Human to Beast: Transfiguration in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

by Emma Hartman

The first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Buffy for short, contains many stand-alone episodes–mostly featuring metaphorical monsters and demons–which parallel issues that teens may encounter in real life. Each of the twelve episodes in the season feature either a creature who was at one time a person or a person who will become a creature during the course of the episode. The most obvious example of a creature born from a human is a vampire, and these are seen in almost every episode of Buffy. However, the episodes that feature a non-vampire transformation include students who are possessed by hyenas, a man who turns into a ventriloquist dummy, and a girl who turns invisible. Through the manipulation of the human form into an undesirable state, the episodes demonstrate the danger of losing one’s humanity. By tying moral standards to the maintenance of a human form, the episodes warn of divergence from acceptable behavior. In addition, the episodes suggest that one’s humanity is always at risk of becoming warped and defiled because every transformation is caused by an uncontrollable outside force. In turn, the monster transformations in the first season of Buffy serve to elevate the status of humanity and to justify Buffy’s mission to rid the Earth of the monsters’ reign and influence.

In the episode “The Pack,” students sneak into an off-limits hyena exhibit and are possessed by the demonic hyenas when they stumble onto an ancient symbol written on the floor by the zookeeper. When these students return to school, they behave like hyenas, travelling in a pack and laughing at their classmates. This episode first warns of the risks of breaking rules: specifically sneaking into places where one doesn’t belong. Secondly, it reflects a common issue in high school: bullying and teasing. “The Pack” exaggerates this phenomenon by having the bullies not only mock people, but also eat them. By conflating the way that hyenas behave with the way that high school bullies behave, “The Pack” compares poor treatment of others with becoming animalistic or primitive, and thus warns against regression. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen states of the first werewolf in Western literature that “the horribly fascinating loss of Lycaon’s humanity merely reifies his previous moral state” (13). In the same way, the students’ transformation into hyenas solidifies their previous moral state. This transformation serves to define a certain standard of behavior as essentially human by associating it with the human form, while divergent behavior is seen as bestial.

“Out of Mind, Out of Sight” also deals with a form of bullying in high school: ostracization. In the episode, a student named Marcie turns invisible because no one, not even her teacher, pays attention to her. This episode provides social commentary on the effects that seemingly inconsequential acts can have on others. It also creates awareness of what it feels like to be completely alone by making it physically impossible for Marcie to be acknowledged by anyone. Similar to the episode “The Pack,” this episode exaggerates a common high school phenomenon. Her isolation causes Marcie to become homicidal towards those who caused her to lose her body, and thus she becomes a monster in her own right. Marcie inspires fear not only because of her invisibility and her violence but also because she evokes a category crisis. Marcie inhabits the border of existing/not existing and human/other. Both category crisis and border policing are central to the concept of the monster as Jeffrey Cohen outlines it in his essay, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” (Cohen 6). Because Buffy still considers Marcie to be partially human, Buffy cannot kill her. However, Buffy must stop the monstrous Marcie from trying to kill fellow students. Marcie’s state creates unease because her transformation argues that to be a human with worth and dignity, one must be acknowledged as such by peers.

In “The Puppet Show,” a demon hunter named Sid is turned into a ventriloquist dummy and will not be released from this curse until he manages to kill the Brotherhood of Seven, demons who harvest organs in order to obtain human bodies for themselves. This episode demonstrates an interesting contrast to previous themes. Not only is a human transformed into something almost human but disturbingly divergent—a wooden doll, but also the demons will stop at nothing to become human themselves. This episode elevates the status of humanity through the coveting of the human body by demons and by the dummy, whose goal is to regain his own human form. It establishes the human form as ideal and divergent states as other and to be avoided. After it is revealed that Sid started with a human body and was forced to become something else, he is portrayed sympathetically. However, because the Brotherhood of Seven start as demons and want to become human through the sacrifice of living people, they are established as monstrous. This episode reinforces the elevated status of the human body, and thus other episodes about transfiguration become more effective in their message. Buffy is able to justify her mission to preserve the human race when she helps Sid recover his coveted human form, although it is too late to save his life, and when she stops the demon from appropriating a human body for himself.

Through various forms of transformation, the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer demonstrates a “correct” and “incorrect” way to behave towards others by turning issues that teens often grapple with into metaphorical storylines. The human body and humanistic behavior are linked together visually, and thus moral divergence can easily be illustrated. Through the hyena transformation, it is demonstrated that wrong actions can negatively impact one’s own welfare as well as that of others. The invisible girl serves to show the poor treatment of others and attempts to raise awareness about the effects of ostracization on people. Finally, the Brotherhood of Seven, who murder in order to obtain a human body, illustrate just how dangerous it is to exist on the outskirts of humanity. The demons also demonstrate the dangers of association when they cast a spell on Sid, the demon hunter, which causes him to also lose his human body. Together, these episodes work to promote normative humanity, including morally pure behavior, and by association also promote Buffy’s mission to vanquish all vampires and demons from the Earth in order to restore its peace as well as its morality.

Works Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1996, pp. 3-25.

“Out of Mind, Out of Sight.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, directed by Bruce Seth Green and Joss Whedon, The WB, 1997.

“The Pack.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, directed by Bruce Seth Green and Joss Whedon, The WB, 1997.

“The Puppet Show.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, directed by Bruce Seth Green and Joss Whedon, The WB, 1997.