(Originally printed in LA WEEKLY, July 31, 2003)
In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, several characters, suffering from insomnia as they prepare for an apocalyptic battle, huddle around a table late one night to blow off steam with a Dungeons and Dragons–style role-playing game. Giles, the group’s 40-something father figure, can’t help but feel ambivalent: “I used to be a respected Watcher,” he grumbles, referring to his glory days as mentor to the series’ titular super-heroine. “Now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily.”
I understand how he felt. While I dabbled with D&D as a kid, I long ago put away such childish things and evolved into a grown-up with an actual life. Or so I thought until a few months back, when I discovered the Sunnydale Sock Puppet Theater (www.hellmouth.us), an online community of people who keep daily journals as characters from Buffy, Buffy’s spinoff series Angel and (to a lesser extent) the unrelated Aaron Spelling series Charmed. There are journals for every Buffy character ever, the heroes and villains, the living, dead and undead. There are even journals for inanimate objects, so you can check in with Buffy’s surprisingly talkative stuffed pig or hear how Spike’s jacket resents being stashed in a closet.
Of course, my first instinct was to run screaming. But as Buffy’s lackluster concluding TV season dragged on, I found myself increasingly drawn to the Socks, who sometimes sounded more like the Buffy characters I’d grown to love than their TV equivalents did. The Socks devised interesting storylines that took place between each week’s TV episodes, and during rerun weeks they cut loose and sent their characters on all-new adventures. When Buffy ended as a series, it stung a lot less than it could have because I knew I could go online the next morning and read what Buffy’s gang was planning for the rest of the week. (As it turned out, they celebrated their victory over the First Evil with a trip to Disneyland.) The people behind the Socks were clearly having a ball, and despite my being a grown-up with an actual life, I wanted in.
Getting in proved surprisingly difficult, as almost every Buffy character was already taken, but eventually I was allowed to take on Buffy’s rarely seen deadbeat dad, Hank Summers. It was a surreal experience, stepping into the mind of an embittered 50-year-old divorcé; it gave me disturbing insight into the reality of having pissed-off teenagers and reaffirmed my intention to never, ever breed. In Sockdom it’s not unusual for one person to play several characters (Buffy herself is handled by the same Ohio girl who writes Spike), but just fitting Hank in my head was more than enough for me.
Although a largely female, Caucasian phenomenon, the Socks range from late teens to their 40s, with Christians, Wiccans and atheists somehow all getting along just fine. There is some occasional infighting, and recently a few disruptive Socks were exiled to their own group, the Sunnydale Mittens, but overall the Socks are sweet, helpful people who don’t take their peculiar hobby too seriously. What strife there is comes mostly from without, from people who just don’t get it. It’s all too common for Socks to get hassled by lunatic fans who think Buffy’s a real person, and one of the Charmed girls was approached online by a kid seeking protection from the demons he sincerely believed were after him. There are rabid Spike fangirls who insist Spike’s diary is being written by James Marsters, who plays him on TV, no matter how much they are told otherwise. Even Hank’s had his kooks, one of whom furiously accused me of conning her when she finally figured out that Hank’s diary — about a guy with a vampire-slaying daughter named Buffy — was actually based on a TV show. If I’ve ever felt crazy for Socking, a few of my readers have put my craziness comfortably into perspective.
Some might say the Socks simply have too much time on their hands, but tell that to Tracy, a Wisconsinite who handles two Buffy characters while going to school full-time (premed) and working part-time. Socking is a waste of time, but no more so than sports or collecting stamps or anything else people do to amuse themselves on this fast march to the grave. Strong friendships form as Socks meet online to hatch storylines, gossip or offer cheer on dark days, coming together to blow off steam as we prepare for our own battles in the real world.
Addendum, 2006: Sadly, the Sunnydale Socks fell apart not long after this article was published, amidst much internal strife. It just proves something R. Crumb once said: “The next step after shared ideas is warring factions.”