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Clearly, it’s the Gentlemen from ‘Hush’. Anybody who says there’s a scarier moment in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than the Gentlemen from ‘Hush’ hovering around Sunnydale on their invisible skateboards of the damned, gesturing like jewellery models in a trade show booth, is plain wrong. At a push, you could make a case for the warthog-tusked Der Kindestod sucking the life out of sick kids in ‘Killed By Death’; or for dead-sofa-Joyce getting choked by the gimp demon in ‘Conversations With Dead People’, but really, for scariness, it’s the Gentlemen isn’t it?
That depends. There’s another moment that, every rewatch, makes my stomach clench in ways that the Gentlemen never do. Those grinning freaks are scary, but they’re fun-scary. Outside of a fan convention or a Rupert Murdoch lookalike contest, you’d never actually have to face them. Unlike the couple of boneheads who catcall Buffy Summers on a dark street in ‘Helpless’.
(If anybody, by the way, is starting to suspect they’ve been conned into reading some broad’s undergrad essay on women, power and taking back the night instead of an upbeat online list, then bingo, you called it. Stay or leave, where you go is totally up to you. To quote Buffy Anne Summers – must be nice.)
‘Helpless’ is the Buffy episode set around the Slayer’s 18th birthday. In it, Buffy’s Watcher Giles enacts Watcher’s Council rite the “Tento di Cruciamentum’ which roughly translates – or at least is supposed to – as the ‘Trial of Torment’. It’s designed to test a slayer’s resourcefulness by making her face an especially dangerous vampire while stripped of her superpowers. Considering that the Slayer is the one girl in all the world who alone wields the strength and skill to fight the vampires, demons and other forces of darkness, it’s a dick move by the Watcher’s Council, not dissimilar to making nurses pay to park at hospitals. As if the Slayer doesn’t already have enough on her plate.
To the Watcher’s Council though, Slayers are essentially dancers in a teen chorus line – one falls and another takes her place, hence this ‘you’re just not in enough mortal danger’ wheeze. Giles follows protocol, hypnotises Buffy and secretly injects her with a serum that suppress her powers. She loses her Slayer strength, and has no idea why she’s suddenly unable to fight. Is it something she’s done? Will her powers return? Will she ever be able to live a normal, vulnerable life, knowing what she knows, having seen what she’s seen?
Eventually Giles’ conscience gets the better of him and he tries to call the whole thing off, but by that point it’s out of his hands. A powerless Buffy has already entered the fray. She had no choice when the especially dangerous vampire – Kralik, an unhinged serial killer even before he became a vamp – kidnapped her mother.
Using her wits, Buffy survives the ordeal, of course. She’s the show’s hero with three and a bit series and a long run of spin-off comics ahead of her, and so was always safe.
Always safe. That’s the spell Buffy casts over viewers. Its hero is five feet three and too few pounds but oh, her power. Imagine it. There’s no dark alley Buffy can’t walk down. There’s no attacker she can’t fight off. No bruise or blood-spill or broken bone that won’t heal on her body. She doesn’t carry the scars of attack because she’s always new. Always strong. Knocked down, she gets up. When they kill her, she comes back to life.
Buffy Summers means the absence of fear of violence. That’s her promise, the gift that Sarah Michelle-Gellar’s character gives to girls. Even though she spends more time getting beaten up and sexualised (often at the same time) than almost any other female lead, watching her fight is cathartic. It’s wish-fulfilment. Lord help the man or monster who mistakes her for just another breakable one of us!
That’s why the Gentleman don’t come close to Buffy’s scariest moment for me. Your mileage may vary (lesbians, people of colour and the show’s actors may well have other specific horror moments with this one) but speaking personally, the most unnerving scene is when the Slayer walks home alone at night without her powers, and two jeering knuckle-draggers ask her for a lap dance. Buffy stops, ready to teach them a lesson, but then remembers that she’s just a girl now, and so does what a girl has to do by keeping her head down, keeping walking and keeping her fingers crossed that they don’t follow. That moment breaks the show’s spell. It makes Buffy as vulnerable as the rest of us. If she’s afraid, then we’re afraid. Once again. Like always.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is available to stream now on Netflix.