Strange Wars: Evangelical Counter-Cultists vs "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

by Massimo Introvigne

Vol. 15, No. 6 of The Watchman Expositor, an Evangelical counter-cult magazine published by Watchman Fellowship, Inc. of Arlington, Texas, includes an article by Jason Barker on "Youth Oriented TV and the Occult". The article includes a sustained attack against the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" defined as "one of the most popular occult-based programs on television". Barker does not like that "in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy defeats hordes of vampires and demons purely through her prowess in the martial arts; other monsters require spells and other rituals taught to her (and her friends) by the Watcher, Giles. Also in this series, characters can both send others to Hell, and rescue them from damnation (e.g., Angel, who was sent to Hell by Buffy, returned to Sunnydale after spending 100 years in torment)." There is, Barker claims, "a central difference between the soteriology in these programs and true biblical soteriology: the Bible clearly teaches that Christians are saved apart from any actions they perform." Buffy-based Moloch's Revenge videogame is criticized in the same vein. "During the time a Christian spends focusing on plots concerning subjects that are condemned by God, that person is tacitly following the occult rather than God. ", Barker claims. The article also criticizes "Charmed", "The X-Files" and "Sabrina the Teen Age Witch" (the latter is however regarded as "largely harmless").

The attack is interesting as evidence of how the Evangelical counter-cult movement is expanding its targets, from specific new religious movements to books such as The Celestine Prophecy, and now TV series. The article was probably written before "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" poked itself fun at anti-cult activism against "the occult" in the eleventh episode of the third season, "Gingerbread", aired in the U.S. on January 12, 1999. In "Gingerbread" Buffy's mother, Joyce (who now knows that her daughter is the Slayer, the "chosen one" whose mission is to slay vampires), believes that she has witnessed the death of two children. "Later that night - according to the official summary of the episode - Buffy argues with her mother, who is the founder of MOO (Mothers Opposed to the Occult). Buffy insists that this matter be dealt with by the Slayer. However, Joyce doesn't believe that Buffy's work is making Sunnydale any better. After Buffy takes off, the two deceased children appear in the kitchen... very much alive. Joyce listens to them intently as they beg her to make their murderers suffer. " The mother of Buffy's best friend (and witch in the making), Willow, has similar reactions and is also a member of MOO. "Nobody seems to know anything about the two children, including their names or where they came from, and yet their pictures were somehow available for use in MOO's campaign. " Willow eventually discovers that "the dead bodies of these same two children have been repeatedly discovered once every fifty years, dating all the way back to 1649. The oldest article identifies them as Hans and Greta Strauss" and they are at the origins of the fairy tale story of Hansel and Gretel. While suspicions about what the two children really are grew, "Willow answers the knocking at her door and finds her mother... along with a group of angry parents who want nothing but her death. Meanwhile, Buffy and Giles interrupt another MOO meeting. As they take Joyce into the foyer to speak with her alone, the rest of the group sneak up from behind and knock Giles unconscious. Joyce does the same to Buffy with the help of some chloroform. Buffy, Willow, and Amy [another friend of Buffy's, who is an amateur witch] are tied to large stakes in City Hall, ready to be burned for the crimes they've been accused of. Willow and Amy unsuccessfully struggle with their restraints, while Buffy remains unconscious. " When "Buffy finally regains consciousness and realizes the situation she's in, Joyce refuses to listen to her daughter's pleas. Amy escapes danger by transforming herself into a rat and bolting out of the room, but Willow and Buffy are still moments away from a fiery death. Just as the fire is about to engulf Buffy and Willow, Giles and Cordelia [another of Buffy's high school friends] burst into the room. While Cordelia extinguishes the fire, Giles casts the spell on the two children, who then combine and change into the true form of a tall, hideous demon. As the parents realize the deception and try to escape, "Buffy breaks the stake she's been tied to in half and leans forward -- just in time to impale the demon. " The parents experience a "convenient memory loss" about their attempt to burn their daughters at the stake.

"Gingerbread" is an exceptional episode and one that shows how different the cultural climate is in the United States with respect to only a few years ago. Ultimately, it is the counter-cult movement MOO that id dangerous and even prone to murder while the "white" witchcraft practised by girls such as Willow and Amy is gentle and inoffensive. And, ironically (but symbolically), the counter-cult movement is ultimately controlled by a demon.

Strangely, The Watchman Expositor failed to notice in the very pilot of the series an explanation of the origins of our world directly opposed to the Biblical narrative as generally understood, and presented as such. Talking about the origins of vampires, Giles explains that: "This world is older than any of you know, and contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth, made it their home, their Hell. In time, they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for mortal animals. For Man. What remains of the Old Ones are vestiges: certain magicks, certain creatures… The books tell that the last demon to leave this reality fed off a human, mixed their blood. He was a human form possessed - infected - by the demon's soul. He bit another and another.. and so they walk the Earth, feeding. Killing some, mixing their blood with others to make more of their kind. Waiting for the animals to die out and the Old Ones to return." (quot. in Christopher Golden - Nancy Holder, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Watcher's Guide, New York and London: Pocket Books, 1998, 126).

But is "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" really aimed at teaching a "soteriology" alternative to Evangelical Christianity? I do not believe that such is the case. Writing on February 11, 1999, on the daily newspaper of the Italian Catholic Bishops Conference, "Avvenire", on "Buffy"'s success in the U.S. and Europe, while noting the alternative offered to the "popular mythology" of the Christian creation narrative, I suggested that this is not the key point for "Buffy"'s growing audience. Teenagers and parents alike are much more likely to focus on the characters and to get the symbolic value of the "occult" episodes as metaphors of very real teenage problems. While, to these problems, "Buffy" offers no cheap solutions (the monsters, after three seasons, are still there), most of the moral lessons the series teaches are inherently valuable and sound. (My article from "Avvenire", "Buffy l'ammazzavampiri", is available on the Web site of the Italian Catholic charismatic organization "Una Voce grida…!".)

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