Buffy the Vampire Slayer: A Wry Look at “The Body”
The Scene Itself:
In order to understand the episode “The Body,” it seems only fitting to take a closer look at the last scene of the last few minutes the characters Buffy and Dawn share with their deceased mother’s body. We begin our analysis at the moment Dawn (Buffy’s younger sister) enters the long hallway towards the hospital morgue room. She moves hesitantly, constantly aware that she might “get caught” going into a restricted part of the hospital either by staff or by her sister Buffy who sits in a nearby waiting room. But, she is clearly drawn towards the body of her mother, if only for her first “real” look at her mother, thus confirming to herself that her mother is indeed dead. In other words, she seems compelled to “experience” seeing and even touching the body for herself before she can accept that her mother is, in fact, dead. The camera work, at first, seems typical. She approaches the viewer slowly, taking deep breaths and an occasional hard swallow. This allows the viewers to feel the dread she might be feeling, or at least allows us as viewers to project our own feelings of what might be going on inside her mind onto her character as she makes this journey towards her mother. The camera jiggles, ever so slightly, as if it, too, is walking with her. Then, in a move that elicits the “uncanny,” the camera suddenly leaves her face, stops following in front of her, and takes an overhead look at her. We see Dawn from above, as if she is being watched from another vantage point by some “other” thing. This switching of subjective/objective shots creates a tension in the viewer the closer Dawn gets to the final set of doors. The feelings of anxiety are heightened still further when we are given a subjective shot (presumably of what Dawn is seeing) when we peer through the glass windows and are allowed to see the tables with corpses draped in white cloths. Instinctively, we know what awaits.
Dawn walks into the room, looks back and locks the doors behind her. Again, the camera shifts between what she sees and her reactions to what she sees. We are given a sideways shot of Dawn approaching “the body” from the point of view of possibly the vampire who we later learn is reawakening under one of the white sheets. She stops before the table where her mother’s body is laying and reaches out as if to touch it but holds back, recoils her hand and looks down at the draped contours of the body, tilting her head, clearly suggesting that she is remembering her mother alive or else desiring that her mother could rise from the table. It is at this exact moment that a naked male vampire slowly sits up, spies Dawn, and offers a sinister smile. Because of the use of red throughout this sequence, our eyes are automatically drawn to the “no smoking” sign posted on the wall above the vampire’s shoulder, which is something we will examine later in this analysis. Dawn senses that she is being watched and turns, faces the creature “between the two deaths,” this monster belonging to the “living dead,” and we watch the horror on her face.
Buffy, too, in the waiting room seems to sense something is amiss as well. After talking to her friends, she begins to search for her sister, drawn herself to the set of doors with the red sign marked “authorized personnel only.” Buffy’s walk down the long hallway differs from Dawn’s. This time, the camera twists counter-clockwise as Buffy emerges from shadows into the dim light. She bursts through the locked doors when she sees the male vampire attacking Dawn and begins her struggle with him. Dawn is thrown to the floor, reaching out towards her mother’s body to stop her fall, but instead can only grab the sheet, revealing the body to full view. Buffy and the vampire wrestle and fight in a scene that (considering the vampire is both naked and male, and the erotic associations made with vampires in lore) may be somewhat erotic in tone. She finally straddles the vampire, grabs a surgical saw, and decapitates him. With one last cry, the vampire evaporates into dust and then completely vanishes. Buffy throws the saw aside and lays back, staring up the ceiling. The camera offers a lingering shot on Buffy and again the camera twists from counter-clockwise to a more “straightened” view. The camera shows both Buffy and Dawn on the floor as they look up towards the exposed body of their mother. The camera follows Dawn as she stands and stares down at her mother’s body. We are given a view of Buffy still on the floor, Dawn looking at her mother, and their mother’s body in the foreground. We cannot see the characters without “overlooking” the body. Dawn asks, “Is she cold?” Buffy responds quietly, “It’s not her.” A pause. Then, Buffy repeats, “It’s not her. She’s gone.” Dawn, with her voice faltering, asks, “Where did she go?” Slowly, Dawn lifts her hand and reaches out to touch her mother. The final moment of the episode is of Dawn’s fingertips nearly touching her mother but the screen immediately goes to black and shows the credits before she can complete this touch. This leaves a gap that we as viewers are invited to fill: did Dawn touch her mother’s dead body or not? We are also left with the possibly more morbid unanswered question: what did the body feel like?
Where Did She Go?
To tackle the complexity of what we are watching in this last scene in “The Body,” let us begin by making the obvious connections between Kristeva’s notions of abjection and the way the characters interact with this sudden intrusion of “the real” in their usually fantastical lives. As Julia Kristeva repeatedly articulates in her book The Powers of Horror, the abject cannot escape its associations with the mother’s body and with the uncanny. Therefore, it is impossible to ignore the way the “uncanny” is operating in this specific scene, especially with the character of Dawn. Let’s first focus on Dawn’s walk down the corridor and the analysis of how she reacts to their mother’s body. As Slavoj Zizek states in his book Looking Awry, the feelings of the “uncanny” are created “by alternating the subjective view of the approaching house […] and an objective shot of the subject in motion” (126). Repeatedly as Dawn walks down the hallway towards the hospital’s morgue room, the camera switches between subjective and objective shots. This, as Zizek says regarding Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, “provokes anxiety” and gives that “indefinable feeling that [the hallway] is somehow already gazing at her, gazing at her from a point that totally escapes her view and thus makes her utterly helpless” (126). We are given an overhead view of Dawn that amplifies her vulnerability. There is the “uncanny” feeling that something is watching her, something “other” than we as viewers since the position of the camera is situated in such an “untraditional” place. The camera seemingly stalks her.
Dawn is clearly compelled towards her mother’s body. Such an action coincides with Kristeva’s thoughts regarding abjection, especially when she states: “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the utmost of abjection. It is death infecting life. Abject. It is something rejected from which one does not part, from which one does not protect oneself as from an object. Imaginary uncanniness and real threat, it beckons to us and ends up engulfing us” (4). Dawn seems almost “beckoned” to experience the abjection of her mother’s dead body “firsthand.” She enters the morgue room “before the untouchable, impossible, absent body of the mother” (6), and yet, she raises her hand as if to touch what, according to Kristeva, is untouchable as it threatens Dawn’s very being as a subject. But, Dawn cannot help herself from “the jettisoned object” which, as Kristeva argues, “is radically excluded and draws [her] towards the place where meaning collapses” (2). She stops herself before completing this first attempt to touch “the body,” and this desire almost seems to resurrect the vampire. Certainly, Dawn is vulnerable as a young girl, between childhood and adulthood, but it is her fragility as a “self” that is in danger by her desire to gaze fully at “the real,” to reunite with the abject, with the “absent” mother’s body.
Buffy could be seen as regressing as she approaches “the real,” the abject, the corpse of her mother, and she must confront the representation of infantile, eroticized desire, perhaps, as embodied by the vampire. According to Kristina Busse in her essay, “Crossing the Final Taboo: Family, Sexuality, and Incest in Buffyverse Fan Fiction”: vampires are presented as infantilized yet highly sexualized beings whose incestuous desires suggest a pre-Oedipal existence with its lack of inhibitions and polymorphous sexuality” (208). While this quote talks about Buffy “fan fiction,” we can make obvious connections to the vampires used throughout the series itself, particularly in the episode “The Body.” Busse continues her analysis by arguing: “the vampire exists outside any symbolic universe that would control and regulate his behavior. As pure id, he follows his every drive and desire” (212). A vampire follows Zizek’s own ideas about being a member of the “living dead” that exists outside of societal order, since it is not dead and has not “received a proper burial” (#). Busse goes on to say: “the vampire’s immortality also resonates with the timelessness ascribed to the infant’s state before self-consciousness: vampires—just like babies—exist outside temporal dimensions” (212). Buffy must struggle with this figure of unbridled id before she can look at her mother’s body and no longer recognize it as being her mother. She must become the thing she fears, the all-powerful phallicmother that represents being both all and nothing, defeat and overcome her own pre-Oedipal desires before she can reclaim her own subjectivity. She must struggle with the id by decapitating it, castrating it before it can completely vanish. Kristeva states: “the eroticization of abjection, and perhaps any abjection to the extent that it is already eroticized, is an attempt at stopping the hemorrhaging: a threshold before death, a halt or respite?” (55). Buffy defeats the vampire. Thus, the camera focuses on Buffy’s face and turns back, twisting counter-clockwise , to a straightened view. She, once again, has positioned herself in the symbolic order by overcoming the representative of pure id, the eroticization of the abjection. This is why it is she who is able to say of the body at the end: “It’s not her,” or “that’s not my mother.” Buffy’s comment so perfectly echoes Julia Kristeva’s words: “A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A ‘something’ that I do not recognize as a thing […] On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture” (2). Unlike Dawn, who still reaches for the mother, still wants to recognize “the body” as something to be desired, Buffy keeps herself “safeguarded” by seeing her mother’s body as something separate from herself. Just as Kristeva says: “abjection is elaborated through a failure to recognize its kin; nothing is familiar, not even the shadow of a memory” (5). In this case, we see that Buffy is able to not recognize the body as kin, literally. It is Dawn who still desires to see the abject as her mother. She reaches out to touch the body in the final scene, which threatens her very subjectivity and the screen goes black, as if to show that touching the body, feeling it as “real” would be an annihilation, blackness, the end of existence—something symbolized by the end of the episode arriving at that very instant and showing us the words “executive producer,” perhaps, on some level, an imposed reinstatement of the law of the Father. We, the viewers, are reminded that “the body” must never be completely touched, jarred by the black screen back into our psychic realities. This reverie with “the real” must be brought to an end for us, as viewers, to continue to recognize ourselves as subjects.
Popcorn and Shadows
We sit in the shadows of our darkened living rooms, able for the space of an hour to forget “the self” and immerse ourselves in the borrowed subjectivity of the characters we see on the television screen. But, this particular episode, “The Body,” imposes a sudden confrontation with “the real” in a diegetic universe of monsters, vampires, and other mythical figures of “campy” horror. In episodes previous to this one, we as viewers have witnessed the character of Joyce’s battle with cancer and her hopeful recovery, and yet, unexpectedly, we find ourselves sitting down and suddenly, almost painfully, reminded of our own “selves” when Joyce dies, becoming “the body.”
The first thing that separates this episode from all others is its “lack” of a musical score. This is a prohibition such as the ones Zizek describes. He states that prohibitions such as this represent “symbolic castration” and “herein lies the sentiment of an unbearable, incestuous stuffiness” (43). He goes on to say: “the fundamental prohibition constitutive of the symbolic order (the ‘prohibition of incest,’ the ‘cutting of the rope’ through which we achieve symbolic distance towards ‘reality’) is lacking, and the arbitrary prohibition that replaces it only embodies, bears witness to this lack, to this lack of a lack itself” (43). We can also see this notion as being connected to Kristeva’s regarding abjection. Interestingly, Kristeva describes abjection as: “a nonassimilable alien, a monster, a tumor, a cancer that the listening devices of the unconscious do not hear, for its strayed subject is huddled outside of the paths of desire” (11). We do not hear a music score. The episode itself is an “abjection” within the usual world of both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and other television shows. Perhaps there is no music because “the mother” is dead. Music, for Kristeva, is associated with the pre-Oedipal, with the mother, but the mother is gone, an abjection, a thing no longer able to be desired. There is only silence here. Since the music is absent, we, the viewers, who are conditioned to “feel” a certain way during certain scenes based upon how the music stirs us, are left without that comfort.
It could be argued that this is quite possibly Buffy’s most frightening episode. The final moments of the scene, with “the body” foregrounded, is not unlike Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors from which Lacan modified his notions concerning “the gaze.” The dead body of Buffy’s mother is looking upwards, but if looked at awry, she seems to be gazing directly at us. In the midst of this “fantasy” show, the “real” is staring back at us, refusing to be turned away from, not allowing us the comfort of ignoring it. This scene mirrors Zizek’s discussion of how the gaze functions in film. Zizek states: “The gaze as object is a stain preventing me from looking at the picture from a safe, ‘objective’ distance, from enframing it as something that is at my grasping view’s disposal. The gaze is, so to speak, a point at which the very frame (of my view) is already inscribed in the ‘content’ of the picture viewed” (125). We cannot watch the final scene of the episode without “overlooking” the body. Our eyes must alternate between Buffy and Dawn and their dead mother’s body. Our “gaze” is framed and controlled by the camera, which obeys the commands of the person directing the episode. Like Holbein’s painting, “the body,” this metaphor for “the real,” the death image “gazes” back at us, and there is no “safe distance” we can achieve from it. The tenuousness of our own positions as subjects and psychic realities are given a tremor when we watch this episode. This is probably due in part to what Zizek says: “This social reality is then nothing but a fragile, symbolic cobweb that can at any moment be torn aside by an intrusion of the real (17). The “real” has intruded not only Buffy’s diegetic world but also our own social reality, threatening us at the most primal level of our consciousness.
We sit in the shadows of our living rooms, the television screen, that unifying, electric womb, illuminates our faces as we project our fetishistic fantasies onto the characters. These characters can clearly be seen as fetishes, much like Marcia Ian describes in her book Remembering the Phallic Mother: Psychoanalysis, Modernism, and the Fetish: “Characters function as fetishes, which are ‘accretions’ of idealizations” (105. While Ian is talking about characters found in novels, this same idea can be certainly be applied to the fictitious characters found in television programs. They are idealizations existing within the isolation of this colorful womb-like screen. The “power” cord plugged into the wall is not unlike the phallus, especially if we take critic Ian’s notions about the phallus as being more biologically representative of the original maternal phallus (which we also share—an object of “reconnection,” that unifies the Self to the Other), which, to Ian, is the umbilical cord. Ian argues that the phallus as “penis” is a symptom of the patriarchal notions inherent in psychoanalytic theory and states: “Every single human being ever born, however, has been joined to its mother by an umbilical cord” (33). She goes on to say: “the umbilical cord is the only universal biological organ of connection. Why hasn’t this organ been fetishized?” (34). Perhaps it hasn’t been in psychoanalytic theory itself, but perhaps it has in our own psyches all along. We “gaze” into a television screen, able for the space of an hour or two to forget our own selves, while its characters serve as our fetishes, offering the promise of reconnection.
But this episode of “The Body” intrudes this “safe” space. We have vicariously joined with both Buffy and Dawn down that shadowy corridor, allowed to become both Buffy and Dawn, and to project our own feelings onto them as they make that slow walk. Before Dawn’s hand touches her mother’s body, the credits roll, and commercials provide what should be a “welcomed relief,” a diversion as we re-enter the fetishistic environment of our social realities, and we listen to the music that has been so long been absent, the imperatives of pere-version—enjoy! But, with this episode, the boundary between fantasy and reality has been transgressed, collapsed with the dropping of that white sheet from the body, and what it reveals to all of us and what we feel in the pit of our stomachs, is a reminder that this feeling is as close as we can conceivably allow ourselves to come to “the real.” During the series, we have suffered along side of Joyce, known her as a character, a fetish, which we are now severed from for the rest of the show’s life. We are left with catharsis—that mixture of both pity and fear. We pity ourselves, fear for ourselves because we have all been forced to confront what we will all ultimately one day become—“the body.”