This week, the wonderful podcast @BufferingCast covered “Buffy vs. Dracula,” the season five premiere of my favorite show. As somewhat of an expert on Dracula and the author of a prequel to the story, I thought I’d rewatch the episode with an eye on how it alludes to Stoker’s novel. Here are the notes I took, along with links to similar portions from the novel where I had them handy. Screenwriter Marti Noxon clearly had a lot of fun here and a good knowledge of the story she was playing around with.
Not Dracula-related, but we get an immediate hint that being with Reilly isn’t satisfying Buffy—she’s leaving his bed to go out and slay vampires every night.
A storm presages the arrival of Dracula in Sunnydale. Chapter VII opens with a report of a storm as the ship carrying the count runs aground at Whitby. “Then without warning the tempest broke. With a rapidity which, at the time, seemed incredible, and even afterwards is impossible to realize, the whole aspect of nature at once became convulsed.”
A quick shot of men delivering boxes filled with earth to a large mansion. Jonathan Harker’s 30 June entry in chapter IV shows a group of Romani loading similar boxes: “As I write there is in the passage below a sound of many tramping feet and the crash of weights being set down heavily, doubtless the boxes, with their freight of earth,” and so on. (Aside: Stoker calls them Szgany, an exonym that comes from the Greek word; elsewhere he uses “gipsy.” Both can be considered derogatory. I generally use “Romani” in Wallachia.)
Dracula materializes out of mist. Later he flows into Buffy’s room as mist. We see that several times throughout, including in Lucy’s letter just last night in chapter XII. “The air seems full of specks, floating and circling in the draught from the window, and the lights burn blue and dim. What am I to do?”
Appearance-wise, Buffy’s Dracula is much sexier than the novel’s. Here’s how Stoker describes the count:
✅ “His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose
❌ and peculiarly arched nostrils
✅ lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples
❌ but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion.”
❌ “heavy moustache”
❓ “his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed;
✅ the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin.
✅ The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor”
❌ “Strange to say, there were hairs in the centre of the palm” of his hands.
✅ The nails were long and fine, and cut to a sharp point.” (ch II)
Buffy’s line, “Get out!” is a perfectly in-character response to the situation. It reflects of course Buffy’s general unseriousness when it comes to serious situations and the show’s acknowledgment that this is in many parts a stunt episode, anticipating the audience’s reaction.
Dracula does turn into a bat in the book. Here’s a reference from August 13. He also goes about as a wolf or a “great dog.”
Xander gets the Renfield role. His little giggle here! In the book Renfield’s fealty to the count seems to happen remotely; we never get a scene like this where Renfield is put into his thrall. Dr. Seward first mentions him on 25 May but Dracula doesn’t arrive in England until 8 August. Fun fact: the word “blood” appears 121 times in Dracula. Renfield’s mantra, “The blood is the life,” is a perversion of scripture. As it happens, its first appearance in the text was yesterday, 17 September.
I love Spike’s dismissal of Dracula as being “showy.”
“The count has to have his luxury estate and his bug eaters and his special dirt.”
The inciting incident of Stoker’s entire novel is Harker coming to Transylvania to help Dracula buy an estate in England.
Renfield eats bugs to try to acquire their life essence, as Dracula does with blood. He works himself up from flies to spiders to sparrows and really wants to eat a kitten.
Dracula’s “special dirt” is imported by the Romani in a number of boxes. Later in the book Van Helsing oversees the consecration of each of Dracula’s coffins, requiring him to flee back to Transylvania since he can no longer sleep in the dirt he’d brought with him.
Dracula is able to command Buffy to pull her hair back, put down her stake, etc. In the book, he has the power to summon Lucy and make her forget his feedings.
Lucy wears a shawl to conceal the count’s bites; Buffy wears a scarf.
Dracula’s talk about “a little taste” gets Buffy’s response, “I won’t let you.” Vampire stories often try to play fast and loose with consent. The modern, sexy vampire is all full of dark brooding attractiveness but, ultimately, you have to either have your character knowingly consent to being assaulted, drunk from, and killed (pretty rare), or more often, it’s depicted as a seduction that goes bad at the end (which, as a sex analogy, is still rape). Vampire stories often dwell right at the edge of power disparity and rape fantasies and, as fantasies, that can all be fun, but I think authors need to be careful with it all. It’s something I spent a lot of time thinking about as I wrote Flowers of Transylvania.
The episode hangs a lantern on its need to embellish Sunnydale with the sudden appearance of a never-before-seen castle with Reilly and Giles’s lines about never having noticed a “big honkin’ castle” before.
Giles meets what he calls the “three sisters.” Harker met them 16 May. There’s no direct indication they’re sisters, though two look alike, and for that matter are described as having aquiline noses like the count. Whether Stoker meant for them to be related to each other or to the count, or if it’s just a word he uses to describe people is up to you to interpret. I certainly have my own ideas about who they are…
Buffy’s line, “Wow. That was gross,” is a good turn. As sensual as vampire stuff can try to be, ultimately it’s about drinking blood, which ain’t grape juice. I also like her “How do you you like my darkness now?” zinger.
She says that she’s seen his movies, and that “You always come back.” The novel is interesting in that Dracula is pretty clearly defeated at the end, but there’s an argument that Stoker intentionally left open the possibility that he’s not totally dead. Van Helsing describes in some detail the way to destroy a vampire: drive a stake through the heart with a hammer, fill the mouth with garlic, and cut off the head (ch XV). Dracula is “killed,” however, merely be having a bowie knife plugged into his heart, after which they see “the whole body crumble into dust and passed from our sight” (ch XXVII). People writing sequels argue that, as in Buffy, this is Dracula appearing to die but actually just vanishing, since Stoker takes time more than once to have Van Helsing describe the head-cutting-off procedure and then doesn’t carry it out here. Personally? I think he’s dead at the end of the book. (Also, the word “heart” appears 173 times.)
I was in college when this episode first aired (I’m one year older than Buffy Summers). Several friends would gather in my room to watch it each Tuesday, and my friend Aven in the next room had another group. When Joyce’s “If you’re going out, why don’t you take your sister” and the “Mom!” responses happened, I remember we all ran into the hallway to marvel in the WTF-ness of it all. What a super cool way to introduce a season-long mystery and new plot dynamic! Especially since we saw Joyce earlier in this very episode talking about how she’ll be all alone with Buffy leaves.
Needless to say, I love this episode. It has fun with the Dracula story that wasn’t exactly overdue for the series, but I think they do it in such a playful way, from Spike’s dislike of the count to Anya’s past fling to Willow and Buffy’s entrallment with him. I like how it continues Xander’s long-established lack of interest in a gray area with vampires that plays out into Buffy’s relationship with Spike. It’s probably time to rewatch the whole show again, is I guess what I’m saying.
Oh, and if you liked any of this, please consider my book, Walachia. The prelude is out on Kindle and Apple Books now, or you can download the app I designed to read the first chapter for free, and subscribe to get new chapters as soon as they come out. It has gay characters, board games, a murder mystery, sex, vampires (but not sexy vampires), and Latin.