'Buffy' Fans Show Their Undying Love

"D.C. sold out faster than any other show," said Clinton McClung, man behind the curtain. (By Pouya Dianat -- The Washington Post)
By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

Ben Hatton is not, like, the biggest "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" fan ever.

Yes, he might have arrived three hours early to score the first spot in line for "The Buffy Musical Big Screen Interactive Extravaganza" at the Avalon Theatre on Friday at midnight. Yes, he might have downloaded all of the songs to said extravaganza, and he might have memorized them, and his wife might be sitting on a park bench 20 feet away because she is embarrassed he made them come so early.

But compared with the other 427 wannabe slayers who advance-purchased their tickets for Friday's sold-out show and formed a queue stretching around the corner, Hatton swears his fanship is relatively puny. "I didn't wear a costume or anything," said the stocky 26-year-old video store clerk. "I'm not going to be that fat dude dressed as Angel."

"The Buffy Extravaganza" is an audience-participatory screening (think "Rocky Horror Picture Show") of "Once More, With Feeling," a "Buffy" episode from 2001 in which a demon forces the residents of Sunnydale to sing and dance out their darkest secrets. The mass-viewing concept began in 2004 with uber-fan Clinton McClung, 36, mourning the 2003 cancellation of his favorite TV show after a seven-year run.

McClung, a midnight movie programmer at a Boston theater, decided to "geek out" by running "Once More, With Feeling." He prepared for 150 guests. He got 600.

Buffy nights soon became regular events in Boston, and when McClung relocated to New York, he took the show with him. For the past three months it's been his full-time job. He's traveled to 13 cities, with 12 more on the docket, to create "roomfuls of Buffy love," which, in addition to the screening, include Buffy trivia, Buffy-oke (vampirilogical karaoke) and montages of favorite Buffy characters.

He begins every show by arming his audience with the tools needed for participation, passing out props and instructing them on appropriate callouts: "Okay, the first time the cast sings ' Buuuurn,' we're going to do the wave to the left. Okay? And the second time, we do the wave to the right. And the third time, everyone puts their hands up and does spirit fingers. Everyone got it?"

Friday night he proudly told the packed house that though he knew Washington was a Harry Potter city -- "Deathly Hallows" had just gone on sale and some audience members planned post-Buffy trips to Borders -- he was glad to see it was also a "Buffy" city: "D.C. sold out faster than any other show I've done anywhere else."

Thanks, in part, to fans like Amanda Howard and Jennifer Ruffo. They drove two hours from Glen Mills, Pa., for the screening, and planned to catch the second show (also sold out) on Saturday. Howard, 22, wore a red T-shirt reading "Sunnydale," the name of Buffy's fictitious home town. She estimated she'd seen "Once More, With Feeling" on DVD more than 50 times. "I've been checking my 'Buffy' Listservs for something like this to come nearby," says Howard. She and Ruffo, 23, prepared for the event by singing "Under Your Spell," a romantic power ballad between Willow and Tara, on the car ride down.

Participating in a Buffy singalong is an exercise for the musically uninhibited. The fans, primarily in their 20s and 30s, sang as if transported without warning from their showers in mid-warble. "Walk Through the Fire," a let's-kick-some-butt anthem, prompted some audience members to close their eyes while singing, giving in to the overwhelming emotions of the Buffinator. McClung, for his part, flitted through the theater like a quick-change artist. He crashed through the back doors in full rabbit regalia for crowd fave "Bunnies," then reappeared minutes later down front to sprinkle the audience with flowers during a love song.

Comparisons to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" are inevitable, but not entirely accurate. Tim Curry's participatory dragfest was an organic creation, the gradual result of dozens of wiseguys shouting at the screen. Even in its relatively codified modern state, "Rocky" still retains a grassroots sensibility: Fans bring their own props, the "script" was honed by ongoing trial and error. Rocky-philes pass down callout lines through oral tradition rather than institutional decree, and performance variations abound throughout the country.

"Buffy," on the other hand, has always been pre-packaged. From McClung's first Boston show, he has passed out those standardized goody bags, which contain kazoos, confetti poppers, finger puppets and vampire teeth. Also included: programs instructing the audience when to sing, boo or kazoo. McClung calls them "participatory interactive props" -- fabricated fun-in-a-box. He has invented all of the callouts; no ad-libbing exists in Sunnydale. Without McClung, the show simply could not exist. He is both the pep squad and the team captain, teaching the art of midnight movie-watching to people who weren't even born during "Rocky's" heyday in the late '70s.

But if the fans are being subjected to fabricated fun, they don't mind. At the end of the show, McClung announced that due to the event's popularity, the Avalon had invited him back for another "Extravaganza" in November.

"I did think that the show would be a little crazier and less structured," said Jason Powell, a graphic designer, after the screening. "But I'd definitely see it again. When you watch the shows on DVDs, you start to think that maybe you're the only person into them." He gestured to the crowd exiting the theater. "Um, clearly you're not."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company