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A slayer’s lineage: 9 pop cultural precursors to Buffy

Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (left), Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Photo: Getty Images/Handout; Screenshot: YouTube)
Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy The Vampire Slayer (left), Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Photo: Getty Images/Handout; Screenshot: YouTube)

When Buffy The Vampire Slayer debuted on The WB in 1997, it signaled a new direction for the fledgling netlet, a pivot toward audiences who could see themselves reflected in Buffy Summers and her Sunnydale High classmates. Of course, it’s the distinctions between Buffy and all previous TV teens that made all the difference: “Into every generation, there is a chosen one,” the show’s introduction intoned, setting up the slayer’s genre-bending battle with vampires, demons, and other phantasmagorical stand-ins for adolescent woes, a crusade whose impact was eventually felt beyond The WB (and, later, UPN). But no work of art, however groundbreaking, develops in a bubble—and certainly not one as knowingly steeped in pop culture as Buffy. Just as its title character was preceded by a long line of slayers who kept the forces of evil at bay, so too are there works that made it possible for Buffy and friends to save the world.

1. Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man #42

If Joss Whedon had his way, Spider-Man would have swung into the Marvel Cinematic Universe a little earlier—specifically, by way of an appearance in the writer-director’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron. But that movie had too many characters as it is. Besides, Whedon has basically already offered his take on the friendly neighborhood web-slinger in the form of one Buffy Summers. The lifelong comics lover (and occasional Marvel contributor) hasn’t officially cited the webhead as an influence, but think about it: Buffy may battle vampires (and other unholy forces) instead of colorful supervillains, wear unflattering ’90s ensembles instead of a full costume, and roll with backup instead of going it alone, but doesn’t she also still suffer plenty of what you might call Peter Parker problems? Buffy’s premise is basically Spider-Man reskinned: A wisecracking high-school misfit moonlights as a crime-fighter, constantly saving the city but not her grades, love life, or social standing. As with Spidey, a big key to Buffy’s appeal is the discrepancy between her dual lives—the fact that underneath the amazing slayer powers, she’s just a mixed-up, harried, relatable kid. As for the whole egghead quality, Willow’s got that side of the Parker profile covered. [A.A. Dowd]

2. Scooby-Doo

“If you wanna be a member of the Scooby Gang, you gotta be willing to be inconvenienced every now and then.” And with that riff on the limited-animation teen detectives formally known as Mystery Incorporated, Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s band of supernatural warriors received its own informal tag. It’s an offhand remark, but fairly accurate in terms of analogs: Buffy and Fred are bold (and blond) leaders, Willow and Velma are the bookish brains of their operations, scaredy-cat Xander is Shaggy, and Cordelia is so Daphne. (Once Oz joined up in season two, they even got a talking dog!) Mystery Inc.’s monstrous adversaries tended more toward the masked and made-up, but that didn’t prevent “Scoobies” from becoming preferred nomenclature within the Buffy canon and fandom. The series acknowledged its debts to Hanna-Barbera with the occasional sartorial shout-out and then repaid them in a big way in the spring of 2001, when Sarah Michelle Gellar split her time between Sunnydale and the Australian set of Scooby-Doo, the first of two big-screen outings in which she traded Buffy’s stakes for Daphne’s scarves. She couldn’t get away from all that damn pleather, though. [Erik Adams]

3. Anne Rice, The Vampire Chronicles (1976-2016)

For fans of vampire lore, Anne Rice remains a divisive figure. The author’s dozen-deep Vampire Chronicles series has sold a lot of copies, building an enormous fan base around its ongoing saga of ageless aristocratic ghouls lusting for more than just blood. At the same time, plenty of horror fans have rolled their eyes at what Interview With The Vampire and its sequels have wrought: endless waves of anguished amateur philosophers who spend as much time bemoaning their cursed existence as they do sinking their fangs into jugulars. It’s possible to see Buffy The Vampire Slayer as an irreverent spin on the Rice formula, given that Whedon’s bloodsuckers similarly retain their memories, personalities, and romantic baggage. (Who is Spike, really, but a snarkier Lestat?) But there’s plenty of sincere overlap between the two properties, especially in the depiction of Angel’s tortured, centuries-spanning backstory and in the way Whedon, like Rice before him, takes his vamps seriously—as multidimensional characters and love interests. Certainly, Buffy does more with Rice’s literary legacy than that other popular series about a May-December romance between a teenager and her pasty, brooding, undead admirer. [A.A. Dowd]

4. and 5. The Terminator (1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

Describing the recipe for Buffy Summers to Entertainment Weekly in 2010, Joss Whedon said this:

Take one cup Sarah Connor from the first Terminator movie; one cup Ripley; three tablespoons of the younger sister in Night Of The Comet; a few sprigs of A Little Princess—the book, not the movies; and a pinch of Jimmy Stewart for pain, because nobody does better pain. Bake those up. Once it’s cool, add a little Rosalind Russell from His Girl Friday. All of this must be in a P.J.-Soles-in-Halloween crust. That’s very important.

It’s wholly unsurprising that the Terminator franchise’s Sarah Connor is one of the main components. Like Buffy, James Cameron’s heroine is ordained to save the world through a prophecy she has no control over, and goes from reluctant participant in the fight to full-on warrior (though Buffy was able to maintain her sense of humor in the face of the apocalypse in a way that Sarah was not). Whedon cited the more naive Sarah of 1984’s The Terminator, but it’s easy to see the hardened fighter of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in Buffy as well. The latter was a phenomenon in the early part of the decade that would birth Buffy, and Sarah was a shorthand for ferocious female character. Plus, both she and Buffy share an affinity for tank tops. [Esther Zuckerman]

6. The Lost Boys (1987)

Joss Whedon has cited Joel Schumacher’s undead-sexy 1987 film as inspiring a key attribute of Buffy’s mythology: “The idea of them looking like monsters and then looking like people, that was in Lost Boys, and that was very useful for us,” he told Salon in 2003. “You could have somebody fool you, or someone like Angel seem like he’s not a vampire and then he is one.” The idea of vampires being able to change their appearance—or being pretty good-looking—certainly existed before the film, but The Lost Boys’ depiction of vampirism as a sudden unsightly swelling of the forehead marring one’s otherwise chiseled, underwear model features was a direct prototype for Buffy’s own bloodsuckers. Whedon also once told Entertainment Weekly that Spike is an amalgam of Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Billy Idol, and “every guy in a black coat,” while the ever-brooding Angel mirrors the similarly pouty-lipped torment of Jason Patric. Not to mention, of course, their shared concept of a group of quippy teens banding together to take on the vampires terrorizing a coastal California town. [Sean O’Neal]

7. Die Hard (1988)

At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between Buffy The Vampire Slayer and the film that made Bruce Willis a superstar. But look a little closer, and the connections start to become clear. Whedon has spoken extensively of his fondness for the 1988 action film set almost wholly within a single building, he gained notice among studios in the ’90s with a still-unproduced screenplay that’s essentially “Die Hard on a bridge,” and he punched up the dialogue for Speed, the “Die Hard on a bus” screenplay by fellow future Platinum Age showrunner Graham Yost. And the lessons of the John McTiernan-helmed movie seeped into Whedon’s writing: Just as Willis’ John McClane was an everyman, a radical shift from the ’roided-up beefcakes of most ’80s action movies, Buffy Summers was just an ordinary girl who found herself unwillingly thrown into extraordinary circumstances. (McClane and Summers are both wisecracking heroes who would rather be elsewhere.) Similarly, charismatic villain Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) gave audiences a bad guy they could enjoy watching as much as the protagonist, a conceit that reached its high point with the bad-to-good journey of Spike. Character runs deep in Buffy, and the popcorn blockbuster helped establish conventions Whedon put to excellent effect. [Alex McLevy]

8. Heathers (1988)

Much has been made of Joss Whedon’s vernacular—specifically, the fact that his characters have a penchant for speaking just a little bit differently than the average fictional creation. But really, what they mean is the teenagers on Buffy The Vampire Slayer spoke in a slang all their own. In discussing how he started to create this manner of speaking, Whedon has said he listened to teenagers while creating the show, and one thing stood out: “Everything they said was from Heathers.” Which makes sense: The 1988 film about vengeful teenagers comes readymade with endlessly quotable dialogue, delivered in an idiosyncratic style. Whedon took the lesson to heart and gave up on trying to make his characters talk the way he thought teens did, instead developing his own warped way with words, much as the Winona Ryder vehicle did, and hoping the audience would get on board. Which they did—extremely onboard-y. [Alex McLevy]

9. The X-Files (1993-2002)

Buffy wasn’t the first show of the ’90s built on a “monster of the week” formula and a tempestuous central relationship. Starting in 1993, The X-Files created a template that became the format for numerous subsequent genre series—Joss Whedon’s creation included. Whereas many procedurals before and after have only flirted with sustaining larger arcs among their one-off installments, The X-Files found massive success by having a constant, ongoing struggle with a larger nemesis at the same time as Mulder and Scully battled individual creatures, ensuring viewers would return as much for the larger mythology and world-building as for the beginning, middle, and end of a single episode. More, actually: While singular episodes will always stand out, the evolution of the relationship between Mulder and Scully and the constantly deepening mystery that grew and changed over the course of the seasons became the driving appeal for most fans. Every time Buffy and the gang beat back a demon, only to have the season’s Big Bad make things even worse, they had Chris Carter’s show to thank for lodging the idea in the television firmament. [Alex McLevy]