The past is never dead. It is not even past.
At first glance the television series Supernatural, soon to begin its sixth season on the CW network, is little more than a ridiculously transparent male fantasy about non-commitment, adventure, and violent confrontation in the form of fisticuffs and gunplay. Its subject, after all, is two young brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, endlessly road-tripping down the highways and byways of (mostly) middle America accompanied by a classic rock soundtrack as they search for danger and the chance to play the hero, most especially for the beautiful women who inhabit the places in which they find themselves. And the danger they seek out and confront, encounter and attempt to eradicate? It comes in the form of poltergeists, witches, demons, tricksters, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and so on—pretty much the whole panoply of supernatural creatures that have stalked the darklands of the human imagination from time immemorial.
This is hardly a likely premise for what is a series deeply concerned with the historical and mythic dimensions of the American experience; and, indeed, while Supernatural has enjoyed modest success it has garnered very little in the way of critical accolades or appreciation of the depth of its interests.
In fact, some reviewers of initial episodes of the program predicted or longed for its swift death. Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe, for example, wrote, “It’s horror rehash that never quite takes flight” and Heather Havrilesky of Salon had this to say: “While the WB’s Supernatural... starts with a terrifying Exorcist-style bang and a pair of dreamy boy heroes… sure to draw in fans of shallow teen horror flicks, the ultimate premise—something along the lines of ‘Hey bro, let’s drift around the country hunting ghosts and looking for our lost daddy!’—doesn’t seem too promising, nor does the cool-guy dialogue.”
For these critics the show, at least initially, was little more than uninspired shock horror accompanied by some not-so-subtle familial psychodrama meant to give it a specious sense of seriousness and complexity.
Still, whatever the validity of these early assessments of the show there’s no denying that in terms of longevity and cultish fan enthusiasm Supernatural can rightfully claim a place in the pop culture landscape alongside several series to which it is indebted in terms of theme, format, and tone—The X-Files, of course, and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. These series, especially the latter two and Supernatural blend the genres of horror, fantasy, and the Gothic to present and explore dark worlds hovering just below everyday reality but always bursting forth in grotesque and disturbing or terrifying ways.
In Supernatural and Whedon’s series these worlds are inhabited by malevolent forces that aim to overturn all moral order and annihilate love and affection, friendship and kindness, compassion and decency—all those things that we associate with humanity at its best. In turn, it is the task of marginalized or socially insignificant individuals, such as drifters in the case of Supernatural, to combat these forces and preserve humanity against the predacious advances of an evil it cannot begin to comprehend and of whose existence it is simply (but also perilously) unaware. For this reason the usually uninteresting or unremarkable scenes of contemporary American life—diners, bars, high schools, gas stations, motel rooms, abandoned houses—constitute the arena for a primordial contest between good and evil.
That contest as it is presented in Supernatural reflects a provocative meditation upon the vexed relationship between secular and sacred time, historical reality and millenarial longing, dreams of unfettered progress and the deadening hand of past trauma. In short, the series in its composition and concerns is a manifestation of the collective imagination in which abiding existential questions about life and death are refracted through the prism of America as both a seemingly endless physical space full of opportunity (economic and spiritual) and a phantasmagoria of lost hopes, failed ambition, and unsatisfied desire.
Whatever its larger interests Supernatural has at the outset of a given episode, at least for the better part of its run, relied on the tried and true horror movie tactic of presenting individuals in utterly prosaic, often domestic, circumstances—chatting on the phone while getting ready for bed, preparing dinner, shuffling to the bathroom—just long enough to build an unbearable tension until the menacing camera angles and ominous music culminate in a jump cut to a splatter of blood accompanied by hysterical screaming. The aim of this convention is to put the mundane and the fantastic into a powerfully reciprocal relationship, to make the former strangely new by its proximity to what is radically other and alien, to make the latter more terrifying by its intimacy with what should be the comforting presence of the familiar.
Yet, however generic so many of the shots and scenes that constitute particular episodes may be, geographic, social, and cultural places matter in Supernatural, more so than in any other series currently on American television. To paraphrase the great country-western songwriter Hank Snow, the Winchester brothers have been everywhere, man. A partial catalogue of the actual and imaginary towns, cities, and way stations they have visited in their odyssey achieves a kind of poetry born out of an amalgamation of English, classical, and Native American languages—Lost Creek, Colorado; Ypsilanti, Michigan; Carthage, Missouri; Lake Manitoc, Wisconsin; Toledo, Ohio; Oasis Planes, Oklahoma; Lawrence, Kansas; Burkitsville, Indiana; Hibbing, Minnesota; Richardson, Texas; Greenwood, Mississippi; Joliet, Illinois; Cold Oak, South Dakota; Pike Creek, Delaware. The list could go on and on for the very structure of Supernatural, predicated on the Winchesters’ transient pursuit of provincial horrors, insists that nearly every episode be set in another place on one of the tattered road maps the brothers continually pour over.
Supernatural doesn’t, however, name-check the places its protagonists visit as a mere exercise in colloquial lyricism; it is deeply interested in, indeed is constituted of, the stories associated with them. The creator of the series, Eric Kripke, notes that it frequently draws on local legend and lore. The creative intelligence that informs the series and the investigative intelligence it stages are two sides of a single coin. When the Winchesters prowl out-of-the-way corners of the Internet or thumb through old newspapers or scan microfilm in local libraries they are, in a sense, reproducing the research process that the staff undertakes to make the series possible.
For this reason, without diminishing the creativity of the writers of Supernatural, we should acknowledge that artistic credit for the series also belongs to the anonymous originators of the folklore and ghost stories, the urban legends and cautionary tales in which Supernatural trades and the communities that continue to circulate them. As obscure or unimportant as so many of these communities and the places that give rise to them may be in the larger American mind, in the world of Supernatural they are suffused with meaning. For the extraordinary happenings the Winchester brothers witness and the monsters they combat are merely the fantastic manifestations of utterly mundane, if often terrifying, human experience.
In other words, what is in so much American fiction (especially as it appears on television) merely “fly over country”, space to be swiftly traversed on the way to somewhere else, Supernatural presents as an archive of consequential stories: People lived here. People died here. People loved one another here. People betrayed one another here. People murdered one another here—out of jealousy, out of rage, out of madness, out of greed. In short, significant human dramas were acted out in all of these places and each is a storehouse of the furious psychic energy generated by that drama.
This is not to say that Supernatural is a paean to small town America or that it participates in the pandering to “Main Street” values and sensibilities that marks so much contemporary political rhetoric. After all, the series is not above trafficking in urban and suburban America’s nightmares of the country. In “The Benders” (Season 1, Episode 15), for example, rural America is a territory marauded by cannibalistic hillbillies just waiting to get their hands and hatchets on soft city folk. This is rural-bashing, for sure, but—and this is the more important point—it at least acknowledges that there is no such thing, no such place, as unblemished America, no such thing as innocent territory. “History,” the German philosopher Hegel wrote, “is a butcher’s block,” the site of terrible suffering, cruelty, and violence.
This is as true of local history as it is of national or international history, so Supernatural suggests. It is a grim vision, to be sure, but it is not nihilistic. The geography through which the Winchester brothers travel may be bloody but it is also an echo chamber of anguished cries that refuse to be silenced and which the passing of time cannot completely mute. Sometimes these are the cries of the righteous, as in “Red Sky at Morning” (3.6), in which the ghost of a sailor hanged by his brother avenges himself on persons who have committed intra-familial murder. At other times, they are the cries of the ignoble, as in “Route 666” (1.13) in which the ghost of an enraged racist runs down African-Americans in a phantom truck.
And yet, whether they are motivated by legitimate grievance or a beyond-the-grave persistence in malice, these voices do what the past, at least figuratively, is always doing to what comes after—stifling it, constricting it, using it as an instrument through which to realize a terrible anger and resentment. This is hardly a new story; indeed it is one of the handfuls of stories that human beings tell themselves and by which they orient themselves in time and space.
We should remember that the final plea of what appears to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Shakespeare’s most celebrated play is, “Remember me, remember me.” This may seem an innocuous enough injunction, but then we recall that the ultimate act of remembrance for the ghost is murder. And though Hamlet is famously vexed about the righteousness of the injunction, the fact remains that the ghost imagines the present as merely the scene for execution of the vengeance with which it is obsessed.