Grimm fairy tales, as told by Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Feature Juliette Harrisson 27 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Buffy used almost as many fairy tale tropes as horror movies ones. Juliette compares Buffy's versions with the original Grimm tales...

Buffy the Vampire Slayer has its roots in horror, but horror has its roots in fairy tales – witches, (were)wolves and skin-changers all prowl the French and German folk tales collected by the Brothers Grimm. It’s not surprising, then, that Buffy occasionally drew on fairy tales in creating its monsters and its spells.

There’s a big difference between horror and fairy tales, though. While both have a tendency to favour virginal young women in lead roles, they have very different parts to play in the story. In fairy tales, the beautiful young woman is frequently a damsel in distress, requiring rescue by a handsome prince. In some cases the young woman will have performed some act of kindness that works out well for her, but for the most part Grimms' heroines sit around in rooms full of straw, up towers, in glass coffins, in castles where they chat every day to the decapitated head of their talking horse,* and so on, waiting for a prince to notice that they’re really a princess, or a helpful messenger to bring them the imp’s true name, or someone to jolt the coffin so they wake up (true love is sometimes involved, but true love’s kiss is Disney’s obsession).

Thanks to popular slasher movies, the virginal heroine’s role in horror is rather different. Horror heroines are much more likely to be the Final Girl, the sole survivor of some kind of massacre that kills off the rest of the cast one by one. By definition, the Final Girl cannot wait around for a prince to rescue her; with everyone else dead, she has to rescue herself (though there are variations, in which the cavalry arrives just in time to save her). Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes this increasing female empowerment one step further by endowing the blonde girl who usually gets killed early on in the horror movie with superpowers and allowing her to fight back, keeping many more of the cast alive.

All this female empowerment doesn’t always sit too well with stories of helpless princesses. Some early episodes like The Witch and Teacher’s Pet have a fairy tale vibe, but Halloween undercuts the idea of the princess by demonstrating how useless the pink-swathed elegant young lady Buffy turns into is in a crisis, and as the show progresses, Willow (who would surely have been the Final Girl in a more conventional horror) becomes a powerful witch, and one usually (with one notable exception) on the side of our heroes, not trying to cook and eat them.

Still, Buffy did occasionally go back to fairy tales in various ways, mining them for themes, villains and loose plot structures. As with horror tropes, Buffy often re-visited fairy tales in order to subvert them, Angel telling Buffy outright in Reptile Boy that ‘this isn’t some fairy tale’. These five episodes all draw on fairy tales in different and distinctive ways, to varying degrees of success.

 

Killed by Death

The fairy tale: Killed by Death deals with fairy tale themes surrounding endangered children stalked by monsters rather than a specific fairy tale.

The Buffy version: Hospitalised for flu, Buffy discovers a demon that absorbs the life force of sick children and that killed her cousin when they were young. She kills him.

How far into Fairyland are we? Endangered children is a common theme in fairy tales, and the German name Der Kindestod is clearly intended to invoke Grimms’ fairy tales, though the monster design is more a cross between V for Vendetta and Freddy Kreuger from A Nightmare on Elm Street.

And they all lived happily ever after: Buffy’s first overt exploration of fairy tale stories is a fairly thin story, though it has an impressively creepy villain. It’s interesting, though, that this story heavily features Xander, the prince who brought Buffy back from death with a kiss when the monster Angel couldn’t help her back in Prophecy Girl, acting as guard and saviour for Buffy again. He guards her from the monster Angelus, who is busy trying to kill them all, and although Buffy kills the demon, she has to be ill to do so, and Xander helps her back to bed afterwards.

 

Beauty and the Beasts

The fairy tale: Although not included in the Brothers Grimm’s collection, this French fairy tale follows a similar pattern. Belle (Beauty) must live with the Beast in his castle to atone for her father trying to steal a rose. She leaves for a family visit and when she’s late back, she sees the Beast nearly dead from heartbreak in her magic mirror. She goes back and weeps over him and says she loves him, and he turns into a handsome prince, and they live happily ever after.

The Buffy version: Buffy’s new boyfriend Scott’s best friend Pete is taking something which turns him into a monster, and he is abusing his girlfriend Debbie. Pete kills Debbie and attacks Buffy, but she’s rescued by Angel, who has just come back from a hell dimension and is animalistic and traumatised.

How far into Fairyland are we? The title of the episode seems designed rather crudely to differentiate between beautiful, vulnerable women and men, who Faith tells Buffy firmly are "all beasts." The story explores the ‘beast’ sides of Oz, Angel and Pete; Oz is horrified when he thinks he’s attacked someone, Angel is aggressive until confronted by Buffy, and Pete is pretty much a monster through and through.

The fairy tale is used as a metaphor for Pete and Debbie’s relationship, as Debbie is unable to leave her ‘beast’ (just as Belle is imprisoned by the Beast) but concludes that in Pete’s case there is no handsome prince underneath the outer monster. The message is a bit muddled though, as Buffy and Angel’s reunion replays the fairy tale more conventionally; Angel arrives as ‘beast’ (in full vamp face) but as he says his first word since his return – "Buffy" – and embraces her, he regains his human face and becomes her handsome prince again.

And they all lived happily ever after: This is one of very few episodes in which Buffy has to be rescued by a love interest, putting her in the role of damsel in distress. Perhaps she could have fought Pete off alone if Angel hadn’t happened to turn up, but it does seem a bit convenient that she suddenly has so much trouble with him, just in time for Angel to leap in and save her.

 

Gingerbread

The fairy tale: Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. They eat bits of a gingerbread house and are captured by the witch inside who wants to cook them in her oven and eat them. Gretel shoves the witch in the oven instead and they escape.

The Buffy version: Hansel and Gretel are a demon who pretends to be children murdered by witches in order to spark off a witch-hunt (it was responsible for the Salem witch trials). Buffy, Willow and Amy are nearly burned at the stake as witches by Buffy and Willow’s mothers, but Amy turns herself into a rat, while Giles turns the demon into its true, beast-like form and Buffy kills it with her stake. The one that she’s tied to, that is, not Mr Pointy.

How far into Fairyland are we? This is a much more Buffy-like subversion of the fairy tale, in which the children are the bad guy and the witches are the good guys. Between book-burning, locker searches and references to the Salem witch trials, the episode is chiefly concerned with criticising the scapegoating of minorities rather than any themes from Hansel and Gretel, and in fact bears less resemblance to the original in terms of plot than Beauty and the Beasts does.

It also seems ironic that for once Gretel is the active heroine of this story, but in Buffy she is demonised and absorbed into her brother as one creature.

And they all lived happily ever after: Here we see a pretty strong riposte to Buffy needing to be rescued by Angel in Beauty and the Beasts, as Xander and Oz fall through the ceiling after everything has been resolved explaining they’ve come to rescue the girls. It’s a good bonding experience for them, though. Buffy does need Giles's help to break the spell, but overall this is about the persecuted witches fighting back and winning without needing the help of their princes.

 

Fear, Itself

The fairy tale: Little Red Riding Hood walks through the woods to visit her grandmother, but she leaves the path at the suggestion of a wolf, which later eats both of them. In some versions, including the Brothers Grimm’s, a hunter or woodsman cuts open the wolf and they both pop out again, unharmed. There’s also a Grimm fairy tale about a young boy who tries to find out what fear is, but is afraid of nothing.

The Buffy version: Upset at having been used and abandoned by Parker, Buffy dresses as Little Red Riding Hood for Halloween. Once inside the demon-haunted house, her fear that her friends will abandon her results in her wandering around the house alone, lost.

How far into Fairyland are we? This is the second time that Buffy has chosen a fairy-tale-like costume for Halloween, but whereas her historical season two costume was about trying to prove how sophisticated she was to Angel, this costume reflects her desire to return to childhood, having found adulthood to be wanting.

One of the ironies of Buffy as a show is that it was supposed to subvert horror clichés, but over the course of the first three seasons Buffy is, in fact, punished for having sex just like her blonde slasher-victim forerunners. Early in season 4 she has sex for only the second time and once again finds herself abandoned (though at least Parker has no interest in murdering her or her friends). Her choice of a costume she had literally worn as a child and that’s been altered by her mother reflects her desire to go back to childhood and her feeling of being a little girl lost in the woods, pursued by wolves who want to eat her and destroy her ("all men are beasts", again). Once she finds herself wandering alone, lost, in the house, she comes even closer to re-enacting the fairy tale.

And they all lived happily ever after: Luckily, all our heroes are able to overcome their fear and defeat the demon, which turns out to be not nearly as impressive as it was trying to make out. If this had represented Buffy over-coming her fear of the wolves and moving forward, it might have worked rather well.

Unfortunately the next episode is Beer Bad, in which she is still moping over the irritating Parker. But at least this story has a nice theme about overcoming fear together.

 

Hush

The fairy tale: Like Killed by Death, Hush references fairy tales without being based on any specific story. The reference to a ‘princess’ is the strongest fairy tale feature of the episode.

The Buffy version: The Gentlemen steal everyone’s voices so they can cut out and steal seven hearts without anyone hearing the screaming. They can only be stopped by a human voice; Riley smashes the box in which they’ve been storing everyone’s voices and Buffy screams, killing them.

How far into Fairyland are we? Giles calls The Gentlemen fairy tale monsters, but they aren’t from a real fairy tale. The plot itself seems to have been ripped straight out of the familiar nightmare in which the dreamer is in danger and tries to scream but no sound comes out, but it fits with the fairy tale theme; many folk tales about demons that attack at night, for example, are probably inspired by the condition of sleep paralysis.

The main point of Hush is to take away everyone’s voices, and while Whedon could have used a magic spell to affect the whole town (as in Halloween, Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered or Band Candy) the reference to fairy tales gives the episode a surreal vibe and makes The Gentlemen especially frightening. The Gentlemen are probably Buffy’s scariest monsters for their design, movements and modus operandi alone, but making them fairy tale villains also makes them a terrifyingly chaotic evil, not summoned by anyone (as in Halloween or Once More With Feeling) but monsters who just turn up and take your heart with no prompting. It’s interesting that Buffy saves the day by enacting a horror cliché she very rarely uses, becoming the screaming victim in order to defeat the monsters.

And they all lived happily ever after: One of Hush’s major themes is that verbal communication is actually acting as a barrier to the relationships on the show, represented literally through Tara’s stammer. Without speech, the couples that will come together over the next two seasons are able to communicate more effectively through actions. Buffy plays the part of the princess while Riley actually smashes the box, but it’s clear that they are working in a partnership rather than one rescuing the other, a theme also played out in Willow and Tara joining hands to save themselves with magic. Xander once again tries to play the prince, attacking Spike to avenge Anya, only to discover his heroics are unnecessary.

Hush marks a determination to move on from fairy tales into a world where the story of the damsel in distress can be left behind, and where it doesn’t have to be subverted by the princess rescuing the prince, but by the more satisfying twist in which both rescue each other.

*The decapitated talking horse is from The Goose Girl. The Ladybird Well Loved Tales version left that part out.

Grimm season 3 starts on Wednesday the 5th of February at 9pm on WATCH in the UK (Sky TV 109 & Virgin TV 124).

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Fascinating work, The Gentleman did always strike me as being fairytale villains in terms of how unknown they are. We never find out why they want those hearts after all. The 'Buffy being punished for sex' thing always struck me as odd for a show about female empowerment but there you go. In retrospect, considering Faith being evil and being the sexually liberated one, it does become a bit dodgy.

Also, for the record, I am not one of The Gentlemen. They're my cousins and, to be honest, I try to avoid them at family gatherings. They creep me out, and never have any good stories to tell. I know they can't speak but they could make an effort, y'know?

I think a better example of the Red Riding Hood story is the season 3 episode "Helpless" where Buffy is unknowingly drugged by Giles (acting on orders from the Watchers Council) to take away her Slayer Powers so she can be maneuvered into fighting a vampire and being forced to kill him with cunning rather than superhuman strength. In this episode, the vampire villain attacks a helpless (see what the writers did there?) Buffy while she is walking home wearing a red hooded coat and though she gets away the Vampire manages to hang onto her coat. He then lures Buffys mother out of her house by wearing the coat and pretending to be an injured Buffy and kidnaps her to force Buffy to come and face him. In the final confrontation he refers to the bag of weapons she brings with her as "treats for Grandmother". The Red Riding Hood metaphors are so prevalent in this episode they are referred to by the writer in the DVD commentary and were independently picked up and used by the director (Buffy wasn't originally written as wearing a red coat, for example).

Definitely a better example!

I know what you mean, but in Whedon's defence, in the commentary to What's My Line?, he does address that point directly. His intention wasn't to repeat the 'punished for pre-marital sex' thing that horror films are known for, but as Buffy was a show about the horrors of growing up taken literally, instead of "my boyfriend and I had sex for the first time and now he won't return my calls," it's "my boyfriend and I had sex for the first time and now he's eating hookers in alleys."
You could read Tara's exit as an indictment on her and Willow's sexuality, but really, I think Buffy was simply a show where something bad happened to everyone, all the time.

That does strike me as being the likeliest explanation for the reasoning behind it, it just can be read in a way which is a little unfortunate. I don't think that was the intention though. You're completely right about 'bad stuff happening to everyone' I think that's the explanation behind most things which could have been read as whatever-ist in Whedons work.

Great list Juliette! Lots of fun revisiting those but seeing them through another lens. :)

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