York librarian bitten by Buffy-bug

One would expect to find Scott McLaren (right), York University’s Humanities and Religious Studies librarian, knee-deep in classical literature or poring over a stack of religious texts. And while he does just that, McLaren also is one of a growing number of scholars to embrace an academic discipline which focuses on the popular television show, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”.

Created by American screenwriter Joss Whedon, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ran on network television from 1997 to 2003 and is now in reruns on networks around the world. The show was lauded for its script and the layering of existentialist and supernatural perspectives; feminist themes related to girl power; vampire folklore; and its social commentary. The show’s final episode aired in the spring of 2003 and an equally popular offshoot production, titled “Angel”, was developed around a central “Buffy” character.

“Buffy” has inspired numerous academic books and essays and spawned a number of peer-reviewed academic journals. Six North American universities now offer courses dedicated to the television show and an academic discipline known as Buffy Studies, which emerged in the late 1990s, plays a vibrant role in current studies of pop culture.

Right: Two central characters in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, from left, Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and the vampire Angel (David Boreanaz)

As a researcher, McLaren has focused his scholarly inquiries on the works of fantasy authors Charles Williams and George MacDonald and the sacramental view of reality. Intrigued by similar concepts and what he had heard about “Buffy”, McLaren rented a DVD, watched the show and was “bitten” by the Buffy bug. Keenly interested in the representation of religious themes in 19th and early 20th century literature, McLaren found the nuances contained in “Buffy” fascinating. The result is his article titled, “The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul”, in the latest issue of the academic journal Slayage (Number 18).

“It was quite fun to do,” said McLaren. “I wanted to look at how the show was dealing with the concept of the soul. I decided to write an article for Slayage, an online academic journal that is totally devoted to “Buffy”. Many of the journal’s previous articles focused on the sociological side of the series and examine how the show addressed issues such as gender, socialization and crime. There were far fewer articles on the religious dimensions contained in the show.

“While watching the series, I thought about vampire folklore and the nature of the vampire character known as Angel on ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. While the other vampires on the show are souless. Angel is unique at the series outset because he had a soul and feels enormous guilt for the horrendous crimes he committed before he regained his soul as a vampire. He seeks redemption and falls in love with Buffy. I wondered what Whedon was saying about the human soul and the concept of conscience,” explained McLaren.

He observed that Whedon allowed the character Angel to make choices that were morally sound. McLaren found that Whedon seemed to be portraying the soul in an ontological sense and he wondered how the series’ creator, given the script’s adherence to vampire folklore and its emphasis on existentialism, could effectively weave a soulful vampire into the show. This became the core of his article.

“While writers of modern vampire tales frequently discard many elements of traditional folklore for the purposes of their narratives, Joss Whedon has shown a remarkably consistent reluctance to follow a similar course in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Angel’,” writes McLaren in Slayage. “Some critics have suggested, however, that Whedon’s particular use and adaptation of vampire folklore results in an irreconcilable contradiction between two distinct but simultaneously held concepts of the soul.”

Left: The vampire side of Angel

McLaren states that Whedon, who is an existentialist with Sartrean leanings, is able to maintain divergent aspects of the soul in his vampire characters, and instead of detracting from the show’s appeal, Whedon’s modifications add significant dimension to the character development. Through the course of his article, McLaren effectively tracks the development of mankind’s concept of what a soul is by tracing that development through primitive religious and mythopoeic texts such as the Sanskrit Rig Veda, the Sumerian Descent of Inanna into Hell and Homer’s Iliad. He charts the battle to understand the elusive concept through Aristotle and Plato and then contrasts the evolution of soul with vampire folklore and more specifically, Whedon’s modern take on the vampire in “Buffy”.

“Folklore says that when a vampire is created, a souless demon takes over the human host and the host’s soul disappears. Whedon’s vampire Angel is a vampire that feels remorse. Why does he feel remorse? What is the relationship between the soul, human identity, and one’s ability to make good moral choices?” said McLaren, who abbreviates the show to BTVS. “When Angel got his soul back, did he get his identity, or just his conscience back? I found the two ways of seeing the soul in BTVS intriguing and partially incompatible with each other. Yet by approaching it this way Whedon keeps the whole concept mysterious and compelling.”

McLaren’s comprehensive piece provides answers to these and many other questions. He provides an indepth analysis of the underlying themes of the show and the intriguing concept of soulful vampires. It can be viewed by clicking here.

More about Scott McLaren

The Humanities and Religious Studies librarian at York University, McLaren also teaches in the Centre for Academic Writing in York’s Professional Writing Program. He is also a part-time PhD student in the University of Toronto’s Book History/Print Culture Program based at Massey College. Mclaren’s research interests centre around the production, dissemination, and reception of religious texts (including sermons, bibles, liturgical texts, catechisms, hagiography, and hymnals) in the region variously known as Upper Canada (1791), Canada West (1840) and Ontario (1867).