I was rereading The Lord of the Rings under my desk for what was probably the fourth time that month when our teacher walked around with a jar filled with folded bits of paper. Each student put their hand into the jar and pulled out one of those bits of paper. Each bit of paper was blank until the jar got around to me. My note had a black spot in the center.
Our teacher told us to get up, to go outside. She pulled me aside, had the rest of the students stand in a line and wad up their notes into crumpled balls. I stood in front of my classmates, and they stoned me to death.
Back inside the classroom, my teacher handed us Xeroxed copies of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” I put The Lord of the Rings aside. I never did pick it up again.
This is why I read fantasy. This is why I read horror. This is why I watch shows like Supernatural, Twin Peaks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. High fantasy doesn’t really do much for me anymore. I keep finding myself more and more drawn to stories where good people do bad things, where bad things happen to good people, and it changes them profoundly. I keep finding myself drawn to the dark spot in the center of the note, the heart of darkness, the shadow in every psyche.
I started watching the television show Supernatural because it has a little bit of everything I’ve ever been interested in. Road trips, family dynamics, biblical ideas of salvation and redemption. Ghosts, monsters, fairies. Crossroad deals with the devil, hoodoo and primitive magic. And, most importantly, Supernatural draws upon some good old-fashioned psychological horror.
I had spent the prior two weeks being consumed by David Lynch’s cult television show, Twin Peaks, and when I first began watching Supernatural I was haunted by the similarities between these two shows. At the very beginning of Supernatural’s pilot episode, we see Mary, pinned to the ceiling and burning alive; at the beginning of Twin Peaks the camera lingers on a ceiling fan turning slowly at the top of the stairs, and though we the viewers don’t understand why, we are disturbed.
It is only later that we realize the true horror of that ceiling fan. That is what Laura must have seen every night, when her father appeared in her bedroom and trapped her on her childhood bed. That is what she must have heard, drowning out the sounds from her bedroom as she is raped by her father.
In both shows, there is a cycle of evil that doesn’t seem to have any foreseeable end. The demon B.O.B. claims to have invaded Leland Palmer as a boy, becoming a part of him. It is this inner demon, we are told, that allows Leland to sexually abuse his daughter; it is B.O.B. that causes Leland to kill her. And Laura becomes trapped in Leland’s cycle of abuse, slowly becoming the very thing that torments her. Laura tells us that B.O.B. “wants to be me, or kill me.” Either Laura will become another aspect of B.O.B., or her life will be consumed by her trauma.
Was B.O.B. ever a real demon, or simply Leland Palmer’s shadow-self, his doppelganger? This is the question that plagues F.B.I. agent Dale Cooper.
“Maybe that’s all B.O.B is. The evil that men do. Maybe it doesn’t matter what we call it.”
Take away B.O.B., take away the Black Lodge and the Red Room, and what’s left is the story of a man who sexually abuses his daughter for years before torturing and murdering her.
Take away the demons, take away the ghosts and monsters of Supernatural, and look at what’s left. You see a family that’s been devastated, torn apart and broken. We catch glimpses of a mother filled with secrets, a father haunted by a vendetta against his a demon of his own, and the sons whose lives are filled with abuse and pain, who have been left to deal with this legacy.
In the episode “Jus in Bello,” F.B.I. agent Victor Henriksen thinks he’s got Dean and Sam figured out.
“Oh, yeah. I forgot. You fight monsters. Sorry, Dean. Truth is, your daddy brainwashed you with all that devil talk and no doubt touched you in a bad place. That’s all, that’s reality. Well, guess what. Life sucks. Get a helmet. ‘Cause everybody’s got a sob story. But not everybody becomes a killer.”
Is the subtext of Supernatural that John Winchester was abusive toward his sons? Absentee father John Winchester is the quest object of Sam and Dean throughout the first season of Supernatural, and while for the most part, he is portrayed as a father who did the best that he could for his sons, there are small details that say otherwise. Look at John’s wife Mary, walking into her infant son’s bedroom at night, seeing a monstrous figure with yellow eyes at her child’s crib and calling out her husband’s name—and then tell me that before her death, the Winchester family life was a fairy tale.
Of course it wasn’t: Dean says so himself in the episode “The Dark Side of the Moon.”
SAM: Dad always said they had the perfect marriage.
DEAN: It wasn’t perfect until after she died.
Our two heroes take a good hard look at evil in every episode, and in doing so they catch a glimpse of their own darkness, a legacy inherited from their father. Sam, with his drop of demon blood and his own tendency to turn a hunt for evil into a holy war, descending despite all his good intentions into violence and revenge. Dean, whose childhood trauma plays out all over again during the sixth season of Supernatural, when he becomes a father-figure himself, Dean, who literally and metaphorically turns into a vampire – consumed with blood-lust, he is drawn back to his picturesque home and apple-pie life, where he terrorizes his girlfriend and her son.
In the the film Fire Walk With Me, a coda to Twin Peaks, we see the details of the events that lead Leland to kill his daughter. In Laura’s death scene we see a descending angel, dressed in robes of white, a stark contrast to the blood-covered face of her father, who is killing her. The angel, this holy untainted thing, symbolizes peace, something Laura could never find in her own life. Laura did not become B.O.B.—her life is destroyed by him instead.
In the fourth season of Supernatural, Dean is brought back to life by an angel of the Lord. Dean’s angel raises him from hell, but Laura’s angel cannot. Laura’s angel is able to rescue another girl held captive by Leland, but it is unable to either save Laura or offer her the peace of heaven, and in the final episodes of Twin Peaks, we see a tormented Laura trapped in the Red Room, unable to move on.
But unlike Laura, Dean has been able, in some small ways to recover from his past trauma. Though not completely – never completely. But Dean isn’t hunted by ghosts – he hunts them. And that’s kind of a important message.
I went to a church that told me that demons were real. And that idea has haunted me ever since – the thought that demons surrounded me at every moment, that behind every closed door and with every temptation, there is something evil.
I read myself to sleep every night because I didn’t want to turn out the lights. I couldn’t open my closet doors or look under my bed. I refused to play with Ouija boards or watch The Exorcist at sleepovers with my friends; I wouldn’t say “Bloody Mary” three times in front of a mirror or play “light as a feather, stiff as a board.” I never stepped on a crack in the sidewalk; I crossed myself and chanted prayer after prayer when walking past graveyards. I had to close every window and lock every door before I could lay down to sleep at night.
I never felt safe.
I suppose psychiatrists would call all this magical thinking – but the demons and ghosts felt as real as anything else in my life. And I knew my parents couldn’t protect me, or wouldn’t; if I wanted to be safe, I had to do whatever I could to protect myself. Rocks on the windowsill, charms in my pocket, closing my eyes at every frightening thing.
I started watching Supernatural because for once, I wanted to take a look at what frightened me. And Supernatural has elements of everything I’m truly terrified of. The biblical apocalypse in Supernatural horrified me far more than the ghosts or monsters. Watching A Thief in the Night and Invisible Enemies at age eight will do that to you.
I’m not joking when I say this show scares the crap out of me.
But I’m used to it now. It’s familiar in the way that only that old familiar monster under your bed can be. I can watch a show like Supernatural, then sleep with the light off and feel safe. I can see a pentagram and not flinch. I can watch a show filled with the type of violence that at one point in my life might have left me shaking, and at the end of an episode, I’m okay. I can read The Shining for the first time after avoiding it for years and still feel sick to my stomach exactly the way I would’ve if I’d read it at sixteen – the only difference is now I know exactly why I feel the way I do. I understand it better. I can name the reasons why it scares me, and just knowing why, just being able to identify what I’m afraid of, allows me some control over that fear.
Stephen King tells us this:
“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”
Why do I watch Supernatural? Why do I read fairy tales? Because ghosts are real. Monsters, too. But they don’t always win.
Supernatural and shows and books and films like it are important because they shine a light on what frightens us. Our heroes open the door and take a good hard look at the ghost in the closet. Then they shoot those ghosts full of rock salt and burn the bones.
Jenny Moss blogs about fantasy and horror, books and television at Stone Soup Books.