Symposium

From canon to fanon and back again: The epic journey of Supernatural and its fans

Melissa Gray

St. Paul, Minnesota, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fandom; Fantasy; Willing suspension of disbelief; World building.

Gray, Melissa. 2010. From canon to fanon and back again: The epic journey of Supernatural and its fans. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2010.0146.

doi:10.3983/twc.2010.0146

[1] Enjoying any fictional universe, such as Supernatural, is predicated on a relationship of trust: the willing suspension of disbelief. This is an age-old agreement between the storyteller and the listener: she'll tell her story well, and he'll believe. In the case of Supernatural, its creators are trusting that we're willing to give them the opportunity to establish the Supernatural universe properly and tell the characters' stories. In return, we're trusting that it will be worth our while to stay and be engaged—that the payoff will be worth the emotional and mental work involved in believing things that range from just outside our direct experience to, frankly, the preposterous. Once thoroughly engaged, a devoted fan will put up with a fair amount of inconsistency and hard work if she trusts the universe and its creators, and believes that she will enjoy the results—entertainment, edification, thrills and chills, beloved characters and complex relationships.

[2] Supernatural is an emotionally authentic three-dimensional universe with characters, such as the brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, whose essential reality we recognize. The Winchester family are monster hunters, and although much of their life is inherently unbelievable, it still has enough elements recognizable as part of our reality to help fans suspend their disbelief. The basic tenets for this universe are (mostly) laid out early: we know the basic story of hunting, the Winchester family and its curse by the end of 1.01 "Pilot." Later changes in the universe are revealed organically, with layers added rather than elements replaced—evolution, not revolution. The universe maintains enough internal consistency that even fantastic elements are believable in context. And of course the show is entertaining on a number of levels. These elements are the core reasons why people are able to suspend their disbelief and actively engage with any fictional world.

[3] The most easily believable aspects of Supernatural, as with any story, are based on reality as we know it. There's nothing really unfamiliar here, just familiar elements in different combinations, if perhaps taken to an extreme, and easily extrapolated from our reality. The human elements are established on this level—relationships, families, emotions—and it is extremely important that these elements feel authentic. If the characters don't ring true, neither does their universe, and engaging fans' willing suspension of disbelief is increasingly unlikely. If the characters and their relationships are believable, fans will follow them and their universe just about anywhere.

[4] In the eyes of the fans, Supernatural handles some of the human elements very well indeed. One of the biggest appeal factors of the show is the characters, primarily Sam and Dean, but also a whole host of secondary characters, including their father, John Winchester; fellow hunters Bobby Singer, Ellen Harvelle, and Ellen's daughter Jo; and more recently the angel Castiel. They're three-dimensional—one could imagine meeting Sam in a coffee shop and having a conversation with him. They're sympathetic—by the end of season 4, Sam and Dean are broken and sad, having both done horrible things, but fans still love them and want them to have happily ever after. They are individuals with believable personalities, faults, and life journeys that fans can empathize with and laugh and cry over.

[5] Supernatural's characters also have intense relationships that we empathize with and enjoy, especially between Sam and Dean. Fans have celebrated their brotherly bond, their bromance, as the core of the show ever since 1.01 "Pilot," when we learn that they can't count on anyone else to go the distance. We revel in the strengthening of their relationship—indicated on the cosmic scale by Dean going to hell because he can't face living without Sam, and Sam experiencing his own forms of hell without Dean. On a smaller scale, their growing closeness is shown by numerous instances of brotherly affection (exchanging endearments in the form of jerk and bitch as well as epic hugs), forbearance (being forced to listen to endless mullet rock), help (taking each other's word for things that are just unbelievable), and irritation (engaging in prank wars involving itching powder and krazy glue).

[6] Unfortunately, events overtake them, and Sam and Dean's relationship starts to show serious signs of stress. Their understandable inability to cope with Dean's tenure in hell, their unceasing manipulation by angels and demons, and the increasing stress on both brothers induced by the coming apocalypse and their roles in it take their toll on the bromance. Their resulting inability to communicate, their tendency to keep secrets, and their absorption in the pain of their estrangement are, arguably, a prime factor in the success of the angels' and demons' plans to throw an apocalypse.

[7] Many fans did not react well to the breakdown of the bromance and the resulting trial separation in season 5. There was much gnashing of teeth over a perceived lack of Sam in season 4, accompanied by much controversy over whether Castiel was going to take Sam's place in the front seat of the Impala and Dean's life. Fans more or less successfully maintained their trust in Supernatural's creators by reassuring themselves that the creators couldn't possibly keep the brothers apart indefinitely, either emotionally or physically. Fans also hoped that their trust would be rewarded in the end with a stronger brotherly relationship. Lazy_daze, in response to a comment about her reaction to 5.02 "Good God, Y'All!" and Sam and Dean's separation, writes reassuringly, "I think this split up is needed for a reunion and I do still have faith their love is strong—it clearly hurt them both so much, and it will come back around to them. I do have faith for this season! I am sad you are losing enthusiasm :( I say stick with it!" (LiveJournal, September 18, 2009).

[8] Fans have severe problems with other aspects of the Supernatural universe, such as its archaic take on gender politics. Sometimes Supernatural presents itself as an extension of the old boys' club for the young and violent. The stories are sometimes winceworthy; many would say (as many have) that the telling of 4.08 "Wishful Thinking" completely missed the point with the nerd and the princess story line—the problem wasn't that the nerd didn't get the princess, but that the princess didn't get a chance to say no. There are very few continuing female characters; they almost always get killed off. I had hope for Ellen and Jo—they lasted into season 5, but no longer, alas. Various aspects of habitually used language are disrespectful of women: bitch is omnipresent, and men are men while women are girls. Much of the fan base, a sizable portion of which is made up of women, does not appreciate this. Fans have expended considerable online ink pointing out these faults. Their subsequent avowals of love for the show in spite of its problems is a sign not of the triviality of the show's faults, but of the strength of its virtues.

[9] I've seen similar sentiments expressed about problems fans have with some of Supernatural's other issues. As Alaya Dawn Johnson says in her "Open Letter to Eric Kripke," which addresses the equally disturbing race fail of the show, "I want you to know that this is a fan letter…There are some problems I need to discuss, some issues that have repeatedly cropped up on your show that I just have to talk about. But this is still a fan letter. I love Supernatural. In my opinion, it's the best speculative genre show on the air at the moment" (http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/09/09/an-open-letter-to-eric-kripke/). Johnson, and fans like her, take the time to thoughtfully address the issues that disturb them. They try to tell The Powers That Be (TPTB) what needs to be changed—"I can't ignore the aversive, stereotypical and damaging ways that your show deals with race," Johnson writes—while at the same time expressing their sincere affection for the show. This demonstrates the fans' passion for Supernatural and their belief that it's something worth spending time and energy on—something more than mere entertainment.

[10] Other aspects of Supernatural prove more of a challenge to the willing suspension of disbelief. Supernatural originally billed itself as a horror show, including fantastical elements drawn from urban legends, folklore, and mythology in a universe that otherwise mostly adheres to our understanding of reality to create a series of relatively uncomplicated monster of the week (MOTW) episodes. However, it's no longer a horror show; it has bloomed into a full-blown, richly textured fantasy universe, the basic tenets of which differ wildly from those of our reality. Successful fantasy requires highly sophisticated universe building skills because it means creating a universe from the ground up. In the case of Supernatural, the creators began with a base of carefully conceived fantasy and judiciously inserted enough elements from our reality to build a matrix that allows them to tell their stories and for which fans more or less willingly suspend their disbelief. Fantasy requires more work from both the universe builder and the fans, to make the willing suspension of disbelief successful. Neither party can rely on the created universe having a core of shared reality as we know it to facilitate the communication of ideas, as they can in reality-based and horror universes.

[11] The Supernatural universe builders start by presenting fans with a horror show, one based in reality as we know it but displaying carefully selected aspects of the created universe. Additional fantastic elements are gradually introduced until the full glory of the fantasy mythos is revealed. This is an effective technique that works only with sufficient attention to detail; the reveal has to be smooth and gradual, and it works best if the revelation is only fully seen in hindsight. In the course of one of Supernatural's horror-based MOTW episodes, elements might be included that are relevant to that particular episode and contribute to that episode's horror or reality-based motifs. However, those elements are later revealed to foreshadow something more momentous that contributes to the fantasy mythos. Hence, in 1.09 "Home," when the ghost of Sam and Dean's mother, Mary, tells Sam she's sorry, one plausible interpretation is that she's sorry about the poltergeist attacking Sam and his having to revisit his tragic origins, both main motifs of that episode. But later, in 4.03 "In the Beginning," we learn that she was also sorry for making the deal with the Yellow-Eyed Demon that led to Sam being fed demon blood as an infant and started him down the road to possibly becoming the Antichrist. Regardless of whether these sorts of layered revelations are created according to a preconceived plan or are successful thanks to careful manipulation of extant material, they are important in integrating the horror and fantasy episodes and forming them into a seamless myth arc.

[12] One of the basic fantasy tenets of the Supernatural universe is that the Winchesters, Sam and Dean in particular, are the most important humans in the world, influencing events on a cosmic scale. This is only explicitly revealed through the oncoming apocalypse in season 4; Dean is the first of the seals binding Lucifer's cage, Sam breaks the last seal, and the Gospel of Winchester is a biblical record of it all revealed to the Prophet Chuck and published as the Supernatural novels. However, the Winchesters' significance has been an underlying theme from the teaser of the pilot episode, with the introduction of the Yellow-Eyed Demon. In 3.11 "Mystery Spot," the Trickster—a minor god (later revealed to be an archangel)—says that one of the reasons he's toying with Sam is to toughen him up so he can survive alone while Dean is in hell. 4.03 "In the Beginning" shows Dean traveling into the past and precipitating the Yellow-Eyed Demon's interest in his family, thereby arguably also precipitating Armageddon. In 2.21–2.22 "All Hell Breaks Loose," the Yellow-Eyed Demon tags Sam as the possible, and preferred, leader of his demon armies. In 1.22 "Devil's Trap," the Yellow-Eyed Demon tells Sam that he has plans for him and all the other children who were fed demon blood. Sam and Dean are no longer regular blue-collar guys from Lawrence, Kansas, in a tough spot. Rather, they have emerged as the instigators of Armageddon and the potential saviors of the world. This is not our reality at all, and yet as a result of the success of the fantasy mythos and its organic reveal, we embrace it.

[13] The willing suspension of disbelief when applied to the Supernatural universe is a complex proposition for both creators and fans, requiring a lot of thought, passion, and will. But the interaction goes beyond the creators' universe building and the mere suspension of disbelief and into the realm of fans actively engaging in a fictional world. Supernatural has moved in part from the hands of its creators into the hands of the fans, who are appropriating and transforming the canon into fanon—a living mythology that fans gift to the show's creators and to each other through fandom.

[14] The authenticity and richness of the Supernatural universe is truly appreciated by the fans, and the fans have built a corresponding richness and authenticity into the fandom. We share our heartfelt reactions to and interpretations of the episodes and the situations that Sam and Dean get themselves into. We identify with the characters, their relationships, and their society and use them to hold up a mirror to our own society and ourselves. We tell stories through print, vids, comics, dolls, and other media about relationships and situations we have never seen on screen. We create meta that speculates about aspects of the Supernatural universe that are never explicitly discussed by TPTB. We truly have a sense of inviting these characters into our lives as living, growing people who have become our friends.

[15] This is why fandom is so rewarding: the vast sharing of points of view and creativity that makes it our universe, belonging to the fans as well as the creators of the canon, with our own characters and settings and situations. I can no longer watch episodes the way TPTB likely intended. I bring not only my unique experiences to my viewing, but also the wealth of fanon background material that I've absorbed over the years, both my own and that of others. Plastic!Sam's waffle dance, the Impala as sentient being, the Winchesters' experiences while Sam was at Stanford—these bits of fanon all enhance my enjoyment of the show, and therefore the richness of fandom. It's a complex and fulfilling relationship.

[16] To the consternation of some fans, the relationship doesn't end there. TPTB have taken notice of fandom and shown their appreciation by letting Sam and Dean Winchester meet their fans. This has become an ongoing theme in the show, with fan characters featuring in three episodes before the season 5 hiatus. Fan reaction has by no means been all favorable, and reaction has grown increasingly ambiguous with each new fan-featuring episode. The dissatisfaction is not so much with TPTB breaking down the fourth wall and portraying fans and fandom on screen, but with how they are being portrayed.

[17] Much of the fan reaction has centered around the personalities of the fans being shown. Of the four fans we've spent any real time with on screen so far, Becky Rosen (from 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil" and 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters"), is the least popular. Apparently she's TPTB's chosen representative of fandom in general and online fandom in particular, and many fans find her embarrassing. She represents an extreme in fandom, and many fans think TPTB might better have decided on someone more middle of the road for the fan character who's gotten the most screen time, and who very well might appear again. Fans know that there are Beckys out there, but that the Beckys are greatly outnumbered by fans who understand the concepts of personal space and discretion. Becky is refreshing in her refusal to be embarrassed by her obsession, however, and she may be a deliberate commentary on some of the fans whom actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles have encountered at conventions. She may represent a way of TPTB getting a little of their own back.

Figure 1. Becky Rosen (Emily Perkins) in Supernatural 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters" (2009). [View larger image.]

[18] Sera Siege, the publisher of the Supernatural books from 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book," has not elicited nearly as much fan reaction. She comes across as a smart, professional woman who fangirls a series of books, but she displays her obsession appropriately and has a life outside of it. Many fans can identify with her; she's in their comfort zone.

Figure 2. Sera Siege (Keegan Connor Tracy) in Supernatural 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" (2009). [View larger image.]

[19] Demian and Barnes, the live-action role players (LARPers) from the Supernatural convention in 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters," seem to have hit a chord with fandom. Fans see them as sweet and celebrate their relationship as a positive portrayal of homosexuality.

Figure 3. Demian (Devin Ratray) and Barnes (Ernie Grunwald) in Supernatural 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters" (2009). [View larger image.]

[20] As a nod to the importance of fandom to Supernatural, TPTB have not been committing gratuitous fan portrayal. In every episode in which they've appeared, not only have fans played a role vital to the plot, but their fannishness is also vital to their role. In 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book," Sam and Dean most likely wouldn't have gotten Chuck's address from his publisher without their demonstrably sharing Sera Siege's enthusiasm for the books. In 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil" and 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters," Becky feeds the Winchester brothers vital information that she only knows because she's plugged into the fan community and therefore known to Chuck, and because of her close study of the primary texts. Also in 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters," Demian and Barnes, while playing the roles of Sam and Dean, uncover crucial information (the map) and dig up graves while the real Sam and Dean are occupied fighting ghosts. This usefulness ameliorates some of the antipathy displayed toward the portrayal of the fans.

[21] Another big fandom reaction has been to the discussion, brief though it was, of male/male slash fan fiction, particularly Wincest (Winchester incest). Many Supernatural slash fans feel outed by TPTB's deliberate and explicit discussion of Wincest in 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" and Becky's writing of a slash scene in 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil." This was not helped by an Entertainment Weekly article's gratuitous mention of Wincest (http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20270843,00.html). Many slash fans were happy to be immersed in their own world away from the mainstream and really did not want to have to discuss the concept of slash fan fiction, especially incestuous slash, with their "mundane" friends and family, even if their participation in it was not part of the discussion. With male/male romance being the next big thing on the romance novel front (http://www.laweekly.com/2009-12-17/art-books/man-on-man-the-new-gay-romance), along with the lure of the forbidden and the thrill of reporting sensational news, the media attention is not surprising, but neither is the discomfort of the fans who feel betrayed that TPTB would out them for a laugh, exemplified by Counteragent's Good Fourth Walls Make Good Neighbors (http://community.livejournal.com/supernaturalart/1796967.html).

[22] The relationship between Supernatural and its fans is not always smooth, but it is deeper and more extensive than most similar relationships, and the trust remains mostly intact. The level of reciprocity may not be unique in fandom, but it is certainly unusual, and it bespeaks a commitment to communication and the presence of a love relationship on both sides. I don't think we've seen the last twist in this relationship. I wonder where we'll decide to take it next?



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