Anything and Everything / TV

Dead Silence: Sonic Storytelling in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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It’s been over a decade since Buffy and the Scoobies last saved the world (if you don’t take into account the continuation of the series through the comic book series). In that time we’ve had a slew of brooding vampires, sensitive werewolves, and bad-ass witches parade across our screen, earning both scorn and laurels from the ever-diversifying audience. Despite this overwhelming genre boom, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the series) remains relevant in both its singular contribution to popular culture. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has used the program’s narrative arc to deftly transcend traditional genre constraints (would a musical episode of Vampire Diaries or True Blood work?). Creator Joss Whedon utilised the long-running series format to create a meta-narrative arc that allowed the audience to develop an emotional connection with the characters, while simultaneously providing mini-narratives in each episode, neatly providing each 44-minute episode an ability to stand on its own.  This, along with blending realism and supernatural elements, allows for a wide variety of genres to be explored while remaining under the forgiving “fantasy” umbrella.

While experimenting with the narrative structure of Buffy, the sounds of the series were acknowledged as playing an integral role in the presentation of the plot. Joss Whedon’s conscious use of music and sound effects helped create was the nuanced reality that makes the show so compelling. Two of the most critically acclaimed episodes in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Hush” (S4E10) and “The Body” (S5E16), effectively manipulate the sound design in the episodic narrative and place it within the larger narrative arc.  The episodes – both written and directed by Joss Whedon ­– are unique within the Buffy canon for their emphasis on alternative sound design, specifically, the highlighting of sound in the story as a primary mode of communicating narrative specific to the horror/fantasy genre.

“Hush”

In the series’ fourth season, Buffy and the Scoobies are called upon to figure out why the town of Sunnydale has suddenly been struck mute. “The Gentlemen” (a group of fairy-tale monsters) have come to town and stolen the voices of the citizens. They harvest the hearts from the still-living bodies of their victims with the aid of ape-like henchmen in straitjackets.  Buffy’s Watcher Giles discovered that, according to the original story, The Gentlemen were only defeated when “the princess screamed once and they all died.” The gang then embarks on a mission to protect the organs of unsuspecting townspeople, while Buffy sets off to regain her voice, being the obvious choice for the allegorical princess in the fairy-tale.  The climax comes when the bumbling “knight in shining armour,” Buffy’s boyfriend Riley Finn, smashes the magic box containing the voices and Buffy lets out a primal scream, causing The Gentlemen’s heads to explode and danger to once again be averted.

 

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A majority of “Hush” is devoid of dialogue, contrasting mainstream television’s tendency to depend on voices to communicate action and plot. Instead, composer Christophe Beck’s score becomes the primary method of emotional discourse, cueing the viewers to sigh at the longing glances between Buffy and Riley, and hearts to jump when the terrifying face of the monster suddenly appears on screen.  The score is paralleled within the narrative, as Giles chooses to accompany his own silent lecture on The Gentlemen with Danse Macabre, connecting our reality to that of the Buffyverse through its codified sonic meaning (you can listen to it on YouTube here). Giles’ choice of music is not only a clever nod to the era of silent film, but a self-conscious illustration of our socially constructed responses to specific pieces of music. For example, Beck’s score cues the audience to through the musical tension of Buffy and Riley’s theme, which reoccurs in moments of romantic poignancy throughout season four and five. Buffy scholars (yes, there is such a thing) Arnie Cox and Rebecca Fülöp write in their article   “‘What Rhymes with Lungs?’ When Music Speaks Louder than Words” that “the traditional tonal dynamic of stability/instability that this music draws on creates the expectation of, and the desire for, specific harmonic states,” and the lack in the Buffy-Riley theme leaves the listener/viewer yearning.

Buffy’s ultimately saves the day with her scream.  Typically in the horror genre, a woman’s scream signals her role as victim of some type of predatory action.  However, in Buffy’s case, the dynamic is reversed and she is able to destroy the metaphoric symbol of patriarchal oppression embodied in The Gentlemen. Buffy’s scream, though technically included in the dialogue track, functions along the lines of sound effects or score in its transmission of non-verbal narrative content.

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Speaking of the sound effects, the conspicuous absence of certain expected sounds, such as the case with The Gentlemen’s movement, makes them all the more unnerving. Their silent glide contrasts all others on screen, and provides their already grotesque bodies with an uncanny sonic element. Separating a body from the traditional sounds we have come to associate with that figure create a cognitive disconnect in the audience and reinforce the suspicion that something is terribly wrong.  The only sound that their bodies emit is the appreciative clapping when one of their number successfully harvests a human heart. The Gentlemen appear more or less human, but are given inhuman sonic affects to problematize their movement by blurring the links between the audio and visual tracks and evoking a sense of unease within the audience.

The interpretation “Hush” takes on the silent horror tradition highlights the possibility for a successful non-vococentric narrative in contemporary media.  The fairy-tale structure anchors the episode within an agreed upon collective framework; the audience can be assured of the established rules of the given reality.

 “The Body”

“The Body” opens with Buffy finding her mother Joyce Summers lifeless on the couch. After the title sequence, we are shown a flashback of Christmas dinner with the entire Scooby Gang. Hard cutting back to the present, Buffy panics and calls 911 in an attempt to revive her mother. When the paramedics arrive they pick up where Buffy left off, and once again we are exposed to Buffy’s fantasy of her mother being saved over a series of mini-scenes spanning the ambulance ride to the hospital to the recovery room.  In reality, the paramedics inform Buffy that her mother died of a brain aneurysm long before she came upon the body. One by one, the Scoobies learn of Joyce’s death and each have to cope with her distinctly non-supernatural passing. They accompany Buffy to the hospital where she has to perform all the banal tasks involved in claiming a body from the morgue. At one point Buffy’s teenage sister, Dawn gets away and heads to the morgue; she wants to see her mother’s body. The other body in the morgue is that of a vampire, who rises and attacks Dawn in the only supernatural element in the episode.  Buffy rescues Dawn and slays the vampire, but Dawn has seen Joyce’s face and reaches out to touch her, asking “Is she cold?” and “Where’d she go?” Before Dawn makes contact the screen cuts to the end credits.

The conspicuous lack of score as well as the conservative use of “supernatural” sound effects in the episode are credited to Whedon’s determination to illustrate the drama of emotional realism. However, just as “Hush” is far from truly silent, so too is “The Body.” It capitalises on the disruption of the established sonic structure of television by the drastic watering down of one or more elements of the sound track simultaneously.

Several times throughout the episode, there are hard visual cuts that transition from Buffy’s fantasy to the present. A particularly affecting one comes at 3:33 in, where the flashback of tending to a burnt pie in the kitchen with her mother ends in a broken plate. The crash of the plate on the floor accompanies a cut to Joyce’s lifeless face.  The camera remains still, trained on her face for what feels like a much longer period of time than four seconds before it cuts to Buffy running to her mother. Expectant audiences wait for the cause of Joyce’s death to be supernatural and appropriately underscored with dramatic music, but are left unfulfilled. The tension created by this moment remains throughout the episode. The lack of score highlights material sound indices (sonic details that make the on screen action “more real”), grounding the episode in an emotional reality. The absence of the conventional sonic landscape directly influences the audience’s ability to sympathise with the tragedy on screen.

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The departure from the realm of the supernatural in the first 40 minutes makes the sound all the more crucial for the communication of “horror” of the episode. After the paramedics declare Joyce dead, they leave and Buffy waits for the coroner, alone with the body. Off-screen wind chimes can be heard tinkling in counterpoint as she walks into a room, falls to the floor, and vomits. The layering of these sounds in their opposite associations activate empathy in the viewer, as organic and inorganic sounds are presented in a tension with no immediate resolution. Quite the contrary, the insult to emotional injury comes in the off-screen sound of children happily playing and a tuba running through scales as the shot of Buffy, looking out at the world, provides a much less attractive portrait than The Slayer we are familiar with.

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Even the Scoobies are in disbelief that Joyce’s death did not come at the hand of a demon; it is a departure from the established “rules” of the series. By transgressing the boundaries of the rather forgiving fantasy genre, “The Body” provides the horror of uncharted territory. The prominence in the mix of sounds such as the body bag being zipped, or the paramedic’s compressions on Joyce’s chest, despite their unrealistic level relative to the camera (and the viewer), is the foremost element delivering the affect of the narrative.

“Hush” and “The Body” are often pitted against one another when it comes to sonic storytelling; however the aim of each episode is the identical, which is to produce an affective reaction in the audience through the use of irregular sound practices in prime time television. Though the sonic approaches in storytelling for the episodes are seemingly opposite, the heightened mix of the sound effects and Foley is utilised in both. The primacy of the sound effects stem – though its content varies – clues the audience into paying closer attention than they normally would.

While the defining genres of each episode are vastly different – “Hush” adheres to a fantastical fairy tale narrative, while “The Body” is decidedly dramatic in its realism – they are cohesive in the emotional and psychological manipulation of the viewer used in horror.  The Gentlemen are more outwardly horrific, while the starkly un-scored “The Body” illuminates the horror of everyday happenings, such as the death of a family member.

In terms of success in the technique of the episodes, it is obvious that is due in some part to the consistency of the creative team. IMDb showed the sound crew for both episodes remained largely unchanged and under the supervision of Cindy Radbideau. Even though they were produced years apart, both episodes fit within the series due to Whedon’s conditioning of the audience to be open to a certain amount of experimentation. Situating Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a realistic universe (demons and monsters aside) allows the show to be marketed to a broader audience. Furthermore, many of the supernatural beasts faced by the Scoobies function as metaphors for common social obstacles to which the viewer may relate, establishing a relationship that transcends the fictional nature of the show. The sound design of “Hush” and “The Body,” take this breaching of the TV screen further by manipulating the viewers psychoacoustically.

by Ashleigh Bowers


ashleighAshleigh is a 20-something grandpa from Durham, North Carolina. If you make it past her fortress of books you might find her chatting endlessly (to no one in particular) about the sonic characterisations of women in film. To that end, she is currently pursuing a dual masters in Cinema Studies and Sound Design from Savannah College of Art & Design. She knows every word to The Princess Bride, is a sucker for Centre Stage and Bring it On and consiers director Todd Haynes her queer spiritual soulmate. You can follow her music-making alter-ego Brett.Ashleigh on Soundcloud here, or read her irreverent tweets @13cupsofcoffee. 

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