psychoanalyzing buffy: resurrection and rebirth
This is the final excerpt from a paper I wrote for my Critical Theory class at Georgetown University. As this is a pretty long paper, I have been posting it in segments. Part One of this paper can be found here.
Four months after Buffy’s death, her friends resurrect her. They rationalize that, because she died through mystical means, closing a portal to a hell dimension, her soul is likely trapped somewhere, suffering and tormented. Their spell is interrupted, however, and at first they believe that their efforts failed. Meanwhile, Buffy’s corpse comes back to life, inside her coffin, and the newly-awakened Buffy begins to panic as she realizes that she’s buried alive.
INT. BUFFY’S COFFIN - NIGHT
Now we are INSIDE BUFFY’S COFFIN. We can SEE BUFFY’S CORPSE. Suddenly, ITS EYES SNAP OPEN and the corpse MORPHS back into LIVE BUFFY. Then her breath starts to come fast, horrified…
BUFFY, her knuckles and fingernails now raw and bloody, manages to smash through the coffin lid. Pulling her fist out, dirt begins to stream in.
BUFFY’s POV - HANDHELD - FILTERED
with all her might, GRUNTING, she pulls down on the splintered wood around the hole she’s made, and the dirt stream becomes torrential.
EXT. BUFFY’S GRAVESITE - NIGHT
A FIST punches through, feverishly claws at the ground, then another hand appears, then
BUFFY pulls herself up out of her grave, wild-eyed, wheezily gasping for breath.
EXT. BUFFY’S GRAVESITE - NIGHT
BUFFY gets to her feet — Dirty, bleeding, thoroughly freaked. Something catches her eye. She slowly looks over at it and freezes …
ARC around her as she steps toward the gravestone. Her gravestone.
ON BUFFY, squinting at it with abject horror. (FOOTNOTE)
The scene is like a nightmare come to life. Freud talks about cultural fears of death and the dead in his work “Totem and Taboo,” citing a late 19th-century work by R. Kleinpaul:
[O]riginally, however, the dead were all vampires, who bore ill-will towards the living, and strove to harm them and deprive them of life. It was the corpse that first furnished the conception of an evil spirit. (FOOTNOTE)
Buffy has had this nightmare before — in the Season One episode “Nightmares,” when everyone?s worst nightmares come to life, The Master, a vicious vampire, buries Buffy alive in a graveyard. She fights her way out of the dirt, with a helping hand from Giles, and emerges a vampire. This time, however, Buffy is more a lost spirit than an evil one — although she has brought an evil spirit back with her (more on that later).
Buffy’s emergence from her grave is very much a rebirth, as she is violently expelled from the earth. Given her later revelation that she was in heaven —
BUFFY: Wherever I … was … I was happy. At peace. I knew that everyone I cared about was all right. I knew it. Time didn’t mean anything, nothing had form … but I was still me, you know? And I was warm and I was loved … and I was finished. Complete. I don’t understand about dimensions or theology or any of … but I think I was in heaven. And now I’m not. […] I was torn out of there. My friends pulled me out. And everything here is bright and hard and violent … Everything I feel, everything I touch … This is Hell. Just getting through the next moment, and the one after that … knowing what I’ve lost … They [my friends] can never know. Never. (FOOTNOTE)
— the transition from a sense of womb-like completeness to the harsh outside world must be especially traumatic. Freud writes that birth is the original trauma, as child and mother are separated, and that most of life’s traumas are echoes of that original trauma. Buffy, reborn, endures that trauma a second time — but the transition is made all the more difficult by the fact that, with remnants of socialization and language, she still remembers her time in heaven and can actively contrast her experience there with life back among the living.
The first images Buffy sees all relate to death — the inside of her coffin, her gravestone — and serve as reminders of who and what she used to be. Her experience of wandering through her hometown (which has just been taken over by violent biker demons) has a dreamlike, nightmarish quality to it, and the scene appears in a blurred haze when the camera shifts to Buffy’s point of view.
Buffy then stumbles upon a crowd of biker demons surrounding the BuffyBot, a robot replica of Buffy that her friends have appropriated to help maintain the illusion that Buffy was still alive. The demons have chained each of the robot’s limbs to a motorcycle, and just before they motor away, dismembering the BuffyBot, Buffy and Bot catch sight of each other and scream. Horror crosses Buffy’s face as she sees her doppelganger killed in front of her. The Bot is reminiscent of Jacques Lacan’s imago. Buffy recognizes her Other — she knows that this particular Other is not her, but she still sees herself in the Bot.
Lacan, describing the fragmented nature of Self and Other, offers an appropriate description that can be applied to this scene:
This fragmented body … usually manifests itself in dreams when the movement of the analysis encounters a certain level of aggressive disintegration in the individual. It then appears in the form of disjointed limbs, or of those organs represented in exoscopy, growing wings and taking up arms for intestinal persecutions…(FOOTNOTE)
Soon afterward, she tries to recreate her own death, returning to the tower from which she jumped to her death, only to be interrupted by Dawn. Unstable, the tower begins to crumble, and Buffy again must save Dawn ? this time by living, rather than hurtling herself to her own death.
INT. BUFFY’S HOUSE - UPSTAIRS BATHROOM - NIGHT
Dawn is standing with Buffy at the sink. Buffy is wearing casual clothes now, a button-up shirt hangs open over a camisole. Buffy’s hair is combed and pulled back.
Dawn is washing the dirt from Buffy’s face with a washcloth.
DAWN: There you are. Knew you were under that dirt somewhere. Remember what Mom used to say? “Either wash that neck or plant potatoes.”
Buffy doesn’t react.
DAWN: (cont’d) Yeah… I never thought it was funny either.
Dawn starts to button Buffy’s shirt.
DAWN: (cont’d) Here we go. See how nice you look… (FOOTNOTE)
Dawn’s placing Buffy in front of the mirror, especially so soon after Buffy’s rebirth, is reminiscent of Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage,” where an infant, placed in front of a mirror, gets his first inkling of an Other self. He is told that this reflection is him (i.e., “Look at yourself!”), yet the reflection is also something separate from himself. Over time, he begins to develop both a connection with the Other in the mirror (the “me” that everyone sees) and a disassociation with his own self. At home, in front of the mirror with her sister, Buffy begins to process the various “selves” she used to be and roles she used to play.
Going back to those old roles is difficult, however, especially at first. Her speech is halting, as she tries to remember the words she wants, and she tends to space out. She feels pressure from her friends and Dawn to act just like the “old Buffy,” because they act strangely around her when she doesn?t.
DAWN: They care about you a lot. When you were gone … it was bad when you were gone. But it’ll get better now. Now that they can see you being happy. That’s all they want. (FOOTNOTE)
Meanwhile, Buffy’s friends try to deny that anything is wrong with Buffy, and are even secretly disappointed that she’s not more overtly grateful to them for “rescuing” her:
WILLOW: She’s fine! Normal! She used to go to bed all the time!
ANYA: (to Xander) I think Willow’s wrong. I don’t think she’s especially normal at all.
XANDER: She just got back. Give her time. I bet, in a week, she’ll be our little Bufferin again.
ANYA: Oh yes, because six or seven days, that’s really all you need to get over eternal hell experiences. (FOOTNOTE)
In the Season Six episode “After Life,” a demon spirit that traveled back with Buffy through the netherworld haunts Bufffy and her friends. This demon is much more like the “evil spirit” that Freud mentions, tormenting Buffy and friends with visions of death and violence and seeking a way to permenantly regain corporeal form before it dissipates back into nothingness. Buffy’s friends - and the demon - learn that it can do so if it kills Buffy. They also learn that they can destroy the demon by either waiting until it goes away, or by reversing Buffy’s resurrection.
As is often the case on BtVS, the demon is a metaphor for Buffy’s psychological trauma and her friends’ relationship to it.
WILLOW: This isn’t a demon we let out. This is a demon we made.
XANDER: We made a demon? Bad us.
WILLOW: Thaumogenesis is when doing a spell actually creates a being. In this case it was, like, a side-effect, I guess. Like a price. (FOOTNOTE)
Buffy’s friends’ efforts in resurrecting Buffy resulted in the creation of not only the physical demon, but Buffy’s own mental trauma. Still, once the demon is defeated (Willow casts a spell that makes it corporeal long enough for Buffy to cut its head off), her friends act as if her psychic scars have dissipated as well. But Buffy’s psychic wounds linger and fester as her friends, with increasing desperation, try to convince themselves that the troubling consequences of their actions will all go away.
Their efforts to avoid guilt and moral culpability regarding Buffy’s resurrection follow some of Freud’s stages of repression, as they shift from:
Conscious efforts not to think / talk about the more distressing effects of their actions (the nature of Buffy’s rebirth, her depression / mental trauma at being brought back).
Unconciously withholding comments / thoughts about those distressing consequences, but still having access to them.
Seemingly purging that distress from their memories and replacing it with a more palatable narrative to justify their actions to themselves. (FOOTNOTE)
After their initial horror at realizing the manner in which they’d brought Buffy back to life — that she’d had to claw her way out of her coffin on her own — the issue is completely ignored. They perceive themselves as heroes, true friends — and heroes / friends don’t traumatize their friends like that. The focus is that they “saved” Buffy from a hell dimension, not that they further traumatized her by brining her back to life buried alive. When they finally find out the truth about where Buffy was, that she was in heaven, again, there’s the momentary horror ? followed by a complete lack of follow-up as they absorb themselves in their own personal dramas and largely ignore Buffy’s depression. Buffy calls Xander on it months later, after he learns that she turned to the vampire Spike for comfort, rather than talk to her friends:
BUFFY: You don’t know how hard it’s been.
XANDER: Lying to me?
BUFFY: (snapping) Being here. After I was brought back … You have no idea how hard it is just being here.
XANDER: You could have told me.
BUFFY: You didn’t want to know. (FOOTNOTE)
Buffy herself consciously tries to repress any outward symptoms of her mental anguish. The pressure of acting “okay” takes its toll on Buffy, who tires of putting on a show while the psychic trauma of her rebirth remains fresh, just hidden from her friends. In the meantime, fresh social traumas turn up: All of her mother’s money was eaten up by hospital bills, so Buffy and Dawn are effectively broke.
GILES: Buffy, you may be putting too much pressure on yourself. To return from some unknown level of Hell … it’s only natural coming back would be a process.
BUFFY: In the meantime, I’m scaring people.
GILES: That may take some time, too.
BUFFY: Good. I’ve always hoped to freak out the people who love me. And not just in the short-term, but you know - as a lifestyle.
GILES: If it’s any consolation, life can get overwhelming even for people who haven’t been … where you have.
BUFFY: I guess, but I don’t know, Giles, I mean … stuff like spoons are still weird to me. Then you add complex financial issues on top of that, and - Buffy go bye-bye. (FOOTNOTE)
The irony of Giles’s reassurances is that Buffy’s trouble at readjusting comes from returning from Heaven, not Hell. Hell is the living, social world, with spoons and bills and social pressure.