Fear Itself (Buffy Season 4, Episode 4)


On the face of it, this is an episode about fear — or more precisely, a psychological study of each character’s own particular personal insecurities.  Buffy can’t protect the whole group, Oz fears the wolf inside him will overpower him, Xander feels invisible, Willow has her own fears about her ability to produce workable magic, and Anya is focused on Xander.  Like the fear demon who appears at the end of the episode, each person’s fear is only a small thing which gets magnified out of proportion when attention — in this episode, going around in circles in a labryinthine fraternity house; in real life, a perpetual mulling in the mind, heart, or soul — is fixed on it.  A closer look at the script reveals another theme emerging in bits and pieces throughout the episode:  a preoccupation with the face.  This post will therefore treat the topic of Chinese medical facial diagnosis.

(For those interested in fear and mulling, as separate phenomena, please see my earlier posts on Season 3, episodes 8 and 13, and Season 2, Episode 6.)

The episode begins with Xander’s attempt at creating a ferociously scary expression on his pumpkin ending up merely dryly sardonic.  Willow and Oz chip in by noting its mocking eyes and nose of self-loathing.  A perfectly systematic face reading, though geared strictly towards expressiveness, rather than medicine.  Meanwhile, Buffy is going through a post-Parker depression and ‘what’s wrong with me’ self-perception.  (My post on the Season 2 Halloween episode treats comfort with one’s self.)  Buffy’s pumpkin is left as a  “freak with no face”.  Later, Joyce gets “nostalgia face” in a mother-daughter encounter over Buffy’s Little Red Riding Hood costume.   Eyes come back into the picture when peeled grapes turn into literal eyeballs at the now haunted frat house.  After the gang arrives, Willow lashes out at Buffy, saying her face is 50/50.  Xander himself cannot be seen, due to his fear of his own invisibility to his friends, although he does note that bloody face in corner can see and speak to him.  Oz fears his wolf-face, although in this instance ‘face’ isn’t mentioned as such.  Finally, we note the illustration of the fear demon’s appearance (actual size) led Buffy not to want to fight it, if possible.  Of course, once they discovered the demon’s actual size, thoughts changed…

Facial Diagnosis in Chinese medicine consists of two aspects:  quality and quantity.  Quantity is governed by dividing up the face into sections which reflect parts of the body (or life). Several systems emerged during the course of Chinese history, the most popular of which superimposes a figure over the face so that its abdomen covers the nose, the arms wrap the eyes, the legs cross lotus-style around the mouth, and the head is at yin-tang or just above, in the centre of the forehead.  This system therefore treats the nose as the site at which the state of the viscera is ascertained, while the bowels or external areas are viewed along the edge of the nose.  The Lungs are uppermost, between the eyes, below which is the Upper Pivot, then the Heart (some texts place the Heart in between the eyes, and the Lungs in between the eyebrows), a place marked ‘On the Road’, the Liver, the Spleen, and the tip is called ‘wang mian’.  Beside the nose are the stomach; beside the corners of the mouth, the small intestine, and above that and towards the corner of the jaw is the large intestine.  The Kidneys are just in front of the ears, near the ‘Three Silly Geese’ acupuncture points (TH21, SI19, GB3).  Manuscript P. 3390, housed in the Biblioteque Nationale offers some illustrations of medieval physiognomy charts from Dun Huang, and are reproduced in Lo and Cullen’s book treating the Dun Huang medical texts, Medieval Chinese Medicine.

Quality is found by looking at lustre, colour, suppleness, blood (vessels), and blemishes with regard to the skin of the face. While lustre gives an indication of fluid balance in the body, and the presence of spider veins indicates pathology in a particular channel (e.g. along the zygoma would indicate a Small Intestine Luo Vessel issue, dealing with discomfort at or desire for attention from others), by far the most important aspect to look at is the overall colour of the complexion. The colours of the complexion differ from mere skin colour.  Just as the state of blood can be seen as if through the gauze of the skin, so also can the sort of colours described in the classics be seen ‘through’ or ‘reflecting out of’ the facial complexion.

The colours noted in the classics typically follow a five-phase pattern:  cyan indicates wood, red fire, yellow earth, white metal, and black water.  However, facial diagnosis also paid attention to prognosis, and these colours were distinguished into auspicious and inauspicious colours.  For example, if the complexion was black like double lacquered boxes or a crow’s feather, the patient would live; if it was a dull black like coal, the patient would die.  Likewise, cinnabar red or cockscomb red was positive; a complexion of ochre, coagulated blood, and dry red leaves foretold death.  Indigo indicated poor prognosis, but as did the colour of young or wet grass and lichen.  However, cyan like the wings of a mandarin duck, a wheat shoot, foliage, jade, or a blue-green wall were all positive signs of health.  White like quicklime and dried bone was inauspcious, while soft white like a goosefeather, or lustrous white like porkfat and precious jade signified recovery.  Yellow earth like the hearth was a poor prognosis, but that like silk thread or a crab’s belly was better.

Eyes are sometimes looked at, too, for their overall expression, catchlights, and sclera colour.  Glassy or shiny eyes indicate a shen disturbance, usually one needing to be anchored.  Dull eyes indicate that the Heart needs nourishment.  More detailed analysis of the eyes, or specifically the iris, falls into the realm of iridology.

Huang Fu Mi writes, “Complexion,pulse, and cubit skin correspond with one another… So it follows then that a cyan complexion will be accompanied by a wiry pulse; a red complexion by a hook-like pulse; a yellow complexion by an interrupted pulse; white by a hair pulse; and black by a stone-like pulse.  If one observes a certain complexion and it is not accompanied by its pulse but rather by the pulse of its restraining phase, then this portends death.  If by the engendering phase, recovery.”  (Jia Yi Jing Scroll 4, Chpater 2, Part 1, section 1.)

Taking the Jia Yi Jing approach, treatment would then follow a five-phase approach, in which the meridian to be treated corresponds to the facial complexion; points would be selected based on the pulse indications of generating or controlling cycle.  Alternately, a Ling Shu approach could follow the same method of diagnosing an elemental pair of meridians, but the points selected for needling would then nuance the treatment to address whether the illness varied by time of day, whether it was hot or cold, affected the meridian or organs, or was due to some form of blood stagnation.

As always, this post is for entertainment purposes only.  If you feel you could benefit from Chinese Medical approaches to health, please see a qualified practitioner.  Happy Slayage!

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