As we close in on the big day, a theme emerges: perhaps this is the year of the Television Great Pumpkin. This is fitting, since the original Peanuts special itself was and will always be a television event. I am also inclined to agree with Robbie that there’s something special about the experience of watching a scary movie or TV show while tucked under a blanket in the darkness of one’s living room, something invasively terrifying. But television tends to get dismissed as a writer’s art—to call something televisual normally means it’s bereft of visual imagination or directorial flourishes. The description is hardly commensurate with what we’ve come to expect of great horror.
It is also fitting, then, that today’s Pumpkin largely dispenses with dialogue. “Hush,” the much-heralded “silent” episode from the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, has a deliciously macabre premise: a group of bald, floating fairy-tale demons named the Gentlemen steal all the voices of Sunnydale’s inhabitants and begin collecting seven human hearts with a scalpel, one victim at a time. It’s as though writer-director Joss Whedon, who created the series, tapped directly into one of my own recurring nightmares that invariably culminates with an inexplicable inability to scream in a moment of crisis. Stalked by an otherworldly menace, the Gentlemen’s victims open their mouths and then…nothing comes out. In the whole episode, we see only one victim meet his demise, an adorably wholesome college student tucked away in his flannel pajamas, and it’s both desperate and chilling.
As is typical for Buffy, the horror in “Hush” isn’t simply elemental; it’s also existential and metaphoric. Whedon gives us plenty of visceral frights, as the Gentleman float unexpectedly past a window or emerge from a dorm room with a fresh heart in hand. Between the scares, though, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her friend Willow (Alyson Hannigan) walk through the streets of Sunnydale surrounded by the town’s inhabitants, who are paralyzed and demoralized by the deadening silence. At the same time, Whedon uses the supernatural to comment upon the emotional lives of his characters. As “Hush” opens, Buffy is at the beginning of a serious romance. Hesitant, she self-sabotages, filling pregnant silences and halting his near-kisses with words. The meaning is clear: sometimes talking gets in the way of communication and connection, but if you stop talking and start feeling, you risk getting your heart, well, ripped out. All of Buffy’s principals find themselves in nascent romances that get pushed along by the wordless action in “Hush,” which strikes a clever balance between the sickly and the sweet.
Whedon has earned a reputation as a genre-bender, and at times, “Hush” plays as horror, comedy, and twisted romance. As Whedon shifts from genre to genre, however, he always keeps his feet firmly planted, and in the episode’s horror moments, he demonstrates a complete command of the genre. The Gentlemen, for example, are truly magnificent creations – garish, and insidiously polite, portraits of hideous menace dressed in tidy black suits. Through inspired character design and an expert use of point-of-view and multiple planes of action, the Gentlemen become one of the show’s most enduring creations. At first, they seem an insurmountable set of foes; no sword can kill them, we are told. They can only be vanquished by the sound of a female voice. So “Hush” climaxes, like much horror, with a female scream. But this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a show that always turned the horror genre on its head to prove its feminist point. So it is fitting that “Hush” ends, not with the cry of a victim, but with the yelp of a warrior.