When “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” premiered in the spring of 1997 as a midseason replacement on a fledgling network with a talking frog as its mascot, few predicted it would make it to a season two, let alone seven seasons and 144 episodes. Certainly even fewer predicted that it would become the cultural phenomenon that it is today, with a still-beating heart 25 years later. And yet!
Creator Joss Whedon will tell you this was all part of his grand design, saying he created “Buffy” to be loved in a way that other shows couldn’t. “I always intended for this to be a cultural phenomenon,” he said in a 2017 interview with Empire Online. No doubt, mission accomplished. And sure, Whedon, the disgraced boy genius, created “Buffy.” But it is surely no longer his, and one could argue was never his to begin with. Once the show was out in the world and became the pop culture sensation we know it to be, the collective consciousness, as it is wont to do, took it in and projected onto it in a way that it became ours.
But in my childhood bedroom in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, the show was mine and mine alone. It’s hard to remember a world before “Euphoria” or “Sex Education” or “Gossip Girl” or “Skins” blew up the false concept of teen innocence, but in a time that feels so far gone and also just yesterday, the very notion of girls kissing was enough to cause network panic. (Whedon famously has said he threatened to quit the show when he said the network pushed back against a same-sex kiss in 2011). My story is not dissimilar from many gay teens who felt like outsiders in a world not built for us. Before I even knew the term gay or what gay was, I knew there was a part of me that needed to be suppressed. In “Buffy,” I found acceptance. “Other” wasn’t just okay. “Other” was cool. “Other” even saved the world.
'Buffy' contended with the inherent desire an outsider often has to be on the in.
Evan Ross Katz
Each week, I’d come home from middle school, eat dinner, do my homework and then watch as “Buffy” and her gang of awkward misfits dealt with the perils of high school through the metaphor of vampires, demons and forces of darkness. “Buffy” took the “high school is hell” premise and made it literal, but it also regularly contended with the inherent desire an outsider often has to be on the in. “(I want to) date and shop and hang out and go to school and save the world from unspeakable demons,” Buffy tells her friends at one point. “You know, I wanna do girlie stuff.” Throughout the series, Buffy sheds that desire to blend in, at first accepting and eventually owning who she is, and that which makes her different.
I went down a similar journey, propelled by this show, and namely its titular heroine. But this wasn’t escapist fare for me. Rather, this show imbued in me a sense of worth that my surroundings had failed to. I began to find my own inner slayer. It was less me patrolling for vamps in a graveyard and more me teaching my classmates about this thing I loved that, in turn, got them excited. Everyone knew about Pokémon, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” or whatever the flavor du jour was of the late 90s, but I knew “Buffy,” and that gave me cachet as the show started to grow in popularity. I internalized “Buffy’s” season 7 message — “I say my power should be our power” — and fancied myself a slayer in training, although I, admittedly, owned less leather. Tethering myself to the series and becoming a historian amongst my riveted peers made me relevant and even, dare I say, popular.
This show imbued in me a sense of worth that my surroundings had failed to. I began to find my own inner slayer.
Evan Ross Katz
The show even helped me come to terms with my sexuality. Willow’s coming out to Buffy in season 4 was not only my first exposure to a “coming out,” but cemented the notion that coming out didn’t have to be scary. “Are you freaked?” Willow asked Buffy, mirroring a question I’d find myself asking years later when I, too, came out. “What? No,” Buffy tells her, looking slightly uncomfortable. Willow’s reaction wordlessly calls out Buffy’s judgment. Then Buffy, in a moment of recalibration: “No … absolutely no to that question,” Buffy tells her. “I’m glad you told me.” And she means it, as it’s evident this time in her words and her face. It wasn’t an after-school special moment, not at all treacly or saccharine. It was real life. Or, rather, it felt like real life. Moments like these happened often, and further deepened the connection between the show and its loyal audience.
And though “Buffy” ended its run in 2003, my love for it not only endured, it grew. The show that made me feel less alone in my youth would be the catalyst to discovering so many others like me — those who loved “Buffy” or those who grew up feeling outcasted, or, as was often the case, both. That’s the thing about great works of art: They not only can teach us about ourselves and the world around us, enriching the human experience; they can also bring us together.
I don’t know who I’d be today if I hadn’t switched the channel over to the WB on Oct. 27, 1997 (yes, I remember the date!). “Evan, turn that off immediately,” my mother quacked, which sent me running to the basement week after week, taking this show in like a religious experience that could at any moment be ripped away from me. (Mom eventually acquiesced and let me watch upstairs.) I don’t know if I could move through the world without the confidence and self-assuredness this show gave me, or the ability to fake it. In that sense, Whedon was on the nose in cultivating a fandom that loves this show in a way that other shows can’t be loved.
I got to meet Sarah Michelle Gellar in 2017. Then again in 2019. And again in 2021. The latter was for an interview for my book, an oral history of “Buffy” that I was authoring ahead of the show’s 25th anniversary. They say never meet your heroes, but “they” have clearly never met Sarah Michelle Gellar. It’s odd, to say the least, humanizing a figure that for so much of your life you’ve spent deifying. But there’s a parallel here to the show in yielding that power away from one person and instead sharing it. I still love her, duh. But I also love me now, too, in many ways thanks to her. And I love others, too. The friend group I’ve cultivated. The boyfriend that childhood me never knew I could have. And so many more.
And another thing “Buffy” taught me? To quote season 2, episode 19: “Love is forever.”