In its fifth season finale, the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer killed off its protagonist. They’d done it before, in the first season, but that death lasted only a few minutes. Buffy got CPR and she got back up to finish the fight. In Buffy’s own words, she was “just a little” dead.
This time was different. At the end of the episode, the season’s main villain, the displaced goddess Glory, was poised to win. It’s a long story, but Glory needed blood from Buffy’s younger sister Dawn to open a portal that would take her back to her home dimension, and she finally had her. Glory’s minions strapped Dawn at the top of a makeshift metal tower and got ready for the sacrifice. Buffy fought her way to her sister’s side, but by the time she got there, it was too late: Dawn was already cut and bleeding, and the portal was opening, brightly CGI’d. The only way to close it before it swallowed up our whole world was to give it the rest of Dawn’s blood. Buffy made a choice. She was Dawn’s blood, too. So she ran: down to the end of the platform at the top of the swaying tower, and out into the sky. It worked. The portal blinked shut. Buffy tumbled to the ground. The final shot of the episode was of her friends and sister, crying as they approached her lifeless body.
This episode, “The Gift,” was Buffy’s 100th. Instead of the usual opening credits, viewers saw a clip from every single episode that came before it, the show’s life literally flashing before our eyes. It was also the last episode of the show to air on its original network, the WB. Before Buffy was picked up for another season on another network, UPN, it was briefly discussed in the media as the series finale.
Just like her show, Buffy would live again. Her best friend Willow had been studying witchcraft since the second season, and she would be the one to bring Buffy back from the dead. In the Buffyverse, resurrection was not pretty. The magic it required was dark, trapped in secret, hard-to-find books. People came back as demon-infested vampires, as putrifying zombies, as vengeful, confused ghosts. Willow had to kill a baby deer for the ritual, and when she cast her spell in the darkened cemetery, her eyes turned black. Buffy herself came back lying face-up in her coffin, her human skin rolling over a desiccated skeleton. She clawed her way out, fighting so hard her hands bled. Her friends gone and convinced the magic didn’t work, Buffy wandered dazed into her burning suburban town, which was mid-siege by demon bikers who heard the Slayer was dead. “Is this hell?” she asked her sister Dawn when she stumbled upon her.
Season six was unpopular when it aired. Buffy traditionally had the structure of school, friends, family, and slaying. There was always a big demon to fight and a predictable life obstacle — graduation, prom, freshman roommates — to navigate. In this season, Buffy woke to none of that. Her mom had died of cancer the season before, and she’d dropped out of college shortly after. Her mentor and father figure Giles returned to England. Buffy was left with a teenage ward, an underwater mortgage, and a group of traumatized friends who saw her as their leader in their fight against the supernatural. She took the only job she was qualified to get, working the counter at a comically dubious fast food joint straight out of a David Lynch movie called Doublemeat Palace. She started hate-fucking her former nemesis and celebrated being legal to drink by doing tequila shots in a seedy bar full of demons. Her friends didn’t do much better. One left his fiancé at the altar. Willow got addicted to magic, and her girlfriend broke things off and was subsequently murdered.
It’s like being forced to spend hours with your friends when they’re all depressed, fans lamented. Torture porn, they cried. Some even started calling the new head writer Marti Noxon Marti Noxious. At least we got the musical episode this year, they grumbled.
As an adult, I appreciate the sixth season of Buffy a lot more. At a certain point, it does feel like everything about being a grownup hits you all at once. Plus, Buffy and her friends went to a high school with an obituary section in the student newspaper. Her (temporarily evil) boyfriend snapped the neck of their beloved computer teacher in the hallway, and the next year they had to watch vampires eat a bunch of their classmates at graduation. It’s a wonder none of these people had a breakdown sooner.
At the time it aired, though, I was 13: dreamy, romantic, full of hope. This season of my favorite show couldn’t possibly say anything about adulthood; it was just dark. I turned, like many fans, to fanfiction. There, Buffy patched things up with her great love, the reformed vampire-with-a-soul Angel. She had the kind of campy adventures that had made me rush home from school to watch two hours of Buffy reruns on FX every weekday afternoon. I returned, in particular, to one story, a 24-chapter epic called Phoenix Burning. In that story, Buffy is resurrected not in the Sunnydale, California graveyard where she spent her youth, but in London, hundreds of years in the future, in a post-apocalyptic world where vampires outnumber humans. She isn’t alone, though: four other historical slayers were resurrected alongside her, and of course, her immortal beau Angel is still around, surprised but not at all unhappy to see her.
It’s still my favorite fanfic all these years later. The other historical Slayers, some from the 22nd century, some from the 19th and 18th, are fully realized and hilarious as a group. The relationship between Buffy and Angel moves seamlessly from where they left off onscreen, as estranged exes, to the working partnership with romance-novel-beats that made them so watchable to begin with. The Illuminati-powerful Watcher Council that oversees the Slayers emerges slowly as the story’s true villain over three acts. There is a fight with a vampire Shakespeare troupe during a performance of The Tempest, complete with a rain machine that’s been spiked with holy water. The people who were paid actual money to write Buffy tie-in mass market paperbacks never came up with anything nearly this good.
Phoenix Burning came out in the summer of 2001, between Buffy’s leap in “The Gift” and her manic crawl to the surface in the premiere that fall. The author, who went by the pseudonym Yahtzee, referred to it as an “alternate universe” fic, a category classifying stories that take place in a timeline outside of the official one. Even then, it was obvious that the show’s actual resolution to Buffy’s death, whatever it would be, wouldn’t be so drastic. (Cowards!) But in many ways, this super popular fan work was something else. It was repairing the story. It was undoing the sad reality of Buffy’s new life. It was a revision. A correction. It was, as fanfic readers and writers would call it, a fix-it.
The fix-it fic is self-explanatory: it’s where fans rewrite the official narrative in an attempt to improve it. In some ways it’s a subgenre that can explain the project of fanfiction as a whole. Fanfiction, the novelist and fanfic-fan Lev Grossman writes, comes from “that moment when a reader enters a world that was created by someone else and remakes that world in his or her own image.”
Characters get resurrected all the time in fix-its. Their deaths just never happen. They appear to die, but are only wounded. They fake their deaths. Or, in stories with magic or otherworldly technology, they might get brought back through invented ritual or science or both. Fans create elaborate hashtags that become genres in their own right. Everyone Lives. Nobody Dies. Bring Back Black. Major Character Undeath.
Usually, fans just love the characters too much to let go. Other times, it’s the death itself that the fans think is wrong. These are the kinds of deaths people write angry Twitter threads about. Killing Eve’s assassin Villanelle, getting taken out by a sniper in the last three seconds of the show’s run, just after she and her MI6-agent-gone-rogue love interest Eve Polastri get together, kill the bad guys, and have a chance to start their lives over? Game of Thrones’ dysfunctional incest twins, Jaime Lannister and Cersei Lannister, dying together, under a pile of rocks that fell only where they were standing, several seasons’ and books’ worth of character arcs driving them apart be damned? Not in fanfic, that’s for sure. Time to dig those characters back up and have them try again.
Fans call the actual narrative of a story — the facts of the show that aired or the book that was published — canon. For me, raised Catholic, the term always calls to mind the Church’s canon laws, like the source material was something handed down by saints and protected by holy men living in an ancient, opulent, walled city. (In TV, the metaphor is perhaps even more apt.) Buffy fans referred to the networks and showrunners as The Powers That Be, the same name given in-universe to the mysterious higher beings that control destiny and the laws of the universe. In fanfiction, fans can all be like Willow, crouched in the graveyard at midnight, ready to practice the dark arts, defying the natural pre-ordained order from the gods above.
Buffy spent a good chunk of season 6 wondering if she came back wrong. Necromancy was risky. That must have been why she was so depressed, or overwhelmed, or preferred to escape her life through degrading sex with Spike, a vampire who tried several times in seasons past to kill her. But the real reason was more mystical and perhaps even sadder. During the famous musical episode, where the conceit was that everyone must sing the absolute truth, she blurted it out: when she had been dead, she was certain that she had been in heaven. She’d been at peace. Warm. Content. The living world, sharp and full of obstacles, felt like hell in comparison.
Ironically, for a group of people who raided mausoleums on the regular and had a strategic cross and crucifix stockpile, Buffy’s friends didn’t seem to have given this possibility a lot of thought. Never mind that they buried her with the epitaph “She Saved the World A Lot” — she was their hero, the one girl in all the world with the power to defeat the forces of darkness. Of all the people deserving of an in-universe Valhalla, it was her.
A big part of their reasoning for resurrecting Buffy, ostensibly, was because they thought she was trapped in a hell dimension. To be fair, the thing that Buffy jumped into was a portal to another universe. Every time they’d confronted one of those before, the portals did indeed lead to a hellish world. And if Glory, the villain, wanted so badly to get back to the world behind that portal, could it lead to anything but a bad place? They needed to rescue her.
In fix-its, fans resurrect their favorite characters for much the same reason. They pull them from what they believe to be an evil dimension and into a happier one. Characters come back different, but better. Villanelle wakes up in a hospital happy to see Eve and unconcerned with revenge. They move to Alaska; they forget about the rest of the world. Jaime Lannister has lost his memory and can start over unburdened from his past. Sirius Black stops being reckless and despairing, just glad to be there to support the people he loves. It’s no coincidence that when fans disagree with creators’ character development, they call it character assassination. RIP to the real version of who they are supposed to be. When they rewrite the character, they give them a new life.
Of course, the real reason Buffy’s friends brought her back to life was because they missed her. Come back to us, because we need you. It was a profoundly selfish act. Fanfiction can be, too. A variety of fix-it fic is the time loop, where characters Russian Doll their way through various scenarios until they hit on the one that will allow them to live. At some point in the middle, the characters always get exhausted. They’re sick of dying over and over again; it hurts. They can’t figure out why they’re stuck. They’re frustrated experiencing the same events over and over again. Sometimes, when I read many different takes on fixing the same story in fanfiction, I think of the characters, trapped like this, reliving all their endless possibilities. In Phoenix Burning, Buffy sees the futuristic council of elders swipe a lock of hair from the body of one her fellow resurrected Slayers who’d been killed in battle. With horror, she realizes that they mean to keep bringing them all back over and over again, for as long as they need. “What if they never stop? What if I never finally die?” she panics. “What if I just come back, over and over and over, losing everyone until I finally lose myself?”
Sometimes, I wonder if perhaps we fans have put the characters we love through enough. Maybe it’s time to move on, I tell myself. Maybe it’s time to let this one rest. But, of course, I don’t. None of us do.
In his book Textual Poachers, media scholar Henry Jenkins likens fandom to a utopia. For a few hours every week, fans can escape the realities of their everyday lives to coexist in a “weekend world” free of the constraints of modern society. They have space to create and theorize that they may not get in their offline jobs. They can explore new dimensions of their identity and make connections with people who share their values and interests, people who they’d never have the chance to meet otherwise. They can be a part of a community accepting of niche interests, hyperfixations, and otherness of all kinds.
Fandom also, thrillingly, lives outside of the capitalist and mainstream standards of contemporary artistic practice. Fanfiction, fanart, and other fanworks are posted online for free, made without expectation of profit by the necessity of transformative works principles that uphold the legality of their creation. Cultural touchstones are liberated from corporate interests and commercial expectations. Writers are free to experiment with style, format, and content. If no one reads something that a fan writer posts, it’s sad, but it doesn’t mean that they’ll struggle to find a platform to publish their next work as they might in commercial publishing. In this way fandom is a truly anticapitalist and postmodern space, a liberated sphere still much in line with the ethos of the early internet that first gave it life. Of course, fans want to return, and bring their favorite characters into this utopia with them.
“I want my last life to be with you,” Buffy tells Angel at the end of Phoenix Burning. She’s in luck: with the help of healing Moira demon blood, she’s both saved him from wrongful execution and turned him human, fulfilling a prophecy in the show that Angel will be given life again once he’s redeemed himself for past misdeeds. On Buffy and its spin-off Angel, this prophecy never was borne out; it gave Angel hope, but he accepted he could do more good as a superpowered immortal with a conscience. In the fanfic, both he and Buffy get their happy ending. They will both live and die in this new future, together. What’s more, though, is that they get an ending that’s satisfying. An ending that ties things up. An ending that makes sense. In the commercial world of television, this is all too rare. Shows get canceled; actors move on; writers disagree; networks disapprove. Satisfaction is hard to find.
Earlier in this essay, I compared fans to Willow, resurrecting the dead in defiance of the gods. In Buffy’s sixth season, Willow paid for this act. Her forays into resurrection were the first step on a black-magic downward spiral. She became the season’s final boss; she went full Dark Willow, eyes and hair and clothes all in black. She flayed her girlfriend’s murderer alive. She destroyed everything in her path. Sometimes creators think of fanfiction like this, a destructive slide toward bad writing and bad reading. Some don’t like when fans remix and reinterpret their work. Anne Rice, famously, claimed fanfiction of her characters “upset [her] terribly” and spent decades harassing Vampire Chronicles fanfiction writers, even though they were often the biggest supporters of her work. Critics wonder why these fans can’t just make stories with original characters. They call fan writers talentless and formulaic.
This dark outcome, though, isn’t inevitable. After Willow’s friends finally got through to her, she spent the rest of the series re-learning magic as a positive force. In the show’s series finale, she channeled ancient magic to aid Buffy and their friends in their fight against Evil itself. She became surrounded by light, her hair turning not black but white. “That was nifty,” she chirped, before passing out from exhaustion. Willow’s magic once again became a force for good. Many fan writers do write original work, and do it well. Established authors, too, from S.E. Hinton to Naomi Novik, have admitted that they’ve themselves written fanfiction (and continued to do so despite achieving commercial success as writers.) On top of that, countless fan works display an ingenuity of plot and characterization such that the source material is only apparent through a light dusting of names and places. They augment the world-building of the canon in such interesting ways that sometimes the original work feels flat and colorless upon revisiting it. And fans who are this devoted to a work can keep the interest in it alive long after the initial buzz fades. Over 35,000 Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfics have been posted on the web’s premiere fanfiction archive, Archive of Our Own, since the show ended in 2002. The fandom survived long enough to seamlessly slip into the Gen Z ‘90s revival of the early 2020s, spawning fashion tribute Instagrams and rewatch podcasts. There’s even talk now and then of rebooting the show. (Please, don’t.)
Fanfiction can seem subversive. Making characters re-live their lives, again and again, can feel like an unholy act, especially when creators don’t understand it. But like with Willow’s magic, it’s all about finding the right perspective. Fanfiction so often acts as a healing force. Some might even say its power—to revive beloved characters, to repair plots hampered by real-world constraints, to keep a TV show alive 20 years after its death—is itself pretty nifty. It’s a magic that shines bright. •