Fear Itself (4x04)

If you recall last year's Halloween episode, ingeniously titled "Halloween," You will remember that, on this particular night of the year, demon patrol is unnecessary. The undead shy away from all the ruckus.

So we knew that this year's Halloween ep would give the Buffy team some creative space to get rid of their own demons, and I think they used it well. "Fear, Itself" was a solid episode with a good story line, some hysterical dialogue and great special effects.

The title, as I learned on buffyguide.com, is in reference to Franklin D. Roosevelt's famous quote, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Now that you know this, I've pretty much given you the episode in its simplest version. But not to worry, I'm one of those people who are "blessed" with the "creative curse," as my editor calls it (it takes one to know one) and you will know what he's talking about when you get to the end of this piece.

We begin with the quintessential Halloween ritual of pumpkin carving. Everybody has regressed to pre-teen level, reveling in artistic freedom. Everyone but Buffy, that is. She is still wallowing in the depths of self-pity and denial over the Parker situation, musing about the similarities between her own life and that of a pumpkin. "I was just thinking about the life of a pumpkin. Grow up in the sun, happily entwined with others, and then someone comes along, cuts you open and rips your guts out." The gang continues to discuss tomorrow's Halloween party at the Alpha Delta frat house, inviting Xander, the non-matriculated one, to tag along. Xander, always afraid that there may be some truth to the out-of-sight out-of-mind principle, is relieved that the gang has not forgotten to include him.

The next day, Willow shares with Buffy some problems of her own. She feels it is time for her to move on to the next level of witchcraft -- transmutations, conjuring and the like. But while she is eager to take this step, she knows that it might be dangerous. She is afraid things might get out of control. They change subjects when Oz joins them, but he overheard the end of their conversation. His own experiences with dark powers, namely his frequent mutation into a werewolf, have him worried about Willow. He, too, is afraid she will cross the line and lose control of her power, a feeling he dreads because he knows it all too well himself. Oz expresses his concerns to Buffy, asking her not to encourage Willow.

Later, Buffy heads over to Giles' place and we are indulged with the sight of the distinguished librarian turned slacker, clad in a poncho and a fringed sombrero, holding a bowl of Halloween candy. Buffy, who was under the impression that Giles' didn't care much for Halloween, is stunned (I laughed so hard my oxygen supply was dangerously low). An almost giddy Giles proceeds to explain to the slayer that, until now, he never had the time to get into the Halloween spirit and that she should follow his example. Dress up, go out, have fun, he tells her. No need to patrol tonight.

At the frat house, party preparations are in high gear. The hosts decide to call Oz and borrow his sound system, since their own does not live up to party standards. Stimulating conversation revolves around the real purpose of Halloween, which, according to one hormonally challenged frat boy, is getting laid. Chaz (guest star Sulo Williams), another fraternity member, is picking a mysterious symbol out of a book to paint it on the floor in the main party room. He thinks it will add nicely to the atmosphere, but we, able to hear the ominous background music, can tell that we're getting to the root of the story line. Evil once more casts its shadow.

Anya again surprises Xander in his basement. She wants to renegotiate the terms of their non-existent relationship. Even though she made it adequately clear last time that she expected Xander to fall head over heels for her, he never called. To avoid further miscommunication, Anya tells him straight out that she is not over him and would like to resume where they left off. Xander, flattered and confused, admits that he is happy to see her and, to make up for his previous shortcomings, invites her to go to the Halloween party with him. Anya accepts and promises to get herself a scary costume. They agree to meet at the party.

"Mi Casio es su Casio," Oz comments over at the frat house a little later. With Xander's help he has brought his sound system over and installs it, while Xander admires the red symbol painted on the floor. Oz conveniently, ahem, sorry, clumsily cuts himself trimming a speaker wire and a few drops of his blood fall onto the symbol. (The avid Buffy fan will know that something supernatural is now bound to happen and the special effects people cheer collectively, because they get to impress us with their fun and sometimes morbid ideas). Instantly, and with a pretty neat special effect, a tiny plastic spider mutates into a real life tarantula (I think that's what it is. It definitely is a damn big and ugly spider). Of course no one notices.

Meanwhile, Buffy's mom has fixed up the Red Riding Hood costume Buffy wore when she was 12 and still went trick-or-treating with her father. Buffy reminisces about old times and regrets that her father did not cherish those times enough to stay with the family. While Joyce insists that the divorce had nothing to do with Buffy, she arrives at the conclusion that it may not be worth ever opening her heart to someone. Her parents as well as her own experiences have taught her that those people will always bail on you. Buffy is afraid that she will never find someone she can trust to stick around.

At the Alpha Delta frat house the party has begun. A girl has put on a blindfold and, giggling, puts her hands into a bowl of peeled grapes, while one of the frat boys tells her what she is touching eyeballs. Sure enough, when she takes off the blindfold, they have turned into eyeballs. While she screams we begin to understand how this mystery works.

The gang gathers outside the frat house, dressed in their respective costumes. Xander, vividly remembering last year's escapades, where everyone was turned into their costumes, looks quite snazzy in a tuxedo and introduces himself as, "Bond. James Bond." Willow is Joan of Arc. "I figured we had a lot in common, seeing as how I was almost burned at the stake [in "Gingerbread"], and plus she had that close relationship with God." Enlightenment follows promptly. Oz, clad in his usual gear, sports a nametag that reads "Hello. My name is God." Buffy, as we already know, is Red Riding Hood. Walking over to the party, they come across the mysterious men in black that we have seen around campus repeatedly this season. For lack of a more precise costume description, Oz suggests they might be NATO.

The party has turned into horror galore. Lights are flashing, people are screaming in panic and one guy takes a dive down the stairs, breaking his neck.

Knowing nothing of this ongoing chaos, the gang enters the building. No one is around, but eerie sounds are coming from the upper floor. Willow runs into a now-real cobweb, dropping its owner on her shoulder in the process. Oz, unflappable, brushes the tarantula off her. There's blood on the floor and the slayer, qualified to make judgement here, recognizes it as real. Suddenly a swarm of bats comes out of nowhere and everyone dives for cover. When the bats have vanished, only one rubber imitation remains on the floor. Until now the gang was in awe of the brilliantly life-like Alpha Delta party scene, but when a deep, inhuman voice shouts, "Release me," it begins to dawn on them that this is the handiwork of evil forces.

Outside, a figure resembling a gigantic Energizer bunny slowly makes its way toward the frat house. It's Anya. She goes looking for a door, but the walls have closed up mysteriously on the lower level of the Alpha Delta house and she can't get in. Anya spots a girl in a second floor window, screaming her head off. As she is looking on, the brick walls suddenly come to life, growing and covering the window (now this was a really cool effect, my favorite in this ep). Anya, bunny ears trembling with fear for Xander's life, thinks it best to call on Giles.

Inside, the s--t has hit the fan. The gang can't find either the door or a staircase to get to the upper floor. They find Chaz, hiding in a closet, scared out of his mind. A skeleton attacks Buffy with a now-real knife. When a hair-raising scream is heard from above, the slayer orders her friends to find their way out of there and to get Giles as fast as they can. Willow disagrees. She thinks this would be the perfect opportunity to try one of her conjuring spells. Buffy, not disposed to argue, tells her to be realistic. "Your basic spells are usually only about 50-50." "Oh yeah?" Willow retorts. "Well -- so's your face." She walks off and Oz follows her.

Buffy turns around, looking for Xander, but she can't hear or see him, even though he is standing right behind her, rambling on about something. When he realizes that he has become invisible to her he freaks. His worst fear has come true. So, by the way, has Buffy's. All her friends have seemingly deserted her.

Oz and Willow are wandering from room to room, when he suddenly starts to transform into his werewolf self. His worst nightmare, being unable to control this evil power, is coming true. In a panic he runs from Willow, afraid that he will hurt her, and hides in a bathroom. He lies in the empty tub and chants "You're not gonna change" over and over.

Willow meanwhile does a spell, conjuring up a little green light. It multiplies rapidly and begins to run amok, attacking Willow. Just as she has feared, she cannot control the powers she called. Willow begins to scream.

Hearing her, Buffy bursts through a door to come to the rescue. But the floor is gone and she falls down into the basement, where the guy who broke his neck on the stairs tells her that she is no longer alone. All around her corpses begin to emerge from the ground and move in to attack her.

Anya is back, with Giles by her side. Giles, knowing that he will have to create a door to get them in, whips out a chainsaw and gets down to business.

The gang suddenly meets up in the main party room, which is back to normal, and they find the book from which the symbol was taken. Willow translates the basics of the text, explaining that a summoning spell was triggered and Gachnar, a fear demon, has been trying to manifest himself by feeding off their fears.

Giles and Anya have made their way to the party room, the walls that they sawed through closing back up behind them. Giles, prepared as always, has a picture of Gachnar, a particularly nasty looking creature, and begins to read aloud the possible methods of destroying him. "Destroying the Mark of Gachnar," he begins, but is interrupted by Buffy, who instantly puts her fist through the floor in the center of the symbol. "...is not one of them and will in fact immediately bring forth the Fear Demon itself."

As the meaning begins to sink in, a deafening roar arises from below and Gachnar himself emerges, huffing, puffing and steaming, ugly as the night. As he begins to threaten them in a squeaky little voice, the camera angle changes, showing Gachnar from the perspective of the gang. He is approximately six inches tall! Xander, regaining his wits, taunts him. "Who's the little fear demon? Come on, who's the little fear demon?" Giles: "Don't taunt the fear demon." Xander: "Why? Can he hurt me?" Giles: "No. It's just -- tacky." The slayer abruptly ends Xander's playtime when she squashes Gachnar by stepping on him.

Since there is no better comfort food than chocolate, the gang goes back to Giles' and devours his Halloween treats. Collective hilarity arises over Anya's costume, especially when she explains that bunnies scare her. Giles, unable to let go of the events of the evening, takes a last look at Gachnar's picture, finally spotting the caption beneath: "Actual Size."

OK, that was the creative curse part, now it's time for my thoughts.

It was a riot! I liked this ep much better than last year's "Halloween." It was very creative, I was duly impressed with the special effects and the costumes. Joan of Arc and God -- that was genius! Giles in a poncho and sombrero -- well, no need to say anything. The bunny -- hysterical! I have to say Anya is really growing on me. I hope they make her a regular next season, because she and Xander are just perfect together. Or rather, I hope she sticks around that long. The major problem I see there is the fact that Anya is a demon trapped in a human body. If somehow she were set free again, that would really turn things upside down. But it would also bring an interesting story line our way!

Altogether, I think this Buffy was head and shoulders above all other prime time Halloween eps this year. And on my Buffy scale it was a definite 8.5 out of 10. There were two little things that bothered me. For one, Spike wasn't in it, and that always bothers me. For the other, it was never explained why the party room went back to normal, even though the walls were still sealed and the spell was not yet broken, and how the gang happened to gather there. But, what's the title of that book? Don't sweat the small stuff. So 8.5 it is.