Renegotiating religious imaginations through transformations of "banal religion" in Supernatural

Line Nybro Petersen

Department of Film and Media Studies, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark

[0.1] Abstract—Supernatural is saturated with a wide range of religious representations. These elements often serve to instigate the storyline for one or more episodes, but do so in a way that is removed from their original setting in, for example, traditional religious contexts. In Supernatural, religion is subsumed to media logic, and thus transformed religious representations are an example of a continuous process of mediatization of religion. This essay applies a three-sided theoretical approach, considering mediatization, cognitive anthropology, and social theory. The concept of mediatization applied here implies long-term processes in which media play a role in cultural and social change. The theory of cognitive anthropology of religion allows us to understand how the series activates shared implicit knowledge of supernatural agents and events to evoke recognition and emotion; but by transforming these representations, the show challenges our imaginations. These transformations of banal religious representations in Supernatural come about in three ways: (1) as a mainstreaming of occulture, (2) through connecting banal religious elements to existential themes, and (3) through playful intertextuality. The series applies these narrative devices, which heighten plausibility and familiarity, while simultaneously offering viewers a change in perspective, thus creating opportunities for viewers to renegotiate existing religious imaginations.

[0.2] Keywords—Intertextuality; Mediatization of religion; Occulture; Television; Television fiction

Petersen, Line Nybro. 2010. Renegotiating religious imaginations through transformations of "banal religion" in Supernatural. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Supernatural follows the adventures of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers hunting demons and vampires across America. Throughout the first four seasons, the narrative develops from a primarily episodic structure to a more dominating overarching narrative as Sam and Dean set out to prevent an apocalypse. At different points throughout the series, it is indicated that both Sam and Dean are "special" and "chosen" for some greater purpose, and the true reason for Sam's newly developed supernatural powers is constantly discussed. Beyond the overarching existential themes, Supernatural is saturated with religious representations, from crosses to holy water to angels of God, but these representations are transformed as they are put in a variety of contexts. Supernatural is by no means faithfully selling Christianity, although there are numerous Christian references. Rather, the creators of Supernatural draw freely upon an immense pool of religious elements and religious narratives circulating in Western society.

[1.2] Supernatural is one of a range of contemporary TV series with supernatural themes and strong religious undertones; in fact, we might argue that the technological advances in audiovisual media, along with factors such as the millennium Y2K craze and 9/11, have spurred an increase in these stories, which are often hugely popular with audiences (Hjarvard 2008). Although forerunners such as The Twilight Zone (1959–64) and The Outer Limits (1963–65) initiated a steady stream of supernatural TV fictions in the following decades, it certainly seems that the 1990s and 2000s have seen an increase in science fiction and fantasy programs focusing on destiny, the afterlife, and the apocalypse. Undoubtedly, the popularity of the TV show The X-Files (1993–2002), which was produced by Kim Manners, who also produced Supernatural, facilitated a renewed interest in such themes, which has persisted since then. Supernatural is currently in competition with the TV shows Ghost Whisperer (2005–), Fringe (2008–), and True Blood (2008–), which in different ways deal with supernatural beings and the afterlife. Modern technology allows audiences to see the unseen in ways that are increasingly convincing audiovisual accounts: transparent spirits rising from graves, humans transforming into demons, and vampires sucking the blood out of human bodies. The saturation of popular culture with supernatural narratives is not simply a result of producers' playfulness with technology; it is of course a result of the stories' marketability. Audiences are apparently fascinated by the idea of something outside the realm of natural ontology (as understood in the context of Western culture) and something bigger than themselves. The West is often understood as increasingly secular, but this view is challenged by many researchers within the field of sociology of religion (Davie 2007; Partridge 2004–5; Murdock 2008; Berger 1999; Lynch 2002), which often sees contemporary society as desecularized or resacralized. With the huge number of TV series focusing on religious issues, it is quite a paradox that research on religion and TV has been overlooked until recently; the edited volume Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion (Winston 2009b) represents the most comprehensive collection of work to date. Meanwhile, religion and film have been studied extensively (Plate 2003; Wright 2007), as has the broader relation of religion to media (Schultze 2003; Hoover and Lundby 1997; Hoover 2006).

[1.3] At the center of this essay is the concept of religion; but what is religion in the context of this analysis and of television fictions in general? For this context, we need a working definition of religion that allows us to discuss the religious themes in Supernatural. I propose an approach similar to one used by Steve Bruce (1992, 1996); his definition attempts to close the divide between the functional and the substantive approaches presented by Durkheim (2001) and Weber (2001). Bruce suggests the following: "Religion for us consists of actions, beliefs and institutions predicated upon the assumption of the existence of either supernatural entities with powers of agency, or impersonal powers or processes possessed of moral purpose, which have the capacity to set the conditions of, or to intervene in, human affairs" (Bruce 1992, 10–11). Thus, Bruce agrees with Durkheim that practices uniting believers are central to religion, but simultaneously takes into account the connection to the supernatural that sets religion apart from communities based on secular ideology. Bruce's definition, because it is broadly formulated, has weaknesses like those of the functional approach. It invites a discussion about the meaning of "impersonal powers" or "processes possessed of moral purpose"; but his definition is valuable because it grasps the aspect of supernatural agency that has "the capacity to intervene in human affairs." Furthermore, Taylor (2007) points to the fact that the supernatural is a very recent (in a historical context) and Christian idea. Bruce also discusses the difficulty of defining religion as a universal concept and notes that in primitive societies, "things we would regard as mundane and this-worldly, such as hunting or fishing, were enmeshed with religious ritual. Unless rituals were properly performed, the hunting or fishing would not be productive. Such societies simply did not divide the supernatural from the natural in the way we do" (Bruce 1996, 25). While I agree with Bruce and Taylor that attempting to come up with a comprehensive definition of religion is a lifetime's work in itself, I do believe that we can identify some defining features that will be useful in this particular context. I argue that even if the divide between the natural and the supernatural is a particularly Western concept, and even if some religious communities do not incorporate this divide, the rituals Bruce refers to in this last quotation still illustrate how an intentional supernatural agent was believed to disrupt food gathering if the rituals were neglected. Furthermore, this approach is relevant to this paper for two reasons: (1) it allows us to consider religious elements outside the frame of institutionalized religion, such as non-Christian myths, which are presented side by side with institutionalized religion in Supernatural, and (2) it allows us to discuss people's continuing fascination with the supernatural, which cannot be fully explained by sociological theory.

[1.4] This essay examines how Supernatural transforms religious representations, and thus simultaneously confirms and challenges viewers' religious imaginations, inviting them to renegotiate these imaginations. I apply a three-sided theoretical approach that considers (1) the media's dominant cultural role in representing religious concepts, or in other words the mediatization of religion, (2) the cognitive predispositions that continuously reinforce the audience's nonreflective knowledge of these concepts, and (3) the sociocultural context in which these religious themes are recycled and consumed. I acknowledge the unorthodoxy of combining social and cognitive theory, but in fact they have been combined by other scholars (Zerubavel 1997; Fiske and Taylor 1991; Brothers 1997). Zerubavel provides useful points in his thoughts on cognitive sociology (1997); he proposes that we think not only as individuals and human beings, but also as social beings affected by the thought communities to which we belong. Folklore scholar Oring offers similar thoughts in regard to the study of folk narratives: "the approach to the narrative is multicontextual, since these contexts inform one another. There is no sharp division between the individual and the social, the social and the cultural, the cultural and the comparative" (Oring 1986, 141). Zerubavel and Oring capture my motives for applying this approach; these research fields inform one another, thus providing more nuances to the analysis of Supernatural. Religious concepts and representations are transformed in Supernatural through a mainstreaming of occulture (Partridge 2004–5, 2008; Hutton 1999; Ellis 2004), which is connected to larger existential themes discussed in the context of late modernity (Giddens 1991; Lynch 2002; Davie 2007; Clark 2003), and through playful intertextuality (Johnson 2005; McCabe and Akass 2007; Pearson 2007).

[1.5] Mediatization theory points to the media's role in long-term societal changes in many "areas of social and cultural life in late modernity" (Lundby 2009, 1; also see Hjarvard 2008) (note 1). Sociologist Davie argues that religious institutions have lost authority in modern Western societies, and labels people's current relationship with them one of "believing without belonging" (Davie 2007). The change in religion's role in the West can partly be ascribed to the media's increasingly dominant cultural role. Hjarvard states, "Through the process of mediatization, religion is increasingly being subsumed under the logic of the media. As conduits of communication, the media have become the primary source of religious ideas" (Hjarvard 2008, 9). Hjarvard introduces the term "banal religion" as part of his analysis of mediatized religion. Extending Michael Billig's theory of banal nationalism (1995), Hjarvard (2008) understands banal religious representations to include symbols and elements of institutionalized religion, myths and legends, superstition, and audiovisual representations that can evoke particular emotions (for example, upturned faces and rays of sunlight breaking through the clouds). Folklore scholar Oring (1986) clarifies the different subgenres of folklore, and for my purposes here I consider banal religion to include urban legends, which differ from folktales by being interpreted as true, even if their truth is negotiated within the narrative itself. Myths can also be banal religion, especially myths that are considered "both sacred and true" (Oring 1986, 124) by the community they belong to (note 2). Hjarvard underlines that calling these representations banal does not imply that they are unimportant. Rather, they are primary, but are taken for granted in society (Hjarvard 2008), or, in Billig's terminology, they are "unwaved flags" (Billig 1995, 39).

[1.6] So how can we understand the nature of these banal representations? Why and how did they become banal in the first place? Cognitive anthropologist Justin Barrett (2004) argues that religion should not be seen as an anomaly in society; rather, our desire to believe is part of our mental processes. Like Hjarvard, Barrett stresses that most of our beliefs are automatic and nonreflective. "Such beliefs operate continually in the background, freeing our conscious minds to deal with other thoughts. Nonreflective beliefs are ubiquitous and so often nonconscious that we frequently are not aware they are there" (Barrett 2004, 2). They include absolutely mundane beliefs about our everyday lives as well as religious beliefs. The representations of religious concepts are banal in the sense that they are part of our implicit knowledge. As banal religious representations are constantly recycled in popular narratives, they become familiar, and as a result our imaginations of specific religious representations are very similar to the imaginations of others. It is the circulation and maintaining of certain religious imaginations through mediatization that reinforce their meaning in society. Thus, the recycling and recognizability of visual accounts allow viewers to find them plausible and meaningful.

2. Transformations of successful banal religious representations in Supernatural

[2.1] When religious ideas and messages are subsumed to media logic, we can expect changes in religious content, volume, and direction, along with the transformation of religious representations (Hjarvard 2008). In Supernatural, elements of traditional religion are presented alongside elements of folk religion and urban legends. Thus, the process of mediatization transforms religious ideas by using bits and pieces in new contexts. The creators of Supernatural and other TV shows intend not to proselytize for a particular religious thought but to attract audiences. With media logic, what is at stake is basically the renewal of a contract for another season, and creators therefore seek new ways to keep audiences hooked. Sconce (2004) and Pearson (2003) explore how they do this through narrative strategies and through the construction of characters in cult TV series. We can understand religious representations in Supernatural as one more strategy to this end. Mediatization theory of religion illustrates how religious symbols and content in Supernatural are woven into narrative strategies of variation and repetition (Sconce 2004); from the opening of hell's gates at the end of season 2 to the overarching season 4 narrative about the impending apocalypse. The transformations of religious representations on TV are not a new phenomenon; in the 1960s, housewife Samantha Stephens was a modern-day witch in Bewitched (1964–72). Rather than having a crooked nose and a pointy black hat, she was a beautiful blond woman. Her witch powers gave the show a fresh feel and made it a variation on the disobedient-housewife theme familiar from, for example, I Love Lucy (1951–57).

[2.2] Indeed, Supernatural includes a variety of banal religious representations that are (re-)circulated in society, including all the symbols in the journal that the brothers' father John Winchester left behind, the incantations used to exorcise demons, and the appearance of vampires, angels, and Lucifer. In 4.01 "Lazarus Rising" an angel, Castiel, is introduced to the story as he pulls Dean out of hell on God's orders. The concept of angels is perhaps one of the religious concepts most familiar to people in the West (perhaps in the world). We implicitly "know" what angels look like. We know that angels have white wings and are surrounded by light, perhaps even a halo. We know this because of the constant circulation of the concept in society, from Christmas tree decorations to popular culture. TV series often represent and transform our basic ideas of angels, as Saving Grace (2007–) did with its angel Earl. In this way, banal religious representations are the foundation of our religious imaginations. These representations gain plausibility with viewers because they are familiar. Hjarvard notes, "The study of religion ought to consider the fact that both individual faith and collective religious imagination are created and maintained by a series of experiences and representations that may have no, or only a limited, relationship with the institutionalized religions" (Hjarvard 2008, 15). Thus we can understand the transformations in Supernatural as a way for these primary beliefs, or banal religious representations, to be brought to the forefront of our consciousness. As the concept of an angel is presented to us in a new form, we must either reject or accept this new representation, even if only in the specific context of the fiction. In Supernatural, Dean's angel-contact Castiel is also different from the popular image of angels (although perhaps closer to a more traditional depiction of angels as warriors). He has black wings and does not have the mild personality that we would expect in an angel. Dean reflects on this transformed representation in 4.02 "Are You There, God? It's Me…Dean Winchester" as he confronts Castiel and his questionable methods: "I thought angels were supposed to be guardians, fluffy wings, halos, you know…Michael Landon, not dicks" (note 3). Throughout season 4, the angels' true motives and, even more so, God's nature are questioned, and Dean struggles with their demand for blind faith. Castiel's character is a good illustration of how religious concepts are transformed in Supernatural. In a sense, basic dichotomies are destroyed. The good does not exclude the bad, the innocent does not exclude the purposeful evil, nor the other way around. This violation of what we expect of religious concepts is often repeated: Supernatural presents benevolent vampires drinking cow blood instead of human blood, the Grim Reaper as a beautiful young woman (2.01 "In My Time of Dying"), the angel Castiel burning out a psychic's eyes (4.01 "Lazarus Rising"), and, last but not least, Sam's infection with demon blood that enables him to go back and forth between good and evil.

[2.3] Moreover, certain representations seem to be more successful than others in popular culture and religions alike. Consider the number of television shows that have featured a psychic character. In shows like Medium (2005–) and The Dead Zone (2002–7), the theme of someone seeing past or future events in dreams or flashes of light is familiar. The number of shows dealing with these issues naturally demands variation even if the core concept stays the same; thus Tru Davies in Tru Calling (2003–5) relives specific days, Allison Dubois in Medium dreams about the events leading up to a crime, and Phoebe Halliwell in Charmed (1998–2006) sees flashes in black and white. Even Supernatural explores this theme, as Sam develops psychic powers as a result of his encounter with the Yellow-Eyed Demon in season 1. Sam's abilities are not a dominant feature in Supernatural; rather they are referred to whenever they fit into the story. Pearson's thoughts on cult TV are relevant here; she suggests that "cult television characters can potentially move amongst [sic] an infinitely large narrative space" (Pearson 2003). For instance, the series also includes science fiction elements, and the generic conventions tied to this genre allow broader interpretations of time and space than do strictly cumulative television dramas. I will return to Pearson's concept of "narrative elasticity" as it relates to Dean's character.

[2.4] So why are some concepts successful in popular culture as well as in religious contexts? Barrett and Boyer argue that the shared feature of gods and other supernatural agents is that they are counterintuitive (Barrett 2004; Boyer 2002). Barrett labels these "minimally counterintuitive" concepts (MCIs). "Constructing MCIs merely consists of either violating a property (or a small number of properties) nonreflectively assumed by categorizers and describers or transferring a property (or a small number of properties) from a different category of things that is nonreflectively assumed for the other category" (Barrett 2004, 22). Naturally the context in which such concepts exist is culturally and socially determined, as Zerubavel points out (1997). We intuitively categorize human beings; therefore, a human with the ability to see the future is counterintuitive and demands attention. Furthermore, it is crucial, in order for these properties to be memorable over time, that they be there for a reason. Seeing the future or the past is not particularly interesting if the ability is not used to solve crimes or prevent accidents. Barrett describes what he calls a "hypersensitive agent detection device" (HADD), a mental process predisposed to identifying agency even when none may exist (note 4) (Barrett 2004, 32). Guthrie argues that our predisposition to ascribe minds is connected to our mental ability to anthropomorphize almost everything:

[2.5] things and events are willful and intelligent, natural processes are purposive, and objects such as celestial bodies are either born (for example, from other celestial bodies) or made by humans or humanlike deities…People see animals, plants, artifacts, inanimate phenomena such as wind and rain, and abstractions such as death and time as more or less humanlike. (Guthrie 1993, 112)

[2.6] Thus, anthropomorphism adds intentional agency and "fills in the blanks" in order for us to understand what we experience. Boyer emphasizes how natural this mental process is: "It is part of our constant, everyday humdrum cognitive functioning that we interpret all sorts of cues in our environment, not just events but also the way things are, as the result of some agent's actions" (Boyer 2002, 165). Familiar statements that something is "God's will" or "meant to be" can be understood as an activation of our HADD.

[2.7] In 2.20 "What Is and What Should Never Be," Dean is surprised by a djinn (a genie that, in this episode, has a malevolent nature) that lets its victims live in alternate realities, dreaming the lives they wish they had. In this alternate reality, Dean lives a quiet life with his beautiful wife in a suburb, his mother is still alive, and Sam is engaged to Jessica and has a law degree. The use of an alternate reality in this episode is an example of what Pearson identifies as narrative elasticity in cult TV programs. "Non-linear narratives afford characters greater possibilities than do linear ones" (Pearson 2003). Thus, in this episode we see a softer side of an otherwise confident and masculine Dean, as he reflects upon his dreams and desires.

[2.8] Slowly Dean realizes that in this alternate reality, all the people that he and Sam saved in real life are dead. He understands that he is forced to choose between what he wants for himself and his obligation to save others. In one scene, he stands in front of his father's grave and, with tears running down his face, demands, "Why is it my job to save these people? Why do I have to be some kind of hero? What about us, huh? What, Mom's not supposed to live her life? Sammy's not supposed to get married? Why do we have to sacrifice everything, Dad?" Dean's monologue illustrates that intentional agency exists on two levels here. First, the fact that Dean is talking to John's grave underlines a banal belief that the spirits of the deceased somehow "linger on" and can hear what we say to them. In this way agency is ascribed to people even after they die, and Supernatural reinforces this ascription again and again. Second, Dean touches upon another major theme in Supernatural, namely that of destiny. Supernatural is constantly playing with the idea that someone is sitting above, or perhaps below, pulling the strings in everyone's lives. The show both confirms and questions the familiar notion that we all have a certain "role to play" in this world and that these roles are assigned by an intentional agent; Dean has to hunt demons for some greater good, planned by some supernatural agent. The agent's intentions, however, are more often than not hidden from both the viewers and the show's protagonists, only to be revealed—or partly revealed—at the eleventh hour; they thus serve to maintain suspense. Again, religious concepts become a vehicle for a narrative drive that keeps us hooked until the final episode. By activating basic mental processes, Supernatural, like religious narratives, attracts our attention, and at the same time the show's recycling of these representations makes it familiar and plausible.

3. Mainstreaming occulture

[3.1] We can understand the representation of a flawed or imperfect Christianity in Supernatural as a reflection of a dominant tendency in popular culture to reject the authority of traditional institutionalized religion, instead giving room to other belief systems (Davie 2007; Hjarvard 2008; Berger 1999; Ellis 2004; Hutton 1999). Hutton's work on pagan witchcraft (1999) emphasizes that nineteenth-century popular British literature used conceptions of the occult: "By this time, the word 'pagan' had become equipped with connotations of freedom, self-indulgence, and ancient knowledge, which were instantly recognizable to a Victorian reader" (Hutton 1999, 27). In a Christian cultural setting, these connotations often imply a connection to nature, but also to the devil and dark magic. Popular culture texts often adapt these connotations, as is visible in contemporary TV fictions. Shows such as The X-Files, Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), and Ghost Whisperer prominently portray an underworld of demons, human-like creatures living in the woods away from civilization, and of old symbols, books, and scriptures that can be applied to modern-day problems. An illustration of the popularity of the occult is the common theme of the friendly neighborhood vampire, which appears in Angel, True Blood, The Vampire Diaries (2009–), and the Twilight novels and their movie adaptations Twilight (2008) and New Moon (2009). The theme may have been popularized simply by the success of Buffy and Angel, but nonetheless, these stories invite us to adjust, even if only slightly, our imaginations of vampires. Sociologist Partridge discusses the increasing mainstreaming of occult phenomena and labels this tendency "occulture":

[3.2] There is a strong sense of continuity with the past. This powerful, sentimental attachment to the distant past is directly continuous with a romanticized understanding of ancient cultures and spiritualities. For example, our ancestors, it is often believed, used to live in a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with the planet. They were in touch with nature, themselves and each other. (Partridge 2008, 115)

[3.3] In Charmed, the Book of Shadows has been handed down to the Halliwell sisters from generations of witches. The book provides them with knowledge about the demons they face and spells to vanquish them. Similarly, the Winchester brothers in Supernatural search through dusty old books and scriptures to find information about the demons they are going to hunt. Both Charmed and Supernatural have incorporated a range of ancient symbols and languages into the narrative. Often elements, symbols, and names in Supernatural are borrowed from actual religious history and folklore. For example, the first "a" in "Supernatural" is transformed into a pentagram in the second season's title sequence, and each brother has a pentagram tattoo to protect him from demon possession; the symbol has a range of religious connotations. In the season 1 finale (1.22 "The Devil's Trap"), the Winchesters lure the demon Meg into a devil's trap that consists of ancient symbols, including the pentagram, from which she cannot escape. Then Sam chants in Latin in order to exorcise the demon from the body it is possessing. Partridge explains the use of occult concepts and imagery in these terms: "a matter can be settled in occulture by a simple appeal to some premodern belief or practice. Because the ancients did it or believed it, it must be true; it must be good for us; it must be beneficial to the environment; it must be spiritually sound" (Partridge 2008, 118). Partridge could have added "it must be effective"; indeed, in Supernatural, it is. Furthermore, Supernatural often draws upon the history of supernatural concepts in order to challenge their popular image. In this way, the occult in Supernatural is made to seem authentic, allowing viewers to play with the idea that the show portrays something beyond fiction. For viewers, this authenticity functions much as a government cover-up frames many X-Files episodes; viewers are invited to link the fictional stories to the nonfictional world. In Supernatural the sense of connection to a distant past is strengthened by introducing figures from folklore and religious contexts, such as a djinn (a genie found in the Koran), the demon Lilith (a Mesopotamian storm demon who also appears in the Jewish and Christian scriptures), a wendigo (an Algonquian mythical cannibalistic spirit), a fallen angel (found in Christianity), and a rakshasa (a spirit or demon found in Hinduism). There are countless other examples, and devoted fans can look up these beings online and in literature and read about their history. Pearson (2003) argues that ancillary texts are central to cult TV. In this case, the ancillary texts that the series refers to were often written long before Supernatural—sometimes even long before the invention of television.

[3.4] Through occulture and supernatural urban legends, Supernatural is a playground for exploring "what ifs" concerning religious imaginations: what if the urban legend of Bloody Mary were true ("1.05 Bloody Mary"); or what if someone had the ability to control others' thoughts (2.05 "Simon Said")? This narrative strategy can be understood in terms of Partridge's (2004–5) notion of a "dilution thesis": "Mass culture and modern restatements of spirituality dilute traditional religious worldviews; they erode 'serious' occult beliefs by diluting them…'the occult' may even become, as is sometimes (not always) the case with astrology and Ouija boards, simply fun with a supernatural edge" (1:122). Just as Ouija boards and tarot cards can be viewed as a playful entry to a magical world, so too can Supernatural. Ellis discusses legend-tripping, which is another entry to the supernatural realm as it "generates excitement with an alternative, play-like redefinition of reality in terms of a supernatural 'dare.' Teens need not believe that they are visiting a real witch's grave or putting themselves in real danger. By means of the legend-trip, they temporarily escape what they perceive as a restrictive, adult-oriented, everyday world" (Ellis 2004, 137–8). Supernatural offers viewers a similar escape, but of course it does so without the trouble of actually having to visit a graveyard in the dead of night. I will return to the role of urban legends when I discuss the series's playfulness. In Supernatural, the occult becomes cool, while traditional religion is much less so. Ellis discuss the role of the occult in popular culture and argues that "one motive for becoming interested in the occult is to participate directly in the mythic realm, in spite of organized religion's effort to institutionalize it" (Ellis 2004, 12). This motive is, on the one hand, reflected in Dean's character as he constantly taunts Sam for praying and believing in God. On the other hand, traditional religion is often used in the series to pull all the strings together and create coherency. Partridge (2004–5) discusses Buffy the Vampire Slayer in relation to cool occulture:

[3.5] It is not the popular artifact which is invested with subcultural capital, but the occult themes informing the series which are "cool." If Buffy is cool, it is because of the series' close relationship to actual occulture. Hence, to be cool, to accrue subcultural capital, one needs to take these underlying ideas seriously, to enter into the occultural world of rejected knowledge, and thus to place oneself outside the mainstream. (1:132)

[3.6] Occulture is also a way of creating nearness and relevance. Schultze suggests: "Religious stories often address the yearnings and experiences of everyday people, not just the actions of the gods in some distant realm" (Schultze 2003, 180). On a basic level, the incorporation of the occult appeals to us as a link to a magical world that feels far closer to our lives than do distant gods, because the occult practices and supernatural beings in Supernatural are brought into contemporary contexts. It is a paradox that while the occult becomes cool as it places itself outside the mainstream, it is increasingly mainstreamed. However, this paradox is hardly experienced by most viewers because of the series's ability to incorporate intertextuality, thus preserving a complex frame for interpretation.

4. Traditional religion revisited

[4.1] The major themes in Supernatural include death, fate and destiny, and the end of the world. In fact, season 4 draws on a very explicit Christian inspiration as it includes the book of Revelation in the narrative. Naturally, the idea of revelation is transformed in several ways to provide narrative drive. On one hand, the concept of the apocalypse in TV serials is something of a paradox; the definitive nature of the end of the world seems incompatible with fictional narratives that are designed to go on forever. Still, Buffy the Vampire Slayer depicted about eight different end-of-the-world scenarios over its life span. The title of episode 4.07 of Angel says it best: "Apocalypse, Nowish"; in TV series, the apocalypse is never the end, but rather the beginning of something new. On the other hand, in movies such as Armageddon (1998), End of Days (1999), and 2012 (2009), the threat of the apocalypse provides a strong narrative force by establishing a deadline by which a resolution must be found. The apocalypse serves as an excellent example of what Sconce calls the challenge of repetition and variation to the cumulative narrative of a TV series (Sconce 2004). Supernatural shares an interest in existential questions with established religion, but the connection to occulture gives these old (perhaps worn-out) topics a fresh feel. Occult rituals such as burning the bones of the dead, summoning demons, and using hex bags to attain goals are often connected to the overall narrative and the character development of Sam and Dean. In a sense, topics from traditional religion are legitimized simply by proximity to occulture. Partridge argues, "Few would rather plough through tomes on sociology, history, classics, religion and theology than watch The X-Files and Supernatural or read The Da Vinci Code" (2008, 122). Thus, familiar religious themes are repackaged for our enjoyment. Davie's concept of "believing without belonging" (2007) helps us understand the appeal of this repackaging. State churches and traditional religions in general have not been able to meet the needs of people living in modern societies, and rather than maintaining a lifelong commitment to their faiths, people constantly transform religion according to their life situations (Davie 2007). Davie and Lynch agree that the role of religion in the modern West is, at least, ambivalent. Lynch argues, "On the one hand, we can see images and ideas within popular culture that suggest that 'God' has at best a marginal significance for many people today…On the other hand, interest in 'God' still seems very much a part of Western culture" (Lynch 2002, 104). Supernatural reflects this ambivalence by confirming the existence of "a god," but simultaneously questioning the omnipotence of the Christian "God."

[4.2] Davie argues that institutionalized religions are often considered static, unable to engage in dialogue and adjust to new demands. Fictions, on the other hand, are not only able to engage (thanks to their visual appeal) but eager to meet the spiritual needs of their audience. In Giddens's (1991) terms, we can understand our altered relationship with religion as associated with self-reflective individuality. The individual approach to religion common in late modern societies opens us to such narratives and gives them relevance, as we are in a constant process of reaffirming and reevaluating ourselves and our place in the world. Giddens (1991) argues that the future of the individual is open and thus problematic. Our fate is affected by our actions and decisions. It is frequently noted in Supernatural that fate can be negotiated and destinies altered. Destiny becomes an even more penetrating theme for Sam and Dean from season 2 onward, and is a prominent theme in other contemporary television shows as well. Heroes (2007–) updates the well-established American superhero genre, as a group of ordinary people discover that they have supernatural powers and use these powers to try to save the world. In an entirely different setting, Lost (2004–) deals with the question of predestination, as survivors of a plane crash end up on a mysterious island. In Supernatural, destiny becomes yet another playground for ever-changing perspectives. At different points in the series, either Sam or Dean is portrayed as "chosen." While Sam is more eager to fulfill what he believes to be his destiny, Dean constantly doubts that the angels are "religious authorities." On the one hand, Supernatural is about choosing a life path, following your destiny, and accepting the sacrifices you make; but on the other hand, it constantly challenges the notion of a fixed destiny.

[4.3] A great number of TV series deal with the issue of death. In Pushing Daisies (2007), Ned can bring people back to life with a touch, but only for a minute; if they stay alive longer, someone else will die. Death is a major theme in Supernatural, and here the ambiguity and shift in perspective become particularly visible; sometimes death is definitive, but at other times death can be negotiated or even reversed. Just as the representations of supernatural beings violate our expectations, notions of death, reincarnation, the afterlife, and heaven and hell are transformed again and again. While the boys' parents' deaths are both irreversible (so far, at least), the brothers escape death again and again. Dean is almost killed in a car accident, but is saved when John makes a deal with a demon to take him instead (2.01). Sam is killed and remains dead for some time, until Dean makes a deal with a crossroads demon and saves him (3.01). As a result of this deal, Dean has only one year to live, and at the end of this year he goes to hell (3.16); but he is yanked out of hell after four months by Castiel, who has different plans for him (4.01). The return to life, for however long, is legitimized within the diegesis of the show. Sconce (2004) identifies several narrative strategies used by TV serials (and familiar to most TV viewers) that push the resolution of the plot further into the future: the reluctant romance, the evil twin, the meat locker, and amnesia. We might label Supernatural's strategy "'til-death-no-longer-do-us-part." Once again, concepts with strong religious connotations undergo mediatization by means of media logic.

5. Playful intertextuality in Supernatural

[5.1] The transformations of religious content in Supernatural are also playful. The series's playfulness is often connected to intertextuality, which in turn creates variation and offers new perspectives on otherwise worn-out themes. Therefore, intertextuality in Supernatural becomes a tool to transform the series's banal religious representations. Koven (2003) discusses how popular horror films often rework motifs from fairy tales (for example, Cinderella motifs in Carrie [1976]), and in Supernatural 3.05 "Bedtime Stories" reworks popular versions of The Three Little Pigs, Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel. Intertextuality is a well-known narrative device of TV shows that are often labeled "quality TV" or "cult TV" (Johnson 2005; McCabe and Akass 2007). Pearson argues that these shows "construct their wide narrative worlds within dense webs of precedent and intertextuality, laying bare the device in a deliberately self-conscious manner designed to appeal to the knowing viewer eager for clues to the show's mythology" (Pearson 2007, 248). The playfulness with intertextuality serves several purposes here: (1) it makes the shows' religious themes seem less self-indulgent and more palatable to the modern viewer, (2) it ascribes legitimacy to Supernatural by placing the show in popular culture history, and (3) it invites viewers to read additional meaning into the text (note 5). For example, Dean says, "Follow the creepy brick road" (2.16 "Roadkill"), which is an obvious reference to "Follow the yellow brick road," a line from the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939). Furthermore, the show's musical score incorporates classic rock, thus underlining its generic heritage from the road movie Easy Rider (1969) (note 6). The show simultaneously reworks classic movie themes, such as the killer clown (2.02 "Everybody Loves a Clown") from It (1990) and the transformation of the citizens of a small town into mindless killers (2.09 "Croatoan") from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and others. The intertextual references in Supernatural are numberless, and Dean and Sam's ever-changing aliases are among them. As references to earlier cultural products are woven into the religious representations in Supernatural, these representations are transformed as they are given (the possibility of) additional meaning.

[5.2] The show also follows more metareflexive strategies. For example, in 2.18 "Hollywood Babylon" the Winchesters go on a Hollywood studio tour and visit the set of Gilmore Girls (2000–7); the tour guide suggests that they may be lucky enough to catch sight of one of the show's stars. Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam Winchester, was previously one of the Gilmore Girls stars himself, playing a character named, of all things, Dean. Once again, Supernatural uses narrative elasticity, which Pearson sees as a defining feature of cult TV programs (Pearson 2003). She argues that "narrative elasticity sometimes entails generic elasticity," and that "cult television programmes often supplement their linear narratives with a non-linear one that can go backwards and sideways as well as forward, encompassing multiple time frames and settings to create a potentially infinitely large metatext" (Pearson 2003). This strategy is visible in Supernatural's 3.13 "Ghostfacers," which is generically and aesthetically constructed like the reality show Ghost Hunters (2004–), and in 4.05 "Monster Movie," in which Sam and Dean drive into Pennsylvania (a lightning flash reveals that the sign flickers to say "Transylvania"): the entire episode is in black and white and reworks movie classics like Frankenstein (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), and others.

[5.3] Similarly, in 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book," Dean and Sam discover that an entire cult book series, naturally titled Supernatural, is built around their lives. As they look up "their fans" online, they encounter slash fan fiction, an actual element of the TV show's fandom (note 7). As Sam explains the term, which suggests that Sam and Dean are lovers, Dean comments, "They do know we're brothers, right?" and continues, "Oh, come on, that's just sick." Through irony and by mixing the fictional narrative and the series's status as a cultural product, Supernatural draws in the viewer and blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction. Pearson argues that "the imaginary qualities of cult television render characters more highly defined and complex, more capable of cutting loose from their original texts, than non-cult characters" (2003). Thus, inter- and metatextuality heighten viewers' imaginative awareness by placing the main characters both inside and outside the diegesis of the series. In "The Monster at the End of This Book," the author of the Supernatural series turns out to be a prophet, a conduit of the word of God. Castiel explains, "One day these books will be known as the Winchester Gospel." Here, it is as if the show is playing with the idea of being contemporary religion in the making. It is more than implied that the brothers' fate is determined, and when they try to deviate from the path laid in front of them, they are forced back in line. But at the end of the episode, Castiel gives Dean a clue that allows him to go "off route," and suddenly the show seems to argue that one can take one's fate in one's own hands. Clark discuss these shifts in perspective in her study of teenagers' reception of supernatural narratives in popular culture: "Still, we need to recognize that television programs and films are polysemic: that is, they are open to many levels of interpretation, from the obvious and literal to the metaphorical and mythical" (Clark 2003, 47). Johnson argues, "As a consequence, these programmes…offer their viewers the possibility of divergent, even conflicting, interpretations within one text" (2005, 59). The intertextuality in Supernatural provides a frame for almost countless interpretations enabled by an open narrative. Johnson argues that "the narrative logic of the [The X-Files] is constructed around continuation, which is possible only if ambiguity remains as to the reality of the fantastic" (2005, 65). The same narrative device is used in Supernatural, but here it is beliefs, morals, and worldviews that are ambiguous. This openness is both appealing and inviting to audiences.

[5.4] Supernatural not only references popular culture texts but also reworks oral narratives such as urban legends. In 2.15 "Tall Tales," we meet a vengeful alligator, living in the sewer, that attacks a researcher doing animal testing. Urban legends also serve as a driving force in The X-Files. Episodes of both The X-Files (2.02 "The Host") and Fringe (1.16 "Unleashed") rework the classic urban legend of alligators in the sewers (Brunvand 1981), also giving it a supernatural twist. Urban legends are a folklore subgenre, and are by nature transformative. Folklore scholar Brunvand argues, "The corollary of this rule of stability in oral tradition is that all items of folklore, while retaining a fixed central core, are constantly changing as they are transmitted, so as to create countless 'variants' differing in length, detail, style, and performance technique" (Brunvand 1981, 3). As urban legends enter television fiction, they undergo yet another transformation, and in this one even the core is subject to change; for example, the beast living in the sewers might be a generic hybrid monster, as in Fringe, instead of an alligator. The reworking of urban legends in Supernatural underlines how familiar aspects of American culture are drawn in and seen from new perspectives as part of a general strategy. Although some elements of the show encourage humor, other elements evoke other emotions, such as empathy or sorrow.

6. Religion reimagined?

[6.1] Even fictional stories enable us to imagine the consequences of our and others' actions. By identifying with a character in a story, we consider not just what the character should do but also what we might do in similar circumstances (Schultze 2003, 179).

[6.2] The theory of mediatization tells the story of a Western society that ascribes more and more value to the role of the media. Mediatization not only causes institutional change, but can affect our own actions and imaginations. Popular culture products reflect an increasing demand for complex narratives that give people food for thought rather than representing a single worldview. References to religion, popular culture, and occulture invite viewers to engage on different levels. Television series are unique in their ability to produce long-term changes in our imaginations. Pearson argues, "Cinema reaches the end far too rapidly for those of us who prefer our solutions almost infinitely delayed, our imaginary worlds almost infinitely expanded and our middles almost infinitely elaborated" (Pearson 2007, 248). As institutionalized religions take a back seat to media when it comes to recirculating religious representations and messages, media narratives become central providers of material that shapes religious imaginations. The main focus of this paper has been how Supernatural offers new perspectives on religious concepts, and I argue that, because it does so, the series is a frame for renegotiating our religious imaginations. An investigation of Supernatural audiences and in particular of devoted fans would help determine if and how this renegotiation manifests in audiences. Supernatural has several of the characteristics that Pearson identifies in cult TV. Hills discusses cult audiences and proposes the term "neoreligiosity" when considering cult fandom (Hills 2002). It is beyond the scope of this essay to thoroughly enter into such a discussion, although it is an obvious next step in research into religion and TV fictions. However, that fictional narratives can be used to legitimize belief systems is one of the points in Clark's study of American teenagers' reception of the supernatural. Clark notes, "They cited a variety of evidence for their views [imaginations about aliens], including television programs or films such as Unsolved Mysteries, Contact, Independence Day, and The X-Files" (Clark 2003, 3). Furthermore, Winston argues that "watching television is a link in the chain of sacred storytelling, a latter-day version of Western traditions, such as hearing scriptures, 'reading' stained glass windows, or absorbing a Passion Play" (Winston 2009a, 2). The real impact of a continuous mediatization of religion remains to be fully grasped, but Supernatural certainly plays a role in this process.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] Thanks to Annemette Traberg for introducing me to the wonderful world of the Winchesters. I am indebted to Professor Stig Hjarvard for his comments on earlier drafts and for engaging with me in ongoing discussions of the concepts of mediatization and banal religion. I also owe thanks to Assistant Professor Lynn Schofield Clark for the inspiration to look at changing perspectives in TV fictions and to special issue editor Assistant Professor Catherine Tosenberger for useful input on the folklore aspects. The Danish National Research School for Media, Communication, and Journalism (FMKJ) funded this essay and made it possible. Thanks!

8. Notes

1. A comprehensive analysis of mediatization processes in regard to religion in TV fictions would include a greater historical perspective in order to detect long-term changes, and a reception study to uncover the impact of TV fictions as agents of religious change (Hjarvard 2008). This more comprehensive analysis is the focus of my PhD dissertation, to be completed in 2011.

2. As a media scholar, I cannot claim any in-depth insight into folklore studies, but certainly it is helpful to consider "the attitudes of the community" (Oring 1986, 124) toward a specific narrative when labeling something "religion" or "religious."

3. The episode title is a reference to Judy Blume's 1970 teen novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Michael Landon played Jonathan Smith, an angel, in the TV series Highway to Heaven (1984–89). Although the morals of the angel in Highway to Heaven might better match our expectations, Landon's character is yet another example of a mediatized image of an angel as it fits in a contemporary frame.

4. Studies of the brain (Gallagher et al. 2001) have shown that humans can attribute thoughts, beliefs, and desires to other people and objects. Scientists label this cognitive function "adopting an intentional stance." The human ability to attribute mind and intentionality to others is central to understanding the role of religion, as supernatural agents are often construed as intentional agents. Our ability to ascribe minds to nonliving objects connects to Boyer's (2002) argument that gods are often human-like (they have minds, beliefs, and desires) and Guthrie's (1993) argument that, within religion, objects, beings, and elements found in nature are often anthropomorphized.

5. This invitation is reflected in fans' online responses to Supernatural, as discussed in Tosenberger, "'Kinda Like the Folklore of Its Day': Supernatural, Fairy Tales, and Ostension," in this issue.

6. For Supernatural's youthful audience, the references to sixties rock help legitimize or revitalize cultural products that they might only be familiar with through their parents. Contemporary popular culture phenomena can often encourage viewers to revisit old texts; a Danish newspaper study illustrates how the Twilight series inspires readers to read classics such as Pride and Prejudice, Romeo and Juliet, Wuthering Heights, and A Midsummer Night's Dream, because Twilight's main character, Bella, reads these works in the series (Petersen 2009).

7. Supernatural slash fan fiction is analyzed by Tosenberger (2008).

9. Works cited

Barrett, Justin. 2004. Why would anyone believe in God? Landham, MD: AltaMira Press.

Berger, Peter, ed. 1999. The desecularization of the world: Resurgent religion and world politics. Washington, DC: Ethics and Public Policy Center; Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans.

Billig, Michael. 1995. Banal nationalism. London: Sage.

Boyer, Pascal. 2002. Religion explained: The human instincts that fashion gods, spirits and ancestors. London: Vintage.

Brothers, Leslie. 1997. Friday's footprint: How society shapes the human mind. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Bruce, Steve, ed. 1992. Religion and modernization: Sociologists and historians debate the secularization thesis. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bruce, Steve. 1996. Religion in the modern world: From cathedrals to cults. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Brunvand, Jan Harold. 1981. The vanishing hitchhiker: American urban legends and their meanings. New York: Norton.

Clark, Lynn Schofield. 2003. From angels to aliens: Teenagers, the media, and the supernatural. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Davie, Grace. 2007. The sociology of religion. London: Sage.

Durkheim, Emile. 2001 (1912). The elementary forms of religious life. Trans. Carol Cosman. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Ellis, Bill. 2004. Lucifer ascending: The occult in folklore and popular culture. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

Fiske, Susan T., and Shelley E. Taylor. 1991. Social cognition. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gallagher, Helen L., Jack I. Anthony, Andreas Roepstorff, and Christopher D. Frith. 2001. Imaging the intentional stance in a competitive game. NeuroImage 16:814–21. []

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge: Polity.

Guthrie, Stewart. 1993. Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Hills, Matt. 2002. Fan cultures. New York: Routledge.

Hjarvard, Stig. 2008. The mediatization of religion: A theory of the media as agents of religious change. Northern Lights: Film and Media Studies Yearbook 6:9–26.

Hoover, Stewart. 2006. Religion in the media age. New York: Routledge.

Hoover, Stewart, and Knut Lundby, eds. 1997. Rethinking media, religion, and culture. California: Sage.

Hutton, Ronald. 1999. The triumph of the moon: A history of modern pagan witchcraft. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Johnson, Catherine. 2005. Quality/cult television: The X-Files and television history. In Contemporary television series, ed. Michael Hammond and Luzy Mazdon, 57–74. Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

Koven, Mikel J. 2003. Folklore studies and popular film and television: A necessary critical survey. Journal of American Folklore 116:176–95. []

Lundby, Knut. 2009. "Mediatization" as key. In Mediatization: Concept, changes, consequences, ed. Knut Lundby. New York: Peter Lang.

Lynch, Gordon. 2002. After religion: "Generation X" and the search for meaning. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

McCabe, Janet, and Kim Akass, eds. 2007. Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond. London: I. B. Tauris.

Murdock, Graham. 2008. Re-enchantment and the popular imagination: Fate, magic and purity. Northern Lights: Film and Media Studies Yearbook 6:27–44.

Oring, Elliott. 1986. Folk narratives. In Folk groups and folklore genres: An introduction, ed. Elliott Oring. Logan: Utah State Univ. Press.

Oring, Elliott, ed. 1989. Folk groups and folklore genres: A reader. Logan: Utah State Univ. Press.

Partridge, Christopher. 2004–5. The re-enchantment of the West: Alternative spiritualities, sacralization, popular culture, and occulture. 2 vols. London: T & T Clark International.

Partridge, Christopher. 2008. The occultural significance of The Da Vinci Code. Northern Lights: Film and Media Studies Yearbook 6:107–26.

Pearson, Roberta. 2003. Kings of infinite space: Cult television characters and narrative possibilities. Scope: An Online Journal of Film and TV Studies, November. (accessed August 19, 2009).

Pearson, Roberta. 2007. Lost in transition: From post-network to post-television. In Quality TV: Contemporary American television and beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, 239–56. London: I. B. Tauris.

Petersen, Alice. 2009. Vampyr sælger klassikere. Translated by the author as "Vampire sells classics." 24 Timer, August 6.

Plate, S. Brent, ed. 2003. Representing religion in world cinema: Filmmaking, mythmaking, culture making. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schultze, Quentin J. 2003. Christianity and the mass media in America: Towards a democratic accommodation. East Lansing: Michigan State Univ. Press.

Sconce, Jeffrey. 2004. What if? Charting television's new textual boundaries. In Television After TV: Essays on a medium in transition, ed. Lynn Spigel and Jan Olsson, 93–112. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

Taylor, Charles. 2007. A secular age. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2008. "The epic love story of Sam and Dean": Supernatural, queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 1. (accessed August 19, 2009).

Weber, Max. 2001 (1930). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. New York: Routledge.

Winston, Diane. 2009a. Introduction to Small screen, big picture: Television and lived religion, ed. Diane Winston, 1–16. Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press.

Winston, Diane, ed. 2009b. Small screen, big picture: Television and lived religion. Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press.

Wright, Melanie J. 2007. Religion and film: An introduction. London: I. B. Tauris.

Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1997. Social mindscapes: An invitation to cognitive sociology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

License URL:

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), ISSN 1941-2258, is an online-only Gold Open Access publication of the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works. TWC is a member of DOAJ. Contact the Editor with questions.