The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Ambiguity of Evil in Supernatural Representations

Recent years have seen a marked increase in the number of television shows with a supernatural bent. The Warner Bros. Network is at the forefront of this trend, combining inhuman characters such as witches, vampires, and aliens with teen angst in the shows Charmed, Roswell, Angel, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.


Mulder and ScullyAlthough these shows taken together might represent a mini-trend in recent television programming, there is of course nothing new in using supernatural settings and characters to play out narratives of good versus evil. This is apparent from an abundance of literary examples, to say nothing of hundreds of films focusing on these themes. And one does not even have to look far within the history of television to find other examples. Warner Bros. may only be following the lead of other popular shows such as the long-running X-Files, which in turn may have been influenced by the likes of The Twilight Zone. Other early examples of the genre include series such as Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie.

What is interesting about some of these newer representations of the supernatural, however, is the moral ambiguity that permeates many of the characters, including both the inhuman beings and ordinary characters. "Evil" is often less fixed in these shows, with many characters demonstrating both decent and demonic traits and behaviors across episodes or seasons. "Good" characters may develop in frighteningly sinister ways; villainous ones may surprisingly reveal complex and even selfless motivations. Furthermore, this moral ambiguity often seems to intersect with themes related to gender and sexuality, as characters' behaviors and traits are linked, both overtly and subtly, with their gender identities or sexual histories.

In this article, I look at examples of this intersection between ambiguous morality and sexuality in the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 1998 film The X-Files. [1] Although there are many current and former television series that explore themes of good and evil, I have chosen these two representations for several reasons. Both Buffy and The X-Files use sexual tension between various characters to drive the narrative, and both often play with gender roles. Finally, both of these representations portray a world with hidden depths and characters with otherworldly powers. This world is often portrayed in clear terms of good versus evil. Within this paradigm, however, the moral "rightness" of characters both major and minor varies widely, and there is reason to believe that the underlying symbolism of some of these works also illustrates this theme of moral inconsistency. In these representations, good and evil are ever-shifting qualities.

The premise of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is that, at all times throughout history, a single, young woman designated as "the slayer" has the combination of intelligence, strength, and courage necessary to fight the demons roaming Earth. In keeping with the millennial mindset, the late 1990s opened up a "Hellmouth" in Sunnydale, California, resulting in an extraordinary number of demons for the current slayer, Buffy Summers, to conquer. Until midway through the second season of the show, Buffy had a powerful ally in her quest--Angel, a vampire, who had been cursed by the family of one of his victims long ago; his human soul was restored in his immortal and bloodthirsty body as a result. Before meeting Buffy, Angel spent much of his time brooding about his past horrific exploits, and so upon encountering the slayer he vowed to assist her with her fight against the undead in Sunnydale.

Although initially portrayed as a dark and somewhat morally ambiguous character, Angel quickly became a romantic interest for Buffy. Throughout the second season, Angel miraculously appeared whenever Buffy needed him, saving her life' on several occasions and/seemingly anticipating all her needs. As the character developed, he provided both emotional support and sensual pleasure to the slayer. Although there were early hints that Angel's past and potential were far worse than Buffy imagined, she largely denied these hints of his aggression, foreshadowing the split that would later occur in her perception of Angel.

One evening after a particularly difficult bout of vampire fighting, Buffy and Angel retreated to his apartment where they made love for the first time. Unbeknownst to either of them, Angel's curse held that if he ever experienced a moment of "perfect human happiness," the spell would be lifted. Unfortunately for everyone involved, sex with Buffy qualified as such perfection. Viewers next saw Buffy sleeping as Angel, his vampiric nature fully restored, attacked a woman outside his apartment. This moment signified Angel's rebirth as the evil and vengeful "Angelus." The remainder of the season focused on Buffy's efforts to come to terms with the fact that her lover had turned into her most determined enemy, one who delighted in emotionally torturing her and preying on her friends. On screen, Angelus killed a minor but very sympathetic recurring character, thus confirming in the viewer's mind his complete transformation from tortured soul into soulless demon.

It is notable that Angel's shift from good to evil occurred because of sex. This emotionally and physically charged event--and Buffy's concurrent loss of virginity--thus had extremely traumatic results for the slayer. Although this plotline could lead to easy interpretations of the "If you let him, you'll lose him" variety, there is something more interesting and complex beneath this dramatic twist. The dynamics grounding Angel's transformation and the dramatic events of the rest of the season can be explored with psychoanalytic theory. Melanie Klein, a psychoanalyst, posited that infants "split" their mothers into good and bad "objects." The reasoning behind this theory is that infants are entirely dependent on their mothers, and the ideal mother (or the "good" mother, in the infant's psyche) provides completely, from cuddling to breastmilk. However, in reality the mother is not available to the infant all the time, and so there are moments when the infant cries without comfort or experiences hunger without immediate relief. Klein theorizes that because it is inconceivable to the infant that the all-good, all-loving mother would ever desert it even for a moment, it "splits" the mother into good and bad to avoid the unthinkable: that mother may be both loving and at times inattentive, nurturing but quite imperfect ("Mourning" 152; Klein and Riviere 61). In theory, this emotional drama recurs throughout childhood and adulthood as we attempt to come to terms with both the good and the bad within our loved ones and ourselves.

In this second-season installment of Buffy, Angel's transformation mirrors the pronounced split between the good mother and the bad mother. Indeed, the circumstances of his splitting call to mind the trauma of infantile weaning, as Buffy's lost virginity shares with weaning the perceived loss of the good object --the nurturing breast and the "good" Angel. So the character of Buffy, mirroring the infant's dilemma, was forced to come to terms with the fact that her perfect lover also embodied great hostility and rage targeted toward her.

Buffy believed herself to be the cause of Angel's transformation, and furthermore as the slayer she believed that she had the power to reverse her error. However, to rectify the situation, she needed to direct aggression toward her formerly adored, newly reviled object--Angel. After one episode in which she balked at killing the evil Angelus, she threw herself into the task with vigor--especially after his brutal killing of a friend and teacher. Of course the life-and-death nature of the relationship is exaggerated, but, in the context of the show, these episodes nicely demonstrate the emotional complexity of many ordinary human relationships.

Although Klein's theory focuses on infantile dynamics, Buffy the Vampire Slayer also demonstrates adult love quite well in its exploration of the aggression that often accompanies intimate love relationships. On the show, Angelus is clearly the aggressor, so Buffy's violent response to him is understandable. However, in placing the show's heroine in the position of seeking revenge, we see her own capacity for rage. To redeem herself and ease her guilt, Buffy must paradoxically become more violent and aggressive. These episodes portray both a dangerous element present in sexual love and the capacity of previously loving and caring people to turn on each other. Buffy can be seen as Angel's split object, just as Angel plays this role for Buffy. When Angel reverted to full vampiric status, his previously intense love for Buffy turned overnight into contempt and aggression. The act of sex was for both Buffy and Angel a fundamental break from their previous idealization of their respective objects, and for both sp litting occurred. In fact, in a nearly literal sense Buffy could be considered Angelus's mother (and he his own father) since his rebirth originated in their act of sexual intercourse. In addition, Buffy's goal is to penetrate Angel's body with a wooden stake to kill the demon she has brought to life. This reflects the sexual penetration that caused Angel's rebirth as a vampire, and represents either Buffy's attempt to make up for the damage she has done or triumph over the perceived bad object. Metaphorically, we can see Angel as Buffy's lost "object," or mother-figure in Kleinian terms, and Buffy as Angel's lost object. We can also view Buffy's goal of staking Angelus as a reversal of their initial sexual encounter and as a reversal of gender roles. Finally, we see that both characters contain the capacity for great love and great aggression toward each other. This tangle of psychological and sexual roles and moral positioning does not lead to easy analysis, but it does reflect the complexity of real human personalities and relationships.

In Klein's theory, the infants' challenge is to reconcile the good and bad mothers into one realistic object, and in that process accept their aggression as part of themselves rather than originating from the "bad" object as they had previously fantasized (Notes 183). Allowing for some dramatic license, Buffy and Angel faced the same challenges in resolving their split. In Kleinian terms, they needed to accept their simultaneous love for each other, while acknowledging their very real danger to each other in their respective roles of vampire and slayer. In addition, they were challenged to acknowledge both the love and the aggression in each other, accepting realistic objects rather than the idealized fantasies they began with. And in fact, this is exactly what occurred. During the season finale they both finally recognized the goodness and the danger inherent in each other and in themselves.

To summarize briefly, Angelus and his band of vampiric mates discovered an ossified demon who, if brought to life through Angelus's blood, would literally suck the entire world into a living Hell (these things happen with alarming frequency on the Hellmouth). Learning of this horrific plan, Buffy determined that she would stop Angelus by killing him before he could carry out the plan. Simultaneously, Buffy's friend Willow rediscovered the ancient gypsy curse that would restore Angel's human soul to his vampiric body. Willow knew that if she could restore Angel's soul in time, he would not go through with this plan. Thus, both Willow and Buffy set out to stop the bad Angelus from enlivening the stony demon-but Buffy did so from an aggressive determination to kill the bad Angelus, whereas Willow did so from a reparative desire to restore the good Angel.

In the manner of all good dramas, the two plans converged at the last possible moment--Angelus had already started the process of reviving the demon when Buffy burst into his lair and engaged him in a sword fight. After several minutes of hard battle, she had him pinned against the demon, whose mouth was already opening to swallow the world. As she prepared to plunge her sword through Angelus's body and thrust him into the Hell opening behind him, a powerful force rocked him from within. It was immediately obvious to Buffy that Willow had succeeded in her quest and that the good Angel had been restored. However, the mouth of Hell still yawned ominously behind him. There was only one way for Buffy to halt the process that would otherwise inevitably pull all existence into eternal Hell. She kissed Angel tenderly, told him to close his eyes, and thrust her sword through his body--mimicking and reversing the act of sexual intercourse that had originally rebirthed Angelus. Angel was then pulled into the demon.

Buffy's full recognition of both the demonic and angelic aspects of Angel demonstrates a moment of reconciliation of the Kleinian "good" and "bad" into one body. Her actions signified her understanding of her own aggression in relation to her beloved (and hated) object. The dramatic finale echoed and amplified the reconciliation that infants must undergo in the Kleinian system to achieve healthy object relations. They must heal the split between the good and bad mother. In doing so, they achieve a reconciliation of their own aggressive tendencies in relation to their ability to love another.

The relationship of Buffy and Angel clearly demonstrates the tension between love and aggression that is often present in intimate relationships. What makes Buffy the Vampire Slayer different from many current television offerings is that it portrays these psychoanalytically charged themes so effectively through the use of supernatural mythology. Furthermore, this moral ambiguity within the main characters is reflected in the development of others on the show--from Oz, the sensitive band member who is transformed into a vicious werewolf three nights of every month, to Anya, a now-human teenager who was once an immortal and avenging demon. Current episodes continue this theme of the shifting nature of good and evil, as characters are portrayed as sometimes making not only bad choices but also morally wrong choices. With the stakes as high as they frequently are on Buffy, moral ambiguity can turn into evil at any moment, and the characters are constantly faced with the challenge of navigating the changing boun daries of the Hellmouth and their own motivations and desires.

Buffy's moral uncertainty mirrors that of a longer-running show, The X-Files. The main characters in The X-Files have at moments made morally ambiguous choices or been supernaturally transformed into monstrous beings. However, particularly in the 1998 film based on the television series, the ambiguity of good and evil in the subtext of The X-Files is far more interesting and complex than the film's manifest representations of these values.

FBI agent Dana Scully, overtly one of the film's heroic characters, is coded in the film as particularly susceptible to infiltration by and transformation into an evil alien. [2] Whereas both female and male characters on Buffy are susceptible to becoming monstrous, whether through magic or victimization, Scully's perilous position seems to be intimately linked to her female embodiment. This movement of the female protagonist ever closer to the site of horror requires further exploration in light of the work that has been done on the imaginary links between female sexuality and the "monstrous."

Writing about the film Alien, Barbara Creed links a loss of boundaries to the monstrosity of the "archaic mother," who represents "the abyss, the cannibalizing black hole from which all life comes and to which all life returns that is represented in [Alien] as a source of deepest terror" (25). From this perspective, one can view the film's blurring of the boundaries between men and women, and alien and human, as a metaphor for the fantasized boundarylessness of the female body, which in turn is associated with the abyss of nonbeing. The incomplete borders of women's bodies are demonstrated in menstruation, in which blood that is "supposed to" remain interior becomes exterior. Whereas blood is associated with death, pregnancy is clearly associated with life. Both of these situations of unclear boundaries are tied to the problematic feminine body, as noted by Creed. The poles of life and death, motherhood and a "monstrous obliteration of the self" are thus signified as arising from within the female body (30). So the imagined porousness of the female anatomy may lead to anxiety about a greater loss of boundaries--that of the nonbeing associated with female reproductive processes.

In exploring the representations of female bodies in The X-Files, it is useful to first examine the portrayal of male sexuality as a point of contrast. In the film, Fox Mulder, Scully's male FBI partner, learns more about a governmental conspiracy with aliens from a gynecologist named Dr. Kurzweil. Kurzweil approaches Mulder as he urinates in an alley outside a bar. While this rather gratuitous setting for a conversation about an alien conspiracy serves both to titillate and inform the audience, it also has a less obvious purpose: It is a clear demonstration of the nonthreatening character of male sexuality in the context of this film. And in contrast to Mulder's casually amusing, off-camera display of his genitals is the ominous message the doctor brings. Kurzweil is characterized as uniquely positioned to know the truth about the aliens and the conspiracy. It is no mere coincidence that this gynecologist--a man who by vocation peers into the bodies of women--also has access to inside information about the alien menace. Kurzweil's profession plays no other role in the film's plot and, in fact, makes little sense (his only connection to Mulder is that he worked with Mulder's father at the State Department, so gynecology was not the obvious choice for his occupation). The idea that one who intimately knows the female body also knows of the sinister marriage between evil humans and vicious aliens brings to mind the show's motto: "The truth is out there." Perhaps, as in Freudian dream interpretation, the latent message of this motto is quite the opposite: The truth is in fact in there and can be found only within the alien space of female sexuality (Freud 353). It is indicative of the latent content of this film that Kurzweil finds nothing but horror in his research, which includes worlds that are both "out there"--the aliens--and "in there"--female reproductive processes.

In The X-Files, male genitality is coded as acceptable, public, and non-threatening, whereas female sexuality is aligned with sinister forces and shrouded in mystery. And, in fact, film expresses other anxieties over the perceived unstable boundaries and dangerousness of female embodiment. The X-Files demonstrates an anxiety over separation from the mother similar to the infantile anxiety over the good and bad mothers discussed in the Buffy example. In both cases the woman/mother is coded as dangerously alien.

In the course of the film, Mulder and Scully find themselves in a lush cornfield in Texas. In the middle of this unexpected display of fecundity are two large, brightly lit domes. On first glance these "breasts" in the midst of such unexpected lushness in the Texas desert would seem to signal great fertility. But upon closer inspection, it is clear that they symbolize a very threatening version of fertility at best. After entering one of the domes, Mulder and Scully are horrified to see millions of bees emerging from the ducts in the floor and ceiling of the structure. They escape, but later Scully is stung by a bee trapped in her clothing. This sting--the product of a "bad breast"--puts Scully into a coma and signals her imminent rebirth as an alien hybrid. The orbs are, in fact, symbols of fertility, but it is a horrific fertility involving the transmutation of human beings into aliens rather than a reassuring "good mother" kind of fertility. This echoes the vision of the "bad mother" in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Klein's work on the infant's psychological splitting of the mother into bad and good entities. Of course, since the bad and good breasts and mothers of the infant's imagination are actually one and the same, it is no surprise that in these popular culture portrayals we see the "good mother" representatives--whether Scully, Angel, or Buffy--taking on characteristics of the bad mother/alien as well.

The perceived boundarylessness of the female body is addressed in The X-Files television series by Scully's eternal containment in social, physical, and emotional terms. In contrast with Mulder, Scully is represented as the rational one who respects and obeys authority, lives within the world of the senses rather than the imagination, and possesses no apparent social life. Her demeanor is reserved to an extreme. Others working on this type of film have commented on the necessity of the sexual purity of the heroine (Green 161), and except for rare occasions in the series Scully clearly embodies this purity. Again we see the link between representations of good and bad and sexuality. However, Scully's is a contradictory embodiment. She is represented as asexual and therefore "safe," worthy of being saved again and again from the alien menace, but also as ultimately a female body, and thus porous and infinitely susceptible to alien infiltration.

Scully is emotionally on ice throughout the television series and the film, which makes her literal encasement in ice in the film's climactic scenes so metaphorically appropriate. The bad breasts of the cornfield are mirrored in the film's final scenes in the form of apparently benign igloos on a snow plain in Antarctica.

Again, these igloos could be seen to symbolize breasts, but, in the context of the rest of the film, the presence of these signs of the mother is hardly reassuring.

The scene shifts to Antarctica because that is where Scully has been taken after collapsing from the bee sting. Mulder learns of her location and sets out, experimental vaccine in hand, to rescue Scully from the bad mother/ship, venturing into the womb itself to save her. Mulder's vaccine injection of Scully "cures" her alien nature, or at least her vulnerability to infiltration by the Other. She is metaphorically reborn as Mulder carries her naked from what they believe to be the self-destructing mothership. As the film ends, Scully cradles Mulder tenderly in the snow. Through his intervention, she has been transformed back into the good mother. And a short distance away in the snow, there is a huge hole, an enormous abyss, where the mothership had been, reminding us of the links between the alien and the female and reminiscent of the abyss of nonbeing Creed discusses.

Films such as The X-Files are certainly open to a variety of interpretations, of which the psychoanalytic perspective is only one. However, from this perspective the film may represent a fear of the "bad mother," or female sexuality in general, as portrayed in both Scully's porous and plague-ridden body and the evil emanations of the bad breasts and alien mothership. This may signal an infantile desire to escape from the totalizing, womblike presence of the mother, and may also represent the ambiguity of the infant's relationship with the mother, as discussed earlier in the Kleinian view of the omnipotent mother. Likewise, the Buffy-Angel interplay may represent a fear of engulfment that is present in many intimate relationships, as it reveals the aggression that often coexists with passionate, genuine love. Scully's situation is different from that of the characters on Buffy, however, because her "susceptibility" to evil is hinted at rather than played out overtly in this plotline. In this way The X-Files p ursues contradictory narrative paths often highlighting opposing fantasies, both idealizing and demonizing the female body, as well as sexuality in general. Clearly the film and series present a certain type of feminist hero, a strong, confident, and intelligent female survivor. But in the film, manifest narrative is subverted by latent material, and it is this other layer that hints at one source of the film's deep psychoanalytic resonance with viewers.

Another similarity in these two different narratives is the portrayal of the love-hate relationship between the human protagonists and the alien/monstrous others. This has already been discussed at length in terms of the good mother/bad mother dichotomy of Buffy's relationship to Angel, but there are similar themes in The X-Files, particularly in Mulder's obsessive need to find and know the aliens and his concurrent fear of what these others might represent for his world. In fact, alien narratives both within and outside of The X-Files have long been noted for an extreme ambiguity in terms of representing the alien--often with portrayals ranging from humankind's benevolent, loving "mother race" to the amoral, voracious aliens more often alluded to in The X-Files. [3] This again reflects tendencies to project the best and worst onto the as yet unknown Other, as Klein theorizes that the infant does to its own onmipotent mother. In both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files, aliens and monsters are variously imagined as both desirable and loving toward, and terrifyingly indifferent to, human needs.

Although there are clear differences in these representations, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer reflect many of the same concerns: a fascination with the mystery and danger of sexuality and the notion that, underneath our civilized demeanors, we all have the capacity for evil. They have in common an acknowledgment of the aggression within ordinary people and a tendency to explore themes of good and evil through supernatural narratives incorporating complicated relationships between morality, sexuality, and gender. Characters may be heroic on one level, but presented as ambiguous or dangerous on another level; or clearly evil in one episode, and remorsefully, genuinely good in another. While "evil" may often be portrayed in these examples as that which is not human, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer offer a vision of morality that resists easy categorization, and they thus, explore the human predicament at depths that often elude more realistic representations.

BETH BRAUN is a doctoral student at the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts at Emory University.

NOTES
 

(1.) The focus is on The X-Files film version rather than the television series, because the length and complexity of the series discourages indepth analysis in an article of this size. Except where otherwise noted, The X-Files refers to the film.

(2.) This transformation mirrors the same sort of process that occurs in the Alien films starring Sigourney Weaver. In that series, the Lieutenant Ellen Ripley character is transformed from a position of clear separation from the alien other in the first film to a psychological alliance with the alien queen by nature of their shared, though very different, "motherhood" in the second of the series. In Alien3 Lieutenant Ripley is implanted with an alien fetus, and so contains the alien within herself, and in the final installment she actually becomes, genetically and behaviorally, part alien. The X-Files film and the Alien series share many similarities, from a dangerously short-sighted corporate or quasi-governmental alliance with the aliens to the appearance and behavior of the aliens themselves. These similarities, particularly as they intersect with reproductive and sexual concerns, make the parallel experiences of the films' heroines even more relevant.

(3.) In "Word-Healers and Code-Talkers: Native Americans in The X-Files," Eleanor Hersey links the show's ambiguous representation of "the truth" and its portrayals of aliens to a postmodern tendency to posit "multiple truths based on cultural, racial, and gendered perceptions" (111). The ever-shifting nature of the "truth" in this sense aligns quite well with the changing motivates, desires, and alliances of characters on both The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

WORKS CITED

Creed, Barbara. "Alien and the Monstrous-Feminine," Ed. A. Kuhn. Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. London: Verso, 1990. 128-41.

Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. "Psychoanalysis, Film, and Television." Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 2nd ed. Ed. Robert C. Allen, Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987. 203-46.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Ed. and trans. J. Strachey. New York: Avon, 1965.

Green, Philip. Cracks in the Pedestal: Ideology and Gender in Hollywood Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998.

Hersey, Eleanor. "Word-Healers and Code-Talkers: Native Americans in The X-Files." Journal of Popular Film and Television 26.3 (Fall 1998): 108-19.

Hoberman, J. Rev, of Aliens. Village Voice July 22, 1986: 52.

Klein, Melanie. "Mourning and Its Relation to Manic-Depressive States." The Selected Melanie Klein. Ed. Juliet Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 1987.

-----. "Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms." The Selected Melanie Klein. Ed. Juliet Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 1987.

-----. and Joan Riviere. Love, Hate and Reparation. New York: Norton, 1964.

Murphy, K. "The Last Temptation of Sigourney Weaver." Film Comment 28 (1992): 17-20.

Newton, J. "Feminism and Anxiety in Alien." Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Ed. A. Kuhn. London: Verso, 1990. 82-87.

Paul, William. Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Heldref Publications

Source: Written by Beth Braun

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