How exactly do you define fear? It's not something that can be broken down and analysed in seconds, since one man's fear is another man's shrug.
Terrified of spiders? Well, someone, somewhere is clutching a spider in his or her clutched hands with nonchalant weariness as they creep to the door to deposit this Fiend Of Eight Legs in the outside world. Scared of the dark? Try reconciling that with miners, stargazers or even club DJs, squinting against the gloom to make sure they don't stick their scratchy copy of Bombalurina's Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini on the turntable. I've read accounts of people with morbid fears of baked beans, crowds and water – which just proves that when it comes to fears and phobias, us humans are a complex bunch.
Maybe that's why Fear Itself works like the proverbial magic charm. On one level, it's a frequently creepy and unsettling spin on the bog standard Haunted House Of Horrors routine. On the other, it's an interesting look at the underlying fears of the Scooby Gang.
In a sense, we've been here before, having visited the world of Nightmares in Season One. Fear Itself, on the other hand, is smaller in scale, since the fear's only confined to the frat house at the Sunnydale University campus. It's also notable for setting up some pivotal plot points of this season – whereas in Nightmares, Buffy's fear of her father abandoning and rejecting her was the only major personal terror in amongst the generic fears of singing in public and getting caught in underwear. In Fear Itself, these demons are much more personal in scope, stemming from the Scoobies' current lifestyles and situations.
About the only mis-step with Fear Itself is yet another reference to the Colonel of Heartbreak, Parker Abrams, who's seemingly trapped Buffy in a fugue state of brittle misery and lack of confidence. We open on Buffy mulching out the squelchy innards of a pumpkin, as if she's sifting through the twisted remains of her own broken heart. “Bailing on the Buff,” sighs Xander sadly. “Does anyone else want to smack that guy?” Form a queue, people, not only because Parker Abrams is a smug git, but also because he's the cause of a pointless subplot that's now well and truly past its sell by date. And the annoying thing is, the Barker saga still ain't over yet.
Apart from that, it's hard to fault Fear Itself. Season Four has so far been enjoyable and fun, but in all honesty, hasn't produced any major classics. Fear Itself is the first real strike of the season, combining all the elements together that make Buffy The Vampire Slayer such a popular show. It's got plenty of funny moments, it's genuinely scary in places and also has lots of great moments for the regular characters.
Characterisation has always been this show's forte, and Fear Itself looks at the crossroads facing the Scoobies by confronting them with their own fears and anxieties. There's a telling moment early on in the story when we see Joyce (in a welcome cameo) telling Buffy about her own personal fears of initially not being able to make friends in Sunnydale. “I don’t think I made a single new friend the year we moved to Sunnydale,” she says to Buffy, explaining that fear was the cause. “I didn’t believe I could trust anyone again.” It's a far cry from the things that go bump in the night, but Joyce's own fear of loneliness and isolation is no less valid, and it's one that most people can relate to.
The other authority figure in Buffy's life is expressing no such fears. Indeed, Giles is embracing this thing called Halloween with unbridled gusto. Except that he seems to be taking inspiration from Mexico, given that he's decked out in a ridiculous, oversized Sombrero and poncho that kind of makes him look like a novelty lampshade. It's one of the episode's funniest sequences (especially Giles' unintentionally funny OTT mimic of “It's alive!!!” while operating a toy motorised skeleton), but beneath all of that good time cheer is a man who's slowly losing his way without regular employment. He's reduced to munching on candies and sweets all on his lonesome while his protégée immerses herself in college work. He's becoming surplus to requirements and he knows it – otherwise, he wouldn't be leaping out of his chair like a flea on a griddle every time someone knocks at the door.
The Scooby Gang, in the meantime, are too busy getting ready for the delights of a Halloween frat party. The frat guys are giving it their best shot with OTT sound effects, decorations and even a mysterious mystical symbol. Clearly these guys have not been in the loop, given that any mystical hoo-haa is a must to avoid in a town like Sunnydale.
A quick drop of accidental Oz blood turns the symbol into a wibbly wobbly force for bad, and as quick as you can say “It's alive!” Giles-style, the frat party starts to go horribly awry. Innocent objects become terrifyingly real. Grapes become floating eyeballs. Rubber bats become pecking creatures of the night. Best of all, a dummy skeleton becomes a knife-wielding, rotting cadaver, leering at Buffy with its swivelling, popping eyeballs and fixed skeletal grimace. It's one of the many macabre sights that pepper Fear Itself. All of the trappings of the horror world are used to chilling effect, like disembodied, pulling hands from the floorboards and talking, severed heads. It's a treat for horror fans everywhere, and after the soapiness of the previous episode, this is a welcome move.
The real meat of Fear Itself lies with the deep-rooted fears of the Scooby Gang. The spooky symbol of what's known as Gachnar starts to somehow affect the Scoobies in different ways, but what's really alarming is the way in which these fears will soon become real. Take Willow and Oz. Already, the seeds of Wild At Heart are being sown the moment Oz starts to regress back to a werewolf. Oz is afraid of not being able to control his wolfy side, and as we'll soon see, he's got cause for concern when it comes to his hairy alter ego. Willow's multi-dubbed echoing cries of “Oz! Don't leave me!” eerily pre-empt future events as Oz runs off in panic, too.
What's unusual about this is that it's the first time that Oz is genuinely shaken by events. This is Oz we're talking about – a chap who wouldn't bat an eyelid if the whole of Dingoes Ate My Baby turned into vampires during a gig. However, in this case, Oz is suitably rattled by this unprecedented transformation. “You're not going to change,” he repeatedly mutters to himself in a bathtub in a state of panic. It's a whole new side to Oz, and Seth Green brings this out very well.
Willow's not just got this fear to battle with, she's also entangled in her own escalating interest in magic. Oz has already voiced his concerns earlier in the episode, and there's signs that Willow's interest in magic may get out of control if not checked. In a bid to find a lost Buffy, Xander and Oz, Willow summons a locator spell – a buzzing green glowing fly thing. The green locator fly becomes two, then four, then a whole swarm of them. It's a pointed reminder of how misuse of magic will drown Willow and swallow her whole, and a couple of seasons down the line, she'll learn this lesson for herself the hard way.
Xander, on the other hand, is fast finding out that his fear is already coming true in the real world. Like Giles, he's becoming isolated from the Scoobies more and more. It's typically Anya who points this out to him in her usual subtle fashion: “It’s those people. You continue to associate with them though you share little in common... I mean they go to college, you don’t. They no longer live at home - you do.” Xander even has to invite himself to the frat party (and the frat guys give him short shrift after he agrees to help Oz help them prepare for the shindig). Come the party, he's finding that he's ignored by everyone – it's this deep-rooted fear that's also playing out in the real world. The other Scoobies are moving on, but he's stuck in a mundane life of musty basements and dead-end jobs.
Buffy, too, despite her bluster, fears loneliness. As the guy with the raspy, croaky voice explains to her, Buffy's main fear is that she'll become lonely – her calling as the Slayer sometimes gets in the way of her friendship with the other Scoobies, who sometimes don't feel as important or special. It's a fear that will not only manifest itself later this season, but in the fifth and seventh runs of the show.
The end result brings together the best of both worlds. David Fury's script is one of his very best. Not only is it a creepy horror masterpiece, it's also frequently very funny. There's a bowlful of smart one-liners from Willow's Joan of Arc enjoying a close relationship with God (Oz simply shows a name-tag reading GOD) through to the hilarious revelation that the dreaded Gachnar is no bigger than a thimble (and Giles' closing “Actual size” tutting of the mysterious translation is a great pay-off). There are lots of funny sight gags too, most notably Anya's bunny costume – an age-old demon being scared of bunnies proves that fears really are more complex than you realise.
It's a shame that Tucker Gates wouldn't return to the show, although he would rise to the challenge again with aplomb on the Angel episode, Hero. Gates provides some of the slickest direction this season, with some memorably striking visuals. The unseen attack on the frat party is shot with disorientating, trance effects thanks to razor sharp editing, dizzy camera work and that final split second camera change of the prone party girl going from still to smiling. All of the Scooby Gang's fears are realised superbly, from the simple but effective video effects of Willow's out of control locator spell through to Oz's transformation (the make-up effects for Oz's werewolf face has come on leaps and bounds from Season Two). Honourable mentions also go to composer Christophe Beck, who provides one of his very best scores. It's atmospheric, creepy and evocative – and it's a massive shame that he'll be leaving once this season's over.
Like all good Buffy The Vampire Slayer episodes, Fear Itself caters for all parties. Whether you like good old fashioned horror, intelligent characterisation, snazzy special effects and photography or even a sly chuckle, Fear Itself scores highly on all counts. It's my personal favourite out of all the Halloween episodes, and it would actually make my own personal Top 10 of Buffy episodes. Fear has never been examined quite so stylishly and cleverly as this.
Top drawer stuff.