Trespassing in an Alternate World

Sometimes the more interesting essays are the ones that you feel don’t get it quite right – the ones that have an intriguing premise but ultimately don’t pan out. That’s because these are the essays that help you step outside your worldview and think a bit in real time. An essay that’s dead wrong is simply useless. An essay that’s too right enlightens but doesn’t challenge. You simply accept the conclusion and move on. But an essay that gets it a little bit wrong? Sometimes, that’s where the gold is.

I have that feeling about Scott Westerfeld’s contribution to Seven Seasons of Buffy (called "To Town," and strangely missing from the table of contents included in the linked Wikipedia article).

The title mirrors the subject, which is a rather odd model of fantasy fiction that divides it into "Alternate World" and "Trespass" stories. An "Alternate World" story is one where We The Readers go somewhere else, somewhere imaginary and self-contained. It’s Dune and Lord of the Rings and so on. A "Trespass" story is where the danger comes to us, here in the Real World. These are your standard-issue zombie and vampire stories. Buffy, Westerfeld wants to say, is a "trespass" story, in that it’s about a heroine fighting off evil right here at home. But it’s not a typical "trespass" story becuase there’s no reset button. Reality changes as a result of the trespass.

..there seemed to be a conservative principle at work in most [trespass tales], a tendency for the alien invader to evaporate at the end of the tale.

Now, if you buy this dichotomy, there’s no doubt that Buffy is a "trespass tale." But right out of the gate, he seems to be wrong about how "trespass tales" work. In my experience, the result where we go back to the status quo ante is actually rather rare. Trespass tales are not "comforting," as he describes them, but rather just the opposite.

If you think about it, I think what he’s hit on, accidentally, is the divide between fantasy and horror. It’s not that there isn’t otherworldly horror – horror where people travel to other dimensions and things like that. There is. But the overwhelming majority of horror fits into Westerfeld’s "tresspass tale" mould. We start in some kind of safe setting, and there’s some kind of disturbance of that setting from outside. Typically this isn’t immediately obvious to the characters for what it is. It takes a long time to acknowledge what’s going on. At first it’s barely visible. Later, it’s visible, but still "explicable" with the right dose of motivated reasoning. Eventually, though, it crosses the line into something the characters have to accept. In horror stories, that moment comes typically just a little too late, and people die – sometimes lots of people die.

The subgenre of horror I know the most about – because it’s the kind I like best – is slasher movies. You’ll notice that they fit this mould like a glove. The killer comes from outside town (though frequently he’s returning home). At first, no one notices much of anything odd. It’s not that there aren’t victims, it’s that people don’t notice the victims are missing. But gradually, as time passes, the bodies stack up, and it becomes impossible to deny the hugely improbable reality of what’s happening. There is typically only one survivor, the "Final Girl," who, at the end of the story, lives on, "but she is not free" (to quote Vera Dika’s foundational work on the subject). In slasher films, at least, the trespass is transformative.

But then, it’s usually transformative, across most "tresspass tales." There are plenty of "trespass tales" that are exactly as Westerfeld describes of course – what he calls "elastic trespass tales" – where we bounce right back to the status quo ante as soon as the threat is removed. But in my experience these are far from the majority. Trespass tales leave the protagonists scarred. The experience changes things.

I think Westerfeld’s right that trespass tales have conservative sensibilites. Slasher movies certainly do. As I’ve argued elsewhere, slashers were about the anxiety the Sexual Revolution’s weakening of traditional gender roles engendered. Society changed faster than people could adapt, and slashers were one response to that. They accepted that the change had happened – and so in one sense weren’t conservative – but were anxious about it – and so in another sense very much were.

In a lot of ways, Buffy continues the slasher tradition. If Vera Dika’s right that slashers proper were only made between 1978 and 1984, then Buffy arguably exists among the 1990s successors to the genre. And, like its predecessors, it is not conservative in that it accepts a change in gender roles the wider society had not yet made peace with, and yet it is conservative in the sense that it struggled with that change, expressed anxieties about it.

What anxieties?

One thing a number of commenters have noticed about Buffy is that it is not nearly as feminist as advertised. Certrainly on the surface it is. The hero is female, the male characters are largely ineffective. Moreover, it presents a new, arguably more feminine take on the superhero genre in that the lines between Good and Evil are, while not exactly blurred, certainly not as stark. Evil characters are redeemed, things are more personal, the sidekicks are the source of her strength rather than just backup, and the struggle, while cosmic, plays out locally. Most of all, the struggle is one against Power Itself, rather than one of asserting one power against another.

And yet, there are counterexamples to its essential feminism everywhere. One could do a book-length treatment of that, so I won’t take it up here, but the gist of it is that the show never forgets that Buffy is biologically female, and that her powers are borrowed and mystical, rather than essential. What Buffy does, most girls can’t do. The show’s anxiety, then, is in a way the inverse of slasher anxiety. It’s the anxiety of stage fright. Now that girls are begining to take the lead in society, the question is whether they’re up to it. More accurately, it’s anxiety about losing femininity in the wake of the change. If slasher films of the early 1980s were about the anxiety that males felt that there would be no role for them in the new order, Buffy speaks to the anxiety that females either won’t be able to fill the void, or won’t really be female if they do.

Westerfeld’s argument that tresspass stories are inherently conservative is straightforward: we’re protecting "home base" against "outsiders," repelling a kind of invasion. The whole goal of a tresspass tale is to restore the status quo ante as much as possible. I think he’s wrong that that is generally the actual result of these tales, but that fact doesn’t undermine the original analysis too much. It’s just that the trespass tales which he describes as "not elastic" – the ones in which home base, or the characters in it, is/are changed by the invasion somehow – are typically dealing with anxiety – i.e. are usually horror stories. But Buffy is also a comedy, and it ends on an overwhelmingly positive note. Buffy is able to extend her power to all girls, and so, by implication, she wins her war against Power Itself. For Westerfeld, the series proper was mildly problematic for his model because, increasingly over the years, the status quo ante was not restored after the tresspass-of-the-week. But if that’s true then the ending must’ve been extremely so. We see the entirety of Sunnydale collapse into a pit, and the "Welcome to Sunnydale" sign falls over to punctuate this. It’s almost as if the town had never been there (he said pointedly). That’s about as non-elastic as a trespass tale can get! But it’s worse than that, because it’s a complete inversion. If the point of a trespass tale is to defend home against invasion (often a proxy for "change"), then losing home altogether should be the worst possible result. Here, though, it’s somehow the best possible result? And if the defense of home marks trespass tales as inherently conservative, then not only leaving home but actively destroying it is rather radical. Moreover, Vera Dika’s observation that the heroine in a slasher triumphs in the end, "but she is not free," is here stood on its head as well. Buffy triumphs, and it is only in triumph that she – and, by extension, the whole world – is free.

Westerfeld’s analysis is either spectacularly wrong, or there is something else going on here.

And yeah, I already telegraphed what I think that something else is.

Westerfeld’s analisys is actually quite insightful (or, more accurately, was on its way to being so if he’d kept going, rather than just dashing this off to fit with the generally flippant tone of the collection it’s included in) if you consider that the events of Normal Again were real. Then, this is a proper, but inverted, horror tresspass story, by way of being an alternate world story. Consider: Sunnydale was never real. Buffy invented it as an escape from trauma in her real life in LA – probably the realization that her father was cheating on her mother and didn’t really love her. The real Buffy is in an asylum, and Sunnydale is an alternate world that she invented. Because it is not the real world, its reality is unstable. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a trespass story to the extent that reality is trespassing on the alternate world. This is why, with each successive encounter, the world changes, we get a little bit futher from the status quo ante, the world gets a little more surreal, and yet the world seems to be more real for it. The series gets noticeably less "elastic" as the seasons roll by, and yet it also gets heavier and more realistic. Westerfeld has an inkling of this:

Despite the credit cards and SUVs on screen, the show begins to leave the strict confines of the Elastic Trespass tale, until the Buffyverse seems almost transformed into an Alternate World.

But he quickly explains (represses?) it away: it’s no different from any story that ostensibly takes place in "our" world. There’s a Tom’s Diner in New York, but no Seinfeld gang.

Plausible, but you were actually right the first time: Sunnydale doesn’t exist in the real world.

It’s therefore not clear that the ending is really overwhelmingly positive. The alternate world that Buffy created has finally collapsed in on itself completely, and we tellingly never get to see the world in which Power Itself has been defeated. That’s because it hasn’t; that never happened. What actually happened is that the real Buffy worked through her trauma enough that she can face the real world again. She’s about to "wake up." And so Vera Dika’s analysis of slashers (by extension, anxiety-driven trespass tales) actually fits. The heroine triumphs in the end, but she is not free. Buffy struggles with her issues and gets a qualified win, but she has not freed herself from the reality that caused them. She found an inner strength, perhaps, but she would rather the trauma have never happened in the first place. Alternately, she would rather Sunnydale had been real, and that she really had inverted gender roles and defeated Power Itself. But ultimately, this wasn’t that story. It’s ultimately an anxiety-driven story, just like a slasher, and just like a slasher it’s both empowering and degrading. It’s empowering in discovering that you do have the strength to deal with the world, but degrading in the realization that the world is harder and more dangerous than you were prepared for, that it wasn’t the idyllic safe place you thought, and that now that you know that, you can’t go back to not knowing it. The heroine triumphs in the end, but she is not free.

I’m not sure to what degree I buy Westerfeld’s dichotomy in general. I do find it extremely helpful in analyzing Buffy. Whedon does like his genre blending; he probably didn’t realize to what extent he was paradigm blending here as well. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a trepass tale about the failure of an alternate world tale to cohere. What seems like the most fantastical elements are actually reality encroaching. And for a show that was pitched as "My So-Called Life meets the X-Files" (source), it actually has the metafictional structure of a classic slasher. Because when you really think about it, that’s what "My So-Called Life meets the X-Files" would have to be.

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