When my kids were small, they came to expect outbursts of sudden weeping from their mother. One of the many things that triggered this behaviour was a beautifully illustrated book I’d read them, based on the famous Peter, Paul and Mary song Puff the Magic Dragon.
It’s about a boy, Johnny Paper, and his magic friend Puff, who have all sorts of adventures together, until one day Johnny grows too old for dragons, and stops visiting Puff. Without Johnny’s company, poor Puff retreats into his lonely cave, to quietly fade away. Forgotten.
The book is about the end of childhood and the loss of innocence that comes with it, and it made me bawl like a baby every time I read it. My then five-year-old son would stare at me, blank-faced, wondering what was wrong with Mummy, but eventually he got used to me weeping through the final pages, my wrenching sobs becoming part of the experience, like snapping the book shut and saying “the end!” when you’ve finished.
A decade later, my family is enjoying another story featuring mythical creatures, but this time they’re vampires and demons.
We started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer toward the end of the last lockdown, in an attempt to find something with more inter-generational appeal than Tiger King or Schitt’s Creek. And it soon turned into a family obsession. I now look forward to an episode of Buffy at the end of the day in the way some people crave their nightly glass of wine.
There’s always a lot of chatter while we watch. My son comments on the dodgy special effects, while praising the brilliant writing. My husband shares in the technical banter, while I critique my favourite characters’ poor relationship choices. But it’s my 11-year-old daughter who is most deeply enthralled.
Partly, this is because the show is packed with powerful, vividly drawn female characters. Whatever you might say about Joss Whedon’s misdeeds – and it seems there are quite a few that need mentioning – this is one thing he got right. My daughter had declared herself a Wiccan just before we started watching the show, so it was incredibly exciting for her to discover that Willow, one of the main characters, also becomes a powerful witch in the course of her adventures.
Then there’s Buffy herself. A flawed, vulnerable teenage girl, who happens to have kick-arse superpowers. Sometimes I tell my daughter that she looks a bit like Buffy, and she gets annoyed, in a way that suggests she’s secretly delighted by the idea.
When I was a child, I was similarly transfixed by tales of fantastical adventure. For a time, I actually believed myself to be a Jedi Knight. But I was also briefly Christopher Lambert in Highlander, fighting to be “the one”, and Bastian in The Never Ending Story, riding a dragon of my own.
Those fantasies were like real places I could transport myself to, when I was bored, hearing Mass in church, or scared, waiting to see the dentist. After all, who cares about tooth decay when you’re a superhero?