Spike Isn't Scary

Spike Isn't Scary

By Wiseacress

About a year ago, peasant pointed out that Spike isn’t scary. This struck me as interesting for several reasons. First, Spike is a vampire. He ought to be scary. Second, I'm interested in scary things. And third, I'm interested in narrative technique, which is what makes the difference between your basic garden-variety vampire being fey and attitudinizing (Anne Rice), brutal and otherworldly (Poppy Z. Brite), flat-out unreadable (Bram Stoker), or sexy, complicated, and not very scary (Joss Whedon). So the question of why Spike isn't scary seemed worth thinking about a little.

I should probably define what I mean by “scary.” Because of course Spike has threatened and postured and displayed game face like a mountain silverback, and that can occasionally be impressive and fun—but I haven't found him particularly scary. (I don't find any of the vampires in Buffy particularly scary, but that’s beside the point.) He has never made me uneasy in my bones, has never given me the feeling that I wouldn’t want to turn my back on him. I probably wouldn’t like to meet him in a dark alley, at least not in S3, but I could say the same thing about a lot of people. Maybe I’m asking too much, but I can’t help but feel that the walking dead should provide a little extra frisson. And that he does not do.

By “scary,” I don't mean the tendency to jump out suddenly from behind privet hedges, or scrabble at ankles through the stair risers. I'm actually thinking of what we might call “the uncanny.” Which is to say: “not quite safe to trust to, or have dealings with, as being associated with supernatural arts or powers,” or “partaking of a supernatural character; mysterious, weird, uncomfortably strange or unfamiliar.” (OED, second edition. Shut up. I'm a librarian.) The uncanny interests me. Brushing up against this stuff invokes a predictable set of physiological responses: adrenaline rush, jumpiness, clamminess, a creeping feeling at the neck, a small-prey-type urge to check over one’s shoulder. Faced with the uncanny, one’s eyes may tear. It’s innate and autonomic and, most interesting of all, it isn’t in response to a direct physical threat, but to the perceived intrusion of the supernatural in daily life. In other words, it's the fear of the unseen and the unknown.

For instance. A friend of mine told me some stories about events in the house he grew up in. As a child, he often heard voices calling him by name. When he was a teenager, he went through a spell of waking up sitting bolt upright in a freezing cold bedroom. Mechanical devices in the house behaved oddly; the record player, for instance, tended to slow down and then revert to speed when you talked to it. Something blew in his mother’s face. The list of weirdness was long and varied, and I know I didn’t hear the half of it.

Maybe because he’d grown up with it, he didn’t find it frightening. His mother was sanguine about it, possibly because she was Tasmanian. His older sister, on the other hand, eventually got to a point where she wouldn’t stay in the house alone. He was a close friend, someone I trusted and knew extremely well, and there was no way to shrug off what he was telling me. I listened as long as I could, with all my little hairs rising and my muscles starting to clench of their own accord, and finally I asked him to stop, because I literally couldn't stand to hear any more. That is the uncanny, and that's what I mean by “scary.”

So, Spike. Spike is supernatural, certainly. He's a vampire, a walking death’s head, a memento mori, and at least up till the end of S6, he was supposed to be vicious and bloodthirsty. He's a ghoul. He's dead, and he wants to take us down with him. Stalking the darkened back alleys with his black cloak roiling, he’s the Dark Man, the Black Rider, the Reaper. According to the definition of the uncanny, he ought to send me screaming into the night. But no. The only time I remember Spike is supernatural is when the microwave pings and he dogears the racing news, then strolls over to retrieve a steaming mug of AB negative.

Maybe Spike isn’t scary because he's chipped, and so the audience knows he can’t do any real damage to anyone we care about. This is possible. When ME made the decision to develop Spike into something more than a one-off Big Bad, they had to hammer together some half-assed prophylactic to keep him from tearing a bloody swathe through the Scoobies in mid-S4. They also committed to building a more rounded, complex, and sustainable personality for him, because watching some dipshit Johnny Rotten knock-off snarl endlessly about his thirst for Slayer blood was bound to be less than essential viewing.

But he could still have been scary—he could have been enigmatic and Lynchian, he could have been a suppressed maniac, he could have taken stabs at the Scoobies without actually taking stabs. There are lots of ways he might have caused pain without setting off the chip, and anyway the real point is, he’s still a vampire. Even if he’s got this ridiculous plot device in his brainpan, he’s still a supernatural beastie, and that should set off all our little prey sensors. If he were really scary, he’d be just as scary with the chip. But he’s not. It’s nothing to do with the chip. It’s to do with the story, and the character. Which is narrative technique and character trumping plot, as they always should do, if the story is going to be worth anything at all. In my humble opinion.

When we fear the uncanny, we don’t fear immediate physical threat; we fear the supernatural, the mysterious, the dangerous and unfamiliar. I think we're essentially fearing death, or mortality, or the limits of human cognition and understanding—it all boils down to the same thing. So it shouldn't matter that Spike can’t hurt people; we should recoil from him because of what he is, a dead man walking. When we look at him we should see our own ends, and be mortified. But no.

And here we come to the question of narrative technique. Imagine if Poppy Z. Brite were steering the Buffy ship. Or Stephen King, in his early, hungry days. Or David Lynch. Imagine if Spike, the character, were in the hands of someone who was really interested in that scare, that deep nerve-twanging uncanny scare, the kind that makes you turn on more lights in the house. Spike might be a great deal more frightening under those circumstances—but he wouldn’t be Spike. He’d be another character with the same name, and that would probably be a loss for everyone concerned. And not just because he would probably keep his shirt on more.

As much as I am interested in the scare, I am more interested in the story, and Whedon et al. made wonderful story with Spike. He's a complex, funny, sexy, snarky, human character. He's supernatural in name only. In reality, he's as involved in and concerned with human affairs as any character in the show.

There's another aspect of narrative technique to consider, which is this: you can't sustain the uncanny for seven seasons. Or at least I don't think you can. Poe and Hoffmann were masters of the short story, not the novel. The Brothers Quay make short animations, not extended features. It’s a short-lived thing, for whatever reason. Maybe because it's the antithesis of narrative—if you're telling a story, you're doing something rational and methodical, whereas evoking the uncanny is a visitation, a sideways glance, and definitively irrational. The uncanny can make its appearances, but it's too gauzy for plot fabric. It's a threshold instant, like the instant of death, the instant of migration into the unknown. And that can only be imagined to be the point of highest, ecstatic animal fear and sensation. Because we can’t know what is on the other side, and we must go through alone. While we're on this side, we're here, we're part of the world and among familiar things, even if we're in misery. When we're on the other side—who can say? It's the moment of crossing that is sublime and uncanny. You can't write a novel about that. Or seven seasons of network television.

So, I'm tempted here to digress into some freeform soapboxing about the weirdness that is death, and how it makes all our little irrationalities—wearing enormous suits, drinking perfume, suspending dead sharks in tanks, writing 72,000-line epic poems—seem small. But that's another post, I think. peasant's right, and Spike still isn't scary. I think that's good, overall. But if you can prove me wrong and write a story that makes him really bad, not physical-peril bad but man-at-the-gate bad, I'll love you. And give you a donut.

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