidden forms” (1979, 91). As Angel tells us, “Vampires are a paradox: demons in a human body” (4.60, “Who are you”). We regard them with an ambivalent mixture of revulsion and rapture. After all, a vampire is an eternally young and beautiful, potently sexual being freed from human limitations such as time, social and economic constraints and, of course, death. Vampires also qualify as a deviant and criminal subculture in terms of their direct link with the human parent culture, on which they depend for sustenance, but tend to treat it with contempt, as something beneath them. They are unabashedly narcissistic and elitist and their transgressive nature allows them to break human taboos. “Vampires are polymorphously perverse: in their search for blood they can find physical intimacy with a person of almost any gender, age, race, or social class (…) Transgressive and violent eroticism links the vampire’s monstrousness to revolution against norms established by patriarchal institutions of religion, science, law, and the nuclear family” (Freeland, 124). In other words, they are our (anti)ideal. Like any subculture, they arouse fear and fascination, except more so, because they are actually different in constitution: “In an age where we’re told we can’t be sexual, the vampire is omni-sexual, utterly unafraid of body fluids and blood contacts. The vampire has also become a kind of all-purpose caricature. Almost anybody who feels disaffected, disconnected from society, or simply not in the mainstream now has ample opportunity to identify with the exploits of the undead outsider” (David J. Skal, quoted in Wolf, 209). The use of subcultural imagery to portray vampires in the media seems like the most natural thing in the world.

It is often noted that our knowledge of the ‘creatures of the night’ comes mostly from popular culture, especially the cinema. The stereotypical vampire is traditionally a charismatic and mysterious stranger, who can be read as possessing all the qualities we would want in an ideal lover; his seductive gaze symbolizes transgression of every kind and has the power to fool us into believing he is everything we want him to be. Buffy’s world subverts that classic image in many ways. The series is an aesthetic mixture of various genres and draws on themes not associated with vampires, reconstructing and playing with their image.

Located on the Hellmouth, Sunnydale is densely populated by countless demons, the vampires forming just one distinct subcultural group amongst them. In Buffyverse they possess the classic vampire shared perspective and lifestyle based on bloodlust, however their most notable aesthetic feature in the series is the fact that they “morph”, their faces become monstrous when they are aroused or enraged, and they are not only strong, but immediately after being turned into a vampire and awakening they lose all inhibitions and seem to know martial arts, or at least the American television version of them.

Among the various categories of vampires the most common are the ‘vamps’, usually confined to Sunnydale’s many cemeteries for Buffy to kill on her patrols. They are almost always in a morphed state, wearing their vampfaces, which are too silly to be taken seriously, and not very scary with their campy comic book make-up. Aesthetically these creatures are inspired rather by the B-movie trash tradition and Hammer studio horror movies than the classic Hollywood Dracula films. The series creators stress in interviews that they try to diversify them visually, thus there are 80s style Van Halen lookalikes, fat vampires and singing vampires, of all races, genders, ages and persuasions. They are mostly played for humour and lack much individualization. Prone to rituals and mysticism, vamps tend to form nests or secret underground societies around stronger members, by whom they are easily controlled and manipulated.

The more complex vampire villains and heroes of the series are allowed to develop their individualized styles. The “Fearesome Foursome”: Angel, Spike, Darla and Drusilla are the tongue-in-cheek vampire family of Buffyverse. Albert Cohen emphasizes the compensatory function of the juvenile gang: “In the gang the core values of the straight world – sobriety, ambition, conformity, etc. – were replaced by their opposites: hedonism, defiance of authority and the quest for ‘kicks’ (76). In addition to illustrating that thesis, the relations between these characters consist of a constant frenzy of goading and challenging the power positions in their clan.

Angel: “What a poster child for soulfullness you are”
(Darla in Angel 2.5, “Dear Boy”)

Endurance: huge, rich cloak of time flows back from his shoulders like wings of a dark angel.
Suzy McKee Charnas, The Vampire Tapestry

Angel represents a visually updated version of the classic vampire image associated with Dracula, that of the 19th century dandy, popularized by Hollywood. He looks as impeccable as if he just stepped out of a Hugo Boss commercial. Albert Camus writing on the figure of dandy as a rebel could be describing Angel: “Exquisite sensibilities evoke the elementary furies of the beast. The Byronic hero, incapable of love, or capable only of an impossible love, suffers endlessly. He is solitary, languid, his condition exhausts him” (49). Thus we enter the classical, brooding realm of goth iconography, which in a vampire fantasy genre is to be expected. Angel’s image is that of a fallen, well, angel: tall, dark, handsome and vulnerable, because of the fact that he is a vampire, yet possesses a soul. Surrounded by an aura of impending gloom, sadness and mystery he appropriately wears timeless, sleek black, simple and sexy, with a hint of European old-world feel. Angel is the quintessential tortured (super)hero on a moral mission of redemption. He is represented as profound, existential and associated with wisdom, intellect and beauty: his reading includes Sartre’s Nausea in French and most of his time is spent on an internal struggle with his demon nature and the pursuit of good and humanity. He has access to ancient secret knowledge and experiences that fascinate teenage Buffy, who tells him: “When you kiss me I wanna die” (2.5, “Reptile boy”), verbalizing the transgressive sexual desire provoked by the vampire, linked with a death wish. Buffy’s vampires transcend the debt owed to the imaginary world of Anne Rice and her Vampire Chronicles, they are sexual beings in all the traditional ways as well.

According to Alicia Porter “the stereotypical goth never smiles and always broods”, is well read and vain and takes himself and life very seriously. Angel is portrayed as the “doom and gloom” type of goth, who tends to be focused on morbid, depressing or apocalyptic themes (Porter). Accordingly, in order to mock Angel’s attitude Cordelia pretends to be him by sitting in his chair, getting a book and brooding: “Oh no, I can’t do anything fun tonight, I have to count my past sins, then alphabetize them. Oh, by the way, I’m thinking of snapping on Friday” (2.6, “Guise will be Guise”).

This constructed image of Angel is further explored and more self-consciously and reflexively toyed with in Buffy’s spin off series, Angel. In “Guise will be Guise” (2.6) the swami to whom Angel goes for advice analyzes the hero’s immaculate image through his car, a slick, black, ‘chick magnet’ convertible with a personalized license plate that says “Irony”. He concludes that appearances are important to the self-loathing Angel, who finally admits: “Well, maybe my persona is a little affected”. His pretentious and narcissistic wooden-faced manner and lack of sense of humour are openly mocked, as is his style. Angel’s lame and, according to Porter, typically goth explanations that “he dresses all in black, so he doesn’t have to worry about matching”, which helps because he doesn’t have a reflection, are dismissed (Porter).      

In Angel the iconic black cape of the vampire is updated to a long black detective coat: “Love the coat, it’s all about the coat” explains the mind-reading demon Lauren. Even the down-to-earth Doyle admits he is strangely attracted to the way that coat tends to float behind Angel (A1.4, “I Fall to Pieces”). This concept is interpreted literally in “Judgement” (A2.1) through humorous visual discrepancy, which results from the inversion of established character roles: when Wesley puts Angel’s coat on in an emergency, pretending to be him, he adopts the whole image. Bafflingly, he gains all the superhero powers and attributes, including an aura of mystery, the ability to scare off enemies by sheer force of gaze and reputation, his fighting skills improve like magic and he romances a damsel in distress. When Wesley utters the archetypal hero line: “Release her or die”, the surprised Angel weakly tries to claim his identity back: “Don’t I say that? Wesley, can I please have my coat back?” The tongue-in-cheek fun culminates in Angel being called an eunuch by the episode’s villain.

Angel’s soulless vampire version, Angelus, is more charismatic, frightening and transgressive than his mellower incarnation. Angel confides in Buffy: For a hundred years I offered an ugly death to everyone I met and I did it with a song in my heart…no conscience, no remorse, it’s an easy way to live. You’ve no idea what it’s like to have done the things I’ve done and to care. I can walk like a man, but I am not one” (1.7, “Angel”). Angelus does not care and arouses much more interest and excitement as a character: according to Giles, “since Angel lost his soul, he’s regained his sense of whimsy” (2.17, “Passion”). Angelus’ tone is mocking, he laughs a lot in a drastic change from the stone-faced, tormented Angel. A ruthless, self-centered narcissist, he displays no trace of humanity and leads a degenerate existence in pursuit of ever more refined dark pleasures, which is reflected by a more flashy and exuberant fashion sense. His style is effortless, much less of a conscious preoccupation: he simply puts on the black leather pants with their fetish/bondage connotations, that Angel seems to save for special occasions.

We are informed that before becoming Angelus, “The Scourge of Europe”, young Liam, a tall and dark Irish rogue born in the early 1700s , was a worthless being, a “drunken, whoring layabout” and a disappointment to his parents (3.32, “Amends”). Darla sired him, choosing an attractive scoundrel as her mate for his beauty and the then intellectual inferiority. Like Lord Ruthven, the hero of Dr. John William Polidori’s “The Vampyre” (1819), based on Lord George Byron, Angelus evolves as a vampire, taking a subtly perverse pleasure in tormenting those close to him. He is the Fatal Man, an archetypal anti-hero from the Gothic romance school of literature: “The Romantics were primarily obsessed with the affinity between love and death and the way pain is sometimes linked with pleasure. Accordingly, they portrayed the vampire as an irresistible seducer, the personification of darkness and forbidden desires” (Frost 38-39).

Angelus exhibits disdain for authority as exemplified in his early confrontation in 1760 London with the Master, the oldest ruling vampire of Buffyverse and sire of Darla. Mystical religious missions bore Angelus. He considers himself aesthetically superior to the Master, a red eyed Nosferatu with a penchant for mannered theatricality, and convinces Darla to leave with him with the following argument: “Tell the truth, whose face do you want to look at for all eternity, his or mine?” (A2.5). Angelus is a hedonist and leads a reckless high life among humans with Darla, leaving a bloody trace of bodies wherever they go. As Cordelia sums it up: “Imagine Bonnie and Clyde if they had 150 years to get it right” (A2.5). His style is of assured confidence rooted in the conviction of his superiority over the human race in being a part of the vampire elite and exemplifies a typically subcultural attitude.

Darla is set on survival and remains loyal primarily to herself, although frivolous fun and pleasure are a priority as well, foremost the exhilarating chase, the central part of her transgressive lifestyle with Angelus, whom she treats as her “stallion”, an alpha male toy. She is a professional seductress, and embodies experience in an innocent looking body, making an incongruous whole: to Buffy “that hair on top of that outfit” is “the saddest thing in the world” (1.7). Manipulative and perfidious, she evokes a high-class courtesan, whose purpose is to play the game and win. As Angelus’ sire, she has power over him both as a mother and a lover, subverting the conventional notion of family relations. Their vampire sex is shown to be controversially transgressive: it is performed with vampfaces on, and includes biting and sucking each other’s blood (2.4, “Untouched”). As a subcultural practice, goth has been defined in terms of sexual subversions and in opposition to taboos relating to ‘perverse’ sexual practices, such as sadomasochism, fetishism and bondage (Holmes, 173), which are implicitly present in all vampire relationships in Buffyverse.

In Angel Darla is revealed to be a feminist as well: “Can’t a woman wreak a little havoc without there being a man involved?” (A2.11, “Redefinition”). It is Darla who discovers Drusilla and points her out to Angelus, who lacks the sophistication and brains that Darla possesses (2.5). They have to find new ways to amuse themselves throughout eternity and Drusilla becomes their next project. Angelus takes delight in corrupting innocent young women, tormenting them first to insanity. He turns Drusilla into a vampire when she’s about to take her vows in a convent: “Convents – they’re just big cookie jars” (A2.5, “Dear Boy”) and irresistible to Angelus. The “sweet, pure, chaste” Drusilla becomes his obsession (2.7, “Lie to Me”). She is an exceptionally alluring victim because of her fragility, innocence and unique psychic abilities, which add another dimension to her terror at the fate that awaits her and her family. She is turned into a vampire to make her torment last throughout eternity and she subsequently takes revenge for it on Angel, who unlike Angelus is able to suffer in remorse, by chaining him to a bed and burning his exposed torso with holy water (2.9, “What’s my line p.1”), one of many implicitly kinky rituals depicted on the show.

Spike is in turn sired by Drusilla, who was lonely and simply followed Darla’s suggestion for making herself a mate: “You could just take the first drooling idiot that comes along” (A2.7, “Darla”). Angelus is the typical alpha male leader of this newly created vampire family. After regaining his demon self when Angel loses his soul, he immediately returns to the clan to challenge Spike’s status and easily reclaims his primary position and Drusilla’s affections (2.16). The Gothic romance interrelationships in their vampire family contain Byronic allusions of illicit passions, incest, tormenting loved ones, struggle for domination and power between strong individuals of extreme physical beauty and desirability: appearances are important to vampires, they need to be known and recognized, especially by their victims.

After regaining his soul Angel wandered for a century seeking Darla and a way to return to his vampire family. He desperately wanted to recover his status and belong to the group again, but could not prove himself as a vampire and became an outcast in both the human and the vampire worlds. He never lost his style though: when the demon Whistler offered to help in adjusting to ‘the soul situation’, Angel responded: “I want to learn from you, but I don’t wanna dress like you” (2.21, “Becoming Part 1”).

Spike: “You play the bloodlust kinda cool”
(Willow, 4.51 “The Initiative”)

Please, if every vampire who said he was at the crucifixion was actually there, it would have been like Woodstock. I was actually at Woodstock, that was a weird gig. I fed off a flower person and spent the next six hours watching my hand move.
                                                Spike (2.3, “School Hard”).

If Angel is the ultimate outsider, Spike is the ultimate rebel among Buffyverse’s vampires. His entrance to Sunnydale inaugurates the advent of the super hip, young villain. Marking his new territory he smashes the “Welcome to Sunnydale” sign with his 50s deanmobile. With Drusilla, they also are a pair of unabashed hedonists with a slightly goth/punk and sadomasochistic slant. Spike’s mission of his unlife is “looking for fun”: “I mean, if you’re looking for fun, there’s death, there’s glory, and sod all else, right?” (2.3, “School Hard”). He is the epitome of youth subculture seen in terms of “trouble-as-fun, fun-as-trouble” (Hebdige 1988, 30).

Spike is a punk with just enough edge to be classified as cool by the mainstream audience. His coolness is assured by a constructed look that visually evokes a combination of the legendary public images of Sid Vicious and Billy Idol, complemented by the gesture repertoire of James Dean, the cinematic rebel par excellence: when told he looks familiar, Spike replies: “Yeah, I get that a lot.” (4.62, “Where the Wild Things Are”). In his trademark jeans and leather, a bottle of booze and a cig in his mouth, Spike embodies teenage transgressions: Dawn explains to Buffy why she likes to hang with Spike, “he has cool hair and cool leather coats and stuff, and he doesn’t treat me like an alien” (5.14), in other words he has the right look and the right attitude. Smoking seems to be a requirement for all cool villains, who are designed to relate to youth culture. Always in style, Spike’s rebellion is summed up by the rather childish defiant gesture of smoking right in front of the no smoking sign in the hospital (5.21, “The Weight of the World”), exemplifying the perception that subcultural attitude is primarily that of “insubordination” (Hebdige 1988, 35).

As a vampire, Spike is very young and immature and finds delight in all of the wrong things. This image subverts the more classic vampire style exemplified by Angel. Spike acquires the features of his personal style one by one: his nickname refers to his bad poetry or the way he killed his victims – depending on who is telling the story. Contrary to Angel/Liam’s humbler Irish origins, William the Bloody was an upperclass poet and a salon dandy as we find out in “Fool for Love” (5.7). After being turned Spike rejects his former dandified self and reinvents his persona as a working class thug. He changes his accent affecting a working class one in opposition to his own background and to Angelus’ aristocratic pretensions (the latter dropped his Irish lingo altogether). This affectation in direct opposition to Angelus’ image continues in the act of killing two slayers, whereby Spike acquires the two remaining elements of his reinvented self: the scar over his left eye, inflicted by the Chinese slayer at the turn of the century, and the black leather coat after defeating Nikki, an Afro-American slayer, in 70s New York. Personal style exemplifies here a journey through experience represented by hard-gained trophies. The killing of a slayer validates Spike’s status in the gang and makes him feel empowered and confident enough to sexually conquer Drusilla.

Spike’s stylish act often tends to be visually undermined, when he tells Buffy  “I’ve always been bad’ there is a cut to the poet William, in 19th century London, in a beige suit and tie, his honey coloured hair in comely locks, laboriously trying to find a rhyme for another bad poem (“I am the very spirit of vexation. What’s another word for gleaming?”), being the ultimate sissy. Parody and play on Spike’s constructed tough self-image is a permanent feature of the show just like the deconstructing of Angel’s macho affectations.

Ridiculed by society for his lack of talent as a poet and humiliated by his chosen lady, Spike readily accepted Drusilla’s gift of combined pain and pleasure and embraced his new vampiric identity. He tells Buffy: “Becoming a vampire is a profound and powerful experience. I could feel this new strength coursing through me. Being killed made me feel alive for the very first time. I was through living by society’s rules. Decided to make a few of my own.” Gaining this new subcultural status gives him strength and drive for his one man/demon revolt, in line with the Sex Pistols version of “My Way”. After the restraints and humiliations of his human life in the repressed Victorian age, vampirism liberates him. Leashing it all out, Spike seeks brawls and fights, testing himself ever further to prove his worth. The vampire gang is a source of self-esteem, constituting an inverted incestuous notion of a family, and a source of challenge through constant rivalry with Angelus. For the latter, being a vampire and thus automatically assuming the elite position on top of the food chain is a reason to use “a certain amount of finesse”. To Spike this is “bollocks”, he can choose his own status now: “That stuff’s for the frilly cuffs and collars crowd”, the crowd he used to be an outsider in before his turning, “I’ll take a good brawl any day” (5.7).

In this way Spike recreated himself as “a creature of darkness”, ultimately arriving at the punk look: “‘the truth behind punk rock’, what all non-punks had feared, that underneath the outrage there lurked real violence, real perversion, a real threat of death” (Hebdige 1988, 39). Punk is an offensive and violent aesthetic, translated literally in the show, which allowed Spike the luxury of covering his clothes in real human blood, instead of fake one used symbolically in that subculture. Punk’s agenda drenched in Apocalyptic imagery, profanity and nihilism, encouraging perverse sexuality and obsessive individualism, suited Spike’s image of contestation perfectly. According to Dick Hebdige, in punk “the perverse and the abnormal were valued intrinsically. In particular, the illicit iconography of sexual fetishism” (107-8). This sheds light on Spike’s motto, “I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it” (3.30 “Lover’s Walk”) and the romantic undercurrent of the contradictory nature of punk. Spike’s main concern and weakness is the love of the fair sex. His TV preferences for Passions and Dawson’s Creek betray his inner truly romantic sensibilities. Yet despite all his transformations he still gets humiliated and rejected by all the girls he loves. He has subcultural dilemmas: he is either too much or too little of a demon to satisfy them.

Drusilla, Spike’s sire and great love, is described by Angel as a classicist: she has a grotesque, desolate, vaguely Victorian aura (she was turned 1860) and an emotionally focused “Gothic personality”, which according to Porter is characterized by introspection, interest in the spiritual and otherworldly (manifested through Dru’s visions), theatrical gestures and movements, and surreal moods (Porter). Her character introduces goth elements of the macabre, such as talking to dead birds and playing with mutilated dolls. As a vampire Drusilla enjoys being hurt and tortured. She possesses an undeniable chemistry with Spike, projecting a dark, eerie romanticism, and they share a similar sensibility along the same twisted wavelength.

Historically goth developed from “the post-punk school of gloomy introspection” (Thompson and Greene). Spike and Drusilla are an iconic subcultural item, a yin and yang coupling of goth and punk: “Punk represents rebellion, Goth represents sadness” (Porter). The intimacy between them manifests itself in small telling gestures and rituals, which imply a kinky eroticism and insinuate images of bondage: Drusilla kisses Spike’s cheek after purposefully scratching it with her fingernail (2.5, “Halloween”) and licks slayer’s blood, a supposed aphrodisiac, off his finger in “Fool for Love” (5.7). They always caress and touch each other and in a romantic gesture of reunion they go to Bronze, Sunnydale’s only nightclub, and feed on lovers (5.14, “Crush”). Spike calls Drusilla his Black Beauty, claiming she delivered him from mediocrity: “I’m nothing without her.” Having a penchant for grand gestures, he nonetheless later offers to kill Drusilla to prove his love for Buffy, demonstrating the contradictory nature of punk.

Spike’s relationship with Buffy also includes a sexually transgressive ingredient, his obsession with the slayer has a fetishistic aspect: Riley discovers Spike in Buffy’s bedroom, smelling her pink sweater and he repeatedly steals her underwear. With Buffy he becomes the passive and masochistic partner, her “soddin’ sex slave” (6.17, “Normal Again”). They engage in the unconventional practice of rough sex in public places and Buffy sums up their relationship nicely: “I beat him up a lot. For Spike it’s like third base” (5.4, “Out of My Mind”). Spike ultimately inverts the stereotype of the vampire as the seductive force, he is the seduced love fool.

The most serious crisis in Spike’s ‘unlife’ however, which makes him contemplate suicide, occurs when in addition to his inability to perform as a vampire, because of the anti-violence chip inserted by the Initiative, he also loses his cultivated image: in “Doomed” (4.55) he shrinks his clothes in an attempt to do the laundry and is forced to wear Xander’s khaki shorts and a colourful hawaiian t-shirt: “Don’t look at me! (…) I’m beyond pathetic. I don’t want pity from geeks more useless than I am”. Jon Lewis claims that punk is “dominated by ambience, a withdrawal into style” (118). In Spike’s case it is more of a “revolt into style”. Spike embodies the irreverent, anarchic, and antiestablishment themes of punk in his love of chaos and trouble. Punk, like vampirism, is both attractive and repulsive and shares in the paradoxical, ambiguous and narcissistic subcultural attitude and wicked, dark sense of humour: when confronted by a group of vampires about his penchant for killing his own kind, Spike answers “a bloke’s gotta have a hobby” and gleefully engages in a bashing.

Camp Dracula, or how to wear a cape

I saw as a vampire (…). It was as if I had only just been able to see colors and shapes for the first time. I was so enthralled with the buttons on Lestat’s black coat that I looked at nothing else for a long time. Then Lestat began to laugh, and I heard his laughter as I had never heard anything before.

Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire

The cinematic Dracula is the perfect epitome of style over substance, a pure image: “This vampire is above all a monster to be looked at, or gazed upon, with his slick black hair, eloquent hands, handsome top hat, dazzling shirt, and magnificent cape” wrote Cynthia Freeland on Bela Lugosi as Dracula (129). When Dracula himself appears in Sunnydale in an episode called “Buffy vs. Dracula” (5.1), it is comparable to a visit from an undead superstar: in terms of vampire hierarchy he is the crème de la crème and arrives to Buffyverse in grand style, complete with traditional Dracula garb: a long, flowing black cape with scarlet lining, a coffin, ominous music, and a Gothic castle with thunderstorms.

Buffy’s Dracula is everything we expect him to be, only more so: he is handsomer and more sophisticated than any other vampire we have ever seen on the show. Being a visitor from another aesthetic dimension, he creates an effect comparable to Bela Lugosi showing up in a Hammer film. He represents the original ideal that everyone copies and aspires to and consequently a vampface becomes unnecessary: it not required because Dracula represents the essence of vampirism of mythic proportions, there is no need to hide or pass for a human. Subversion of that ideal happens by extreme tongue-in-cheek comedic exaggeration. As the definite star of this episode, Dracula gets the classic Hollywood close-up treatment, with shots making an homage to old creature of the night features, campily exaggerated in saturated colours, similar the Hammer movies aesthetic. All that said, in Buffyverse Dracula has to convince everyone he is the real thing.

The ‘Dark Prince’ is chivalrous, assured and charming and has a distinct foreign accent, which Buffy immediately parodies, mimicking it perfectly. He introduces himself: “I apologize. I assumed you knew. I’m Dracula”, but Buffy’s reaction implies that to her this might be just some old guy pretending to be Dracula: “Get out! I fought more than a couple of overweight, pimply vamps that call themselves Lestat”, subverting stereotypes of horror and awe that the monster usually induces and viewer expectations: we immediately knew who he was. Dracula is not shaken by this, his attitude is of amused superiority and refinement. He hovers over the Sunnydale scene, dominating it with his undeniable tongue-in-cheek presence, elegance and old world sophistication. His mannered attempts at flattery bore Buffy at first, but after her fighting skills turn out to be ineffective against his shape-shifting “gypsy tricks” she eventually gives in and is swept off her feet: “Count Famous heard of me!” After all we are in California and fame becomes a new attribute of the vampire in Buffyverse.

Buffy and the Scooby gang are familiar with the vampire theme from the cinema, but they research him to separate fact from fiction. As Ken Gelder writes: “Each new vampire film engages in a process of familiarisation and defamiliarisation, both interpelling viewers who already ‘know’ about vampires from the movies (and elsewhere), and providing enough points of difference (in the narrative, in the ‘look’ of the vampire, and so on) for newness to maintain itself” (86). This aspect of the vampire narrative is partly what invites cult following of the series, which engages in an interactive dialogue with the viewer. In Buffy it is Buffyverse that is new and needs to face up to Dracula. The show analyzes itself in relation to the classics and Dracula gets a history inbuilt into its world: he apparently shared an erotic episode with Anya and was Spike’s “rival”: “Pansy bugger owes me 11 pounds for one thing.” Everyone refined, including Dracula and of course Angel, is a ‘poofter’ to Spike, who exhibits classic working class homophobia as part of his persona; he claims to be Dracula’s old rival, yet he has no intention of getting his money back. In addition, he blames Dracula for selling out and betraying subcultural secrets to the general public: “That glory house has done more harm to vampires than any slayer. His story gets out and suddenly everybody knows how to kill us. The mirror bit?” Dracula does not share the frame with other vampires, they tend to keep their distance.

Mocking attitude (“He totally looks shorter in person”) doesn’t protect the Scoobies from falling under Dracula’s thrall. He does not inspire terror, because “unlike all the other villains Dracula is drenched in pleasure” (Daugherty, 163). He has a sexy, penetrating gaze and an erotic aura, which arouses excitement, nostalgia and jealousy among the Scooby gang, who are threatened by his allure and the visible effect he has, especially on the fair sex. Audiences are also asked to “desire the vampire as a spectacle of seduction” (Freeland, 157). The obligatory seduction scene is typical of all cinematic Dracula movies, up to a point of course: Buffy is sleeping all serenity and moonlight, when Dracula seeps in through the window in the form of blue mist, with the accompaniment of melancholy chamber music in the background: “Do you know why you cannot resist?” Buffy’s feminist image is played with here, we expect her to regain her footing any minute now, she responds: “Cause your famous?” He’s slightly disappointed however at the unexpected fact, that another vampire had tasted her already: there are visible scars on her neck.

The ultimate seducer, master of mystery, manner and pose, Dracula uses self-assured, proven methods of seduction from the Anne Rice dandy vampire lore, which ultimately backfire on him: Buffy’s power turns out to be an exact primal antidote to his charms. He inadvertently puts her in direct touch with it by making her taste his own blood, but it disagrees with Buffy’s pink lipstick. Their fighting invariably creates associations with kinky sexual practices, after all they are wearing matching leather trousers and the weapons are mostly phallic. The fight is inconsequential, because Buffy simply cannot lose, her aim is to debunk Dracula as an authority figure, and he is impossible to kill: “You think I don’t watch your movies? You always come back.” Their romantic meeting can be dismissed as a trivial affair.

Joss Whedon admits that the show is “overwrought” and “over the top” (6.7, “Once More with Feeling”, DVD commentary). One of the reasons Buffy appeals to us is because it takes camp glee in itself. It is filmed through a consciously camp lens, inviting camp recognition. Self-referentiality, open-endedness, incongruity and intertextual awareness, which requires pop culture expertise from the audience, are all part of the camp appeal, which contributes to Buffy’s cult following. Camp is an ever-changing spectatorship mode: writing about modern vampire fiction, Tim Holmes maintains that it is “a milestone in the genre when readers no longer need to play out the camp associated with vampires in queer circles, for all the snappy wit one could imagine is right in the text” (Holmes, 179). The pervading aesthetic of Buffyverse is that of postmodern version of camp, comprised of nostalgic referencing of classic themes and characters from different genres and their simultaneous constant undercutting, and thereby subverting. 

Stylistic excess is present in every aspect of the show, from the prevailing colorful kitsch aesthetic, the double entendre and witty repartee type of dialogue and Buffy’s ironic punning, to the tongue-in-cheek, exaggerated Gothic and christian iconography of pseudo-medieval weapons, books and crucifixes. Last, but not least, the vampires, the transgressive superheroes with fangs and attitude, contribute largely to the element of gender ambiguity, polymorphously perverse desire and sexual transgressions. Buffy’s California outfits, deserve a special mention, notoriously in the scene when she breaks up with Angel while wearing a matching blouse and purse in a ludicrous snake skin pattern, which diverts our attention and completely undercuts the pathos of the scene (3.20, “The Prom”). The show does not shy from the use of corny aesthetics associated with Harlequin novel covers to portray Buffy and Angel’s doomed romance: in “Band Candy” (3.6) for example, we observe Angel from Buffy’s desiring perspective, which focuses on his half naked, anointed body, practicing tai chi amongst fallen leaves and marble statues. This inherent cheesiness is played out for its humour and the camp objectification of the male body. In Angel the aesthetic approach is generally much darker, but occasionally the series camps it up, tapping into comic-book sensibilities, as when Spike parodies Angel from a distance, likening him to Batman, the classic camp icon: “Evil’s still afoot! And I’m almost out of that Nancy-boy hair gel that I like so much. Quickly, to the Angel-mobile, away!” (A1.3, “In the Dark”). The use of subcultural imagery and signifiers in the Buffy franchise is very clever; these aesthetics are employed unpretentiously, avoiding the audience’s eye rolling by undercutting serious emotion and sentimentality and parodying itself constantly, in short, by keeping its attitude in check.

Those wacky vampires, that’s why I love’em, they just keep ya guessin’!
[Xander, 5.9 “Listening to fear”].

      What vampires are in any given generation is a  
       part of what I am and what my times have become.
                      Nina Auerbach, Our Vampires, Ourselves 

“What will happen when the popularity of Interview with the Vampire drags their [goth] underground mystique into the naked light of day?” journalist Tim Friend asked a member of the goth subculture in the early 90s, at the time of the making of the vampire blockbuster: “Yes, we’re afraid. After the movie comes out, little Biffy and Boffy from the MTV crowd are going to go out and get fangs and ruin it for everybody.”

It is Buffy the Vampire Slayer that came along, with a whole lot of fangs and style to boot, but whether it ruined anything by exploring the style of the vampire fraction of the goth subculture is arguable. “Subcultures are both a play for attention and a refusal, once attention has been granted, to be read according to the Book” (Hebdige 1988, 35): in “Lie to me” (2.7) the series actually portrays a youth subculture of goth baby bats, parodying it as a pseudo-religious sect of vampire wannabies, who cherish “the lonely ones” and mimic their style. These young people meet in a vampire-themed club, where goth make-up and clothes are the norm and Dracula B-movies are played in the background. As in any clique, there are degrees of initiation for the members and among the deluded majority, who believe that vampires are “creatures above us, exalted”, the leader has his private agenda of conquering an illness through vampirism. In typical Buffy role reversal, he asks Spike, who promised to turn him into a vampire in exchange for delivering the others as food for his minions, to perform the part of a stereotypical vampire from old movies as a fantasy fulfillment: “‘You’ve got 30 seconds to convince me not to kill you.’ It’s no fun if you don’t say it, it’s traditional”. This subculture is shown to exist in its own detached, imaginary world, where most its members are in denial as to the nature of the object of their adoration. Angel’s all knowing attitude gets a reality check, however, when he states that “these people don’t know anything about vampires, what they are, how they live, how they dress” and then a guy dressed exactly like him passes by and gives him the look-over. Style is a construction, which can be copied and reproduced: “Lugosi’s Dracula is not only an alien; he flaunts his alienation as an aesthetic style” (Auerbach, 113). Both sides, inside and outside of that subculture turned out to have made false assumptions about one another.

The series also explores the potentiality of becoming a vampire and how that transformation might affect personal style. In “Doppelgängland” (3.38) Willow is forced to revise her boring girly look after confronting her vampire self from a parallel dimension: “Well look at me, I’m all fuzzy”. Vampire Willow’s confident, darkly goth and world weary dominatrix style is the extreme opposite of Willow’s wimpish get up. When Willow pretends to be her vampire self to save the day in this episode, she cannot quite pull it off, because she lacks the personality to carry the style: “I’m a bloodsucking fiend, look at my outfit!” is the last resort argument, which exposes her.

Buffy herself is not immune to vampire lessons in style either. In “The Freshman” (4.45) our heroine extraordinarily loses a fight with a female vampire and runs away. Why? Sunday, a female vampire coded as cooler-than-thou through her chic punk-goth apparel, confident and sarcastic attitude and an entourage of subservient minions, plays on Buffy’s insecurities and criticizes her outfit: “I think you had a lot of misconceptions about college, like that anyone would be caught dead wearing that”, causing Buffy’s meltdown. Vampires are not usually portrayed wearing just jeans and a t-shirt, they need to reflect our fascination in difference and otherness. It is the vampire’s constructed image that gives it visibility. An audience is required to provide a reflection so that that image can be updated, kept interesting and evolve. According to Alicia Porter “Vampires…embody the darker desires of humanity’s ideal (…) The vampire is no longer the murderous demon, but a symbol of what humanity wishes it could be: fearless, immortal, indulgent, powerful” (Porter). Thus even the wholesome Riley pursues subcultural kicks with the aim of getting close to Buffy, which results in his vamp-bite addiction: “When they bit me, it was beyond passion. They wanted to devour me, all of me. It was just physical. Even if it was fleeting, I craved it. They made me feel that they had such hunger for me” (5.10, “Into the woods”). The fantastical underground presented in Buffy irresistibly draws us in, every time. It is so attractive to belong to and to watch because it allows us to vicariously experience an existence outside of prescribed paradigms:

An imagined underworld…situated beneath the familiar surfaces of life where another order was disclosed: a beautifully intricate system in which the values, norms and conventions of the ‘straight’ world were inverted. Here, beneath the world’s contempt, there were different priorities: work was insignificant, irrelevant; vanity and arrogance were permissible, even desirable qualities, and a more furtive and ambiguous sense of masculinity could be seen to operate (Hebdige 1979, 54).

The above description refers to British mod subculture of the 60s, however it accurately portrays the ambience of any subcultural underground, where private codes, skills and language come into being and rules can be bent to suit individual purposes. In subculture“‘politics’ and ‘pleasure’, crime and resistance, transgression and carnival are meshed and confounded (…). Subculture…translates the fact of being under scrutiny into the pleasure of being watched. It is a hiding in the light” (Hebdige 1988, 34-35). We can criticize Buffy for offering the ‘light’ version of revolt into goth, punk and camp styles, but the show successfully manages to stretch the limitations of what can be shown on prime time mainstream television. I would argue that it is hiding behind this other kind of ‘light’.

   “In the absence of rules of the game, things become caught up in their own game (…) Cinema plagiarises and copies itself, remakes its classics, retroactivates its original myths…Cinema is fascinated by itself as a lost object just as it (and we) are fascinated by the real as a referential in perdition” (Baudrillard 195-6). Buffy the Vampire Slayer reflects this postmodern zeitgeist in terms of style and attitude. The show is self-reflexive, laughs at itself and its own mechanisms and possesses a postmodern, tongue-in-cheek, post-tarantinian ambience. According to Paul Crowther, postmodern art is characterized by “overtly self-ironical and self-negating level of insight” and tends to escape into humour: “We can deconstruct, but the legitimising discourse and the market will still have us – so let’s have fun with the whole situation while we still can. This comic fatalism…marks the point where critical postmodernism recognizes its own limits. Any art object set forth with internal critical intent will be assimilated by the legitimising discourse and market forces, and redistributed in the form of a style” (Crowther, 189). The show presents itself mainly in terms of style, hiding any other agenda behind its glossy surface. Style however reflects attitude, which is another word for politics, without it, it is just a masquerade. Subcultural styles are a mix of borrowed elements from the dominating discourse, reconfigured to express alternative identities: “Goth punk identities, by no means…stable (…), exist by suturing the canonical and anti-canonical, the cynical and the romantic, the high and the low, the straight and the queer, most often via the index of the Gothic tradition in general and through one of its figures in particular: the vampire” (Holmes, 171). The malleability of the vampire metaphor allows it to successfully shift between different subcultural discourses. It converges with a subcultural aim to facilitate “the displacement of real social relations onto the fantastic in order to foreground the fault lines in what is taken as natural in any particular social sphere” (Holmes, 182). Vampires are made sympathetic and their ‘evil nature’ is complicated into a whole spectrum of shades of gray, as humorously illustrated by this exchange:

Spike: “If she wants comfort I’m not going to deny it to her. I’m not a monster”.

Xander: “Vampires are monsters. They make monster movies about them.”

Spike: “Well, yeah. You got me there” (5.18, “Intervention”).

Subcultural content in mainstream media, if nothing else, reminds us that there exist marginalized centres of dissent and alternative expression of identity. Buffy’s pervading subcultural imagery is refreshing amongst the mainstream circulation of images. According to Dick Hebdige, “[subcultures] were attempting to negotiate a meaningful intermediate space somewhere between the parent culture and the dominant ideology, where an alternative identity could be discovered and expressed” (1979, 88). I would argue that Buffy signals a political affiliation with that space through the use of subcultural aesthetics. After all, “in matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity, is the vital thing” (Wilde, 1205). The show is not only “a lighthearted romp through a fanged fairyland”, although it pretends to be just that (Holmes, 179). How many other vampire, or otherwise, prime time television narratives directed at a youth audience deal with issues of impotence, domestic violence or sexual fetishism? But that’s delving beyond the surface. Actor Robin Sachs (Ethan Rayne) mentions in “A Buffy Bestiary” featurette that “people like to be frightened. It jolts them out of their complacency” (2.21-22, “Becoming” Part 1-2 DVD). While watching Buffy we are slightly jolted out of our aesthetic complacency as well at first, some of us turned off by the campy imagery of its fantasy genre. Once we delve into the show’s underground though, we start to uncover the attitude behind the aesthetic, and can be surprised by the quite sophisticated humour and wit to be found there. The surface is the catch, the style seizes our gaze – that is its power, and it either repels us, or invites us to look beyond the surface, to the more disturbing gray zone and then it “turns” us.

Bibliography:

Auerbach, Nina, Our Vampires, Ourselves, The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Baudrillard, Jean, The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra, in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty, Columbia University Press, New York,      1993.

Camus, Albert, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, Vintage Books, New York, 1956.

Crowther, Paul, “Postmodernism in the Visual Arts: A Question of Ends”, in Postmodernism: A Reader, ed. Thomas Docherty, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993.

Daugherty, Anne Millard, “Just a girl: buffy as icon”, Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel, ed. Roz Kaveney, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London and New York, 2001.

Freeland, Cynthia A., The Naked and the Undead: Evil and the Appeal of Horror, Westview  Press, Oxford, Boulder Colorado, 2000.
Friend, Tim, “Hip Children of the Dark”, USA Today, Nov 10, 1994, reprinted in Porter, Alicia, A Study of Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look on Outsiders, [http://www.gothicsubculture.com]

Frost, Brian J.,The Monster with a Thousand Faces: Guises of the Vampire in Myth and Literature, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1989.

Gelder, Ken, Reading the Vampire, Routledge, London and New York, 1994.

Hebdige, Dick, Hiding in the Light, Routledge, London and New York, 1988.

—–, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge: London and New York, 1979.

Holmes, Trevor, “Coming out of the coffin: Gay Males and Queer Goths in Contemporary Vampire Fiction”, in: Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, eds. Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia  1997.

Lewis, Jon, The Road to Romance and Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture, Routledge, New York, 1992.

Porter, Alicia, A Study of Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look on Outsiders, [http://www.gothicsubculture.com].

Thompson, Dave and Jo-Ann Greene, “Undead Undead Undead”, Alternative Press, Nov 1994, reprinted in Porter, Alicia, A Study of Gothic Subculture: An Inside Look on  Outsiders, [http://www.gothicsubculture.com].

Wall, Brian and Michael Zryd, “Vampire Dialectics: Knowledge, institutions and labour”, in: Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Critical Companion to Buffy and Angel, ed. Roz Kaveney, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, London and New York, 2001.

Wilde, Oscar, The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Collins, London and Glasgow, 1996