Any episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer could be a Halloween episode, but there are only three official holiday-themed ones, in seasons two, four, and six. It might seem surprising that this show wouldn’t lean into the Halloween-spirit every year, but it makes sense in the show’s internal logic, because supernatural beings find Halloween gauche. To mortals, Halloween is the one spooky night a year to embrace thrills and the phantasmal. To vampires and demons… that’s every day. To them, the mortals playing tourist in their own quotidian experiences is boorish. Imagine you’re a vampire; if you’re like the vampires in BtVS, you’re looking cool as hell in either a trench coat and boots, or a Victorian nightgown, and you see a bunch of weak mortals drunkenly pretending to be you, with geeky capes and plastic teeth. Lame! So the real vampires and demons take the night off, giving Buffy and the Scooby Gang the night off too.
Except, of course, when they don’t get the night off. In season four’s “Fear Itself” no actual supernaturals are interested in exploiting the holiday, but a haunted house at a fraternity turns ugly when what was supposed to be a purely decorative summoning circle actually summons a demon who feeds on fear. In a semi-corporeal state, the fear demon is powerful, terrifying the party guests as well as murdering a few of them, but when it takes full corporeal form, it’s only a very small creature with a squeaky voice. The lesson here is that fear is only as powerful as you let it be, and that tracing fear to its source often reveals the way to conquer it. This is one role Halloween plays in the lives of the living; it’s an opportunity to explore our fears. One way mortals do this is through the Halloween tradition of watching horror films. A lot of people find scary movies too stressful, but many more find them stress relieving, because they offer the opportunity to let your fears run wild in a safe, contained scenario. The fears we experience in real life don’t always come to a clean conclusion, but a movie has a definite ending, and we can feel a release of tension. Annually confronting your fears can be helpful and cathartic for mortals, but not for vampires and demons; they bring the fear every day.
Season two’s “Halloween” is about the other role Halloween plays in mortal life: exploring chosen identities. Once again, the Halloween-bad-guy isn’t a supernatural being with a particular distaste for Halloween; he’s just a mortal man who dabbles in magic. Ethan Rayne, who is Giles’ old friend from their leather-jacket-wearing-cigarette-smoking-demon-summoning-youth, opens a Halloween costume store (geez, this seems like a convoluted plan), and casts a spell to make his customers turn into their costumes. He persuades Buffy to buy a 1700’s proper lady dress, so she’ll be vulnerable to any actual vampire who might want to attack her.
Consequentially, each member of the Scooby Gang learns a valuable lesson about being themselves and choosing who they want to be. Buffy learns that her slayer-ness, in addition to being a sacred duty, is also a gift. It’s cool that she’s a badass fighter, even if it means showing up late for dates with dirty hair sometimes, and her ancient boyfriend is cool with it too. Willow, who had been cajoled by Buffy into wearing a sexy Halloween outfit before chickening out at the last minute and throwing a sheet over herself to be a ghost, turns into a ghost wearing a sexy outfit. As the only Scooby Gang member who remembers who she and everyone is, she is forced into the leadership role she would have otherwise shunned. Forced to put aside her self-consciousness about her outfit, she does what she has to, to save the day, and learns to have confidence in herself and her abilities. Xander turns into a soldier, and for the rest of the series has inexplicable residual “soldier knowledge.” Xander will never fully learn the confidence that Willow does, but this episode is his first chance to be the fighter and protector he deeply wants to be, and the aforementioned “soldier knowledge” will repeatedly come in handy in his relentless attempts to live up to his own expectations. Giles doesn’t get a cool costume transformation, but he does beat the crap out of Ethan Rayne, who represents his past self, solidifying his choice to be the good guy he wants to be.Continued below
In her encouraging talks with Willow, Buffy calls Halloween “come as you aren’t night.” It’s an opportunity to choose to be a version of yourself that may otherwise be denied to you by pressures from friends, lovers, or your past, by your own insecurities, or by the limitations of reality itself. Vampires and demons can’t relate to that. They know exactly who they are, and they are their true authentic selves at all times without any shame or hesitation, and that’s why Halloween is just for mortals.
The season six Halloween episode has similar things to say in a less funny or eloquent way. Dawn and her buddy each tell their respective guardians they’re sleeping at the other one’s house while they go on a daring adventure pulling mean Halloween pranks and making out with a couple of boys who turn out to be vampires. Meanwhile, Willow is using magic too much, conjuring decorations for Xander and Anya’s last-minute engagement party, and shifting a whole crowd of people into another dimension, just for a second, to find Dawn. Both Dawn and Willow are spending Halloween exploring their own “bad” sides. These are the versions of themselves they suppress because of judgments from their friends, but also because of their own sense of morality. Do vampires and demons need a holiday to explore their dark sides? Nope! Lame!
While Spike beats up the vampires attacking Dawn and her friend, he calls them out for breaking the Halloween taboo. One of them responds, “We’re rebels,” and Spike remains unimpressed. Halloween is for mortals to experiment with their true authentic selves, to explore their bad sides, and to address their fears. Vampires and demons have no use for those things. For them, participating in Halloween isn’t rebellious, it’s just uncouth. So to all the mortal readers, Happy Halloween! To everyone else, have an uneventful night off.