The Soul in Popular Fiction: Buffy and Angel Part 1

Hello readership! (wow… how lame did that sound?) What follows is the fourth chunk of my senior thesis. As always, if you have not already read the first three parts, I would recommend reading them first (especially the introduction). You can find them under “Thesis” on the side bar Window Pane (—–>). Each section of my thesis focuses on a different story and has essentially two parts: an examination of how the soul is portrayed, and an examination of the implications of that portrayal. The following is the first half of my discussion on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Part 2 is coming soon. Let me know what you think.

The Conceptualization and Ethical Implications of the Soul in Popular Fiction: Buffy and Angel Part 1

The topic of souls is one that comes up frequently on the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon, and its spin-off show Angel, created by Joss Whedon and David Greenwalt. However, despite its centrality to the series, the soul is a concept that is curiously hard to pin-down. Every supposed truth about the soul receives numerous challenges from within the stories themselves, and discerning which challenges are legitimate is not a simple task. Interestingly, the image of the soul that starts to emerge shares many characteristics with the Islamic conception, but the connections are too few to provide much insight.

Although the overall picture of the soul in the world of Buffy and Angel (hereafter, “the Buffyverse”) is quite fuzzy, there are certain aspects which are made very plain. Firstly, the soul is physical: it is an actual substance which can be inserted, extracted, trapped in a jar, and, under special circumstances, felt (Spike claims that his soul “kinda stings”).[1] Also, the physical placement of the soul inside the body seems to be sufficient for it to do its work: the soul of Darla’s unborn child has an effect on her behavior, simply because it is physically inside her body.[2]

Despite the consistent portrayal of the soul as something physical, the actual functions of the soul are much less easily defined. Part of the problem is that the characters themselves do not seem to be very clear on the concept and have a tendency to use the term somewhat sloppily. For example, Wesley claims that Lorne’s ability to “read” people comes from his ability to see into their souls, despite the fact that Lorne clearly has the ability to “read” soulless creatures, which he should not be able to do if Wesley were speaking accurately.[3] Also, in the episode “Double or Nothing,” the soul is alternately equated with a person’s future and their love, which is completely at odds to nearly every other presentation of the soul in both series.[4] In both of these cases, however, the term “soul” seems to be used as convenient shorthand for “self-ness” rather than as a formal definition. At other times, characters may be untrustworthy in their explanations, as when, while under imminent threat of death and probably trying to stall for time, Angel claims that souls can be destroyed by evil actions.[5] Because of this sloppiness and untrustworthiness, I will discount the above examples in the following discussion.

The other main obstacle in painting a clear picture of the soul in the Buffyverse is that the formal definition, as espoused by Buffy or her “employers,” the Watcher’s Council, and as embraced by nearly every character, is often at odds with the way it is portrayed. The “official” definition has three aspects: identity, conscience, and capacity for love, each of which will be looked at in turn, for although this definition proves to be insufficient, it is a good summary of those aspects of the soul with which the story concerns itself.

The idea that the soul is equivalent to a person’s personal identity comes through in the Watcher’s Council’s explanation of vampirism. Buffy sums it up when she tells her friend Ford, who wants to become immortal by becoming a vampire, “that’s not how it works. You die, and a demon sets up shop in your old house, and it walks, and it talks, and it remembers your life, but it’s not you,” and again later when she says, “Remember, a vampire’s personality has nothing to do with the person it was.”[6] In other words, the thing that makes one “oneself” is not the body, the mind, or the memory, and is in fact the one thing vampires do not have: the soul. This conception seems to be dramatically reinforced in the case of Angel, a vampire cursed with a soul who can, under certain circumstances, lose that soul and revert to Angelus, a notoriously brutal fiend. The contrast between compassionate, brooding Angel and sadistic, cheerful Angelus is so stark that it is almost impossible to think of them as anything but two completely separate entities. Many characters certainly seem to think so when they reassure Angel that “it wasn’t you” when referring to the horrific deeds committed by Angelus, and Angel/us himself will often refer to his counterpart in the third person.[7] Based on this, the presence or absence of a soul seems to be sufficient for defining a person’s entire identity.

There are many challenges to this idea, however. For one thing, in the case of those who have had their souls restored to their bodies (Angel, Spike, and Darla), none of them report the experience of being an absent soul in some sort of afterlife and then being restored to their bodies; they identify themselves as bodies that have had their souls restored to them.[8] In fact, they almost always say that they were given “a soul,” instead of “my soul,” as if the soul were more of an impersonal bodily organ than the core of their identity; the soul is only theirs insofar as it is now residing in their body. This idea is especially apparent in the previously mentioned case of Darla, who is affected by the soul of her unborn child despite the fact that the soul does not belong to her. The concept that souls only belong to a person when they reside in their body may seem strange to a Western culture that views one’s personal soul as existing as some version of themselves after (if not before) it is in the body, but this is an echo of an Islamic doctrine. In this doctrine, prior to entering a body “the soul possesses no individuated or separative existence, being one with the immaterial Intellect itself,” but “the body facilitates the soul’s individuated and distinct existence apart from the undifferentiated… Intellect.”[9] In other words, the soul in and of itself is not equivalent to selfhood because apart from the body it has no individual existence. While Buffy and Angel do seem to hold that souls remain individual souls when not united with a body, they agree with Islam in the idea that those souls are not selves or persons.

The more significant challenge to the idea of the soul being the seat of personal identity comes through a closer examination of the Angel/Angelus dynamic. Although, as previously stated, Angel will sometimes verbally distance himself from Angelus by using the third person, he almost never remains distanced for very long. More often he will talk about Angelus’ actions as if they were his, sometimes switching between first and third person while doing so, such as, “I remember everything Angelus did- I did,” or, “If [Angelus is] here, I’m not. I won’t be able to protect anyone from the Beast… or from me.”[10] In this way he takes complete ownership of everything that Angelus has done or will do, leading to guilt and his ever-present search for redemption. His guilt for Angelus’ actions only makes sense if Angel and Angelus are, in some sense, the same entity, which is only possible if Angel’s identity is not in his soul. However, since Angel has been known to feel guilty for things which have little to nothing to do with him (at one point he feels guilt for the murder of a woman simply because he, as Angelus, sired the vampire who killed her[11]), perhaps his guilt is without basis.

This conclusion is unlikely, however, because other vampires such as Spike confirm Angel’s intuition. For example, Douglas Petrie, in his commentary for the episode “Fool for Love” states that the point of the episode was to show that, despite external changes, Spike is “still the same guy” that he was prior to becoming a vampire (i.e. prior to losing his soul).[12] Later on, when Spike regains his soul, his attempts to show that he has changed are reflected in his conservative wardrobe, but even he admits that this is just a “costume,” and it is only once he re-dons his black leather coat that he begins to feel comfortable in his role. Despite losing and then regaining his soul, Spike remains more or less the same character.[13] The fact that the characters do not think of themselves as being only their souls casts doubt on the Watchers’ definition equating the soul with one’s identity.

The soul, then, seems to have both everything to do with personal identity in the case of Angel, and nothing to do with personal identity in the cases of Angel and Spike: how can the presence or absence of a soul change someone’s personality dramatically enough to warrant separate names and yet allow for a continuity of identity? The answer comes, again, in the form of Angel. When comparing the monster Angelus to the hero Angel, it is easy to forget that it has been almost a hundred years since Angel was re-ensouled, and that he was not always as pleasant as he is now. Flashbacks reveal that before he met Whistler and then Buffy, Angel was a cold, reclusive, occasionally vengeful man who ended up living in a sewer because he could not trust himself to interact with humans without eating them.[14] As Abbott puts it,

[Angel] has stopped drinking human blood, but he still has a contempt for humanity that is reminiscent of Angelus but without the sadism…. These flashbacks demonstrate that it was not the curse and the return of his soul that set Angel onto the path of goodness, but rather it was Buffy.[15]

Thus, the dramatic differences between Angel and Angelus are the end result of a long process of Angel training himself not to be Angelus: of him dismantling the vices that Angelus represents. The presence of the soul did not eliminate or banish Angelus, as Angelus himself points out: “You think it’s that cut and dry don’t ya? That if Angel gets his soul back…you’ll just hang up your spurs and ride off into the sunset knowing you put the monster back in its cage? But I’m always here… I’m deep in… soul or no soul.”[16] Angel’s identity, then, is a composite of his vampire nature and his soul, which is another echo of Islam, which maintains that, “A creature, man is at once both body and soul, simultaneously a physical and spiritual being. … clearly he is not a soul in a body.”[17] It is not that Angel is his soul, but that he could not have become who he is without one. This is why Angel feels guilt for Angelus’ actions and yet is able to distance himself from the one who committed them: because he is Angelus in the sense that Angelus is still inside him, but he is also not Angelus in the sense that he is more than Angelus. The soul allows for the possibility of a change in identity, but it is only the catalyst. In this way, the Watcher’s Counsel’s definition of vampirism is correct: a vampire is not the same person as the human whose body and memories the vampire is using, but the Watchers take this too far when they say that the soulless have no connection of identity to the souled.

Part of how the soul functions as that catalyst for identity change is found in the second aspect of the official definition of the soul, which is that the soul is the seat of the conscience. Of course, this then raises the question, “What is a conscience?” If one thinks of the conscience as the ability to distinguish right from wrong, then this definition of the soul is clearly false because nearly every vampire knows full well that killing and torturing humans is wrong– they just do not care. In fact, many of them enjoy doing evil acts because they are evil and even hold a kind of “moral” indignation towards vampires who do good: Darla’s comment to Angel that, “while Spike- Spike- was out killing a slayer, you were saving missionaries,” is meant to be deeply shaming.[18] If, however, the conscience is the ability to understand and pursue goodness as praiseworthy and desirable and to avoid evil because it is blameworthy and undesirable, then the official definition has much firmer support. Angel was cursed with a soul specifically because only with a soul can Angel feel the full weight of the pain that Angelus caused: only with a soul can he know what it really means to be and do evil. Angel seems to be a living (or undead) example of the Islamic idea that the soul carries within it “the capacity to experience the torture of self-reproach.”[19] The fact that Angel spends the next hundred years in brooding internal agony indicates that the gypsies who cursed him, and the “official” definition, were accurate in attributing the conscience to the soul.

Although the idea that the conscience has its origin in the soul remains more or less intact throughout both series, it does not remain unchallenged, mostly via the character Spike. When Spike first becomes a vampire he, like most vampires, is filled with grand visions of mass slaughter, but he is also filled with compassion for his ailing mother: “while Spike may have lost his soul when he became a vampire, he had yet to lose something more—not just romantic pretensions but also decency and a sense of belonging to something larger than himself.”[20] Spike himself recognizes this when he tells Angel, “Drusilla sired me, but you… You made me a monster,” implying that even without a soul he had maintained some understanding and valuing of goodness.[21] While it is difficult to say that this sense of decency was a conscience per se, seeing as his “love” for his mother is manifested by him killing her (twice), it does suggest that the soulless are capable of valuing good things for their own goodness.[22]

Here, Spike has good desires for his mother but uses evil means, but later the situation is reversed: he has good ends despite his evil desires. When a chip is implanted into Spike’s brain which causes him pain whenever he hurts a human, it seems to act as a pseudo-conscience: it forces him to consider the consequences of hurting others, and maneuvers him into doing good deeds even when he does not want to.[23] In fact, the chip is so effective at turning him into an agent of good that Buffy often calls him her greatest asset, and the people around him think of him in such positive terms that Spike has to continually remind them about how much he hates them. Spike manages to sometimes desire morally good ends but to use evil means, at other times to carry out good deeds without desiring them, and yet at other times to have good deeds spring from his evil desires, all without a soul (but sometimes with a chip). None of this directly contradicts the doctrine that the conscience rests in the soul, because Spike never (prior to acquiring a soul) manages to hold a cohesive ethical vision. McLaren puts it another way when he comments,

While the chip was designed to prevent evil action, Spike remained free to approach choices from the darker side of the moral divide—that is, he would still be basically evil—but with a soul, though the end choice might appear to be the same, the direction from which moral choice was approached became wholly different.[24]

Although Spike’s example ultimately does not disprove the idea that the conscience rests in the soul, it does indicate that there must be something more to the conscience− and to the soul− than a simple aversion to performing evil actions and a desire to carry out good actions.

This “something more” may be found in the final element of the official definition of the soul, which is that the soul contains the capacity to love. This is a tricky capacity to identify, seeing as it is difficult to say whether or not someone’s love is genuine. The soulless certainly seem to think of themselves as being able to love, and many of them carry on long-lasting and passionate relationships; in fact, many of the vampire relationships in the Buffyverse are far more successful than the human ones. Although there are many examples of such relationships, the case of Darla is perhaps the most telling because we are able to see her learning about her own emotions as she gains, loses, and then regains a soul. She certainly thinks that she is in love with Angelus, and is even willing to abandon her sire (and possibly her religion) in order to be with him.[25] Even a hundred years after their relationship ended and after Darla had become human (thus acquiring a soul), she still thinks of Angelus as her one true partner and is deeply offended by Angel’s declaration that she “never made [Angelus] happy,” which in context is equivalent to him saying that he never loved her.[26] The first time that Darla implies that Angel may have been right is after Darla has lost her soul again, but become pregnant with a human (and thus a souled) child:

DARLA: I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything as much as this life that’s inside of me.

ANGEL: You’ve never loved anything, Darla.

DARLA: That’s true- four hundred years and I never did… until now.

[…]

DARLA: I haven’t been nourishing it. I haven’t given this baby a thing. I’m dead. It’s been nourishing me. These feelings that I’ve been having- they’re not mine. They’re coming from it.

ANGEL: You don’t know that.

DARLA: Of course I do. We both do. Angel, I don’t have a soul. It does, and right now that soul is inside of me, but soon it won’t be anymore and then… I won’t be able to love it. I won’t even be able to remember that I loved it.[27]

The inclusion of the sentence “I won’t even be able to remember that I loved it” is telling because, in one sense, this is nonsense: vampires suffer no memory loss when losing their souls. If, however, what Darla actually means is, “I won’t be able to understand what it meant to have loved my child,” then she implies that, regardless of what the soulless think they know about love, they cannot fully experience it because they cannot fully understand it. Darla stops defining her attachment to Angelus as “love” as soon as she experiences the real love that a mother has for her child; she had thought that her feelings for Angelus had been love, both as a vampire and as a human, because she simply did not know any better– it was the most meaningful relationship she had ever had. The fact that Darla is experienced in vampire relationships and yet believes her love for her baby to be contingent upon the presence of a soul provides very strong support for the doctrine that with the soul comes the capacity for love. Ultimately, the third aspect of the official definition of the soul receives no major challenge, and the numerous examples of soulless creatures that claim to or seem to be able to love serve more as a commentary on what love is not than as a commentary on the soul.[28]

With what are we left, then? The soul in the Buffyverse is a physical entity which helps to shape personal identity only insofar as it orients one towards caring for the good and allows for the possibility of love. Based on this rephrasing of the official definition, there seems to be a progression: one’s capacity to love causes one to become oriented towards the desire for goodness, which causes one’s identity to be shaped. This progression may explain why the identity aspect receives the most challenges within the stories: because it is the furthest from the heart of the definition. I do not go so far as to say that the soul is the capacity to love, but it may be safely said that the capacity to love is the most crucial element.


[1] Buffy the Vampire Slayer 01:07 “Angel” 1997; Angel 04:10 “Awakening” 2003; Buffy 07:22 “Chosen”      2003.

[2] Angel 03:09 “Lullaby” 2001.

[3] Angel 02:01 “Judgment” 2000.

[4] Angel 03:18 “Double or Nothing” 2002.

[5] Angel 03:09 “Lullaby” 2001.

[6] Buffy 02:07 “Lie to Me” 1997; Buffy 03:16 “Dopplegangland” 1999.

[7] Angel 04:12 “Calvary” 2003.

[8] There is one exception to this. When Buffy is resurrected by Willow’s spell, she recalls being in a place she thinks may have been heaven (Buffy 06:03 “After Life” 2001). However, the spell did more than just put a soul into Buffy’s corpse, and according to Willow, the fact that Buffy died a mystical death made her situation highly abnormal, so it is hard to know exactly what was going on, or exactly what aspect of Buffy remembered being in heaven (Buffy 06:01 “Bargaining: Part 1” 2001).

[9] Maria Massi Dakake, “The soul as Barzakh: substantial motion and Mullā Sadrā’s theory of human

becoming,” Muslim World, 94 no 1 Ja 2004, p 109.

[10] Angel 04:10 “Awakening” 2003.

[11] Angel 01:11 “Somnambilust” 2000.

[12] Douglas Petrie, commentary for Buffy the Vampire Slayer 05:07 “Fool for Love” FOX DVD 2000.

[13] Buffy 07:02 “Beneath You” 2002; Buffy 07:15 “Get It Done” 2003.

[14] Buffy 02:21 “Becoming: Part 1” 1998; Angel 02:02 “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?” 2000;

Angel 04:15 “Orpheus” 2003; Angel 05:13 “Why We Fight” 2004.

[15] Stacey Abbott, “Walking the Fine Line Between Angel and Angelus,” Slayage: The Online International

Journal of Buffy Studies, 9, 3.1 (June 2001) [www page] Available at http://slayageonline.com/Numbers/slayage9.htm.

[16] Angel 04:15 “Orpheus” 2003.

[17] Abrahim H. Khan, “The idea of person with reference to Islam,” Hamdard Islamicus, 13 no 4 Wint

1990, p 27.

[18] Angel 02:07 “Darla” 2000.

[19] Abrahim H. Khan, “The idea of person with reference to Islam,” p. 20.

[20] Buffy 07:17 “Lies My Parents Told Me” 2003; Scott McLaren, “The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s

Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul,” Slayage: The Online International Journal of Buffy Studies, 18, 5.2 (Sept. 2005) [www page] Available from http://slayageonline.com/Numbers/slayage18.htm.

[21] Angel 05:08 “Destiny” 2003.

[22] Buffy 07:17 “Lies My Parents Told Me” 2003.

[23] Buffy 04:07 “The Initiative” 1999.

[24] McLaren, “The Evolution of Joss Whedon’s Vampire Mythology and the Ontology of the Soul.”

[25] Angel 02:07 “Darla” 2000.

[26] Angel 02:09 “Dear Boy” 2000.

[27] Angel 03:09 “Lullaby” 2001.

[28] This statement will no doubt draw criticism from the many fans and critics who claim that Spike achieved the ability to love Buffy before he had a soul. I do not deny that Spike felt very strongly towards Buffy, nor that he was often very unselfish in his treatment of her. However, Spike’s tendency to deceive himself about his own emotions, to exaggerate his circumstances, and to twist everything for his own selfish gain make his declarations of love suspect at best. Even after acquiring a soul, Spike is more concerned with showing off than he is with Buffy’s wellbeing (see for example his comment in Angel, 5:11, “Damage,” that he would rather Buffy view him as dying a hero than to call her up and let her know that he is alive), and he admits that there were certain aspects of their relationship he could not understand before he had a soul (Buffy 7:02, “Beneath You,” 2003.). Also, through various slips of the tongue, Spike admits that in pursuing Buffy, he was on some level trying to show up Angel. All in all, Spike’s “love” for Buffy requires a heavy dose of skepticism.

~ by ntertanedangel on September 9, 2010.

2 Responses to “The Soul in Popular Fiction: Buffy and Angel Part 1”

  1. [“This statement will no doubt draw criticism from the many fans and critics who claim that Spike achieved the ability to love Buffy before he had a soul. I do not deny that Spike felt very strongly towards Buffy, nor that he was often very unselfish in his treatment of her. However, Spike’s tendency to deceive himself about his own emotions, to exaggerate his circumstances, and to twist everything for his own selfish gain make his declarations of love suspect at best. “]

    You can describe the majority of human beings in the same manner. Just because Spike is a vampire, this does not make this only applicable to him and other vampires.

    • I agree, except that I would say that humans, because they have souls, are capable of genuine love, even if they are deceived about it most of the time. Spike, as a soulless vampire, was not capable of love.

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