Project-Buffy the Freudian.


……in your blog

Joss Whedon quite consciously incorporates both Freudian and Lacanian ideas into his scripts for the long-running TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the final episode of season 4 there are a number of dream sequences, each of which can be seen as, in part, exemplifying one or more of the ideas of Freud or Lacan. Watch it and note as many ideological references as you can find. Make notes as to how they manifest themselves


  • It’s a film night: films include Capricorn One , and Apocalypse now!
  • Each character now has a dream…………

Freud believed that dreams were associated with the unconscious-as well as slips, jokes, neurotic behaviours (Pooke and Newall, 2008: 117)

Willow’s dream

  • Tara is talking to Willow initially.

The 2 girls are not dissimilar looking. Perhaps this is Willow’s perfect ‘other’ as  described in Lacan’s mirror stage. Tara may be the perfect ideal for Willow  who at this stage is beginning to suffer  ‘social’ anxieties characteristic of the Symbolic order (Silverman, 1999: 344)

  • Miss Kitty the kitten is not ‘all grown yet’ and they ‘have n’t found her name yet… ‘

This could be a reference to the development of the (human) psyche- our name is a signifier for who we are, and Lacan suggests that one acquires language only when one enters the symbolic stage. Language separates people from both their drives and the world around them, because the language signifier has no ‘physical’ substance  (Silverman, 1999)

  • The kitten chases the ball of wool

Silverman (1999:349) discusses the interpretation of a child throwing away a ball, in the context of the difference between Freud and Lacan. Freud takes the incident as representing the loss of the boy’s mother, whilst Lacan sees the ball as an objet a petit autre -an object which is part of itself, lost,  and then returned to itself.   Of course Lacan and Freud dealt mainly with humans not kittens.

  • Willow doesn’t want to leave the safe part of the dream…..She does leave and we have more threatening music…………….
  • Next we have several references to Anxiety through the school play. Willow….. ‘Gonna be late’ (breaks human/society rules), has a rubbish part (low personal status), thought it was drama class not a production (unprepared). Also everyone who knows her is watching in the audience (peer pressure), they are all angry (a basic negative emotion and thus within the id) and the teacher says the show has ‘to be perfect’   (either a reference to the Lacanian mirror phase, or a to the different world of the ego/superego (or Lacanian symbolic) where we face the reality of our world through various symbols/significations, one of which is often punctuality.

  • The play is Death of a Salesman

Freud posits 2 major instincts in life; the death instinct (a drive to fight against threats), and a love instinct (a drive to reproduce) (Pooke and Newall,2008:120).

  • The cowboy says to the milk maid ‘can I hold those milk pales for you’ to which the audience sniggers.

This is a typical joke, with a hidden message. The audience realises that behind the language is a reference to the cowboy gaining sexual pleasure by touching the girls breasts (technically the signifier ‘milk pales’ has shifted from referring to in animate buckets, to referring to living human breasts).

  • The processed cheese slices recur in four dreams

Everyone knows that our dreams tend to involve many different aspects of our thoughts which seem to knit together, sometime incongruously. Perhaps Willow had eaten cheese that day, but the recurrence of the cheese in 4 seperate dreams (and dreamers) suggests deeper significance here. Perhaps cheese might be a fetish of  the director ? A fetish is the replacement of a sexual object by a non-sexual object which fulfils a similar role in satisfying sexual drives.

Xander’s dream

  • Buffy’s mum tries to seduce Xander,

….at one point the boy replies in a Freudian slip (a mistake in language which reveals a subconscious thought). When he replies to a question by ‘I’d like you’ and not ‘I’d like to’  Xander reveals that he subconsciously wants to have sex with Buffy’s attractive mum.

  • Xander in the bathroom, is observed by a group of soldiers and medics…..

his may suggest the shame of nudity, genitals or excretion. We are not born with feelings like this ( despite the Christian theory of original sin, babies don’t feel ashamed when they poop in the nappy). However, as we develop into the symbolic stage, our signification often includes an embarrassment about these subjects…….

Alternatively, Exhibitionism is one of the pathologies described by Freud, and the punishment for exhibitionism is that the observing eyes will bite off part of the body.  Exhibitionism may often lie behind ‘an exaggerated sense of shame’ ( Fenichel, 1999:337).

  • The garden sequence-

Initially this scene is viewed through Xander’s eyes (first person), but we then  then change to second person, where Xander is the object, not the subject. The garden scene is strongly sexually symbolic in Freud’s opinion.

We have already spoken of natural scenery as a representation of the female genitals. Mountains and cliffs are symbols of the male organ; the garden a frequent symbol of the female genitals. Fruit does not stand for the child, but for the breasts. Wild animals signify sensually aroused persons, or further, base impulses, passions. Blossoms and flowers represent the female genitals, or more particularly, virginity. Do not forget that the blossoms are really the genitals of the plants.

(Bartleby, 2015)

  • Xander serves ice creams from the ice cream van

This is a strong symbol of childhood

  • Willow and Tara are kissing and acting sexually in a lesbian way in the back of the van

This highlights Xander’s sexual impulse/force. More specifically Xander stares at this scene for a long time (several seconds). This stare may be described as the scoptophilic look, and is the primordial forerunner of the actual sexual act. This is a powerful form of looking, not just observing, but more along the lines of sharing the action ‘… by means of empathy in its experience’ (Fenichel , 1997:330). In other words he strongly desires sex with one or other (or both ) of the girls.

  • Xander follows them as if to want sex- but they disappear!!

This often happens in dreams! It’s a frustration of the sexual urge. Wanting to have sex with the girls is a natural dream/fantasy, but it sex also fulfils the Lacanian imperative. This states that the original loss which we experience when we are born (that of being both sexes simultaneously) can only be overcome through sex and procreation (Silverman, 1999: 342).

  • Giles starts speaking in French to Xander

Xander cannot understand the babble. This is a nice illustration of a Lacanian principle, that when humans develop language, during the symbolic stage, they are separated from the world around them as language signifiers have no ‘physical’ substance (Silverman, 1999). This point is also conveyed through Xander’s inability to understand a different language to his own- showing that language signifiers are inherently arbitrarily related to the real world.

  • We have several filmic methods to show dreams/conscious/subconscious

These include distortions of the image involving waviness, rotation, and fade/strikethrough.

  • A re-enactment of the famous scene from Apocalypse Now follows.

Xander is playing the hero soldier who has been charged with destroying the rogue ‘Colonel Kurtz’.  Xander identifies with the hero. The dream sequence suggests that he would like to be more like the film’s hero, these thoughts being subconscious, but appearing  to his ‘preconscious’ via the dream.

It is interesting that the film is notoriously symbolic for Disaster redeemed by success, another desirable symbolic phenomenon. During filming it experience problems with escalatingly ruinous finances, an  overpaid-difficult star (Marlon Brando), a depressed director. Additionally the critics thought it would be a flop,  the star suffered health problems on set, and the weather and politics during filming were difficult (The Guardian, 2015). However, finally the film got made, and was a massive Hollywood success- a massive redemption story.

  • Xander’s dad appears and says ‘are you ashamed of us  ?’

This scene is perhaps the most suggestive of the classical Freudian Oedipus complex in which the male child recognises his genitals are like his father’s, and attempts to usurp the father for his mother’s attention. Throughout this drama the threat of castration by the father is imminent (represented by the mother’s lack of a phallus) (Pooke and Newall,2008:118). The nearest the scene comes is that Xander has obviously upset his dad, who rips his heart out (Xander’s)  saying ‘The line ends here with us……..’  . This being the case, Xander cannot reproduce and is essentially rendered castrated by his dad.

Giles’s dream

  • Giles is hypnotising Buffy-

Hypnosis is one of several ways into the subconscious mind, and true  hypnotists render unconscious with their eyes, a potentially sadistic practise (Fenichel , 1999: 328). Looking can also equate to eating (subconsciously), and the eye also equates to both the penis and vagina! (Fenichel, 1999:334). So hypnosis can be said to include all the usual Freudian elements.

  • Buffy is the child of Giles, and they are at a fair/circus

Buffy has many ICONIC child-like characteristics here, dungarees, pig tails, she repeats ‘I want to I want to…..’ jumping up and down. Perhaps this nuclear family is a representation of the battlefield of ‘Family’ which lies between Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis- The Lacanian family structure is more complex than Freud’s (Silverman, 1999:352)

  • Spike seems to be an attraction at a circus-

Interestingly the picture moves between colour and Black and white, with Spikes performance seen in Black and white only.  This monochrome could symbolise a more ‘archaic’ and ‘libidinal’ look (Fenichel, 1999:   ) than the more sophisticated colour scenes.…).

  • A joke is told on stage beginning ‘ a man walks into a bar……….’

This is an iconic joke beginning, and jokes are another way that Freud postulated we can become aware of our subconscious thoughts.

Buffy’s dream

  • Buffy talks to a similar looking girl (Tara)

Could this reference Lacan’s mirror stage of development?

  • Buffy’s Boyfriend has returned from college and says he’s been made the surgeon general, and  world domination is following….
  • The demons are then said to have escaped………and she looks for her weapons- but they are n’t there- only a sort of face-mask mud in her bag- which she puts on.
  • The landscape shifts to a desert…..
  • The girl arrives again – ‘I am destruction’
  • The cheese again
  • She fights the native …. They fall down a slope………..she wakens-monster hybrid.

This is referred to as ‘the primal slayer’-could this be the child witnessing the ‘primal scene’ (their parents having sex). This may be causing some psychological pathology here, reflected in its presence in the dream.

Or the primal slayer may be the Lacanian ‘loss’ which defines all our lives ( Silverman, 1999: 342)

  • After this terror Buffy makes a joke about the natives hair, and about social/sexual norms………

Terror followed by comedy is a very common theme in artistic endeavours, and life in general. It may provide a release of tension.


Bartelby (2015) Sigmund Freud (1856–1939).  A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis.  1920. Part Two: The Dream. X. Symbolism in the Dream. [online] at [accessed 19 Oct 2017].

Fenichel O. (1999) ‘The scoptophilic instinct and identification’. in visual culture: a reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds.). London. SAGE Publications.   p. 327-339

Pooke, G and Newall, D (2008) Art History. Abingdon.  Routledge.

Silverman , K (1999). ‘The subject’. In visual culture: A reader. Evans, J and Hall, S (eds), London. SAGE Publications.   p. 340-355

The Guardian (2015) My favourite Cannes winner: Apocalypse now. [online] at [accessed 19 Oct 2017].




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