Vampire Slayer, Scholars’ Muse

Marquette helps fuel study of a beloved cult television heroine.

It’s late afternoon in Sensenbrenner Hall, and Dr. James South, professor of philosophy, and Dr. Gerry Canavan, assistant professor of English, are seated at a conference table amiably discussing the philosophical, moral and sociological implications of a teenage vampire huntress from fictional Sunnydale, California.

Yes, you read that correctly. Avid television viewers from the late 1990s and early 2000s will recognize this heroine as Buffy Summers, who spent eight seasons with friends from the “Scooby Gang” on the cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer, navigating the travails of high school and the growing presence of evil around her. (Sunnydale High sits atop the gate to, well, hell.)

Dr. James South (left) and Dr. Gerry Canavan (right)

The conversation between South and Canavan, however, reveals the show is registering with another audience— serious scholars. South is a 22-year faculty veteran specializing in Medieval and Renaissance philosophy and pop culture; Canavan’s writing on and teaching of contemporary American literature are informed by interests in comics and science fiction and fantasy. Across the table, they weave in references to fictional demons, vampire love stories and academic conferences devoted to a show that has transcended its adolescent milieu and inspired more scholarly articles than any other series on television. (The culture and politics site Slate.com stopped counting the number of journal articles on Buffy at 200.)

The duo co-organized Marquette’s wildly successful “Buffy at 20” conference, a one-day campus event last spring boasting panels on feminism, psychoanalytic interpretations and teaching Buffy as a TV text. The event attracted over 100 people, many simply Buffy fans. Of the 20 academic scholars who attended, one was a prominent California professor who studies science fiction in the context of theories of modern forms of social control and power dynamics.

Across the table, they weave in references to fictional demons, vampire love stories and academic conferences devoted to a show that has transcended its adolescent milieu and inspired more scholarly articles than any other series on television.

What makes a show that ran on the teen-friendly former WB Network fruitful ground for doctorate-educated scholars? The show’s creator, Joss Whedon. He presents a “consistent vision,” says South, “that found ways to add political and philosophical allusions — a distrust of government and authority gures, the metaphor about education not being as good as it should have been, the idea that you choose your family.”

The show “amassed such narrative weight,” adds Canavan.

The Marquette conference was both substantive and quick-witted, with lectures such as “Are You There Vlad, It’s Me, Margaret: Feminism and Monster Hunting in a Post-Buffy World” that appealed to mainstream fans as well as academic followers of Slayage, the peer-reviewed online journal of Whedon Studies. South doesn’t see the screen going dark anytime soon on Buffy scholarship, to which he’s contributed as co-editor of Buffy Goes Dark, a 2009 book analyzing the show’s final two seasons. In fact, as a follow-up to the Marquette conference, South and Canavan are putting together a special issue of Slayage. Says South: “There are lots of ways of interpreting Buffy, with themes still to explore.”

— Ann Christenson, CJPA ‘90


Adapted from the debut issue of A&S, the annual magazine of Marquette’s Klingler College of Arts and Sciences. Read the entire issue.