On the surface, Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a satire of horror movies. Vampire movies typically show pretty young women, and especially dumb blondes, as helpless victims who must rely on other people to save them. In contrast, Buffy (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) was a pretty and smart blond teenage girl who saved the world, a lot. Like many other satires, the series was intended as meaningful entertainment. It provides useful lessons in how to grow up, how to manage anger, and how to atone for your sins. In the show, Buffy literally slew demons. Yet those demons were also metaphors for the kinds of problems that each of us must solve as we grow up. Nevertheless, there was one important demon whom Buffy was reluctant to slay: a vengeance demon named Anyanka. (Emma Caulfield did such a brilliant job in her role as Anyanka that she became a series regular.)
The contrast between Buffy and Anyanka is a sly way of teaching people the proper use of anger. A vampire slayer, such as Buffy, needs to harness her anger to give her the strength she needs for slaying demons, to protect the powerless from suffering and untimely death. In contrast, a vengeance demon, such as Anyanka, inflicts suffering and untimely death on someone who has made a powerless person angry. Vengeance is a bad thing because it increases the amount of suffering in the world. In the Buffyverse, vengeance fantasies are a vice of the weak and immature, and vengeance is something that pleases only the lower beings.
Vengeance demons are personifications of wrath, which stems from anger. Anger is the emotion that you feel when someone or something is preventing you from getting what you want. Anger gives you the energy to struggle to overcome obstacles. Uncontrolled anger can lead to wrath. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the neutral act of anger becomes the sin of wrath when the anger is directed against an innocent person, when the anger is unduly strong or long-lasting, or when the angry person wants to inflict excessive punishment.
If you have obstacles that you cannot overcome, your anger may become chronic. Often, if you are struggling against a more powerful person, that more powerful person will usually win. Because you lack the power to prevail against that person, you may remain angry with him or her for a long time. That chronic anger directed at a more powerful person is called resentment. When people are consumed with resentment, they may fantasize about harming the powerful person who is thwarting their plans. Thus, resentment is a symptom of weakness.
In the Buffyverse, vengeance demons are resentful people who are drawn to other resentful people. Anyanka sought out women who were angry at their unfaithful boyfriends and husbands. (Viewers eventually learn that Anyanka’s heart was broken by her unfaithful lover.) Another vengeance demon, Halfrek, sought out children who were angry at their neglectful parents. (As Anyanka explains, Halfrek has “daddy issues.”) If a vengeance demon succeeds in getting a resentful person to express an evil fantasy in the form of a wish, the vengeance demon grants the wish. As a result, the amount of suffering in the world increases. Even the resentful person is horrified by the results.
To succeed in slaying her demons, Buffy needs her anger. Anger strengthens her in her nightly combat against the forces of darkness, which serve as metaphors for the problems that adults must face. Yet Buffy must not be overwhelmed by her anger. A vampire slayer is supposed to slay demons. However, she must not squander her energy by beating the demons into a pulp first. As Buffy’s “watcher” Rupert Giles explained, a slayer must efficiently plunge her stake into each vampire’s heart and then move on to the next. Also, Buffy is a slayer, not a killer. Slayer power is to be used only against demons, never against human beings. That is why Buffy never seeks vengeance against another human being, unless she has unwittingly been reduced to an ape-like “Cave-Buffy” (with bad hair!) by a villain’s evil magic. Vengeance fantasies are for the weak and primitive. Buffy, as a true hero, cannot exact vengeance unless her moral sense has been disabled.
To teach us that the desire for vengeance is understandable but unwise, Joss Whedon makes his vengeance demons comical. Buffy’s watcher, who serves as a metaphor for the intellect, manages to transform Anyanka from a powerful vengeance demon into a petulant, socially clumsy, narcissistic teenage girl. As Anyanka explained it, “For a thousand years I wielded the powers of The Wish. I brought ruin to the heads of unfaithful men. I brought forth destruction and chaos for the pleasure of the lower beings. I was feared and worshipped across the mortal globe. And now I’m stuck at Sunnydale High. Mortal. Child. And I’m flunking math.” In the vengeance demon’s fantasies, her acts of vengeance cause others to fear and worship her. However, an application of the intellect reveals that she is pitiful because she lacks the skills for solving her problems. Anyanka does not recognize her immaturity. In her mind, she is an old soul—a thousand years old. Yet in the real world, she is a child—not even old enough to buy beer in California.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series Angel, Joss Whedon used supernatural motifs as metaphors for moral concepts. Demons represent the animalistic or at least uncivilized aspects of human nature. For example, a werewolf is a human being who is periodically overwhelmed by the animal side of his or her nature. Likewise, the soul represents the conscience. Before a person can become a vampire, their soul must leave their body. Because vampires have no soul (i.e., no conscience), they can steal and torture and kill without remorse. If a vampire’s soul were somehow restored, the vampire would become disabled by feelings of guilt and remorse.
Guilt is the feeling that one has wronged someone. Remorse is anger at oneself for having wronged someone. Once a vampire regains his soul, he starts working on his redemption. To redeem something means to make it acceptable. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, a vampire-with-a-soul is used as a metaphor for a recovering alcoholic. Like an ensouled vampire, recovering alcoholics must struggle against the temptation to resume drinking. Recovering alcoholics must also work on repairing the relationships that they have damaged in their quest for self-gratification.
Do vengeance demons have souls? Fans are divided on that question, which is never explicitly addressed in the series. My guess is that vengeance demons do have a soul, but that their soul has been stunted and distorted by resentment. Vengeance demons feel that they are motivated by a sense of right and wrong. (Halfrek prefers to be called a “justice demon.”) Yet vengeance demons lack a true understanding of the difference between right and wrong. Vengeance demons never right wrongs. Instead, they merely add more suffering to the world. Vengeance demons turn the familiar world into a hell dimension.
After Anyanka was turned back into a human being, Buffy saw no need to slay her. Buffy even allowed Anyanka to become part of her inner circle of friends (the Scooby Gang). As Anyanka become increasingly human, she even proves her worth in the fight against evil. Anyanka has poor skills when it comes to interacting with normal human beings. As we eventually see, this is the problem that caused the initial resentment that led to her becoming a vengeance demon. Nevertheless, Anya has some skills in magic and a lot of useful knowledge about demons and hell dimensions. Anya often helps Buffy by using magic or by providing important pieces of information at just the right time. Nevertheless, Buffy makes it clear that if Anyanka gets back into the vengeance game, Buffy will have to slay her.
In the Buffyverse, immortality serves as a metaphor for the failure to grow up. Vampires do not age. Neither do vengeance demons. Anyanka is a thousand years old. Halfrek is at least a hundred and fifty years old. The fact that these characters remain unchanged as time passes is a metaphorical representation of their arrested emotional, moral, and social development. Vengeance demons are like spoiled children who feel that their anger gives them license to hurt others. In contrast, Buffy is so busy saving the world that she has no time to nurse petty grievances. Thus, Buffy the Vampire Slayer poses a vital question: Are you a vengeance demon or a vampire slayer? Are you an inept, childish person who would like to use your anger as an excuse to add to the world’s suffering? Or are you a hero who uses your anger constructively in your selfless mission to save the world?
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