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Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S4.E4 — “Fear, Itself”

“If we cannot scare the young women, they will not fall into our arms. We’ll have womanless arms. Halloween’s not about thrills, chills, and funny costumes. It’s about getting laid.”

Actors on set of Fear, Itself, dressed in their Halloween costumes from the episode
Behind the scenes photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

I mentioned somewhere near the beginning of the fourth season series that this year of Buffy is heavy on the Monster of the Week episodes. Four episodes in, that’s all we’ve gotten – single shots that have been entertaining in their own right but lacking in long term importance. It’s nice to explore Buffy feeling off-kilter in the new college environment or to see her passive aggressively guzzling her roommate’s milk. Even last week’s “Harsh Light of Day” has no lasting impact on the plot, except to reintroduce Harmony and Spike back into the story arc. The Gem of Amarra and its game changing invulnerability gets punted into the Angelverse and never spoken of again.

However, “Fear, Itself” is laden with hints and seeds of long term story arcs hidden in its Halloween goodness. Sure, Buffy squishes the demon and it becomes just another one of her many slays, but there are loads of sub in this text. We’ve got a lot of things to talk about this week, friends, so let’s get down to it.

Animated gif from Buffy the Vampire Slayer of Giles eating candy while wearing a poncho and fringed sombrero
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

The plot is fairly straightforward. Halloween is traditionally a low-monster evening, given that vampire and demons find the holiday “crass.” It’s a day your favorite Slayer can let down her highlighted hair and enjoy being a conventionally attractive person of the female sex, or it would be that day if Jackass Parker hadn’t damaged our girl’s ego with his fuck-and-run. In an attempt to cheer her up, the Gang drags her to a frat’s haunted house party.  Through a series of accidents (if one thinks using a dark magic spell book to decorate the party an accident), the frat summons Gachnar, the dark lord of nightmares, who terrorizes the party guests by amplifying their personal fears as he tries to manifest in this reality.  The gang is rescued from the death trap of a house by Giles and his handy chainsaw (which, let’s be fair, is a fantastic nod to the Halloween classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Buffy’s impulsive attempt to destroy Gachnar’s summoning circle accidentally propels him into our world, which would be terrible if he were more than a few inches tall. One good stomp and all is right in the Buffyverse again.

Charcoal drawing of Gachnar, the fear demon
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox. Actual size.

It’s been a while since we had an episode that peeked into The Scooby Gang’s personal terrors and “Fear, Itself” serves to underscore how the characters have developed. In “Nightmares” from season 1, the gang’s terrors are revealed as fairly normal teenaged issues; lingering guilt over parental divorce, public speaking, really messed up clowns. Three years later they’re young adults, with lives in flux as they have one foot in the grown up world:

Xander: My dislike of Xander is well documented, but his story arc through this year is easy to identify and sympathize with. The only one of the Scooby Gang who doesn’t head off to college, Xander sees his friends’ lives outpacing his. He lives in his parents’ basement and works a series of dead-end jobs. He’s the only human in the gang and came to peace with his lagging behind in the superhero department, but even their regular lives are pulling away from him. This translates into Xander becoming invisible to his friends, unable to communicate with them at all as they make their way through the haunted house.

Oz starts to turn into a werewolf
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Oz: Oz hasn’t participated in any of the nightmare episodes previously, but his fear of losing control of his wolf has been touched on several times during the show. His defining characteristic is his cool unflappability, so it’s immediately recognizable that the primalness the wolf represents would be terrifying. The fear demon forces a transformation even though Halloween doesn’t fall on the full moon.

Willow: There is a lot going on with Willow this time around. Early in the episode, Willow remarks offhandledly that she feels she’s reached an impasse in her Wiccan training, a theme that will be revisited several times. So when the gang is lost inside the house and Buffy doesn’t trust her to cast a simple guidance spell, Willow reacts poorly. She casts the spell anyway, but the core of magic is will and focus, which Willow has not mastered. Her indecisiveness causes the spell to go awry, her helpful guiding lights turning on her viciously.

But there’s another undercurrent in Willow’s fears, one that raises its ugly head in the shouting match between Buffy and Willow. Willow angrily declares that she’s not Buffy’s “sidekick.” It’s a seemingly random accusation, since Buffy has heavily relied on and trusted Willow to hunt vampires and restore lost souls, so it speaks more to Willow’s insecurities than Buffy’s actual behavior. In the first season nightmare episode, Willow was terrified of being thrust into the spotlight. Years later, she’s terrified of being overshadowed by the Slayer. We’ll revisit the implications of this in season 6, to terrible ends.

Willow attacked by lights.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Buffy: Buffy is an interesting exception. In “Nightmares” and the actual nightmares she has throughout the show, her deepest fear is almost always the same, that she is unlovable. That she is alone, or will be alone, forever. She’s never quite able to shake this, no matter what happens to her. It doesn’t help that “she, alone” is the Chosen One, and there are no prophecies about the “chosen one and her friends.” By the very dint of what she is, Buffy is always isolated. It’s the fear that drives her to love affairs that are rooted in dark attractions. It’s what causes her to pull away from perfectly nice, normal men who fall in love with her.

And in the end, it is this position that allows her to change the world, to change her isolation into a worldwide sisterhood. She, alone becomes she, many.

Hints and foreshadowing:

In the scene in the cafeteria, after Willow is complaining about her lack of magical advancement, Oz expresses he’s not sure she should be pursuing magic anyway. “I know what it’s like tohave power you can’t control. Every time I start to wolf out I touch something deep dark”¦ it’s not fun.” This is a hint, of course, of the coming problems with Veruca and Oz’s imminent departure. But he also expresses the first concern about Willow’s contact with the dark side of magic – and he’s right, of course, that she can’t handle it. There’s a line here that you can draw directly from this conversation to the events of season six.

Anya’s bunny costume and her admission that she’s afraid of rabbits becomes a long-running joke on the show.

The commandos crossing the path of the gang on the way to the frat party is Buffy’s first contact with The Initiative, who of course, are a major part of the season 4 storyline and show up repeatedly, even through season 7.

Right before Buffy kills Gachnar, he says to her, “They’re all going to abandon you, you know.” She blows him off, but he’s not wrong. Riley leaves her because he can’t handle the fact that she’s stronger, faster, and better than he is. Angel leaves her. But most significantly of all, everyone of her friends, except Spike, abandons her in season 7.

Animated gif from Buffy the Vampire Slayer of Giles, in costume, shaking a creepy hanging doll and yelling, "It's alive!" Buffy looks unimpressed.
Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

Next week: “Beer Bad” (Fire pretty)

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12 thoughts on “Retro Recap: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S4.E4 — “Fear, Itself””

  1. GAWD I love Season 4. All the foreshadowing!! Dark Oz, Dark Willow, Faith and Buffy “preparing for little sis”! Loves it!

    Question: I was told Seth Green opted to leave to pursue his movie career. Anyone know what the great Joss had in store for his character had he stayed? Would we have been denied the awesome that is Tara?

    1. I believe that we wouldn’t have met Tara had Seth Green stayed on the show. I’m a huge Oz fan and not a big Tara fan, so that would have suited me just fine. I think Joss has said that (spoiler alert) Oz would have been the one to die in season 6 had he stayed around.

    2. I was really annoyed that Oz left at the time, but his departure really opened up this whole realm of possibilities for the show. We get Tara, we get Willow’s self discovery, we get Dark Willow, and then we get Light Willow, all because Seth Green wanted to do movies. :)

    1. It’s funny that watching the sombrero thing this time immediately reminded me of the grand opening of the Magic Box, where Buffy walks in and Giles is standing there in the wizard costume. And then just look at each other before he takes the hat off. I feel like that’s directly connected to the sombrero incident.

  2. Honestly don’t know if I like this Halloween or Season 2 Halloween better. And not just because of the “actual size” gag at the end. Oh Buffy. Too many episodes to love, too little time to watch them all on repeat over and over and over and over …

    1. I definitely loved Season 2’s Halloween more but that was before I realized all the foreshadowing in this episode. So much happens in the Season 2 one that makes it the obvious choice but perhaps Season 4 is the better one?

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