Mazarkis Williams has degrees in history and physics, and a passion for cooking and cats. Mazarkis has roots in both Britain and America, having been educated and working in both, and now divides time between Bristol and Boston.
First, a recognition that Halloween, or Samhain, is a high holiday for many of my friends. It is for honoring the dead, recognizing the end of the year, and putting forward hopes for the next. With apologies, in this post I will write instead of the Halloween we see on television.
The television specials that pop up around the year reflect our own understanding and our own hopes for the holidays. We want to start fresh at the New Year, make dates for Valentine’s, and gather together with our families for Thanksgiving, and TV faithfully represents that—usually in a banal, comforting way. But Halloween is not suited to pat answers and easy emotional resolutions, so there were never many shows for Halloween until recently.
During my childhood there was only It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which shows Linus waiting all night for the spirit of the pumpkin patch to appear. I knew it had a deeper message to share about faith and patience, something I was too young and areligious to understand, but it also had Snoopy, and that was enough for me. By the time my kids were old enough to watch it, it came so early in relation to the holiday, and was so peppered with commercial breaks, that something felt lost. Whatever cultural relevance it would have offered my children had vanished.
My children found their own way to Halloween on TV. They found Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it could be argued, was always about Halloween. Vampires, demons, and fairy-tale bad guys filled Sunnydale’s streets every night. October 31st was the only time the city was meant to be safe; it was, in the Buffyverse, a boring night for evil, which was expected to stay in and sit out the holiday, making the streets safe for trick-or-treaters. But that makes boring television.
In fact, Halloween presented new challenges—and regularly turned Buffy, normally tough and unafraid, into a victim.
Once, a sorcerer cast a spell that turned all the revelers into their costumes, rendering Buffy a powerless, fluffy princess surrounded by devil children and the vampire Spike. Another time, she found herself and her friends trapped in a frat house of horrors run by a demon that fed on fear. Buffy’s sister was nearly turned into a vampire one Halloween night, while her best friend already showed the overuse of magic that would culminate in near-Armageddon. In all of these episodes, Buffy was truly afraid, and in danger of losing those things that were important to her and defined her: strength, friends, family.
Buffy often explored opposites, most famously with the mirror-world episodes in which Buffy had no friends and Willow was a vampire. But the Halloween episodes showed a transformation in the Buffy character herself, from tough-talking slayer to frightened girl.
Opposites are in fact what make Halloween what it is. The dead are said to walk among us; pumpkins come alive with fire and knife; misbehavior is expected, and threats bring candy rewards.
The Halloween transformation most children experience is the opposite from Buffy’s. Children are not in control of their environments. They witness suffering, bullying, and cruelty, but unlike Buffy can do nothing about it. They experience death—perhaps that of a grandparent, a teacher at the school, or even another child—and they don’t understand it. They may imagine monsters under the bed or just beyond their window.
Halloween gives children the opportunity to become the thing they don’t understand—to master it, or to even come closer to understanding it. They dress up as the scariest monsters they can imagine and jump at us from the shadows. They know exactly how to frighten, as they spend a lot of time being frightened themselves. They are empowered, free, and completely enjoying themselves and each other. Some people are taken aback by how much enthusiasm is shown by children at Halloween. Don’t be. It is their time to be unafraid.
Which brings me back to Buffy. In all of the Halloween episodes, Buffy is powerless in some way, frightened, and on the verge of defeat. But by the end, she recovers. Giles undoes the sorcerer’s spell, and Buffy remembers herself just in time to kick Spike away. The fear demon is revealed as two inches high, easily smushable beneath Buffy’s boot. Dawn, well-trained by her sister, uses a crossbow bolt to kill the attacking vampire. In the last five minutes of the show, everything returns to normal. Buffy is once again strong and in control, and her friends and family are safe and nearby. The viewer leans back with a smile, knowing all is well in the Buffyverse.
And that is the comfort of both Halloween and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The idea that things will get tough, really scary, and hard to understand, but that life can be mastered. That we can overcome the demons of our lives with courage, friends, a snarky grin, and maybe a scary costume. That we may even get candy for trying.
I’d like to wish everyone a Happy Halloween.