An obsessed professor and some soul-bearing slayer fans.

This is hardly Sunnydale High, novices might point out. But Buffy fans know otherwise.

To them, Buffy pervades all space and time, itself a kind of symbiotic reality.

If it sounds like heady stuff, it is.

Buffy is short for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the brainchild TV show of producer Joss Whedon that airs Tuesday nights on the UPN cable network, with syndicated reruns on FX. In its seven-year life, BtVS — as fans refer to it — has garnered some of television's most loyal and analytical viewers. Graduate students and professors at Duke University have unofficial "Buffy" seminars or screenings every Tuesday at the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Affairs. And there's a reason the show spurs a faithful audience among academics. Just ask Laura Scott Holliday, 34, a literature and cultural studies professor at R-MC.

Daring a tiny diamond nose ring with wispy shoulder-length hair and an artfully beaded necklace, Holliday looks like a member of the nubile BtVS cast. She calls herself obsessed. So much so, that recently she devised a way to find out who shares her devotion and her philosophical experience of the show.

Holliday created a survey that promises to be a kind of permeable membrane between fan expectations and TV pop culture. Specifically, the 73 questions frame the impulses of BtVS fans. Detailed, essaylike answers are encouraged. It's called simply, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer Viewer/Fan Survey."

Holliday crossed her fingers for 500 replies. Since she posted it on the Internet two months ago she's received more than 2,000. The online version at http://home.earthlink.net/~buffysurvey has gotten nearly 25,000 hits.

Holliday's survey also has flagged the attention of one Buffy fan who maintains what's called a "spoiler" site on the show, a site that breaks news about upcoming plot lines and character development. This has led to more hits for Holliday's survey. Now she's desperately trying to keep up with the responses. She's enlisted help from her student research assistant, Jamie Zeiters, an avid Buffy fan, to collect the surveys as they pop up on her e-mail and pile up, in paper form, on her desk.

On a recent weekday afternoon a colleague interrupts Holliday's interview with a reporter to hand her some mail. Among the stamped letter-sized pieces is a thick manila envelope marked with the professor's address and "Buffy Survey."

"This project grew out of my own fandom," Holliday explains.

She writes in the survey's introduction: "I have dreamed about the show (question 50), and I have worried about characters as though they actually exist (question 52)."

Holliday is not alone.

It's partly what enticed her to put aside other work and focus on BtVS. Especially, she notes, because this season could be the last — at least for Sarah Michelle Gellar who plays Buffy.

Like many fans, Holliday got hooked a few seasons ago. Now it's the only television she watches. But what took her experience of BtVS to a new and, she insists, important level is that last year she and Buffy seemed to share some things in sync, namely pain.

Holliday had just moved to Richmond from Santa Barbara, Calif. She felt alone and depressed. Likewise, she says, on the show Buffy was feeling lonely and depressed, too. Holliday connected to Buffy. No matter that the connection was — is — one-way and with a fictional character.

In July she attended her first science-fiction convention, Sure Leave, in Baltimore. She spent much of her time there observing fans and their behavior, especially while they waited in long lines for autographs from stars like James Marsters who portrays Spike on BtVS, the headstrong vampire from 19th-century England.

Spike, so the story line goes, caused the death of two previous slayers and this season has struggled with a chip imbedded in his brain that thwarts his hurting humans. According to the show's Web site, in one of the "most dramatic plot twists in the series' history," Spike consummated his love for Buffy. But she scorned him and now he's begun another kind of self-transformation.

The relationship that fans have or think they have with the characters on the show is one of the questions Holliday plans to address in her study. The other question that engulfs Holliday is one of desire.

BtVS operates on the metaphor that teenage life really is hell. It also is a story of female self-discovery. Buffy, a popular and pretty cheerleader type, is informed she is next in a line of chosen slayers and has strength that she must use, naturally, to save the world from its ubiquitous vampires. She is what every teenager — and most adults — longs to be: valued and loved, with talents that inspire the world.

"Buffy is a really serious character," Holliday says. "It's the title that's the joke."

The surveys she has received have been intensely serious. Some fans actually credit BtVS with saving their lives. In one, a woman mentions losing her baby and wanting to die before identifying with the show's realistic treatment of death and finding strength from it. Another boy in Texas says he was suicidal for a long while and that the show made him feel part of something and gave him hope.

Respondents don't appear to skew overwhelmingly to females or to teenagers, she says. They range in age from 12 to 75. Some say the show has inspired them to change careers — to become, for example, a Web designer or a writer. Others claim they've picked up self-defense classes to grow stronger or build confidence.

From Holliday's small, uncluttered office, she and her assistant, Zeiters quip abbreviations like "MOW" (monster of the week) and "BB" (big bad) in what insiders know is "Buffyverse."

"Pardon us while we quote chapter and verse," Holliday says cheerily. And, in the minutes that pass, the secret language not only connects the two but baffles anyone not up to speed with BtVS.

"It's hard to explain it now to someone who doesn't watch it," Zeiters says bashfully.

Zeiters has watched the show since 1996. She reads books and Web sites devoted to BtVS and signs her e-mails with "peace, love and Buffy," she says.

"People tend to not take popular culture so seriously," Holliday laments. "I want to validate that influence and show that people do important stuff with their fandom."

Holliday plans to write a book from her research. She wants to explore the way desire works, whether it's good or bad, and what happens when desire fails. BtVS, she says, is the perfect vehicle for this.

"Vampires are metaphor for complete appetite," she reasons, then asks: "How does the fan desire fit into that?" S


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