FEATURE: Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Killed by Death
Previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Angel's gone all evil after sleeping with Buffy and has stepped up the psychological torture, killing Jenny who is the only person who could have restored his soul. Said ritual is now on a floppy disc (remember those?!) down the side of her desk.
Buffy is struck down with a severe bout of flu which seriously impacts on her slayage. In a confrontation with Angel, she is nearly killed and collapses at the scene. Whilst in the hospital, she learns that children have been dying mysteriously and a boy named Ryan tells her that Death is coming for the children. In feverish dreams, she sees a grotesque figure stalking the children and comes to the conclusion that there is something malevolent at work in Sunnydale General.
I have a small confession to make. I haven't watched Killed by Death since the first time I saw it when I was eleven years old. It was the only Buffy episode to have ever scared me silly. And when I say silly, I mean 'kept the light on, didn't sleep very well, was determined Der Kindestod was coming to get me type' silly. I never went back to watch it again, even on my other re-watches. You see the sacrifices I'm willing to make for you, dear Reader?
Watching it back, it isn't quite so scary as I remember, though there is a very definite sense of dread creeping throughout the episode (it helps not being a child anymore and therefore not a key part of Der Kindestod's diet). The prospect of Buffy being off her game and weak is already a bad one; we're so used to her being indestructible that seeing her nearly killed by Angel early on establishes the high stakes of this particular instalment. This is also aided by following on from Passion; we've seen Angel kill someone close to the gang now and it means that he feels even more dangerous as an adversary now. He's predatory too, cropping up at the hospital with flowers only to be warded off by a defiant Xander. On top of all of this, the foe that Buffy needs to fight is largely unseen, appearing in doorways and snickering in the background.
Der Kindestod is a great example of the special effects and design work that goes into making a Buffy villain. There's clear nods ahead to the design of the Gentlemen who appear later in the series; his elegant, long fingers and bowler hat giving him the oddest air of a banker with a bad skin problem and an underbite the Druids could use as a place of worship.* Similarly to the aforementioned Gentleman, there's a fairytale quality to Der Kindestod that adds to his creepiness; like Freddie Kreuger or Goethe's Erlking, he preys and feeds on children, taking them from under the watchful gaze of the adults. That the children must be ill and therefore even weaker makes him a truly despicable villain and surely one of the worst in Buffy's considerable list of adversaries.
The rewatch of Killed by Death also happened to coincide with me reading Stephen King's It, something which is thematically similar to the narrative here. In both stories, it is a monster who preys on children who cannot be seen by adults, forcing the children to take their own action and confront their fears. As King writes, 'The fears of children are simpler and usually more powerful' and this gets to the heart of why both It and Killed by Death are so scary. Children always possess vivid imaginations when it comes to scary things. Pennywise the Clown can easily be dismissed as the project of an over-active fear complex, likewise, because the adults can't see Der Kindestod, they ignore his existence. Cordelia even states outright that Buffy is making it up in order to have something to fight. Children aren't believed when they say there is a scary monster under their bed.
Watching this episode when I was eleven, I wasn't just seeing something for Buffy to fight, I was seeing a demon that was tailored specifically to get me. The fact that he lurks in doorways and has weird creepy eye tentacle things just made it that much worse. I had nightmares about Der Kindestod for a good couple of weeks after the episode aired and as I said before, I never went back to it. I've just finished reading It and I've also been scared stupid by it. There's something powerful in both narratives' ideas of facing your childhood fears and overcoming them. Der Kindestod may have been a small, fleeting one for me (compared with my ongoing battle with porcelain dolls), but even just going back to this episode felt like I'd said goodbye to something that used to scare the crap out of me.
Another link between both this episode and King's novel is the theme of survivor's guilt, faced by both Buffy and Bill Denborough in their respective stories. For Buffy, it's the double whammy of not being able to kill Angel before he killed Jenny and not being able to save her cousin Celia when she was younger. If there's a problem with Killed by Death, then it's here because it just doesn't push that psychology with Buffy enough.
We get a few fleeting references as to how Celia died and that it affected Buffy by giving her a lifelong fear of hospitals, but there are very little consequences to this. It should have been entirely about Buffy overcoming this fear, learning that she can't save everyone and saving children in the process. In It , Bill eventually comes to terms with his brother's death over a long, troubled period from childhood to adulthood when he is forced once again to face the thing that killed it. Obviously, the novel has more room to explore this (and at 1400-odd pages, does so very well), but it felt like Buffy dropped the ball a little on the thematics of this episode.
That aside, it's still a chilling episode and one that I don't think gets enough credit in the Buffy fandom. I may be slightly biased as this is the first time I've seen it in thirteen years and I had quite the visceral reaction to it the first time round, but it's more than just a filler episode. It's just a shame that it only hints towards some strong character development, rather than actually following it through.
*Always wanted to link Buffy and Red Dwarf somehow. There'll be another one in Season 6 - props to people who can tell me what and in which episode.
Quote of the Week:
Xander: You don't know how to kill this thing.
Buffy: I thought I might try violence.
Let's Get Trivial: One of the things I loved on seeing this episode again was the reference to DC Comics' Power Girl and Buffy playing her in games with Celia. Our Summers has always been a superhero.
You can read Becky's look at Passion here.