Claiming Spuffy: 20 years after its most hated episode, fanfic moves Buffy forward

[Ed note: This article discusses attempted rape and sexual violence in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.]

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 25th anniversary is this year, but this May presents another, darker milestone. Twenty years ago this month, UPN aired the 19th episode of season 6, “Seeing Red,” in which a beloved queer character is murdered. Unrelated but equally devastating, the vampire Spike, ostensibly hoping to reignite the flame he and Buffy had shared earlier that season, sexually assaults Buffy in her own bathroom. Afterward, Spike, horrified by his actions, goes to get a soul, a development that becomes key to the final, seventh season. We don’t learn how — or even if — the assault affects Buffy. The show moves on and expects us to do so, too.

It’s safe to call “Seeing Red” the show’s most hated and hurtful episode, to its fans and even its actors — a hurt that takes on even graver significance in light of allegations that its creator, Joss Whedon, exhibited a pattern of abuse. The episode has been condemned in Vice, Slashfilm, Syfy, CNN, Salon, and Vulture for being irresponsible, harmful storytelling, and incongruent with Spike’s character besides. To make the vampire’s soul-seeking plausible, the episode inflicts trauma on a woman — “a very cheap and overdone plot point” in television and fiction, in the words of Holly Atkinson, a writer and one of five founders of Elysian Fields, the internet home for fanfiction about Spuffy (the Spike/Buffy ship). And the episodes and season that follow make no space for the Slayer’s experience of trauma, propelling the pernicious myth that it is “strong” for Buffy to ignore it.

Buffy had always treated trauma inconsistently, focusing on it when it advanced character development or plot. At the same time, the show treated Sunnydale citizens’ pathological amnesia, as murder after demonic murder occurs, as a perpetual punchline. But the show’s writers devoted ample time to Buffy processing her mother’s death in season 5, for example, and Buffy’s magical resurrection at the start of season 6. The inconsistency around an attempted rape calls into question whether the creators understood the seriousness of what they’d written into being.

“The entire point of that was not to tell a Buffy story,” noted Atkinson. “It was to tell a Spike story, and they did it by assaulting her. I will never forgive them for that.”

A close up shot of Spike, from the season 2 episode “School Hard” Image: 20th Century Fox Television via Hulu

As a fan of Buffy and Spike, watching “Seeing Red” for the first time made me feel like I’d been chopped in half by hands that, until that point, I’d mostly trusted. For many fans, “Seeing Red” irrevocably destroyed the Spuffy ship and any affection for the Spike who’d come before — valid and understandable reactions. For some, it was only workable to enjoy the show by avoiding “Seeing Red” on rewatch, to the extent that such a blind spot is possible. This is my current approach. In my personal “canon,” there is plenty to love about the first 106 episodes, and the show “ends” after season 5, with a short coda through season 6’s seventh, cathartic musical episode. In it, the ensemble cast aptly sings “Where Do We Go From Here?” (and Buffy kisses Spike, with consensual romantic intent, for the first time). I watch with a knot in my gut, wishing for an alternate universe where this is a show I’d want to keep watching.

So if “Seeing Red” felt like an amputation, fanfiction has become a kind of triage. It’s in the Spuffy fanfiction community where fans continue to grapple — often with far more emotional intelligence than the show displayed — with one of the most fascinating relationships in television history. “I think we strive to provide a supportive, healthy environment for authors, readers, artists, and beta readers to engage in the community,” one moderator, who has been part of Elysian Fields for seven years, told me.

This community is highly active, especially considering that it’s been a quarter century since the series debuted on The WB. It provides a space both for Spuffy fans who want to spend time, for pure pleasure, in situations and worlds where Spike never assaulted Buffy, and for those who want to thoughtfully reimagine what happened through “stories which attempt to properly handle the fallout from that incident in ways the show could not,” as the EF moderator put it.

The site was founded by five Spuffy fans and authors about 15 years ago as an archive for Spuffy fics that had lived elsewhere across the internet and were in danger of disappearing. But it quickly became a space for sharing new fics, too. Authors uploaded chapters as they completed them, a serial format that mirrored the breathless anticipation preceding a new episode drop. Lurkers and authors alike could comment, so writing feedback was immediate and gratifying. “We’re bouncing ideas off of each other, and we’re discovering new what-ifs,” said Atkinson of the experience.

Pandemic bingeing habits, combined serendipitously with Buffy streaming on Hulu, have “made the community explode,” said Atkinson. The site had more than 900 authors and close to 25,000 members as of April, and attracted Gen Z fans who’ve also fallen hard for Buffy. Atkinson, an older fan and self-described feminist who’d grown up as more or less a contemporary of the Slayer, said she finds the influx of new voices about the show’s characters, tropes, and poorly aged conventions “refreshing.” Many of these “meta conversations” happen in the Elysian Fields Discord, which launched earlier this year. The day before I spoke with Atkinson, she said, there’d been a long discussion there about the way in which the show inconsistently acknowledged consent violations, which often went so far as to frame them comedically.

Like a lot of slash, Spuffy stories on EF employ trigger warnings and a rating system (G through NC-17); run the gamut from playful fluff to epic fantasy; and use varying POV characters. I’ve read steamy one-off scenes, madcap road trip fics, and veritable novels, which take place as far from Sunnydale as Scotland. I’m new, having joined during the pandemic, but it seems that over the years, the moderators — some departed, others new — have managed to foster a unique, largely supportive culture of feedback: Several stories have garnered more than 2,000 comments. They’ve also maintained seasonal “challenges” (writing prompts), fiction awards, banner art exchanges, and an annual Secret Santa where the gift is a fic.

I’ve found in EF a robust community of fans engaging in critical conversations. They are using a site whose LiveJournal-like design is stuck somewhere in the mid-aughts — I note this with affection — to move Spuffy, and Buffy, forward, engaging with questions about love, sex, friendship, duty, trauma, morality, mortality. These are all heavy subjects that the series raised — in ways often underappreciated — but at times mishandled. Through fic, writers are making space for the erotic pleasures that the show often seemed to punish Buffy for enjoying, all while paying tribute to the parts of the show that still resonate. For EF members, that includes one bleach-blond vampire in particular.

Buffy on top of Spike, in a grave, in the season 6 episode “Once More, With Feeling” Image: 20th Century Fox Television via Hulu

Spike crashed, literally, into Sunnydale in season 2. A Britpunk vampire, perennially draped in boot-length leather like some kind of Shakespearean queen, he was beautiful, captivating camp, all lethal cheekbones, Bowie jaw, goth nails, and helmet of platinum hair. He was also an unusual vampire for the show: intelligent, irreverent, sensitive, and crafty, positioned as the Slayer’s worthiest adversary. His creators had intended to kill him off after five episodes. But Spike was delicious, magnetically fun to watch, and that was due entirely to the talent of James Marsters, the actor who played him across all the character’s contradictory registers from humor to pathos. Spike stayed.

I’ll admit that Spike’s aesthetic appealed to me. But I was also fascinated by the character’s complexity. As a mixed-race, queer only child of an immigrant, who had grown up straddling worlds, I found aspects of myself in Spike’s blurred identities and seemingly incompatible desires. I lived in overlaps, sometimes alone, and so did he. From the vampire’s earliest scenes, we see a character fluent between worlds, smudging the line between good and evil, hapless poet and probably bisexual monster, Slayer accomplice and creature of the night. It’s this switchiness, this genre defiance, this agility in navigating multiple realities, that helps Spike evolve and come into his power.

It’s also, in my mind, what gave the character his ineffable queerness. In his backstory, mixed-up identities, tenderness, and posturing, “I do think that there’s a queer reading to Spike, whether it’s subtext or text,” said Ian Carlos Crawford, host of the self-proclaimed queer, Latinx Buffy podcast Slayerfest 98. And Spuffy also played with elements that felt queer to me, with its flirtations with kink, power play, and even gender expression.

Most of all, Spike complicated Buffy’s black-and-white concept of good versus evil. The show positioned soulless vampires as bad, and slayers killed vampires; the monsters served as metaphors for the challenges of adolescence. “It was supposed to be binary — I think that was the intention going into season 1,” said Atkinson. “The problem is, that by itself is not very interesting.” But Spike’s feelings for his lover, the vampire Drusilla, and the truce he forges with Buffy in the season 2 finale, shook up that simplistic framing.

Buffy and Spike standing next to each other. Image: 20th Century Fox Television via Hulu

“The more I know, the more confused I get,” Buffy laments in one season 2 episode. She asks her Watcher if life gets easier. “It’s terribly simple,” he quips. “The good guys are always stalwart and true [and] the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats.” “Liar,” she replies. To me, this scene contains the show’s best, truest thesis: There is no black and white, only gray. In all my mixed identities, this made me love the show, for all the whiteness of its casting and all of its flagrant flaws.

“Seeing Red,” in recasting Spike as having been mere evil all along, seemed to trash this thesis — not because people who do good deeds can’t also be rapists, but because his quest for a soul returned a soul good, vampire bad ethos to a show that had long ago left such uncomplicated ideas behind. And much of Spuffy fanfiction challenges this binary thinking through the lens of desire that I find most healing.

As of April, Elysian Fields is home to more than 6,000 Spuffy fics, many of them works in progress. I’ve read a number that are set before “Seeing Red,” that rework events, fill in gaps in the narrative, or create alternate timelines and realities. This is, after all, a Spuffy space, and many writers and readers come here for the most pleasurable parts of that dynamic. But a number of stories do grapple directly with the scene. Ellie Rose McKee, a writer and EF moderator who has been a member of the site since 2013, said they’ve read “dozens of stories” that rewrite events so the attempted rape never happens, or that address Buffy’s experience afterward more responsibly. “I’ve written both myself, and I’m not done exploring the topic,” McKee said. “It means that much to me.”

Atkinson, who is currently rewriting season 7 to address “the massive amounts of trauma that season 6 heaped on us,” brings her experience as a published novelist to her Spuffy fanfic, and is working with a sensitivity reader for this project. She’s also integrating feedback from EF members who are survivors.

“Since I’m not a sexual assault survivor, I want to make sure that when I’m presenting Buffy’s narration, that I’m doing her justice, that I am getting into her thought process, because the show didn’t give us that,” she said. “I want [my fics] to be as — I mean, we’re talking about vampires — but as realistic as possible and as sensitive to the subject matter as possible, without exploiting it, which I feel the show did.”

Like many Buffy fans, I would prefer not to think about “Seeing Red” at all. But the community at Elysian Fields has given me space to imagine Buffy and Spike outside the limited vision of their creator. It has been regenerative to witness fans sew new layers of pleasure and compassion — and often deep sensitivity to trauma and recovery — into these characters through their own varied stories. That’s what any creative work is: a living thing. All these years later, the surge in popularity of a Spuffy fanfic site is evidence enough that you can no more control the things you make as predict what they’ll mean to someone else. That Spike’s character has helped me think more critically and joyfully about how I inhabit my fluid identities is proof of that.

“The beauty of fan fiction is that it gives those most invested in the narrative the power to control it,” said McKee. “And that’s where the fans have stepped in and written their own endings. Their own resolutions.”

Like television writers, fanfic authors are engaged in stories that are serial; responsive; loyal to what came before, but recasting past events; deepening existing characters; posing new possibilities. It is a way of reshaping, with love, a story that has no inherent end. In Spuffy’s case, it’s still a story worth retelling.