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Buffy The Vampire Slayer

"I’d Very Still": Anthropology of a Lapsed Buffy Fan

Monday 18 April 2011, by Webmaster

Some things never die. For anyone who loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer, first on that list might be vampires. For true-blue fans of any stripe, it may be the love of a fictional person, place or thing. And even for the rest of the population, the category includes “things you said on the Internet.”

Case in point: On November 7, 1999, I joined an e-mail list. It was a place for rabid fans of Oz, the werewolf played by Seth Green, to commiserate during his absence from Buffy. That list wasn’t my first online Buffy hub, but it was the one to which I was most devoted and it remains first in my memory. Anyone who watched the show knows that Oz’s absence became permanent—as did the mailing list; as did the community it formed; as did the virtual record of my adolescent identity: “I’m new and stuff, so here’s me introducing myself. I’m Lily.”

Other things do change. If not death, there’s shrinking or aging or moving on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off the air in 2003. Not long after, I stopped checking the e-mail account that went with that mailing list. I now go days and often weeks without a thought of slayage, although a scone, official pastry of Gileses everywhere, can be to me as Proust’s madeleine. And when that occurs, I wonder what happened to my fan family, and why I left them. Even more, I wonder how any fan community can survive for so long without the original object of its devotion.

Buffy fans are still out there, indisputably. Controversial plans for a non-Whedon Buffy movie were recently announced, and the 40th and last issue of the Season Eight series of the eponymous comic—which began production near the start of the show’s third season—came out in January. I haven’t bought one since 2007, but industry data consistently ranks Buffy among the best-selling independent comics out there; Season Nine is in the works. It was something about hearing that news that got me combing through the archives of that old mailing list. Among the flotsam of fandom, there were gripping reminders of what life had been like when the show was still on, the way we cared so much about actors and episodes and one another, and of what could have been if I hadn’t let it go. Suddenly, I was 14 again, up too late on a school night, glued to the mid-‘90s-model Power Macintosh in my family’s living room, unable to make myself log off.

I had missed that.

So, in the interest of investigation, I let the nostalgia take over for a while.

“You need a thing, one thing nobody else has. What do I have?”
“An exciting new obsession. Which I feel makes you very special.”
—Xander and Oz, “The Zeppo” (Buffy 3.13)

While I confess that I stopped buying Buffy comics, I may as well come clean that I didn’t start watching right from the first episode.

It was January 19, 1998. Halfway through its second season, the show moved from Mondays to Tuesdays; the romantic Buffy/Angel developments advertised in the commercials for the episodes that covered the switch, “Surprise” and “Innocence,” were enough to get my friends who watched to tell me it would be worth checking out.

The battles! The baddies! The banter! I was hooked. I watched the next night and every week after for five years. Almost right away, I began compiling the collection of VHS recordings that still sit, meticulously labeled, in a box somewhere in my parents’ basement. Before long, I was waking unsure whether my memories of what had happened on last week’s episode were canon or my dreams. I even let myself be the anecdotal lead in a New York Times article about teenage television habits—a mention I’ve long tried in vain to get to sink in my personal Google hits.

And it turned out that “Surprise” was a serendipitous place to start. There, in the first few minutes of the episode, was Oz. He was sitting on the bleachers, strumming a guitar, and sweetly asking Buffy’s friend Willow on a date. He had me at “Hey.” More importantly, not starting at the beginning meant I had to catch up. I probably would have eventually done some sort of Buffy-related HotBotting anyway, but needing rerun schedules got me there faster. I had no idea what I would find, no concept of the world I could access via my AOL account, no clue that I wouldn’t need reruns because other fans would gladly splice together a few of their own bootleg tapes and mail them to me.

Louisa Stein, a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College who is an expert in fandom, says my experience is now common. She told me that the Internet has meant that being a fan has become “much more visible, and much less of a cult identity and more of a mode of mainstream engagement with media.” In some ways, the Internet is just a quick and dirty shortcut—the comedian Patton Oswalt wrote a piece in the December 2010 issue of Wired magazine lamenting the ease with which anyone can quickly acquire fan-level knowledge of obscure bits of pop culture, claiming that the Internet has effectively destroyed geekdom—but, for better or worse, what Stein calls the “immense infrastructure of fandom” is readily accessible online. And it was, for me, a revelation. It wasn’t long before I too was proficient with a pair of VCRs and a set of A/V cables.

By the end of the season, I more than knew my way around the online Buffy landscape, particularly the smaller Oz-centric community. I had overcome the nerves and embarrassment, the feeling that lurking on forums and mailing lists was somehow more respectable than getting involved, and I was talking about more than schedules and tapes. Which pop song of 1998 most applied to Willow’s plot arc in the episode “Amends” (3.10) We may never have an answer, but I’m sure I used all my high school debate team skills to fight for Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be.” The more I talked to those people—friends whose real names I didn’t need to know, as long as they were willing to comb through the finer details of Buffy plots and characters—the more I wanted to watch carefully enough to contribute to the conversation. The more carefully I watched, the more I wanted to discuss it, and the time-consuming and passion-provoking spiral of fandom had begun.

“Well, we don’t have cable, so we have to make our own fun.”
—Willow, “Innocence” (2.14)

From a very young age, if I had known to look, I could have found evidence that I was destined to be a fan. I was able to remember exact lines from my favorite movies on the first go-round, I had always felt strongly about reading long series of books consecutively and in order, and, at a Scholastic book fair, probably sometime in 1995, I purchased a Saved by the Bell novel. But, even though that book, the epic Kelly’s Hero, should have been a clue that there were others out there, I was a fan of Saved by the Bell casually, happily, and alone.

Professor Stein acknowledges that personal engagement can be the defining aspect of some fans’ relationship with their subject of choice—but, while she says that the definition of fandom is a debate among academics in the field, it’s hard to be a fan by oneself. “It’s very much about community authorship and shared values among these communities,” she explains.

And those communities are a good thing. I learned the hard way that wanting to discuss the relationships of fictional characters with your friends who don’t care is a good way to get the subject changed. Or, worse, to become that girl who always talks about Buffy.

(Years later, long after I had learned to bite my tongue, I stumbled across Nick Hornby’s introduction to Fever Pitch, his memoir of soccer-fandom. In it, he describes being asked the age-old lovers’ question of what he’s thinking about, and the lies he provides in response. “If we told the truth every time,” he writes, “then we would be unable to maintain relationships with anyone from the real world.” This passage spoke to my heart.)

Whenever someone was unusually quiet on the mailing list, the inevitable reason was given as “real life,” but the lines often blurred. The folks online were my release valve, a way to avoid talking about the Hellmouth the rest of the time. And as often happens when you tell people the truth, they become your friends.

“Buffy told me that sometimes what a girl makes has to be the first move.”
—Willow, “Phases” (2.15)

When Oz left for good in Season Four, our friendships peaked. We turned to each other in consolation and cautious hope, each of us crying in front of our consoles after the credits rolled. We held on through the end of the show, and then another year, and another. But at some point, it stopped. The core group made an effort to stay in touch, but lag time between messages grew. That was that.

Yet I didn’t forget their personalities or their usernames. When I decided to find out what had happened to those friends, some of the e-mail addresses were readily accessible in my mind; others, especially some grand dames of that world with whom I had not had personal friendships, required combing through the Angelfire fossils of our fandom. I put together a brief paragraph introducing myself with both my old AOL handle and, in one sentence that revealed more about my non-fan life than I had told most of them in the course of years of regular conversation, my real identity. I asked them to get back to me. I waited.

The bounce-backs were immediate. I had barely hit send on my missive to that old crew, and already I was being told my friends no longer existed.

But not Karen. It had been Karen who had started that mailing list in 1999, bringing us all together after Oz left the show, transforming the erstwhile devotees of the werewolf into a new community. We were OzMIAns, after the “Oz: Missing In Action” website she had started. I had known more about her than about many of the other fans, and we had instant-messaged and e-mailed about non-Buffy topics. I didn’t know if she still checked her old AOL e-mail address, and the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get in touch with her anymore made me sadder than I had thought it would.

My patience paid off: she did check that inbox, and she read my note. She wrote back, and she wanted to talk. A few days later, for the first time in the ten years I have known her, I called Karen on the phone. I never really thought she was a robot or an old man, but you never know online.

“I bet you have a lot of groupies.”
—Willow, “Surprise” (2.13)

I never really thought she was a robot or an old man, but you never know online. I can now confirm that Karen Kalbacher, of Philadelphia, is a 33-year-old human woman.

This makes her, like me, more or less a prototypical fan of our species. In his 1992 book Textual Poachers, one of the seminal works of fan academia, media expert Henry Jenkins identifies the characteristics of those who inhabit the world of “media fandom,” the category that encompasses television shows and movies: we are, according to him, “largely female, largely white, [and] largely middle class.”

Which is not to say that there’s a fan gene. “I don’t know that I’d say that there’s something essential in people that means they’ll become a hardcore fan,” Middlebury’s Professor Stein explains. “Rather, there are people who discover the pleasures of fandom and then want more of it.” And, she adds, because the Internet has normalized many fan behaviors, fan characteristics have also changed. Now media fans are, largely, anyone with a television and a computer.

But, while tweeting something about your favorite show may count as fan-type interaction, there’s a missing part to that equation. A television habit and an Internet connection do not a Karen make. Karen told me that, at the height of her devotion to Buffy and Oz, she was spending about 20 hours a week on the topic. Those hours were mostly production, not consumption. She wasn’t just watching and discussing, she was designing a website and writing fan-fiction and forming a community. Karen was good at being a fan.

A few days after speaking with her, I began to get responses from other OzMIAns. I found that all were long-time media junkies, all with the magic capacity for obsession. Jaime Vaughn, 29, of Cincinnati, summed it up nicely: “I fall in love with different [shows] very easily.”

Those conversations confirmed that we were all good at whatever it takes to be a fan. They also reminded me of the fan’s joy of shared passion, the recognition of a little of yourself in someone else. We shared a love of television and capacity for imagination, and we were serial monogamists, whether we fell in with Buffy after seeing Sarah Michelle Gellar on All My Children or turned to Dollhouse later because we knew and loved Whedon. I know there are people out there who watch the same television shows every week but leave those worlds behind when the TV goes off. For them, in the 167 hours between the end of an episode and next week’s beginning, the storyline is frozen. I have often wondered what that’s like. For us, head over heels, the story never stops.

“My whole life, I’ve never loved anything else.”
—Oz, “Wild at Heart” (4.6)

And there was something special about Sunnydale, at least for us. Despite a diverse slate of previous and subsequent obsessions, Buffy was the one that stuck. When I asked the women with whom I used to discuss the show, that sentiment was nearly unanimous. (There’s one who prefers Doctor Who.) It’s a self-selecting group, but a testament to the power of the Chosen One—and Whedon.

“I’m very much a square peg, so television was the best way to be out of that,” said Karen. “Nothing hit me as as much fun as Buffy.”

“There’s no question,” said Danielle DeLucia, a 36-year-old former OzMIAn who lives in Massachusetts. “A couple other shows I really enjoyed, and if I can catch reruns I still watch…but Buffy was my favorite.”

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer definitely and absolutely has a special place in my heart, you know?” said Jaime, the television inamorata. “Even this long after it ended.”

I do know, clearly. There was something there, instantly visible to those with the potential for fandom, something that made that first night in 1998 imprint itself on my memory the way big life moments have the tendency to do. I remember so well my classroom and the face of my friend when we discussed it the next day. I remember the couch my parents used to have. I remember the light in the room.

There’s some method to our madness. Stein believes that media that attract big fan bases share a few key elements, and Buffy has them in spades: “One thing is an expansive universe or an expansive storyworld, the characters that inhabit it, and multiple entry-points and ways that people can invest…which Buffy absolutely has. You’ve got these archetypal characters and then you’ve got the expansive storyworld of the high school coming together with larger mythology.”

Matt Hills, media scholar and author of Fan Cultures, adds that “extended narrative worlds that fans can imagine inhabiting” and “a structuring mystery or story-arc ‘mythos’” can grab followers, as can links to established favorites (like Joss Whedon). But even they are never a guarantee. Much as I asked, he is adamant that there’s never one reason a show succeeds with fans.

Maybe it’s enough to know it when you see it. “The thing about Buffy for me,” concluded Danielle, “was that it was the right place, the right time, the right show.”

“I miss you. Like, every second. Almost like I lost an arm, or worse, a torso.”
—Oz, “Amends” (3.10)

I asked Karen whether she misses Buffy. She paused. “I miss what they had in the beginning,” she said, referring to the time before Oz left the show. “I made some really great friends during that era, and I miss being in contact with them all the time.” She’s friends with some of them on Facebook, having graduated from Yahoo! Groups. It’s strange to hear their names said out loud after all this time. (“I don’t think you realize this,” she told me, “but you live in a kind of Oz-centric area; a lot of our list members are probably in your neighborhood.”)

Just as the community was responsible for the depth of Karen’s devotion to the show, she cites other fans as the main source of her frustration with the second half of the show’s run. It’s bad enough when a favorite character leaves a show, but Karen remembers that many of her friendships in the non-Oz fan world quickly soured as well. For mourning his loss, something that went hand-in-hand with Willow’s decision to date Tara, a character much loved in the rest of the fandom, she was called a homophobe. Samantha Warner, who is a friend of Karen’s from well before Buffy hit the screen, said that her own experiences on that front had been enough to turn her off the show forever. (She’s the Doctor Who devotee.)

Even within the Oz fandom, the community was to blame for our own falling apart. Karen described how OzMIA faded away within two years of the show going off the air. She tried to keep it going, but responses dwindled. I was among the guilty parties. She hasn’t worked on the website for more than a year. Yes, it was sad. It felt inevitable. “People just stopped answering,” she told me. “We ran out of things to talk about.”

“I feel like some part of me will always be waiting for you.”—Willow, “New Moon Rising” (4.19)

But I was right: moving on was normal. “People who want to maintain a sort of fan identity usually shift from one primary fandom to another when the source text is no longer new,” Professor Stein confirms. “There are various ways to keep it feeling present, but at the same time they’re also likely participating in other fandoms of shows that are on the air.”

I did that, lurking on some Alias sites and falling for the wrong fictional guy with Charlie on Lost, but I also gave up some of my fan identity, and I’m okay with that. Being a real fan never interfered with my life, but it was incredibly time-consuming.

I wasn’t the only one. “I had a lot more time on my hands then,” said Karen. “I would be surprised if it happened again.”

“My life changed after that,” agreed Danielle.

Then again, both said they keep coming back to Buffy. Reruns, DVDs, daydreams—there’s always the chance. It seems impossible to ever have enough time to be as active in any fandom as I once was in the Buffyverse, but maybe the real truth is just that nothing has ever been as good.

And, after all, the whole quest started because of a comic. I may have been an interloper when I revisited my local New York comic shop, Forbidden Planet, to see the latest issue in person, but the place is proof that at least some of us never abandoned or outgrew or forgot. Dani Lorrick, a Buffy fan and an employee at the store, told me that most of the people who buy the comic now were fans of the show—it’s hard to catch up on all that back-story without watching—but those buyers, herself included, are more devoted to that part of the fandom now than ever before. “I pay more attention to comic books now than when it was on,” she said. Now that the comics are the canon, with the ability to really change the story’s universe, they mean more and they’re better. It doesn’t hurt that Whedon himself is directly involved in writing them.

David Glanzer, marketing director for Comic-Con, confirms that, even without studio presence to support the show, Buffy is alive and well at the annual fan convention. “Any Comic-Con attendee can tell you that when they find something they really love, it can live forever,” he says. He hopes that the folks who come for Buffy but who don’t buy any other titles will discover that they love the medium as well, and then come back for more than the slayer. Not that she’s going anywhere: a Buffy sing-along has been a closing event at the convention for the last few years.

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out a cassette tape graveyard in my childhood bedroom. Between the Everclear and Elvis, I found a mix of my favorite lines from Buffy. I rustled up a working tape player and heard the distorted sound of a handheld recorder up against the TV speakers, the tinny echo of my obsession. I had forgotten about that part, some day—or night, more likely—when I had decided that I needed their voices Walkman-ready.

But I hadn’t really forgotten, because it all came back. And I knew that, even if I didn’t have a clue what was going on in the Season Eight comics and I had walked away from the online community that nourished and sustained my fan-ness, I was no less a fan than ever, as long as I was ready to remember. It was right there on that old cassette too, in a quote from “Earshot.” Oz was talking about the girl, but it’s no less true of the fandom: “Buffy is all of us. We think, therefore she is.”

“I’d still if you’d still.”
“I’d still. I’d very still.”
—Willow and Oz, “Phases” (2.15)

In media fan lingo, the idea of an OTP—the One True Pairing, a fan’s absolute favorite fictional couple—can be tossed around rather casually. In terms of my history as a relationshipper, Willow and Oz will always be mine, but the real OTP in my fan identity is Buffy and me.

In an e-mail, Jaime mentioned a similar thought. “I’ve definitely mellowed out about aspects of the show,” she wrote. “[But] I feel like that show will always be there, just because it was my first real fandom.”

You may recognize the follies of your past self as just that, you may grow up and move away, you may lose touch—but you never forget your first love, your OTP, even after it’s gone.

Or not so gone. I think I may go buy some comics.