31 Days of Horror – Cosmic Horror In The Buffyverse and Angel’s “A Hole in the World”

Joss Whedon’s triumphant summer of Cabin in the Woods and The Avengers follows a line of thought that leads all the way back to the good old “Buffyverse”. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is all about the inversion of horror conventions. A diminutive blonde cheerleader is chased down a dark alley by a monster… only to pause, turn, raise an eyebrow, pull out a sharp object, and invert the monster’s conventions directly. In that vein, Angel takes the question in another direction: he *is* the monster, fighting other monsters, trying to make up for more than a century of chasing blonde cheerleaders down dark alleys.

Obviously, Buffy isn’t invincible. Lots of things can challenge Buffy: high school politics, standardized tests, the Patriarchy as represented by the Watchers. Eventually, these are overcome by the use of force, the support of friends, and a firm belief in one’s self. Angel uses a similar approach, though he is also conveniently immortal, and consequently emotionally insulated by 200 years of insight into the human condition. What is horror to a vampire?

This is obviously a question Joss Whedon asked again and again, but in the fifteenth episode of season 5 of Angel, “A Hole in the World”, he may have found the definitive answer.

Find out more after the jump!


H.P. Lovecraft coined the term “Cosmicism” to describe the nature of the “horror” in his writing: that there’s no underlying consciousness in the universe. That it’s a big empty void, full of pinpricks of burning gas, with nothing out there that recognizes humanity — let alone individual humans — as possessed of any significance. Perhaps this is more terrifying to a so-called “Chosen One”, fueled by prophecy, superpowers and a conviction that what they’re doing is “right”, or even that the idea has any meaning.

By the fifth season of Angel, the overarching theme of the show had become the question of complicity. Angel has saved the world (a lot), and is undead and well. His companions have joined him at the Los Angeles office of a successful law firm (evil), and they try their best to fight the good fight within the parameters established by their extradimensional demonic patrons (“The Senior Partners”). Save a helpless victim, but have her sign a release, and pause for a photo-op. Accrue unlimited legal expertise for street-level vampire hunter Gunn, whip up a fab lab for physicist Fred, give Wes a multidimensional library he can access through a single book (and this was four years before the launch of the first Kindle). But there’s always a cost.

Paying The Price

The Angel gang’s affiliation with the brought them close to the Senior Partners. And when one of the Senior Partners needed a mortal vessel to be born into the world, they chose more or less at random from whomever was around (or whomever was suggested by a nearby lab technician). That vessel – that victim – turned out to be Fred, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. Spike and Angel spent the episode questing their way around the world to find something, *anything* that could stop the process – a “deeper well” of demon sarcophagi near Stonehenge – before learning that it was futile. The wheels were in motion, and that was that.

The show had explored the inhuman side of the cosmic in season 4, as it characterized the show’s “Powers That Be” as something not too different from the Senior Parters’ machinations. Particularly in episode 17, “Inside Out“: Angel’s contact Skip, and and a rogue Power are shown to have used Cordelia as a pawn in their schemes for ascension – wherein humans don’t matter, though their worship is handy.

Some things are just bigger than the heroes, the villains, and the whole world. And maybe *that* can scare a vampire.

Final Thoughts

Obviously this wasn’t a universal theme of the Buffyverse. There are times when the “First Evil” got its deadlights punched out. And yes, once in a while, “Higher Powers” righted some of their own wrongs. Sometimes there were individual supernatural with conscious intent. But in the end, Lovecraft’s conception of cosmic horror was that on a fundamental level, it’s not just that the universe itself is against you. It’s not malice, and it’s not deliberate; paranoia doesn’t enter into it. Cosmicism just says that human beings just don’t matter. And when your life is an endless series of battles for a higher purpose, nothing’s as scary as the idea that there’s nobody paying attention.

3 Replies to “31 Days of Horror – Cosmic Horror In The Buffyverse and Angel’s “A Hole in the World””

  1. I don’t mean to be mean or anything, but I do feel the need to be critical.

    How much of “Angel” have you actually seen? And how much of Lovecraft have you actually read?

    Illyria’s resurrection had nothing to do with the Senior Partners; in fact, they wanted to get rid of her as soon as possible. Hamilton tells Angel that the Senior Partners know Illyria from way-back-when, and they want Angel to get rid of her. The Wolf, Ram, and Hart are *not* on friendly terms with Illyria, and her resurrection was never one of their schemes.

    I’ve seen Illyria’s arc so many times, and I’ve read a bit of Lovecraft in my day. I don’t think there’s anything Lovecraftian about Illyria or “A Hole in the World,” save for possibly the original depiction of Illyria as a tentacled monster (even THAT is stereotypical Lovecraft) and her status as an “Old One.” Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror” is all about not being able to UNDERSTAND the greater universe around us. People go mad just by trying to communicate with the uncommunicable, by trying to understand creatures that function on such a higher level than us, we can’t help but lose our sanity in the process. *That* is the “indescribable” cosmic horror that Lovecraft is famous for.

    Wesley loses himself after Fred’s death not because Illyria is cosmically unfathomable to him, but because he’s in grief. In turn, Illyria is poisoned with her own newfound humanity and struggles to grow, change, and accept herself/understand her position in this new world she’s found herself to be in. This is pretty much the opposite of Lovecraft to me.

    It seems to me you have an interesting idea, but it wasn’t very well thought-out. You might have better luck with the Buffyverse and Lovecraftian elements with Angel’s 4th season, as you mentioned earlier–Jasmine’s unpronounceable name, for instance, reeks of something higher-than-human that we cannot communicate. But Illyria? She’s hardly Lovecraftian, and neither is her story arc.

    1. An interesting response, John! Ilan, what’s your take on some of John’s points? The best thing is getting lovers of Lovecraft and Buffy talking.

  2. Great points, John. Yes, I’ve seen all of Angel and know my way around Lovecraft, and what you’re saying is true. My bottom line is that it’s not the particulars of Illyria’s relationship to Wolfram and Hart that make the struggle start to become meaningless. It’s the irrelevance of Angel, Spike and the gang to Illyria’s plans that rings of Lovecraft, especially Azathoth and Cthulhu’s inescapable power over things that can’t understand them. When we hear of Illyria, she *is* beyond our comprehension, at first.

    In the context of the final battle with the Circle, the Senior Partners and their forces at the end of the season, Cosmicism isn’t the major theme — especially because in the end it *does* matter that they fight. But Hole in the World, and especially Angel’s experience with the older-than-everything “deeper well”, really hits those notes. Emotionally, at least.

    You’re right in that season 4 is more nihilistic, but in so many ways, the enemy is more personal, the decisions of the Angel Gang more significant.

    I hope this explains where I’m coming from with this piece. Hole in the World is one of my favourite episodes of anything, Lovecraft is one of the linchpins of contemporary horror, and that episode itself is interesting, viewed through that lens.


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