‘In her mind, she’s the central figure in a fantastic world beyond imagination’ – Considering Sunnydale as Buffy’s illusion

Concluding our Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Six posts is another blog by Dana Alex, this time exploring ‘Normal Again’ and the idea that Sunnydale and the Buffyverse is in fact a delusion of the very normal Buffy Summers. Don’t forget to share these posts and your thoughts using the hashtag #BuffySlays20.

In this blog post I would like to shortly talk about the Season Six episode ‘Normal Again.’ I must admit that I have a love-hate relationship with this particular episode. It is one of those episodes that I love because it demonstrates the multiplicity of layers within the Buffyverse perfectly, yet I hate it because it is also an episode that I cannot forget as its plot completely overthrows the way I look at the entire show.

A short summary: Buffy is patrolling and is attacked by a demon – up until here, a normal day in the office for the Slayer. Yet, she suddenly finds herself as a patient in a mental institution. The audience is told that Buffy has been hallucinating for the past 6 years, constructed a world (Sunnydale) in her mind and is now stuck in this place. Back in Sunnydale, Buffy is asking herself whether Sunnydale is indeed only a made-up place, as she remembers that, when she first became the Slayer and started talking about vampires and demons, her parents sent her to a mental hospital until she stopped mentioning these creatures. She fears that she has never actually left the hospital and has ever since been trapped in her own illusion. Throughout this episode it is up to her to decide which “reality” Buffy considers to be real and in which universe she would like to live.

As a fan of the show, I do not want Sunnydale to be an illusion of the main character. And I know that there are quite a few reasons why it is not an illusion. But since this episode is one of the most controversial ones, I want to at least consider the rather unpopular opinion that Sunnydale is, in fact, only a made-up place in Buffy’s mind. 

There are many reasons that indeed convince me that the Buffy that we can find in the mental hospital is the real-Buffy and Slayer-Buffy is simply the ideal version that she created of herself. In this blog post, I will demonstrate those reasons that convinced me the most.

One reason is the fact that Buffy simply cannot die as she is, after all, the protagonist of her own illusions. In Season One, Buffy dies but manages to come back to live shortly after. At the end of Season Five, however, Buffy dies a second time but for a much longer period, before her friends bring her back into the world of the living. The latter is even addressed in the episode ‘Normal Again’ as the doctor says that she was getting better a few months ago before she got lost in her hallucinations again. In the episode ‘Once More, With Feeling,’ Buffy sings about how her friends in Sunnydale took her out of a heaven, a place where she felt happy and loved. This place is most probably reality. Ever since she came back from ‘heaven,’ she constantly mentions how difficult has been for her to be in Sunnydale. The fact that she feels trapped in there could be understood as her being helpless and unable to escape this place on her own terms. Buffy is imprisoned in her own mind and can only leave the place she created temporarily.

In one particular scene in the asylum, Joyce tells Buffy that the only way to go back to reality is to get rid of her friends as they are the ones keeping her in Sunnydale. As mentioned above, it is her friends that will not let Slayer-Buffy die. But why is it that her imaginary friends will not let go of her? I have been thinking about this and even though this might just be my personal interpretation of it, I believe that it is the other way around: despite complaining that her friends took her out of ‘heaven,’ Buffy cannot and does not want to let go of them. I consider Buffy’s friends to be representing her personal needs and desires that Buffy can only satisfy in Sunnydale. Let me give you an example of what I mean:  The most obvious character to use as an example is Rupert Giles. As we know, Buffy’s real father is … well, let’s just say that he will not get a ‘Best Daddy in the World’-mug for Father’s Day. Thus, Buffy has created Rupert Giles, who represents the father figure that she urgently needs. This man, a Watcher, is literally taking care of her and is watching her actions at all times. Leaving Sunnydale would mean to leave her much-needed father figure behind. Each of her friends represent an aspect that is lacking in Buffy’s real life. The doctor in ‘Normal Again’ even validates this thought when he talks about the fact that Buffy only created Dawn to ‘to accommodate a need for a familial bond’ (S06E17). 

Another indicator for the fact that Buffy created this illusionary place is that throughout the series, we only learn very little of Buffy’s past. This might hint at the fact that she is desparately trying to repress her past entirely and thus created an imaginary place where she can seemingly leave this past behind her. Yet, a version of past-Buffy can still be found within her constructed world: Cordelia Chase. In a process called projection, Buffy has attributed her shallow cheerleader-self onto another girl, in this case Cordelia. By doing that, Buffy is clearly distancing herself from the girl she once was and does not want to be anymore.

As I have mentioned in the beginning, Buffy has created an ideal version of herself, which gives her a significant power. It is a common theory that The-Monsters-of-the-Week are merely metaphors that represent issues that young girls face during their teenage years. Buffy is literally fighting her demons that are embodiments of her personal fears. Her Slayer-self is able to overcome these fears easily, which her normal-self could not do. By incarcerating herself in her own imagination, she stays in denial of her weaknesses in real life and thus wants to stick to being the Slayer.  

The last reason that convinces me that Sunnydale only exists in Buffy’s head is that in ‘Normal Again,’ she is extremely aware of the fact that vampires, witches and demons should not exist in reality. This awareness is missing throughout the rest of the show. I know that many people have brought up this aspect over the years but it is indeed interesting that nobody in Sunnydale is ever questioning the fact that dozens of teenagers have died at Sunnydale High, that a candy bar turned every grown-up into children and that basically hundreds of demons walk about Sunnydale every single day. Sunnydale as Buffy’s illusion is therefore the only reasonable explanation.

At the end of ‘Normal Again,’ Buffy has to decide whether she wants to completely immerse herself in her hallucinations or whether she wants to face the real world. In the end, we know that she will stay in resistance towards any attempts to leave the world she has created in her mind and therefore stays in Sunnydale. What we will never know is whether this decision was the right one.

What do you think? Is Sunnydale only a made-up place in Buffy’s mind? Or do you want to hold on to the thought that it all real? 

You can use the hashtag #BuffySlays20, so that we can discuss this controversial episode.

Dana Alex is a first-year PhD student at Kingston University, London. She is interested in madness and asylums – may it be in literature, film, television or video games. Other research interests include vampires, postmodern Gothic, and she is a bit too interested in critical and cultural theory (honestly, this cannot be healthy). Dana would like to emphasize that she was certainly not using this blog as an excuse to re-watch all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer again.

One thought on “‘In her mind, she’s the central figure in a fantastic world beyond imagination’ – Considering Sunnydale as Buffy’s illusion

  1. You know, it's not a critic of the article itself, or the writer, but I'm a bit tired of this “Sucker Punch” styled it-was-only-the-protagonist's-delusion thing. It came up with Buffy, with Alice, with Harry Potter, with Narnia, with basically every major IP consisting of supernatural elements and one (or a small group of) central heroes. I can understand, turning the whole story inside-out by saying “it was just in her mind” sounds interesting, thoughtful and deep, but at this point I'm just seeing it as attempts to kill the wonder in these stories.


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