The word Gothic is a loaded term. It was designed to be. The Gothic, as an aesthetic and a literary form, is deeply medievalist—in that it recasts the Middle Ages as a place and time of darkness, of threat, of ugliness that we modern folk (or the Renaissance folk who coined it) need to resist or overcome.
“Gothic,” of course comes from the Goths, a Germanic group who attacked the Roman Empire in the late Classical era. But the word was originally applied to a medieval architectural style in particular and the Middle Ages in general—as a pejorative. The Goths, of course, didn’t build the cathedrals and such that the Renaissance art historians slapped the “gothic” label on. As Jerrold Hogle puts it, “Gothic has long been a term used to project modern concerns into a deliberately vague, even fictionalized past”—it’s “an exploitation of the emptied-out past to symbolize and disguise present concerns, including prejudices.”
Which is the essence of medievalism in a nutshell.
The early Gothic—think Horace Walpole—was rife with “Dark Age” medievalism. They looked into the past and saw dirt, plague, rampaging barbarians, superstition, active suppression of anything resembling science—you know, the usual. They saw themselves as way more advanced, smarter, and better-dressed than their medieval forebears. And the literature reflected that. The past, especially past authorities such as the Church and rigid patriarchy, is a direct threat to the heroes and heroines of Gothic literature. In some cases, as in Dracula, that threat is an immortal, ongoing one that must be stopped from destroying the current society and despoiling its women.
This is also a core theme of Buffy, as I went over in the intro to this series. The past—as blurry as Buffy’s understanding of history is—is a constant threat, a constant intrusion, into Buffy’s life both as a Slayer and as a girl. Buffy isn’t fully a Gothic text, of course. It’s got a lot of other stuff going on in it—second- and third-wave feminism, Romance, the perils of being a modern teenager, Satanic panic—but it clearly borrows from and pays tribute to the Gothic, partially just by being a show with heavy horror elements.
My purpose here isn’t to discuss at any length how Buffy is a Gothic text; that’s already been pretty well handled by Buffy-studies academics. Erin Hollis and Anna Free have discussed how Buffy and Angel use, subvert, and question Gothic tropes and themes. Elizabeth Gilliland has explored how Buffy is a Gothic heroine and her love interests reflect different aspects of herself and her internal conflicts. Michelle Callendar breaks down how Dracula and Buffy share similar cultural anxieties around female agency, technology, and exogamy. Renee Coulombe argues that Buffy is more of a critique or interrogation of the Gothic than truly Gothic itself, while Emily Gray says Buffy is a postmodern Gothic—except in the way it handles the Willow/Tara relationship. And that’s not nearly all of them.
So, yeah, you don’t need me for that bit.
What I do want to focus on is how Buffy’s medievalism is almost always Gothic in nature—in that its “medieval” (again, fuzzy) is frequently a site of horror and danger encroaching on Buffy’s modern world. It’s a central premise of the film; all the flashback scenes are vaguely medieval, and in one of them, the Slayer dies. Lothos himself, according to the Buffy “The Origin” comic (which sort of replaced the film as canon chronology), was born sometime in the 11th or 12th century. He is a medieval monster, stalking the Slayer across time into the 20th century, when she finally destroys him using modern girl-coded technology (a hairspray flamethrower).
We have less information on the Master, the show-verse version of Lothos, but he’s probably older than Lothos; by the 1600s, he’s already lost his human face and looks more like a bat (as seen in Angel’s “Darla”). Both the Master and Lothos have aesthetics that are extremely and theatrically Gothic, from Lothos’ spotlit coffin full of blood(?) to the Master’s underground, candlelit church lair. Luke’s preparations for the Harvest, likewise, are very feudal and liturgical (and homoerotic, but that’s a different essay), fitting in with the Master’s overall medievalist-Gothic schtick (and I’ll talk more about the religious aspect in another essay).
Interestingly, in “The Wish,” the Master has moved away from medievalist and religious and into industrial goth. Of course, scientific attempts to undermine the “natural order” of life and death are also a staple of Gothic fiction (see Frankenstein); in these cases, the future is also a threat.
In season two, Spike demands “a little less ritual and a little more fun,” doing away with the lingering medievalist threat of the Master’s Order of Aurelius and the Anointed, but that doesn’t mean that the medieval doesn’t still edge its way in throughout the rest of the series. Later in season two, in fact, Angelus attempts to wake Acathla, a demon who was last active in the Middle Ages. We know this because it was “a virtuous knight” who killed him before he could suck the world into hell, and the knight’s sword is still standing in the stone remains of the demon. We’re back to ritual here, too, as Angelus works to figure out the exact formula that will wake Acathla and end the world. And it’s Spike, again, who refuses to go along with it and helps Buffy stop him.
Besides monsters dating back to the Middle Ages such as Moloch, the Gentlemen, and even Anyanka, Buffy also struggles with and against the extremely patriarchal Watchers’ Council, whose traditions are also often dated to the Middle Ages. The Cruciamentum, for example, is said to date back 1200 years. Quentin Travers calls it a “time-honored rite of passage”; Giles calls it “an archaic exercise in cruelty.” (My guess is it’s a way to get rid of Slayers who might be getting too old and powerful and starting to question authority.) Patriarchal dominance as tradition and history is a common theme for the Gothic, especially when it puts the heroine in immediate danger, as the Council does Buffy during the Cruciamentum. Not only does the trial put her and her mother in active danger, it requires Giles betraying her trust and violating her bodily autonomy (by injecting her with drugs to lessen her Slayer power). The Council is all about control, as Buffy points out to them when she asks for their help with Glory. Ultimately, the Council is wiped out by an even older threat—the First Evil itself.
As a Gothic heroine, Buffy is frequently haunted by the past, which introduces threats that disrupt her way of life and her desires to be a “normal” girl. And yet she can never truly escape from the ancient and medieval past, since her power is rooted in them. (There’s something to be said about the fact that, of all the Slayers in the show, Buffy, the young white woman, is the one to break free of the past, and not, say Kendra, but that’s an entirely different essay for sure.) Riley’s Initiative buddy Forrest might dismiss the existence of the Slayer as “medieval folklore garbage kooks dream up to explain the stuff we deal with every day” (that “stuff” being, well, demons and vampires), but Buffy is far more deeply involved with the “medieval folklore” than Forrest could imagine. She inhabits a liminal space between rejecting the past and relying on it, which is about as Gothic as it gets.
Thanks to Lo and Rhiannon for beta-reading and suggestions! Screencaps from the Whedonverse.us photo galleries.
References and Further Reading
“Becoming, Part One,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 21, 1998.
“Checkpoint,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 5, episode 12, 2001.
“Darla,” Angel, season 2, episode 7, 2000.
“Doomed,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 4, episode 11, 2000.
“The Harvest,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 1, episode 2, 1997.
“Helpless,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 12, 1999.
“The Origin: Part Two,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer comics,1999.
“School Hard,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 3, 1997.
“The Wish,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3, episode 9, 1998.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 1992.
Michelle Callendar, “Bram Stoker’s Buffy: Traditional Gothic and Contemporary Culture,” Slayage vol. 1, no. 3, 2001.
E.J. Clery, “The Genesis of ‘Gothic’ Fiction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Renee Coulombe, “‘I Had It All Wrong’: New Vampires, Grrrl Heroes and the Third Wave Body in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” in Nostalgia or Perversion?: Gothic Rewriting from the Eighteenth Century Until the Present Day, 2007.
Anna Free, “Re-vamping the Gothic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Australian Screen Education vol. 46, 2007.
Elizabeth Gilliland, “Double Trouble: Gothic Shadows and Self-Discovery in Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Slayage vol. 16, no. 1, 2018.
Emily Gray, “Writing ‘Lesbian, Gay-Type Lovers’: Buffy, Postmodern Gothic, and Interruptions to the Lesbian Cliché,” in New Directions in 21st-century Gothic: The Gothic Compass, 2015.
Leigh Harbin, “‘You Know You Wanna Dance’: Buffy the Vampire Slayer as Contemporary Gothic Heroine,” Studies in the Humanities vol. 31, no. 2, 2005.
Jerrold Hogle, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Literature, 2002.
Erin Hollis, “Revisiting the Gothic: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel as Contemporary Gothic,” in Critical Insights: Good & Evil, 2012.