It’s a truism among horror writers that the hardest part of a horror story is the ending. Writers know that for readers and viewers, becoming involved in the scary is like doing the tango—you give yourself, you take yourself back—as you tangle with getting frightened. One way viewers and readers do this is to try to guess the ending. Next time you’re watching Buffy, see if I’m not right—Joss and the writers start laying in the clues about the what’s going to happen as soon as you see the first image on the screen. Then they lead you through a Halloween corn maze of twists and turns (when that’s done onscreen, it’s called “schmucking the bait”) until you reach the exit. I think this underlying, so-very-intentional structure is one of the (many) reasons Buffy endures as a show.
When Chris Golden and I pitched ideas to write the first-ever original Buffy novel (as opposed to an episode novelization), we included a Halloween story. Like the rest of the world at the time, we assumed that Halloween night would be like the Super Bowl for the Slayer, and that’s how we wrote the story, and how it was published. We had yet to come to know (and love!) Joss’s penchant for reversals.
A reversal is when you get the opposite of what you expect in a story. “The Gift of the Magi” is a sort of a reversal. The two halves of a loving couple sacrifice the one thing they cherish to buy each other a Christmas present: the husband sells his pocket watch to buy combs for his wife’s hair, which she, meanwhile, cuts and sells to purchase a chain for his pocket watch. The reversal is that they realize they’ve just given each other the best present ever—proof that they are committed and loyal, and their relationship is a precious Christmas miracle. Comedy also depends on reversals—the big laughs come when the joke or story takes an unexpected turn. What’s the most common thing people say when they’re telling a funny story? “Wait for it.” And we do, with an anticipatory grin.
I think this love of the unexpected is one of the sources of the Joss quote that he didn’t/doesn’t give his fans what they want, but what they need. They need to be intrigued, entertained, to laugh, and to be frightened. So he gives them reversals.
Thus it was with Halloween. Because Buffy first came on the air in March, she didn’t have a Halloween episode until seven months later, in her second season. But March is when Chris and I wrote Halloween Rain (in three and a half weeks!) and we weren’t thinking about reversals. So although our story was approved, it’s out of canon—because the Slayer and her quarry have mutually agreed to take Halloween off every year (unless you’re Ethan Rayne, and then as agreeable as you appear to be, you break the rules.)
It didn’t take Chris and me long to figure out that reversals were part and parcel of life in Sunnydale. Angel, Buffy’s first true love, is a vampire. Jonathan does not confess to taking fish-monster steroids, but to peeing in the pool. As soon as Buffy gives her heart to Scott Hope, he breaks up with her. The morning after Tara and Willow reunite, Tara dies. And of course, the ending of the series (on TV) features the biggest reversal of all—the Chosen One, “she and she alone,” is not only not alone, but she shares her power with all the Potentials.
The night that Buffy went off the air, I couldn’t make myself watch the episode. I had signed a non-disclosure agreement in return for receiving a “beat sheet” that told the story in brisk, narrative form. I knew what was going to happen, and I knew that Buffy was going to get her happy ending. But I approached that last episode as I would the death of a loved one—I mourned. I didn’t think I would ever have such a wonderful gig again as writing about Buffy. I had been there from the beginning of the show to the end, and I really did think it was the end. (Karen just cried reading this part)
But I’ve had my own reversal. Fifteen years after I started writing Halloween Rain, I’m still writing about Buffy. I have a brand new Buffy book coming out in December titled Buffy: The Making of a Slayer, from 47 North. I wrote the text and helped the book’s producers find images from many of the original staff members such as John Vulich (special makeup effects); Todd McIntosh (makeup); Carey Meyer and Steve Hardie (production designers); and Cynthia Bergstrom (costume designer.) I was also able to talk about Buffy with Amber Benson, Jane Espenson, David Fury, and some of the original moves and shakers in Buffy fandom.
The book was greenlighted by Joss himself, whose original mission statement was to create a character who would find her way as an icon into the zeitgeist of our times. There was no reversal there—I meet new fans who come to Buffy after discovering Dr. Horrible or Firefly. Buffy continues to be a beloved figure in the ongoing canonical comic book series from Dark Horse Comics. Despite all the prophesies assuring the Slayer an early death, Buffy continues.
And I’m willing to bet there’ll be a Slayer or two at my door on my very busy Halloween night.
BIO: New York Times bestselling author Nancy Holder has written more non-show material about Buffy the Vampire Slayer than any other writer in this dimension. She has received five Bram Stoker Awards for her supernatural fiction, and has been nominated for two more, including for The Angel Chronicles, Volume 1. BtVS: The Watcher’s Guide, Volume 1, appeared on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. She is a member of the Whedon Studies Association and a Browncoat. Find her at @nancyholder and https://www.facebook.com/holder.nancy. She has a website at www.nancyholder.com She lives in San Diego with her daughter, Belle the Vampire Slayer, two dogs, three cats, and a leopard gecko.
Nancy Holder is now also writing for the Teen Wolf series. You can check out her book On Fire at Goodreads or on Nancy Holder's webpage. Buffy: The Making of a Slayer is scheduled for publication on December 11th, 2012. You can find out more about it at Goodreads.