Revisiting The Cheese Man
It’s been 13 years, six months and 16 days since the last episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer aired, but the cult classic lives on through TV syndication, Netflix and DVD box sets. Not to mention, Dark Horse continues to publish comics for Buffy, as well as for the show’s spin-off, Angel.
Still, the show has left plenty of room for analysis. One figure, in particular, remains at the centre of an unsettled fan debate: the mysterious Cheese Man.
The Cheese Man makes his début in the season four finale, “Restless.” The episode itself is mainly composed of four dream sequences, each of which includes a brief appearance from the bald stranger. He reappears (uncredited, for a fraction of a second) in Andrew’s dream, in season seven’s “Storyteller,” and that’s it.
With only three lines and under a minute of screen time within the entire series, he continues to leave fans — both new and old — with questions. What is his purpose? Is he a metaphor? Who is the Cheese Man?
The Maybe Official Explanation
In the DVD commentary for “Restless,” Joss Whedon says the Cheese Man is “the only thing that has no meaning,” since “there is always something in the dream that doesn’t make any sense at all.” As series creator and Supreme Ruler of the ‘Buffyverse,’ Whedon is often seen as the best possible source for fan inquiries and deeper understanding. As such, many consider his words to be canon.
But many viewers have rejected the possibility that the character’s existence is purely random.
“People are already seeing metaphors and symbolism so heavily engraved into that series and getting that connection out of it,” says Melanie Mcllmoyle, owner of For Geek Sake! Jewelry.
A variety of fan theories have emerged over the years, providing alternative interpretations to Whedon’s lacklustre response. Longtime fan Heather McClure believes the Cheese Man “could be a nod to how cheese before bed can give you strange dreams.” She says she’s open to considering other possibilities.
Here are three of the most prominent fan theories that have stood the test of time:
1. The Cheese Man is Buffy
One of the most popular fan theories suggests that the Cheese Man stands as a representation of the slayer herself.
According to one analysis from 2004, the metaphor begins with the nursery rhyme, Farmer in the Dell, specifically for the line “the cheese stands alone.” The First Slayer tells Buffy “we are alone,” during her dream sequence. Immediately after, the Cheese Man appears and silently shakes two slices of cheese. Some believe this is meant to trigger the tune in the viewers’ memories, and by extension, signal the idea that Buffy stands alone.
Reddit user 3raserE points out other connections to support the theory. In Willow’s dream sequence, the Cheese Man says, “I’ve made a little space for the cheese slices.” This may be connected to one of the “major themes” of the fourth season — Buffy becoming distanced from her friends. While the user makes linkages between the title character and the rest of the Cheese Man’s quotes, they also clarify that, “to be clear, this is almost definitely nonsense.”
Finally, another Reddit user, elvan578, brings attention to a scene from an earlier episode, in which Buffy’s then-love interest, Riley, tried to break the ice through Buffy’s supposed liking for — wait for it — cheese. Coincidence?
2. The Cheese Man Connects Us
Likely in reference to Carl Jung’s theory of the “unconscious mind,” some viewers argue that the Cheese Man represents a belief that all humans are interconnected through dreams.
“By having the Cheese Man in all the different dreamscapes,” Mcllmoyle says, “it’s showing that connection that we all have.”
Along the same line, Mcllmoyle also believes the Cheese Man’s presence in every dream shows the personal connection shared between the core four characters. Ottawa fan Matt Fox calls the character a “visual cue,” letting the audience know that the separate dreams are actually a shared experience between Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy.
Though there seems to be less supporting evidence behind this theory than the first, it still remains a fan favourite.
3. The Cheese Man is Joss Whedon
Lastly, many fans have considered the Cheese Man to be the creator himself, inserted into the writing.
A commentator from the Dusted podcast elaborates:
“[it’s the] arbitrary kind of humour that Joss Whedon has been known to have.”
They suggest that Whedon’s “fleeting inability to keep his fingers out of this fictional world” is apparent in several of the show’s most memorable episodes, including this one. Another version of this theory looks at the Cheese Man as a symbol for Whedon’s embrace and mastery of “cheesiness.”
The theory might also explain why the Cheese Man is said to be meaningless. “Even Whedon doesn’t realize it,” the commentator says. New to Cheese Man theories, Reddit user IHeartTheNSA says, “I now know that Joss claims it was random, but that only makes me more certain it’s self-referential somehow.”
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Joss and his writing has almost had a Shakespearian sort-of influence on… pop culture,” says McClure. “there are things that I have been saying that I didn’t realize had their origin in Buffy.”
Whether a fan chooses to believe Whedon, one of the prominent existing theories or something they’ve come up with by their own imagination about the mysterious Cheese Man, one thing is certain — Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still proving itself to be a way for viewers across the board to connect. To many, the show continues to be a meaningful part of social life.
Got a theory? Tell me in the comments!