Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the enduring appeal of a cult classic

Author James Christie once made a remarkable journey from his home in Glasgow to Hollywood, travelling all the way across the States by Greyhound.  The purpose of his journey was to meet with Juliet Landau, one of the stars of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the reason James’s journey was so extraordinary is because for James, coping with new experiences feels “like smashing his head through a plate glass window”.   James Christie is autistic.

You can read an account of James’s journey in his brilliant novel, Dear Miss Landau.  I interviewed James several months ago (interview here), and he has very kindly come back today to explain the enduring appeal of Buffy, and why the character of Drusilla in particular holds such a fascination for him.

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james christie, dear miss landau, buffy

James Christie’s copy of Dear Miss Landau, signed by Joss Whedon and William Shatner

Dru, Dru, It’s Always Been You, Dru…

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, still going strong after all these years!

During its seven-year run (1997-2003) Buffy won three Emmys and was listed tenth on Entertainment Weekly‘s 100 Greatest Shows of All Time, second on Empire‘s 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time and third on TV Guide‘s Top 25 Cult TV Shows of All Time. It’s neither joke nor exaggeration to say that Buffy is one of the greatest TV series ever made, easily bearing comparison with Star Trek and MASH, and influencing later series, such as True Blood and the rebooted Doctor Who.

Spin-offs included the TV series Angel and the comic series Buffy Season Nine, and since its cancellation, Buffy merchandise has proliferated with the publication of numerous novels by Simon & Schuster as well as comics, video games and academic texts. Buffy fandom is also alive and well, particularly online. More Buffy fan-fiction stories have been written than for any other TV series ever made.

So what first guided them along the rocky brick road which led them to and past the Fall of Sunnydale?

Well, Buffy‘s creator, Joss Whedon, had been inspired by the strong character of his own mother, Lee Stearns, a teacher, feminist and political activist. He turned television and the vampire genre’s traditional conventions on their head by making a short, blonde girl – usually a silly, screaming stereotype polished off by Christopher Lee as an apéritif before the battle royal between the befanged baddie and the handsome male hero – into the main protagonist.

One girl in all the world, chosen (or more precisely, empowered) to fight the forces of darkness with the extraordinary strength and reflexes of a vampire slayer. Resident of Sunnydale, a small California town sited on the Hellmouth (a mystical convergence of evil forces), leader of the Scooby Gang (a collection of assorted local sidekicks who helped her fight evil), lover of Angel (the tormented vampire cursed with a soul and conscience) and Spike’s object of desire. Spike being a soulless vampire with platinum hair, chiseled cheekbones, a dry wit and a serious case of the hots for his own nemesis.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer succeeded because of fine writing, sympathetic characters and a high thematic concept which harked back to

james christie, dear miss landau, buffy

Dear Miss Landau, signed by Spike (James Marsters) and Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter)

tales of myth and legend from antiquity, but it became a TV classic because for the first time teenage girls could relate to a beautiful heroine whose life (despite its supernatural elements) closely mirrored their own vulnerabilities and uncertainties. Xena: Warrior Princess, it must be noted, aired a couple of years before Buffy, but its heroine was already a fully-grown woman and lived in Roman times, making complete identification with her trials and tribulations perhaps a little harder for modern-day teens.

The character of Spike also cemented the success of the series, breaking out from disposable villain to regular cast member and making almost every female viewer swoon.

That should sum up all that made Buffy a big hit. However, Spike had a demonic girlfriend called Drusilla. Dru was beautiful, blue-eyed, brunette and bonkers. She dressed in what’s been described as “a cross between a Victorian period look and the Kate Moss heroin chic fashion look” which made her the Nancy Spungen to Spike’s Sid Vicious.

Like Spike, Dru was indeed a killer. But in the same way that he was a lovelorn poet at heart, she was also a gentle girl, and Spike and Dru were the first TV vampires to be depicted as something more than one-dimensional baddies, basically just there to be staked by Buffy to the accompaniment of trendy quips like “we haven’t been properly introduced, I’m Buffy, and you’re history,” or “All right, I get it. You’re evil. Do we have to chat about it all day?”

Unlike the hopelessly conflicted Angel, Spike and Dru seemed more like straightforward old-school vampires – soulless killers who hated the sun and the Scoobies. However they were also a couple who loved each other and showed emotional vulnerability, thus enabling Whedon’s viewers to relate to them as beings, if not human beings. The first true vampire/vampire romance on television, which helped pave the way for the complex social questions posed more recently by True Blood. What if, instead of just being befanged baddies there to be killed, Spike and Dru moved in next door to you and tried to be good neighbours?

Or, in my case, good flatmates.

Drusilla the vampire, my flatmate.

Perhaps the plain and simple truth contained within the outward absurdity of that statement shows what made Buffy different from so many other shows, what truly made it so great, and why I was drawn to a character so far out of the loop she might as well have been on Mars.

In Lichtenberg, Marshak and Winston’s 1975 book on Star Trek fandom, Star Trek Lives!, they speculated that:

” ‘television people have often thought that the trick was: Offend nobody very much, please nobody very much, and hope against hope to get your slice of the pie … a trend which has led to the ‘one big rerun’ effect, to ‘playing it safe.’

Star Trek took a radically different tack.

It wanted to be loved.”

And so, I think, did Drusilla.

While Buffy was the empowered girl of today, an ultra-modern Barbie with depth and flair, Dru (born in 1840) was the archetypal Victorian flower, God-fearing and most likely hoping to make a good marriage as defined by Coventry Patmore in his 1854 poem The Angel In The House. With few legal rights, she would have been ruled both by her husband and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Where Buffy sought (or had thrust upon her) empowerment, Dru was a prime candidate for Joss Whedon’s other theme of redemption. Despite the degradation of vampirism, she still showed subtle touches of her former saintliness and faint traces of the sweet girl she’d once been lingered sadly behind her mask of fangs.

Joss Whedon once said he’d “rather have a show that a hundred people need to see than a thousand like to see.”

He was right.

It’s a risk to feel fond of a gentle killer looking for love, and although thousands of youngsters hailed the empowered heroine of Buffy, perhaps some hundreds liked Dru’s old-fashioned quiet and gentle nature.

I know I did.

So though for some it’s Spike, Angel or Buffy who steals the show, for me it’ll always be you, Dru…

* * * *

dear miss landau, james christie, asperger's, autism, buffy

Dear Miss Landau is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK and from major booksellers in the UK.  This novel is a highly unusual roadtrip, as well as a gripping read, and I loved it.

Thanks very much for coming back today, James, and I hope you make the journey back to Sunset Boulevard again some day!

Are you a Buffy fan?  If so, what do you think is the enduring appeal?  And do you have a favourite character?  If you have any questions for James, or any comments at all, please let us know.  We’d love to hear from you!

24 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: the enduring appeal of a cult classic

    • It’s definitely worth a look, Suzanne. And it’s also worth stressing that I didn’t start out as a particularly avid fan, nor did I have a specialist interest in vampires. Joss Whedon and Marti Noxon had and have the knack of making the watcher (not Giles!) care about the characters and draw them into their relationships, which is everything. They also (thank God) subverted the form and developed matters, rather than leaving the characters in a limbo of development hell so beloved by many much more run-of-the-mill dramas…

  1. Hey, Helena. Interesting post, James. I watched Buffy, but not religiously like my younger daughter who was either in high school or college during the shows run. (Time passes and memories fade. :)) I enjoyed the Buffy character, hardly even remember some of the others. Am I remembering this correctly? Was it The actor who plays Castle who played Angel? I know it was someone who went on to fame. LOL I told you I have memory issues. Your book definitely sounds intriguing. Good luck

    • Hi Marsha, Thanks for your comment. I’m no Buffy expert by any means, but I did love the show and thought it broke some ground. James’s book is definitely worth checking out if you have time. THanks for coming by!

    • Hi Marsha. I think Nathan Fillion plays Richard Castle, and he was in season 7 of “Buffy” whereas David Boreanaz (later of “Bones”) took the role of Angel/Angelus.

      I can’t find any exact or even particularly close precedent for the real-life events “Dear Miss Landau” recounts: I tend to sum it up as “Rain Man meets Notting Hill via 84 Charing Cross Road” and consider the whole thing impossible on several counts: non-empathic Asperger writes wildly emotional Drusilla perfectly – impossible! Juliet Landau corresponds with him – impossible (well, darned improbable), real-life Rain Man treks INDEPENDENTLY all the way across America – you must be joking! First recorded trip like this by an Asperger (maybe) – wow! Asperger publishes his autobiographical account without benefit of an agent and against odds of approx. 5,000,000,000 to 1 (independent bookshop owner’s estimate), correspondence continues and Asperger finds a possible unfinished story arc of Joss Whedon’s which, if uncovered, would turn the Buffyverse upside down (now you’re joking – no, I’m not!), stage musical of “Dear Miss Landau” being written…

      All of this and more is true, and to say I was surprised when it all happened to me and my dear Miss Landau would be the understatement of the century.

      But it’s all really happening.

  2. Fabulous post, Helena and James! I adored Buffy, and still adore David Boreanaz on Bones. When my brother and I took our unplanned trip to a comic convention this past weekend, and found ourselves costume-less in the midst of costumed creatures of all kinds, I said to Dave, “I’m dressed as a soccer mom from… uh…”
    He supplied, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer!” It was perfect.

    • I was quite a fan of Joyce in “Buffy” myself. She worked very well with Spike in one episode and I’m a little sad they killed her character off.

      Had a great time at Wizard world’s Philadelphia convention May-June this year (met Captain Kirk and tried to expalaoin to him we’d both stolen the Enterprise – metaphorically and fictionally speaking…), and hope to get to the Austin convention in November.

  3. Great post–especially considering just last night I tweeted about watching my fave episode (HUSH) w/ my 7 yo son. And he was rewatching it! This post is spot on and far more eloquent than I could have written. As to my favorite character? So many but if I had to choose… got to love Anya. Love the episode she dressed up as something scary. A bunny.

    • I’d forgotten that episode, Ashlee. Thanks for coming by and reminding me! I loved the wit in Buffy, and it’s brilliant that the next generation is still enjoying it. Thanks so much for your comment!

    • Hi Ashlee

      Glad you liked it. I just seem to have the knack of writing Drusilla and sometimes wish she could have had a larger part in the original series. However, that (theoretically) would have had to have been at the expense of Anya…

      I don’t think they ever quite nailed down why Anya was so afraid of bunny rabbits?

  4. Enjoyed this Helena and James. My husband and I never missed Buffy or Angel and even catch marathon showings whenever possible. We became invested in the characters (whether they were ‘themselves’ or their evil counterparts) and loved tuning in to see what direction each episode would take. It rarely took the direction we thought it would.

    • I think you made a good point there, Susan, that viewers became invested in the characters. I think this is one of the big reasons why it’s become such a classic. Thanks so much for coming by, and for your great comment

    • Emotional investment is definitely the thing. It actually took me quite a while to wake up to Dru (with stops along the way at JennyState and CordeliaTown), but once that lonesome vampire had me in her thrall, I was a goner…

  5. Fascinating interview James and Helena. I have never seen Buffy but I wish James the best of luck with his new released. It sounds like a great adventure.

    • It was.

      I don’t know if you’ve read the last chapter of Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony,” Marie (The Leader of the People), but that’s what it felt like. And Drusilla really was my guide along the way, and Juliet my muse.

      Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and sometimes it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins…

  6. Hi, great article
    I`ve just finished the whole show and i got really impressed, much better than the others vampires shows in my opinión
    This was one of my favourites ever! you can find averything action, comedy, romance, scary,…. with great characters and this time is the girl who is always saving everybody LOL
    I loved Buffy`s carácter but the soul was Spike, loved this guy. He is not just another hot vampire (really really hot) he is also a great actor who can play perfectly all kinds of roles, he can be scary, romantic and funny at the same time. In my opinión the best vampire ever
    I loved Drusilla but i never liked Angel, he was a Little boring…
    I`ve never liked the romantic stuff, but this time i just wish that they made one more season because i wanted to see Buffy and Spike toguether more time…

    • Hi Zala, what a great comment! I love your reaction to the series, and to each of the characters. A lot of people wish there had been one more season. I’m so gald you enjoyed James’s post. Thanks so much for coming by and for taking the time to comment!

  7. Hi, loved Buffy…..one of the best ever!!. I`ve watched a couple of season of True Blood and TVD but you can`t even compare
    Spike and Buffy were the best characters but Dru was so amazing, maybe the best female vampire on tv.
    I miss so much the show, i`ve read the 8 season comic but i hated it, has nothing to do with Buffy, it`s just Alice in wonderland…..So i`m going to find your book, it has to be much better LOL

    • Hi Charlie,
      Thanks for your brilliant comment. Buffy is one of those classic series that has fans of all ages and all walks of life. James is a great writer. I hope his fan fiction helps fill the hole left by the series. Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  8. Hi Charlie

    I’d say Drusilla probably was the best female vampire on TV, but what I found in getting to know her was that there were subtleties which took quite some time and observation to draw out. In my case, it took about eighteen months of Dru fan-fiction reading before she drew her fangs and jumped upon me, dragging me headlong and rather happily into her rich, dark world like the tulpa of legend and lore.

    I honestly believe the quadrilogy (what a word!) which I have now written (Drusilla’s Roses, Drusilla’s Redemption, Drusilla Revenant and Spike & Dru : the Graveyard of Empires) are, let’s say, one possible future BUFFY really should have explored. The stories virtually wrote themselves, and it genuinely felt as if something that should have been was desperately trying to become reality.

    As for Dru herself, I once had a year-long layoff from writing her (I think between Revenant and Graveyard) and when I got back to her, I rationally said to myself “well, perhaps I’ll have just enough left to finish this one…”

    Boy, was I wrong there.

    Dru seemed positively to bounce back to life in my head, gave the distinct impression she was absolutely pleased as punch to be returned to fictional “life”, hugged me for dear “life” whenever she got the chance and even followed me to work once.

    Anyway, the stories await a publisher while I look for a literary agent who could negotiate with Simon & Schuster, Dear Miss Landau (DML) continues to sell, the companion/sequel, Cross At Needles, is bodging around in my mind in a rather unfocused state and, most importantly here and now, the musical version of DML is in the works and I will be seeing a draft of it shortly.

    As far as I know, this will be the first BUFFY-related production with real live actors treading the boards since BUFFY and ANGEL wrapped, so I hope BUFFY fandom will embrace it.

    In the meantime, I hope you enjoy DEAR MISS LANDAU.

    I keep hoping that Drive-Thru Starbucks in Barstow will become a place of pilgrimage for fans of Juliet Landau and BUFFY. You’ll see why when you get to chapter thirty-eight.

    Best wishes

    James Christie

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