Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always a delight for monster fans, with its parade of not just vamps, but werewolves, demons, mummies, ghosts, zombies… something for every monster lover. But every couple of years the writers decided to take advantage of Halloween to have a little extra fun. Here’s a brief rundown of Buffy’s biennial Halloween tricks and treats.
Halloween (Season 2, Episode 6, original airdate October 27, 1997)
Director: Bruce Seth Green
Writer: Carl Ellsworth
Guest Starring: Seth Green, James Marsters, Robin Sachs, Juliet Landau, Armin Shimerman
For many fans, season 2 represents the pinnacle of Buffy’s run. At this stage, the stories felt fresh and accessible; the characters were evolving organically; the emotional stakes were high; the mix of tones (comedy, drama, horror) was just right; and the show was still being shot on 16mm, giving it a grungy, indie look (DP Michael Gershman was allowing a lot of black in the frame in this era, and it has a grainy, textured quality that sings 70s grindhouse). This was a show that had found its footing and was ready to play.
In Halloween, Ethan Rayne – an old acquaintance of Buffy’s watcher, Giles – arrives in Sunnydale and opens a costume shop. On Halloween night, when everyone is out on the town in their costumes, Ethan calls on Janus, a Roman god of beginnings and transitions, to transform everyone wearing his products into whatever they’re disguised as; as a result, the town is flooded with monsters (ironic, as the show has declared that Halloween is a night that real monsters usually take off).
Several of our heroes have obtained their costumes from Rayne, which proves beneficial in some cases, detrimental in others. The usually somewhat ineffectual Xander has become a trained soldier, for example, whereas Buffy has been reduced to a helpless old-world noblewoman. This all contributes to the episode’s focus on duality, as its biggest revelations have to do with the stuffy Giles’s dark, rebellious youth.
Striking terror in the hearts of monsters everywhere…?
This is very much one of Buffy’s lighter, more comedic episodes. A lot of humor comes from the contrast between who these characters normally are and who they become on Halloween, and the perspective that their new identities provide on just what a bizarre world the show has started treating as “normal.” And recently-introduced snarky, punk badass vampire Spike is on hand to serve as a kind of audience surrogate (a role for which he proved surprisingly suitable in the seasons to follow), at one point taking in the chaos around him and declaring, “Well, this is just… neat.”
It’s not one of Buffy’s greatest episodes, but it is, indeed, neat.
No, Spike, you’re the one who’s just… neat!
Fear, Itself (Season 4, Episode 4, original airdate October 26, 1999)
Director: Tucker Gates
Writer: David Fury
Guest Starring: Kristine Sutherland, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Adam Kaufman, Lindsay Crouse
After the emotional highs of season 2 and the confident refinement of season 3, Buffy’s 4th season feels a little unfocused, struggling to find a new path. This makes sense, as the end of high school had stripped the show of its most basic central metaphor (high school is hell); it’s also somewhat fitting, as the characters themselves – like so many Americans walking the line between youth and adulthood – are trying to figure out where their lives are headed. It is not a popular season among fans (despite its including Hush, one of the most beloved episodes ever produced), but I must admit, it’s a period I really enjoy.
While Fear, Itself, the show’s second foray into playful Halloween territory, is not an especially groundbreaking or memorable episode, it’s a fun little diversion with some decent insight into where the main characters are in their lives.
This time out, the gang – most of whom are now enrolled at the fictional U.C. Sunnydale – are celebrating Halloween by attending a haunted house hosted by one of the on-campus fraternities. Little do they know, one of the frat members has mistakenly decorated one room with a symbol that summons a fear demon called Gachnar. As they navigate the spooked-up frat house, they find that their fears are being made real. Xander, the one member of the core group who hasn’t enrolled in college, becomes invisible to his friends, as he feels that they no longer value his presence; Oz, a werewolf, loses his ability to control the beast within; Willow, who has been studying witchcraft, finds herself unable to control her powers; and Buffy – whose arc throughout the entire series is about balancing her role as the Slayer with living a rich and personally satisfying life – finds that no matter how much she fights, her destiny keeps dragging her back to the same place – she is literally unable to move on.
Offering good character work, some nicely creepy moments, and a cute twist at the end, Fear, Itself is a solid episode from perhaps the show’s most underrated era.
My deepest fears given life…
All the Way (Season 6, Episode 6, original airdate October 30, 2001)
Director: David Solomon
Writer: Steven S. DeKnight
Guest Starring: John O’Leary, Kavan Reece, Amber Tamblyn, Dave Power, Amber Benson
Season 6 could be called Buffy’s “after school special” season (a substantial portion could pretty much be summed up by South Park’s Mr. Mackey declaring, “Magic is bad, mmmkay; you shouldn’t do magic”). The third Halloween-themed episode, All the Way, definitely maintains that tone, but also has a back-to-basics element; at a point when the show had become a bit of a convoluted supernatural soap opera, this episode revisits the classic “high school is hell” approach, and gives us good old-fashioned vampires as the antagonists.
The episode finds Dawn (Buffy’s high-school-aged younger sister, now entirely in Buffy’s care), and a friend going out on the town on Halloween night with a couple of boys who are looking to cause mischief and, it seems, maybe push the girls into – as the title suggests – “going all the way.” But, as it turns out, these boys are looking for something a little different; they are vampires, and Dawn is being pressured to give up not her virginity, but her blood.
After previous seasons used the Halloween episodes as an opportunity to engage in some manic fun, All the Way takes the opposite approach, giving viewers one of the most pared-down, grounded episodes they’d seen in a while. The result is a welcome change, something that feels more like classic Buffy than most of the stories that surround it, even if its central metaphor is a little too on-the-nose (even for a show that never bothered to mask its metaphors much in the first place). It also includes a few moments of effective tension; the previous Halloween episodes were more focused on the silly than the scary, but this includes a “don’t take candy from strangers” subplot that can actually get under your skin a little.
The golden age of Buffy was long past by October of 2001, but, as the writers tried new ways to keep the show fresh, a bit of nostalgia for the earlier seasons was a nice change of pace.
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