[20 September 2010]
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.
At the same time, one can understand the ghostly and other presences that haunt the towns depicted in Supernatural as constituent entities of a larger specter. That specter is the residue of the tremendous energy and ambition that created America, particularly as it exists in places that don’t much matter anymore in economic, political, or cultural terms. Americans don’t need huge expanses of space in the way they once did and, from today’s perspective, Manifest Destiny—with its insistence on accumulating more and more land and turning it to agricultural and industrial purposes—seems like a bad joke as town after town, once prosperous, goes into slow or swift decay. One is reminded of a few lines from Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” about a more or less defunct mining town in Montana:
The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
Philipsburg may not be a ghost town at the moment of Hugo’s record, at least not yet, but its vital youth and relevance, primarily economic, are clearly long gone, not dead but certainly dying. Likewise for many of the towns in Supernatural, with little left except their stories, good and bad, of how things were and what has happened in them. One aim of that quintessentially American phenomenon, the road trip, is to experience some of the “local flavor,” the uniqueness and idiosyncrasy, of the innumerable communities and places that make up the country—all that resists assimilation into the bland and banal no-place of contemporary mass media. That aim is, however, usually framed in terms of happy discovery and salutary revelation.
These are, as I have suggested, decidedly not the terms in which Supernatural understands or presents the road trip of its protagonists. After all, Kripke has described the visual aesthetic of the series as “decrepit Americana” in which “1950’s optimism has gone to seed . . . the look of this country but . . . ominous.” The abandoned farmhouses, decaying motels, shuttered factories, decommissioned asylums, rundown penitentiaries, and so on of the series are the scenery of what Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America”—the America populated by oddballs, crooks, footloose musicians, and wild-eyed zealots playing out their desperate and strange lives in places that while they seem prosaic or unremarkable on the surface open onto a vista of strangeness, emptiness, and the mystery of death for those willing to look a little closer.
In order for the significance of the series to register we should note that its vision of the relationship between the present and the past is at odds with a central American myth promoted, however variously, however so diversely, by those groups that, dissatisfied with this corrupted and unhappy world, have proposed the incipient arrival of a better one, a new paradise (secular or sacred)—among them Puritans, Transcendentalists, Swedenborgians, and hippies.
In this myth America is a place of millennarial promise whose best and most important story is yet to be written. Progress. Every generation better off than the last. A place of opportunity. A city on a hill. A perpetual frontier. The promised land.
Moreover, this is a central theme of some of the best American literature. After all, Huck Finn’s dream of lighting out for the territory assumes the possibility of leaving his past behind and in so doing relegating the whole ideological and cultural edifice of slavery and authority and hypocrisy and the civilization they make possible to a geographic space somewhere at his back as he walks into the endless expanses of the West. Perhaps the most succinct and powerfully idealistic articulation of this sentiment is to be found in Walden, where Thoreau writes, “Start now on that farthest western way, which does not pause at the Mississippi or the Pacific, nor conduct toward a worn-out China or Japan, but leads on direct a tangent to this sphere, summer and winter, day and night, sun down, moon dawn, and at last earth down too.”
In other words, the West and all it symbolizes—freedom, renewal, reinvention—is not so much a physical as an imaginary place, a site of possibility and continuous spiritual rebirth, wherever one happens to find oneself.
There is, however, another story in circulation about America and its relationship to what has come before. In this story—one told by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, and perhaps most obsessively by William Faulkner—the past is always with us and we are always haunted by the ghosts of who and what and where we have been and what has been done to us. It was Faulkner, after all, who wrote that, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” This is the story that Supernatural tells in episode after episode and also, importantly, in its frame narrative of intergenerational conflict. The Winchesters, as I suggested above, make for a fractious family and the first few seasons present in great detail the source of that fractiousness.
Specifically, the brothers are haunted by the memory of their mother’s immolation by a demon, an event that turned their once mild-mannered father into an autocratic and obsessive man. Older brother Dean is content, initially at least, to play the good and loyal son to his father but Sam, at the outset of the series, has left the family to live the straight life of a career-minded law student and loving boyfriend.
That Sam has parted ways with his brother and father, has eschewed the “family business” as it is repeatedly called, in order to pursue precisely the kind of life that most parents would want for their children is, of course, a central irony of the show. The larger theme nonetheless remains intact: the first place we experience the past, the locus of its burden, is the family. It is, after all, the originating ground of our being and the difficulty we face in escaping it lies not least in the fact that we are constituted of it. “Wherever you go there you are.” So even as the Winchesters chase after and expel the spirits of days gone by, they themselves remain possessed, even after their father meets his death.
Certainly this kind of easy parallelism is what Havrilesky seems to be mocking in her dismissal of the series. But in the last couple of seasons Supernatural has developed (or we might say rediscovered) the notion that intergenerational conflict is at the heart of the most intractable questions human beings have asked about the nature of freedom and why there is such awful suffering in the world. If we imagine the world with all of its terrible cruelty, its inherent mechanisms of pain, suffering, and destruction as inaugurated by a sovereign creator figured as a watchful parent—well, then, somebody’s got some explaining to do.
In fact, in the fourth season asks these questions explicitly, particularly in the cheekily titled episode “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Dean” (4,2). The title of the episode, with its not-so-sly reference to Judy Blume’s classic young adult novel Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, is meant to suggest that questions about life, the universe, and, well, everything are not the accustomed business of tough guys like Dean, that they are the concern of the effete and ineffectual—those who lead the contemplative rather than active life. Try as it might though the ironizing tone cannot entirely undercut the importance of the questions posed in the episode that follows.
This in turn compels the audience to consider its expectations and prejudices about the limitations and possibilities of the series. In other words, should we dismiss the issues at stake here because they appear in a program that belongs to the horror genre? Perhaps horror with its persistent displays of maiming, torture, and agony is the perfect medium for prompting reflection on essential aspects of the human condition. Decay, suffering, and the fact of death we have with us always and contemplation of their source and how to make sense of them is at once the most difficult and essential task anyone can undertake. As the 19th Century essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote in Characteristics, “In all ages, those questions of Death and Immortality, Origin of Evil, Freedom and Necessity, must, under new forms, anew make their appearance; ever, from time to time, must the attempt to shape for ourselves some Theorem of the Universe be repeated.”
Carlyle does not suggest that the “theorems” that individuals devise are accurate; indeed, the very necessity of continually devising new ones suggests that there is no essential truth but, rather, only contingent explanations that suffice (or, as the case may be, don’t suffice) for some people for awhile.
For its part Supernatural has contemplated questions of death and evil, freedom and necessity, directly and at some length in its presentation of the Winchesters’ attempt to prevent the Apocalypse while dodging the ploys of warring angels and demons to draft them into their respective armies (the brothers are destined to serve as the vessels in a standoff between Lucifer and the archangel Michael, the latter serving as the proxy for a God who may or may not exist). On one level it is almost inevitable that the narrative of the series should move in this direction. After all, what bigger plot is there, what greater challenge could the Winchesters face, than preventing the end of the world (or at least of America, since there is virtually no mention of anywhere but America in the series)?
This is to be expected for deeper reasons as well. The Apocalypse in American culture has a particular acuteness, a peculiar significance, by virtue of the fact that it is both the fulfillment and repudiation of some central myths already touched on: progress, utopia, the belief in not just the possibility but the inevitability that things will get better.
There is, though, a profound ambivalence in how American culture has imagined the Apocalypse. On the one hand, it can be seen as the culmination of an historical trajectory in which secular time and history are crowned with sacred eternity and the realization of God’s plan for the world. On the other hand, it can be understood as the means by which God awakens humanity from the nightmare of history and the suffering and conflict it records. In other words, the Apocalypse is simultaneously the fulfillment of history and an escape from it.
If this seems far afield from Supernatural and the argument that the series is obsessed with the history of American places and America as a place both geographic and imaginative, let me end by noting that the most recent season concluded with the Winchester brothers confronting Lucifer in Detroit, Michigan. Specifically, the episode begins with an homage to the automobile industry and, in particular, the Chevy Impala in which the brothers crisscross the vast geographic expanse of America. It is this Impala, and its status as a literal and figurative receptacle of the brothers’ memories of their itinerant existence, that leads to the salvation of one of them and, by extension, the prevention of the Apocalypse. Because the Winchesters have never really had a home, the Impala, the instrument and symbol of the mobility that defines their lives, serves as the sentimental object that anchors them in the world and facilitates human connection.
The Impala is an at once a curious and completely appropriate talisman against evil given the overall logic of the series. It is, after all, the product of what is on its way to becoming the greatest ghost town in America. Moreover, innumerable studies have ended their accounts of the demise of Detroit with the same claim: the dire fate of mighty Detroit, beating heart of the American industrial economy for the better part of the Twentieth Century, portends the dire fate of the American political and economic body as a whole.
Whether or not this is the case with America only time will tell, but for now it’s safe to say that Supernatural presents a profound irony: its protagonists refuse to embrace a world that is not haunted, an America that is free of the past and its horrors. Such a world, after all, would have no need of the Winchesters and all the archetypes they personify—the gunslinger, the stranger who saves the day, the outsider who at once refuses to conform to and makes possible the lives of the homesteaders. For by preventing the Apocalypse and at least preserving the possibility of the fulfillment of God’s plan for the world, the Winchester brothers leave it, or at least the portion of it that concerns them, mired in a history whose many terrible manifestations it is their self-elected task to exorcise.