In the tenth episode of the first season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, PLEASE HOLD ME. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Buffy.
For nearly a decade, mine was the same thing.
I’m in a forest. The trees seem impossibly high, and I mean that in the sense that they weren’t densely packed, yet I still couldn’t see the tops of them. They were redwoods, maybe, tall, skinny trees with foliage near the top. The trunks were scaly with thick bark and I’d always start in the same place: in between two trees whose trunks somehow grew together about five feet above my head.
That’s when the yelling would start. The trees began with a low moan, and then seconds later, they were yelling at me. The message was always the same: We’re coming. You can’t escape us. You’re worthless. We’re coming. Come back, Mark. Stop running.
And I would run, every single time. I’d dart through the trees, my legs pumping, leaping over logs and debris, and even though I’d been a runner for a long time, it would always be a few seconds before my muscles were on fire. I was exhausted, and I’d press on, terrified of the trees.
They were moving. The trees were moving, purposely falling towards me to trap me and squash me, yelling at me, condescending voices filling the space in the forest. I tried running faster, but now I was tripping constantly, falling to my knees and crawling along the undergrowth, and I could hear trees crashing to the ground next to me.
The worst part was when time would slow. It would happen every time, and it would last even after I finally woke up. I would see every detail of that forest, and sometimes, if I concentrated real hard, I could see ants on the trunk of a tree that fell next to me. The voices of the trees would turn demonic from being stretched out, but I still knew exactly what they were saying, and the shame and the fear mixed together and I hated this nightmare every time I had it. I’d wake up, heart pounding, sweat soaking me and the sheets, and time would still seem to be drifting by slowly, like pollen in a spring breeze.
It was such an awful nightmare because the effects of it wouldn’t go away for at least five minutes after I woke up. I’d feel like I woke up with the power to control time, but in one of the least convenient ways imaginable. I remember years later, when I saw a therapist regularly for the first time in my life, I told her about that dream. Despite that I’ve not had it since I was about sixteen, she could tell it affected me on a visceral level. It doesn’t take a therapist, though, to see how easily that dream relates back to the fear and shame that was given to me by my mother, but I sure as hell wish that my subconscious mind had chosen a LESS TERRIFYING WAY TO CONVEY THIS MESSAGE TO ME. Also HEY MIND: I ALREADY KNEW MY MOTHER WAS TERRIBLE TO ME. STOP REMINDING ME IN MY DREAMS.
That’s the thing about nightmares, though, that’s so fucked up about them: they can take stresses, fears, and concerns and magnify them in a way that makes you feel like THE WHOLE WORLD IS ENDING. Which doesn’t mean they’re all like that, obviously. I’ve had my fair share of nightmares that are so nonsensical and bizarre that, upon waking up, I felt embarrassed that they frightened me so much. (For real, I once had a nightmare that I was force fed milk on live television, and then the entire tabloid circuit ran stories that I was the worst vegan on the planet. COME ON, BRAIN. THAT DOESN’T EVEN MAKE SENSE.)
“Nightmares” is easily my favorite episode of season one so far, and the beauty of it is layered and complex. It is, first and foremost, creepy as fuck. I’d just pulled my laundry out of the dryer prior to starting this episode and I was folding a shirt when the spiders came out of Wendell’s text book. I’m not particularly scared of spiders, but in certain contexts, I can be. THIS IS ONE OF THEM. Oh my god, seriously, I knew after that cold open that this episode was going to go straight for the fucked up, and I was so excited.
This episode is essentially a forty-five minute experiment in showing the world that Joss Whedon can create nightmare fuel like it’s a walk in the park. “Nightmares” is pervasively creepy, and I was so impressed how dense the plot went. This would have been a good episode had the main five characters been the ones to deal with nightmares, but Whedon is certainly not satisfied with that. This story posits the idea that nightmares could come real in a social sense, almost as if it was a communicable disease. Even better, Whedon doesn’t ignore that people have multiple fears; few of us are only afraid of one single thing. Because of that, we watch Cordelia, Giles, Xander, Willow, and Buffy all have to face many fears all coming alive over the course of this episode. As this happens, this all just gets weirder and weirder, until the final ten minutes are like an explosion of the theater of the absurd.
It’s done beautifully, and it’s honestly one of the best single episodes of television I’ve seen. But this alone isn’t what makes “Nightmares” so fantastic. The personal and emotional stories of both Buffy and Billy are truly what make this such a memorable story. It’s here that I see just what sort of talent Sarah Michelle Gellar possesses given the right lines and the right context. The cold open introduces us first to the concept of Buffy’s father, who hasn’t even been mentioned until now. It turns out that Buffy’s parents divorced (amicably, it seems). For the first time in the series, her father is coming around to spend the weekend with her, and it’s a source of anxiety for Buffy. I don’t know much history about the two, but I assume that since his appearances are sort of rare, she worries that he won’t show. Maybe he hasn’t before?
That fear comes out during another nightmare sequence, and even though we all know that Billy is causing these events, that they aren’t real, it doesn’t make her father’s rejection any less painful. In fact, it’s one of the more brutal emotional moments on television that I can call. It’s so goddamn cruel, but that’s exactly what so many people fear, myself included. It’s bad enough to be rejected by a person for any reason, but to be specifically told that your parents divorced because you are an awful child? That’s gutting. That’s life-endingly terrible!
It’s such a bold and terrifying move for the show to take, especially this early in its existence, and I love it. It makes the end of it so much more powerful, when Buffy runs into her father’s arms and knows that what he said earlier was all in her head. But it’s also a sign of how Whedon understands that the worst fears are the ones that prey on your emotions. We see Willow’s ultimate fear, and it’s one based on public embarrassment. Xander’s fears rest on a similar idea, but his involves him being stripped of his “coolness.” (Sorry, I had to use that pun. HAD TO.) It’s also related to Cordelia’s true fear, in which her beauty and social standing have disappeared as well. For Giles, not only is the loss of his intellect terrifying, but losing Buffy is the ultimate horror for him. Plus, Buffy’s fear of being turned into a vampire kind of works well into that, doesn’t it?
On that same note, I was impressed and overjoyed at how Whedon and company handled the character of Billy. He was purposely portrayed as the evil spirit child entity thing from the beginning, and I was pleasantly surprised at the subversion of the trope by making him unable to control the expansion of the nightmare events. And when it came to light that he may have been both abused and violently attacked, I thought the show handled it with tact, portraying it in a way that highlighted the sheer trauma of what that experience is like. I won’t go into details since I’ve spoken about it so openly before, but being abused and attacked as a child or a young teenager does feel like a waking nightmare, and the people who perpetrate it are just like monsters in your mind.
I’m even glad that the coach was held accountable for his actions in the end. It was a tad sloppy, as if the writers ran out of time to give it a full closure and realized they had to tack on an ending in just sixty seconds, but I’m still glad it’s there.
God, this was such a fantastic episode. I adore it. Also FUCK THE UGLY MAN AND HIS CLUB ARM THAT IS SO FUCKING CREEPY. sweet summer child, I need to be held.