On shows created by Joss Whedon

Existentialism Meets Feminism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

By C. Albert Bardi, Sherry Hamby

A growing corner of psychology has devoted itself to the study of “terror management,” or how people protect themselves from the knowledge of their own mortality. One of the experiments in this field sounds like something from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Participants in the study are given the problem of nailing something to the wall and the only useful thing lying around is a crucifix. The results of the experiment show that participants are less likely to use the cross if they are first made more aware of death (made “mortality salient”). According to the researcher Greenberg and his colleagues, participants don’t want to denigrate their meaning-making religious symbol, especially when they are confronted with the reason they need religion in the first place, death. (This particular setup only works with Christians, naturally, but similar results have been found with other groups.)

Of course, Buffy and her Scooby pals, and in fact all of ironically named Sunnydale for that matter, are ultra mortality salient. No one is confronted with death more than the Slayer and her associates. As a consequence, Buffy and friends should be struggling more than your aver- age mortal to solve the basic riddle of existence: How do we find meaning when we are all doomed?

Thus Buffy, stake in hand, plays out one of the great existential metaphors of modern times. Existential psychology, especially as expressed in the work of Ernest Becker (from which terror management theory is derived), asserts that humans are ultimately motivated  …

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