Thursday, 14 September 2017

Adam; or Definitely Not the Modern Prometheus.

Carrying on this week's exploration of Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four in our Buffy Blog Series, we have Dana Alex's second post. Complimenting yesterday's blog by Jennifer De Ross - which discussed identity crises as the big bad of Season Four - Dana's post explores Adam in the context and through the lens of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Make sure you check out the posts so far, and if you want to get involved with the discussion or if you want to share posts, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

If somebody asked me to write down a list of my favourite Big Bads throughout the entire series, Adam would most probably become last. Within the Buffy community, there is the consensus that there are too many flaws in his character and, most probably, in Season Four as a whole that make him the least exciting Big Bad. Despite all this, there is one connection that is constantly drawn to Adam: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In the following blog post I would like to discuss whether I consider Adam to be a Frankensteinian monster.

(It's so annoying when a Slayer interrupts you whilst you're about to chop someone's head off)
In my previous post, I discussed the great variety of Gothic intertextuality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, yes, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also finds its place in the series. The first time Shelley’s text is used within the show is in the second episode of Season Two (‘Some Assembly Required’). This episode deals with Daryl who died in an accident and was then later brought back to life by his brother. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, Daryl clearly suffers from being an ugly and isolated creature, and thus wishes for a female friend that is just like him.

(Bride of Frankenstein, 1935)
The connection to Frankenstein can easily be drawn. The ugly monster is desperate to belong to society, is even willing to kill out of sheer anger with the world and is frustrated that he is destined to be alone. I further believe that even though this episode may not be essential for the entire series, it still demonstrates the possibilities within the Buffyverse, in terms of magic and resurrection, perfectly and is a great way of including essential Gothic texts into the show.

Many people have argued that apart from Daryl, another Frankensteinian monster can be found in the show: Adam. Up to a certain point, describing Adam as being a Frankensteinian monster is legitimate. Indeed, he is the result of a scientific experiment by scientists. Without a shadow of a doubt, he looks hideous as he consists of a great variety of body parts (from different species). Also, his strength is far superior compared to human strength. A quote from the original text could easily be used to describe Adam’s appearance: ‘I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon coarser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs.’[i] Unarguably, the process of creating Adam in combination with his physical strength and repulsive outward appearance would suggest that he is a Frankensteinian monster.

Yet, there are aspects that make me question whether Adam should actually be described as such a monster. In general, the term Frankensteinian seems to be used almost arbitrarily and it is always defined rather loosely. Again, when considering Adam, it gets clear that in this context, Frankensteinian only means the way Adam was created and the way his outward appearance is reminiscent of Shelley’s monster. Apart from that, I would argue against the understanding of Adam as a monster that is a Frankensteinian one, as a great number of essential attributes of Frankenstein’s monster are absent in this narrative. 

(Adam in the institute: part-human, part-demon, part-cyborg?)
When we think back to the original text by Mary Shelley, the monster is depicted as someone, who from the day he came to life was constantly looking for acceptance amongst humans and wishes nothing more but to be part of their society. When he is clearly neglected not only by Victor but by everyone, he eventually asks his creator for someone like him. It is only every time when Victor either abandons him or cannot give him what he desires that forces him to murder out of sheer revenge.

There are dozens of essays and chapters on this aspect of Frankenstein discussing that Victor is very much to blame for all this and that the monster is not the only villain here. Botting, for instance, describes the story’s monster as follows: ‘Its villain is also the hero and victim, while diabolical agency has been replaced by human, natural and scientific powers.’[ii] I believe that this quote very accurately depicts the three elements that are not only essential for Frankenstein’s creature but, in fact, for every Frankensteinian monster in other works of fiction. A Frankensteinian monster is villain, hero and victim. It is so hard for me to acknowledge Adam as a Frankensteinian monster because he represents only one of these aspects, the villain. The other two, which I consider to be very important are completely ignored within all of Season Four.

For instance: immediately after Professor Walsh brings him to life, he murders her. Whereas Frankenstein’s monster at least has a motive that not justifies but explains his murders, Adam kills Maggie without any reason. And even further: ultimately, Frankenstein’s monster never intended to be evil and regrets every single crime he has committed, yet when Adam kills a young boy in the episode ‘Goodbye Iowa’, he does this without any hint of regret as this act was merely research to him and he does not even realise that killing is wrong. Adam’s behaviour is everything but human.

(Adam, just before he murders an innocent boy - for research!)
This inhuman behaviour is mainly caused by the fact that, unlike Frankenstein’s monster who only consists of human parts, Adam is made from human, demon and machine. Considering both humans and demons in the Buffyverse, I would argue that both are capable of having emotions, can differentiate between right and wrong and, theoretically, can have souls. I do not want to start a discussion on whether Frankenstein’s monster has a soul or not but it is perfectly apparent that there is only humanity in him.

The YouTuber Passion of the Nerd[iii] uploads Buffy and Angel episode guides more or less regularly and one sentence by Wesley from the Angel episode ‘To Shanshu in L.A.’ seems to be very important when attempting to answer the question of what being human really means: ‘It is our desires that make us human.’ I believe that this statement should be considered to be true even beyond the Buffyverse. The reason why we consider Frankenstein’s monster to be the hero of the story but also a victim is caused by the fact that we understand him as a human being that is suffering and desires nothing but acceptance by humanity. We can relate to these desires and we thus empathize with him. Adam, on the other hand, has no desires – he is programmed like a computer. In fact, Adam is nothing but a robot in a human/demon-flesh-shell. Empathy for Adam amongst the viewer is therefore an impossibility. Each of his actions are programmed (and theoretically not his fault) yet, the audience still cannot see him as a victim as he does not feel any pain, neither physically nor psychologically. Unlike Frankenstein’s monster, Adam seems to enjoy the way he was created and gets no sympathy from the audience.

To summarise: Adam can in many aspects be described as a monster that was inspired by the monster in Frankenstein. He is the result of a scientific experiment that did not go as planned and ultimately becomes a monster that goes on a killing spree. Yet, the monster in Frankenstein is much more than that, which is why I do not consider Adam as being a successful depiction of a Frankensteinian monster. The main reasons for that are the absence of motives for any of his actions, the impossibility of considering him as anything but the villain, and ultimately, the absence of other essential parts of Mary Shelley’s story that make Frankenstein’s monster one of the most misunderstood characters in Gothic fiction.

This is just my opinion, when I think of Adam and the idea of him being a Frankensteinian monster. And it is only caused by my definition and understanding of the term Frankensteinian. If you have any other definitions or want to discuss why you completely disagree or agree with me, you can use the hashtag #BuffySlays20 on Twitter – I would love to hear your opinions!


Dana Alex is a first-year PhD student at Kingston University, London. She is interested in madness and asylums – may it be in literature, film, television or video games. Other research interests include vampires, postmodern Gothic, and she is a bit too interested in critical and cultural theory (honestly, this cannot be healthy). Dana would like to emphasize that she was certainly not using this blog as an excuse to re-watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again.

[i] Shelley, Mary Frankenstein (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 2003), p. 123.
[ii] Botting, Fred Gothic 2nd edition (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 93.

Monday, 11 September 2017

In Defence of Season Four: Identity Crisis

Starting off Sheffield Gothic's Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Four posts is Jennifer DeRoss exploring the big bad of Season Four. Don't forget to share this post and check out our series so far, and if you want to get involved with the conversation use the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

Season Four of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is one of the seasons that get placed near the bottom of most people’s favourite seasons list. The reason that is often cited for this is that the writers hadn’t yet figured out how the show was going to function after the main characters literally blew up Sunnydale High. As one of the show’s original premises was high school is hell, it makes a lot of sense that there would be some growing pains as they readjusted to life without it. Interestingly, this was also a key theme in the season making these issues supportive of that theme. Season Four is when the main characters each struggle to move on and determine who they are going to be in this next chapter of their lives: Willow is trying to come to terms with herself as a queer woman; Xander is trying to find a fulfilling career, Giles is trying to reinvent himself during a midlife crisis; Buffy is trying to learn how to maintain meaningful relationships with the people around her… Harmony, Oz, Spike, Anya, Riley, and Tara are all going through similar struggles as well. For those whose ages fit the main characters', these were very recognizable experiences that they were going through in their real lives as well. I argue that, like in Season Six, the big bad is not the main villain that Scoobies must face. Season four’s big bad is the first step in the life long struggle to find one’s identity.

(Adam: the big bad of Season Four?)
Building up to the end of the season, many of the episodes function like a deconstruction of identity. Almost every episode explores the topic of personal agency and responsibility in some way. Body swapping or changing is also something that occurs in this season as they interrogate the positions that each character is born into and how that impacts the choices that they have. They delve into identity-based fears, anxieties, and behavioural control issues as well. The character who best serves as a catalyst for these questions is Adam. Very shortly after he awakens, the part demon, part human, and part robot begins philosophizing about his very existence. In an attempt to learn who he is and why he feels the way he does, he seeks information about each aspect of himself. Still, he sees all of this information as lacking leaving him to state that it, ‘tells me what I am, but not who I am’ (‘Goodbye Iowa’). Having access to the knowledge is not the same thing as knowing it. As if he had forgotten this, just two episodes later, he asserts that he has more clarity than any other creature because his known purpose is to kill. Mirroring the Scoobies, Adam shows an ignored disjunction. It is a whole lot easier to ignore insecurities than to deal with them. He is the perfect example of what many try to do when we make our first attempts at adulthood. Like Adam, we believe we can achieve what no other could before; however, nobody can do it all. It is this over confidence, and lack of understanding, that results in Adam’s death.

(Buffy taking out Adam's heart in 'Primeval 'with the help of Giles, Willow, and Xander)
Ultimately, these same flaws almost take down the Scoobies as well. Adam is the only big bad to be taken down in the penultimate episode of the season, which not only signals that he was not, in fact, the true big bad, but also that the issues within the season remained unresolved after his threat was neutralized. Foreshadowing this four episodes before, Buffy tells Jonathan that: ‘you can’t make everything work out with some big gesture’ (‘Superstar’). The enjoining spell did indeed work and relying on one’s friends is a necessary act, but an over-reliance on one’s friends is also a weakness. In other words, 'Primeval' shows that we need to recognize our inability to do everything, but 'Restless' reminds us that only you can work through your insecurities and learn to be ok with who you are. Each dream represents a part of the character that causes anxiety for them: Willow is uncomfortable with her new and cooler status; Xander fears his ability to ever leave his parents basement; Giles regrets the inadequate fathering he has done; Buffy doubts herself and her role as a slayer. Thankfully, Buffy may not be cookies yet, but she was self-confident enough to recognize that her power is her own and not something that was simply handed down to her. This places her on the path to self-discovery and ‘it's all about the journey’ after all (‘Restless’).

(Buffy, the First Slayer, and a man with cheese in 'Restless')
In conclusion, the very thing that Season Four is criticized for is what makes it such a great season. It feels clunky and unresolved because life is clunky and unresolved; none of the characters were done baking yet. This is a journey every person spends their whole life on and these characters are still growing and becoming who they are in the comics. As we are told in the final words of the season: ‘You think you know what’s to come… what you are…You haven’t even begun’  (‘Restless’). Without conquering that first step on the path of discovery, Buffy would not have been able to make the huge life changing decisions she has made after this point. Echoing a famous quote about Batman, season four may not be the season we want, but it is the season we need.

Jennifer DeRoss, a slayer in her own right, is a mother and comic scholar who focuses on the Modern American Superhero. She is currently writing a biography on Gardner Fox through Pulp Hero Press while writing reviews for Comic Crusaders. You can find her on twitter @JenniferDeRoss.

Friday, 8 September 2017

“Don’t get stuck there…”: Finding ‘meaning’ in school and school shootings in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and AHS: Murder House

Concluding our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Three posts is another blog by Kathleen Hudson, this time exploring 'Earshot' and American Horror Story: Murder House and the depiction of School shootings. Don't forget to check out all our Season Three posts (including: Claire Healey's post on Faith, identity and choice, which you can find here; Dana Alex's post on reading Jekyll and Hyde in Buffy Season Three, which you can read here; and also the first of Ash Darrow's posts exploring Giles' character arc, which you find here). As always, to share posts and your thoughts on this or any of the blogs from our Buffy Blog Series, use the hashtag #BuffySlays20. 

Written and produced before the Columbine High School shooting in Colorado on April 20, 1999, the release of Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Season Three Episode 'Earshot' was delayed due to its depiction of aborted violence on school grounds. Years later, its depiction of an almost-shooting is an early entry in an on-going attempt in popular culture to identify the root causes of school shootings and formulate preventative measures, yet retroactive viewing also illuminates some of the tensions and ambiguities which continue to dominate discourses on American identity and mass violence. 

(Buffy discovering Jonathan in the clock tower)

'Earshot' begins with Buffy defeating a demonic enemy and temporarily gaining the demon’s ability to hear the thoughts of those around her. Though she initially uses this to her advantage, her newfound ability soon alienates her from her friends and family as she is forced to negotiate their innermost insecurities. The issue reaches its crisis point in the school cafeteria when, crippled by the chaotic thunder of thoughts, she manages to pick up a single threatening one – 'This time tomorrow, I'll kill you all' – before collapsing in pain. This insight leads Buffy to believe that a mass shooting will occur at her high school, though she is unable to pinpoint who is planning the shooting or why. The rest of the episode is spent with Buffy, now cured of her ability, frantically trying to find out who is threatening her school and how to stop him. 

In Buffy, hearing and empathizing with the perpetrator enables the hero to circumvent tragedy. The would-be shooter Jonathan’s loneliness and lack of meaningful socialization is labelled as the primary cause of his alienation, as is his underlying bitterness towards those whom he considers popular. Buffy herself admits that 'I don’t think about you much at all… you have all this pain and all these feelings and nobody’s really paying attention,' yet these feelings are then used by Buffy to link both Jonathan and Buffy, who, despite being a cheerleader, is ‘othered’ by her Slayer identity, with their peers. From the clock tower, a reference to the University of Texas shooting in 1966, Buffy looks down on her fellow students and invests them with similar feelings of pain and loneliness, implying that these factors always exist underneath the surface of adolescent life.

(Buffy and Jonathan looking down from the clock tower)

Buffy is allowed into the thoughts of her teachers and fellow students, blessed with an ability which those still reeling from a tragedy would naturally covet. The impulse to apply meaning, and therefore order and control, to a chaotic event such as a high school shooting is a natural byproduct of grief, so tapping into a cross-section of diverse motivations seems valuable. Indeed, after the Columbine shooting a moral and political panic over gun laws, school safety, goth culture, bullying, drugs and even video games and music reshaped the cultural landscape, while the myriad of singular ‘causes’ failed to satisfactorily provide a narrative conclusion and indeed prevent future school-based violence. In ‘Earshot.’ Buffy is increasingly unable to manage the voices she hears, just as those around her are unable to control even admittedly irrational trains of thought. Knowing the thoughts of others does not solve problems or, truly, prevent catastrophe, but rather only causes more chaos. What’s more, what Buffy hears is not in fact accurate – Jonathan plans to kill only himself, though this still reflects a troubling consequence of social alienation. 

The episode ostensibly ends happily – the actual threat comes from a terrifying lunch lady rather than a student, and both tragedies are successfully prevented. However, an unsettling anxiety is still present, and over a decade later and after a numerous national attempts in America to contextualize cultural grief and identify causes for school shootings, this tension is examined further in American Horror Story: Murder House (2011), the first season of an anthology-esque horror TV show. This season features an on-going subplot in which Tate Langdon, a teenaged ghost haunting the ‘Murder House,’ and those around him attempt to come to terms with his role as perpetrator of a mass school shooting. Tate’s family, girlfriend (the Murder House’s living resident, Violet, who meets Tate years after his death), and victims are defined by two major impulses – the ongoing attempt to get Tate to acknowledge what he did (he claims to not remember what happened) and to understand his motivations. 


Both shows examine the impulse to impose meaning onto a fundamentally destabilizing trauma. Whereas Buffy optimistically circumvents tragedy through empathy, however, American Horror Story posits that the answers either do not exist or are impossible to discover. Indeed, even Buffy hints at this fear. Jonathan remains a marginalized character throughout the series – first appearing in Season Two, his self-esteem is repeatedly damaged by his fellow students. If Buffy’s discovery of his almost-suicide in this episode is meant to illuminate the consequences of bullying, this goal is undercut by Buffy’s identification with the universality of suffering, which de-individualizes Jonathan’s impulses, as well as her repeated dismissal of him at the end of the episode (she is not 'saint Buffy' and is not going to go to prom with a guy who is 'like, three feet tall') and throughout the series. 

In American Horror Story Tate is more overtly evil, his personal narrative a manipulative attempt to avoid responsibility for his actions. As he walks through the hallways of his school he is depicted with a monstrous, skeletal face which marks him as ‘other,’ yet he is otherwise a master of ‘passing.’ Both Jonathan and Tate’s characterizations invalidate easy explanations for mass violence in schools and deny victims and bystanders closure. In a monologue Tate admits to Violet that: 'I hated high school' but does not provide any solid explanation for this – he is an ‘other’ but he targets all social groups; he is interested in certain kinds of music and clothes but not obsessively so; he is corrupted by the ‘Murder House’ but also operates independently of it. High school itself lacks permanence for Tate: he recalls telling himself that 'you can do anything, you can be anything, screw high school…that’s just a blip in your timeline, don’t get stuck there…' Of course, Tate, the students he as murdered, the survivors of the shooting, and those dragged into the narrative years after the fact remain, ironically, 'stuck there,' unable to move on. Tate and his victims never escape their high school bodies, a now-paralyzed high school teacher lumps Violet in with the other emotional tourists who cycle through, and numerous innocents, Violet’s family included, fall victim to Tate’s continuing penchant for violence. This trauma has a far-reaching ripple effect – yet where does the ripple really start? How can it be contextualized? 

(Tate and Violent, confronted by Tate's victims)
In the episode 'Halloween: Part Two' the ghosts of Tate’s victims, temporarily mobilized, attempt to confront Tate with his crimes. Their situation bespeaks the stasis Tate himself fears, the tragedy inherent to school shootings in particular: 'I was never going to save the world' one of Tate’s victims tells him, 'but Amir (a fellow victim) could have.' Denied a future, the ghosts attempt to gain some form of closure – asking Tate why he murdered them and begging him to 'Just admit what you did.' They echo those who have lost friends and family in school shootings and who seek to create a suitable narrative response to acts of seemingly random violence. Tate, however, insists on his ignorance and fails to explain himself even when he eventually admits to the murders in the final episode of the season. Similarly, while Jonathan ultimately states in the final season of Buffy that he has gotten past much of the alienation that defined him in high school, he remains a figure whose passivity is weaponized as a tool for evil. 

Attempts to assign blame to an outer trigger such as violent video games or music, or to identify a more pervasive social alienation underscore both plotlines, yet are also rendered null by the sheer impossibility of finding or creating satisfactory answers. Tate targets a range of students from all levels of the high school hierarchy and continues to kill and torture after his death – Violet eventually rejects him because is 'the darkness' rather than a victim of it. After years of post-Columbine ‘hindsight,’ American Horror Story acknowledges that as a society we are no closer to eradicating the root causes of mass violence, and particularly violence perpetrated by that ever-unstable teenaged demographic, then we were in the days immediately following Columbine. And, although 'Earshot' was written before the Columbine shooting, the act of suicide, whether it be an isolated act by a disturbed student or the end to a mass murder where the shooter either kills himself or is killed by the police, inspires the same anxieties – they are acts of (self) destruction in which informs national and generational identities even as a satisfactory explanation is left unspoken. 

Dr. Kathleen "Queen of the Goths" Hudson is an eternal member of Sheffield Gothic: while she lives the American Dream, Sheffield Gothic continues to worship her from across the pond. To the best of our knowledge, she does not live imprisoned in an underground church leading a cult of vampires, nor does she teach in a school situated above a Hellmouth.