Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s influence on urban fantasy


Urban fantasy tropes go way back to the pulps and comics of the early 20th century. Weird Tales was publishing hard-boiled PIs vs. supernatural horror very early, and Dr. Occult (among others) appeared in the comics in the 30’s. But pretty much all of it was marketed as horror.

When the horror boom collapsed in the 80’s, people started calling their horror “dark fantasy” to separate it from the serial killer and splatter punk stuff. At the same time, Charles de Lint was doing his thing, and War for the Oaks made its big splash.

I have no idea why it got the name “urban” though, except maybe from urbanites’ bias that city=modern and rural=the past.

But I don’t think the genre hit its stride until Buffy came along. I mean, there were people writing it before, but Buffy seemed to have a powerful effect on the readership. Readers who loved the shows began snapping up the books.

What’s more, BtVS showed how powerful and effective paranormal romance plots could be, and it enshrined the new story structure of the UF, which was a break from the de Lint style. That was:

Horror fiction + protagonist with agency = urban fantasy.

It seems to me that the genre has sort of backed into the crime thriller format (I’ve said “mysteries” before, but that was stupid of me. Mystery novels are usually extended series of interesting conversations. Thrillers have more violence, and it’s the thriller that UF has emulated.)

Once the protagonist gets juiced up the vampires and werewolves become more like thriller-ish super-criminals, and the protag no longer flees in terror. That just pushes the story toward this:

Awful event -> What caused this? -> investigation <--> violent clashes <--> plot twists | (until finally) extended climactic battle.

Which is a classic thriller style.

I’m not an expert in any of this, but this is how it seems to me.

7 thoughts on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s influence on urban fantasy

  1. It feels right, and I do think that Buffy was a seminal piece of genre fiction in bringing this strain of UF to light.

    I’m reluctant to go in the briar patch, but I think a female protagonist with agency is especially important to this development, given the preponderance of female protagonists in UF, and their authors, and their readers.

  2. Sara

    Considering that I am too young to remember much of a time before BtVS, I can’t comment on how the genres have evolved. However, it does feel like the show went a long way toward reviving and redefining UF. Perhaps this explains the preponderance of female paranormal investigator-type protagonists?

    Though I think I would be going too far at blaming Joss Whedon for sexy vampires (shudder). I’ll lay that one on Anne Rice’s front step.

  3. Well, it’s true. Vampires have been “sexy” since at least the days of Bela Lugosi. Stoker’s original depiction of Dracula showed him as a rat-faced foreigner, but people have been casting good looking dudes in the role for years. But it’s been pretty rare to see a woman choose a vampire of her own will, and to have it played as a valid (if troubled) choice.

  4. Sara

    Thank you! You just verbalized a distinction I was having trouble making. By “sexy” I was looking more for glamorous (in both senses of the word). Casting good-looking dudes in the role of glamorous vampires feels necessary. After all, the food-interest finds these blood-suckers compelling–they are not able to resist being eaten. If the vampire is homely, we have to take their word for the attraction they feel. But a sexy appearance and a sexy voice provide an analogue for the psychological stuff.
    Like magic being accompanied by whooshing sounds and sparkly special effects.
    So, sexy vampires are the fault of movies. How’s that work?
    And I do think you’re right—I’d have trouble thinking of many examples where a person is involved with a vampire without being under its thrall.

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