"Kinda like the folklore of its day": Supernatural, fairy tales, and ostension

Catherine Tosenberger

University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—This essay considers the use of folklore in the television series Supernatural: the show does not simply retell folk narratives, but performs them both diegetically and metatextually in a process known as ostension. In the process of performance, main characters Sam and Dean often research and analyze the stories themselves, and perform portions of the folk narrative in order to bring about a resolution. This essay focuses upon episode 3.05 "Bedtime Stories," which does not simply depict the folk narrative genre of fairy tales, but also directly engages with the discourse surrounding fairy tales in popular culture; in particular, the episode reproduces widespread understandings of fairy tales as a gendered genre. The essay concludes with a discussion of fan fiction that uses fairy tales, seeing it as a transformative response to Supernatural's own transformation of folk narratives.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Television

Tosenberger, Catherine. 2010. "Kinda like the folklore of its day": Supernatural, fairy tales, and ostension. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.


1. Introduction

[1.1] One of the appeals of the television series Supernatural is the way in which it uses folklore. Folk narratives and beliefs inform the majority of episodes; moreover, protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester are themselves presented as careful folklore researchers—each episode depicts the boys combing through libraries, archives, public records offices, and the Internet, investigating the folklore record. The series displays a more thorough knowledge of folkloristics than many pop culture texts (note 1); episodes such as 1.05 "Bloody Mary" and 2.04 "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" feature intelligent discussions of narrative variants and the multiplicity of folk beliefs, while simultaneously transforming folk narratives to best serve the purposes of the story the series wishes to tell (note 2). As Henry Jenkins (2007) and I (Tosenberger 2008) have discussed, the show does not simply depict folklore, but uses it thematically, as a way of reflecting and commenting upon Sam and Dean's relationship. Just as Supernatural makes transformative use of folk narratives, fans of the series create transformative responses to the show, in the form of fan fiction, fan art, vids, and so forth, in order to further explore both the universe and the characters.

[1.2] In this essay, I want to discuss not just Supernatural's representation of folklore but also the way it engages with discussions about folklore—and the way fans respond to the folklore in the show. The series both reproduces and subverts popular discourses about folklore, often setting traditionalist views against more nuanced, postmodern understandings of folk material, folk groups, and folklore research. And because Supernatural adheres much more closely to the existing folklore record than do other notable shows influenced by supernatural folklore, such as the myth arc–heavy Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X-Files (both of which are far more focused upon their respective invented mythological narratives than they are on "real-world" folklore), it encourages fans of the series to do their own investigations—and transformations—of both the series and the folklore that inspires it.

[1.3] I will focus upon episode 3.05 "Bedtime Stories," which is, in many ways, a typical Supernatural episode: Sam and Dean investigate mysterious happenings that seem to be connected to supernatural folk beliefs. In this episode, the folklore in question is the European fairy tale canon, which, as creator Eric Kripke put it, is "the folklore most people know best" (Rudolph 2007, 36). However, this episode was not simply about finding a monster and defeating it using folkloric methods. "Bedtime Stories" explicitly engages not just with the fairy tales themselves, but also with the stories we tell about fairy tales in our culture—the folklore about the folklore. Fairy tales are a prime testing ground for questions swirling around the discipline of folklore, about the relationship between oral, literary, and media forms, the nature of the "folk," and the meaning of "authenticity." Since this episode is so concerned not just with folk narratives themselves but also with what we think about those stories, it is an ideal place to begin consideration of the use of folklore within the show. Fairy tales are likely to be most familiar to viewers through media representations, particularly those of Disney, and "Bedtime Stories" tackles not just the folklore record but also media transformations of folklore.

[1.4] My approach is informed by Mikel J. Koven's foundational work in Film, Folklore, and Urban Legends (2008), which is the first full-length work to combine folkloristics with film, television, and media studies. Koven argues that, if we wish to discuss folklore in popular culture, it is not enough simply to note folkloric motifs and narratives in popular culture texts: "To understand how popular film and television uses folklore motifs, we must dig deeper to see what happens when such motifs are recontextualized within the popular media text" (Koven 2008, 70). According to Koven, the folkloric process of ostension is the most useful way to approach representations of folklore in media narratives; the premise and structure of Supernatural make it a particularly rich testing ground for Koven's "ostensive methodology" (2008, 153).

[1.5] Ostension is defined by Linda Dégh and Andrew Vázsonyi as "presentation as contrasted to representation (showing the reality itself instead of using any kind of signification)" (1983, 6). Or, as Jan Harold Brunvand describes it, "sometimes people actually enact the contents of legends instead of merely narrating them as stories" (2001, 303). Supernatural does not simply retell folk narratives, but actually performs the stories. Koven expands these definitions further, in a way obviously relevant to Supernatural: "any legend text dramatized through popular culture…is also a kind of ostension, particularly when we are shown the narrative through actions rather than having the story retold to us through narration"; he calls this phenomenon "mass-mediated ostension" (2008, 139). Of course, every film or television series that dramatizes folk legends, as Koven points out, commits mass-mediated ostension. But Supernatural is unusual: the series not only uses ostension because it is a mass-media text that dramatizes folk narratives, it also actively and consistently depicts ostension as a process. Almost every episode features the majority of the characters performing ostensive acts—and Sam and Dean, at least, are fully conscious of this ostension. Supernatural relies heavily upon existing legend texts, and the majority of every episode involves Sam and Dean investigating the folklore record to determine which ostensive action will be most efficacious in defeating the creature of the week. Supernatural dramatizes the "practical" in "practical folkloristics": like Zora Neale Hurston training as a hoodoo doctor in Mules and Men (1935), Sam and Dean do not simply research folk belief, but actively put those beliefs to use.

[1.6] Ostension, in most discussions of the term, usually involves folk narratives defined as legends. Legends are best defined as stories that make a claim to real-world or historical truth: "at the core of a legend is an evaluation of its truth status…In a legend, the question of truth must be entertained even if that truth is ultimately rejected" (Oring 1986, 125). This is in contradistinction to the categories of myth (stories understood to contain sacred, if not necessarily literal, truth) (note 3) and folktale (stories told as fiction). It is not surprising that ostension usually occurs with legends—since the performance of ostensive acts is intended to produce real-world results, it makes sense that the narratives chosen for performance usually make some claim to real-world truth. Furthermore, Koven argues that legend ostension in popular culture texts encourages audiences to engage in "some form of postpresentation debate regarding the veracity of the legends presented" (2008, 139) (note 4). This is reflected in Supernatural; most episodes engage with narratives that are usually told in their folk context as if they were "true." Vampires, werewolves, shtrigas, the Hook Man, La Llorona, witches, Robert Johnson's rumored pact with the Devil, zombies, djinn, changelings, evil clowns, and ghosts of all kinds have been featured on the show. Moreover, Sam and Dean's methods of defeating these creatures are those which folk belief likewise deems "true": salting and burning remains, performing exorcisms, helping ghosts resolve unfinished business, casting magic spells attested to by the folklore record, and so forth.

[1.7] However, on Supernatural, fairy tales—a subgenre of folktales, which are understood within the folk context as fictional—are also subject to ostension. This ostension functions rather differently than it does for narratives the show and folklore understand as "true." In 3.05 "Bedtime Stories," fairy tales retain their folklore classification as fictions: the fairy tales are not "really" happening, but are instead being used as scripts by the villain of the piece, a child who is forcing others to perform fairy tales in order to call attention to the abuse she has suffered at the hands of her stepmother. Sam and Dean must replace the fictional folk narrative with one understood, within both popular culture and the diegesis of the show, as "real": spirits can be put to rest if the living are willing to listen to and resolve their pain.

[1.8] The depiction of fairy tales becomes even more nuanced in fan fiction for the series. As I noted in an earlier article, "fans…often use folklore much as the show itself does: as a way of reflecting and commenting upon Sam and Dean's relationship" (Tosenberger 2008, 5.4). While fan writers drawing upon fairy tales do use these narratives as a way of illuminating the relationship between Sam and Dean, they often use the tales themselves in a manner markedly different than the show does. In most Supernatural fairy tale fan fiction, Sam and Dean do not, as in the episode, come in after the fact to resolve the story from the outside. Instead, they must assume the role of a character in the fairy tale, playing out the narrative from the beginning. Sometimes the role is thrust upon them, as in Quarterwhore's "The Frog Princess" (November 2, 2007, LiveJournal post), where Sam is turned into a frog. In other stories, one or both brothers deliberately take on the role of the hero on a fairy tale quest, as in Sweetestdrain's "Swear by All Flowers" (June 18, 2007, LiveJournal post). In these stories, fairy tales are treated not as fictions, but as narratives as diegetically "true" as legends.

[1.9] The majority of the scholarship on fan fiction, especially slash fan fiction, understands it as a way for women to intervene creatively in male-dominated pop culture texts. Fairy tales can be said to follow a parallel tradition—like fan fiction, fairy tales are a gendered genre of storytelling. As Marina Warner notes, "although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women's stories from intimate or domestic milieux" (1995, 17). Postmodern feminist writers such as Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, and Emma Donoghue reworked the "old wives' stories" collected by Perrault, the Grimms, and others, seeing in them a space to articulate female experiences and desires—a move not dissimilar to those performed by fan writers, most of whom identify as female. The status of fairy tales as a gendered genre directly affects their ostensive performance within Supernatural; fan writers' reworkings of both the series and its depiction of fairy tales thus combines two strains of gendered storytelling.

[1.10] Before getting into the specifics of "Bedtime Stories," it is necessary to speak more generally about Supernatural's engagement with folklore—an engagement that can be illuminated most efficiently through comparison with its television ancestor The X-Files, with which it shares not only a theme and aesthetic, but also a large portion of its production staff (note 5).

2. Supernatural's "folklore files"

[2.1] Like The X-Files, Supernatural is divided between myth arc episodes, which advance the long-term plot of the season or series as a whole, and standalone "monster of the week" (MOTW) episodes; Supernatural, however, has a much higher proportion of MOTW episodes, because of Kripke's stated frustration with the way the mythology of The X-Files (and other myth arc–heavy shows) became "totally befuddling," until viewers "collapse[d] under the weight of it" (Kripke 2008a) (note 6). Koven, speaking of The X-Files, notes,

[2.2] The MOTW episodes can be further broken down into episodes of "literary fantasy," those that feature monsters created by the show's writers and based within the traditions of horror and science-fiction literature (rather than oral tradition), and those episodes of "legendry," those monsters that are based within a distinct oral tradition. It is to this last category that I apply the term folklore files. (Koven 2008, 70)

[2.3] This categorization of episodes is also appropriate for Supernatural, and I have adopted it. However, while Koven's episode categories are useful for both series, there are significant differences in the ways that the two series approach folklore.

[2.4] Both The X-Files and Supernatural display an interesting combination of progressive and decidedly traditionalist conceptions of what folklore is and who has it, although the two series manifest these attitudes in different ways. What I am calling "traditionalist" folkloristics is the collection of conceptions and attitudes about folklore and the "folk" that were dominant in folklore studies from the beginning of the discipline in the early 19th century until about the 1960s or so in the United States, and for a bit longer in the UK and Europe. Barre Toelken describes this traditionalist perspective:

[2.5] The earliest "schools" of folklore were mainly antiquarian; that is, they concerned themselves with the recording and study of customs, ideas, and expressions that were thought to be survivals of ancient cultural systems still existing in the modern world…The assumption seems to have been that only away from the influence of technology and modern civilization could one find those antique remnants of tradition that might reveal to us the early stages of our cultural existence. (Toelken 1979, 4)

[2.6] In other words, to traditionalist folklorists, the "folk" were best understood as "illiterate, rural, backwards peasants" (Dundes 1980, 6), who, isolated from modern culture, retained "rural, quaint, or 'backward' elements of the culture" (Toelken 1979, 5). Underpinning this condescension was the theory of "cultural evolution," a late 19th-century adaptation of the then cutting-edge theory of Darwinian evolution to fields that had nothing to do with biology. This theory, whose primary exponents were E. B. Tylor and Andrew Lang, posited that cultures, just like individual humans, proceeded in a unilinear fashion through the stages of "savagery" (infancy), "barbarism" (childhood), and finally "civilization"—with upper-class European patriarchal Christian culture representing the pinnacle of civilization (and adulthood), of course. European peasants were, naturally, barbarians, and their folklore represented traces of earlier "stages" of civilization; information on the ancestors of civilized peoples could be supplemented with studies of contemporary "savages," such as African tribespeople (Dundes 1980, 2). Lang, in particular, argued that the child is the microcosm of the culture, and therefore, logically, the stories of lower-class "barbaric" adults were suitable material—after extensive bowdlerization—for upper-class children, as they were all on the same level of development (see Smol 1996). In other words, the still-pervasive notion that folktales, especially fairy tales, are primarily "kids' stuff" owes a great deal to 19th-century racism, classism, and religious bigotry.

[2.7] Endemic to this line of theorizing is the assumption that the folklorist, the one collecting and interpreting folklore, is not of the folk: the folk are always the Other. Traditional folklorists were educated bourgeois outsiders who traveled to rural areas in their own lands—or, better yet, foreign locales—since one cannot find folklore among one's own group, because only "they" have folklore—"we" have Culture (Toelken 1979, 3–7, 265). This did not change until Alan Dundes redefined the folk as "any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor" (Dundes 1965, 2)—thus including everyone, including educated bourgeois folklorists, in the category of the "folk." This redefinition, and the movement away from cultural evolution (and antiquarian schools of thought in general), opened up vast new realms of inquiry for folklorists, including the study of "urban legends" (note 7).

[2.8] Neither The X-Files nor Supernatural, for the most part, depict folklore solely as traces of ancient beliefs that have survived among ignorant peasants—Supernatural, in particular, relies heavily upon urban legends, which often circulate, both in real life and on the show, among contemporary middle-class educated Westerners. Where they differ is in how the protagonists are presented in relation to the folklore they investigate. The X-Files hews closely to the traditionalist bourgeois outsider perspective: Mulder and Scully are highly educated representatives of an official institution, the FBI. The chief axis of discussion about folklore in The X-Files is belief: Scully the skeptic spars constantly with Mulder, whose belief in extraterrestrials and the supernatural is considered incompatible with his class background and education, and therefore deemed irrational. Many episodes depict Mulder and Scully entering a community that holds supernatural beliefs, which Scully resists and Mulder accepts; "Spooky" Mulder raises among his colleagues, Scully included, the traditionalist anthropologist's specter of "going native"—that is, adopting the worldview of the primitive people you're studying, rather than maintaining your rational bourgeois distance. For The X-Files, a show centered around competing attitudes to the supernatural held by educated bourgeois sorts who are not "supposed" to believe in such things—much like traditionalist folklorists—this is appropriate. However, this particular concern does not translate to Supernatural, where Sam and Dean fully believe in the supernatural, and their belief causes conflict only when they need to convince educated bourgeois Scullys of imminent danger. Moreover, the Winchesters are embedded in a milieu far closer to that of the traditionalist folk than of the traditionalist folklorists.

[2.9] Unlike Mulder and Scully, the Winchesters, even before Mary's death, are decidedly working-class; John, prior to becoming a homeless drifter, was a mechanic. Julia M. Wright, in a perceptive article on class in the series, argues that "to hunt in Supernatural is to be immersed in the local, not the multinational-driven culture of brand recognition and globalized consumerism, and this is understood in the series as an insistently classed move" (Wright 2008, ¶15). Although Sam and Dean often behave like professional traditional folklorists—not just by doing research, but also in the fact that they are almost always geographic outsiders to the sites they visit—they are actually amateurs, autodidacts with no formal academic training in the field (note 8). (While a number of 19th-century folklorists were themselves amateurs, most of these were clergymen, who were thus distinguished in both education and perceived religious orthodoxy from the folk.) Moreover, the Winchesters—as wandering outlaws and con men, as heroes on a quest, and, on Sam's part, as a possessor of supernatural powers—embody those around whom folklore traditionally collects, rather than the collectors or interpreters themselves (note 9). This is demonstrated on the show: the folklore that circulates in the hunting community about Sam's powers forcibly aligns the Winchesters with the folkloric entities they hunt, in opposition to the hunters. This in-series folklore puts Sam and Dean in danger from fellow hunter Gordon Walker, among others (in 2.10 "Hunted" and 3.07 "Fresh Blood").

[2.10] Gordon's translation of narrative into action is one of many examples of the folk process of ostension on the show; in fact, I believe that ostension is perhaps the most useful means for discussing Supernatural's use of folklore.

3. Ostension, or "A reenactment? That's a little crazy"

[3.1] As discussed earlier, ostension in folklore is the enactment, rather than simply the narration, of a folk narrative, usually a legend. The concept will be familiar to anyone who has examined Halloween treats for razor blades and poison, mixed Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola, or played Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon while watching The Wizard of Oz (note 10). The most common form of ostention, what Carl Lindahl calls "ostensive play" (Lindahl 2005, 164), is "legend-tripping": visiting a local site reputed to be haunted or otherwise supernaturally unusual (such as "gravity hills," where cars roll uphill), in hopes of a spooky thrill (note 11). Teenagers are especially likely to go on such legend trips (Ellis 1983; Bird 1994; Brunvand 2001, 238–39; Koven 2008, 154–56). In Supernatural, we witness several instances of adolescent legend tripping, notably in 1.10 "Asylum," 1.17 "Hell House," and 3.13 "Ghostfacers"; in every case, Sam and Dean have to rescue the hapless thrill-seekers from malevolent spirits. The Winchesters are impatient with unprepared civilians who deliberately seek out supernatural experiences: in "Asylum," Dean advises one of the rescuees, "When someone says a place is haunted, don't go in" (note 12).

[3.2] However, it is not simply thrill-seeking teens who commit ostension on the show. Sam and Dean perform ostensive acts in just about every single episode, albeit for a larger purpose: when Sam performs the titular slumber-party ritual in 1.05 "Bloody Mary," he is not trying to scare himself, but drawing out the ghost in order to destroy her. The Winchester brothers travel to locations where supernatural doings have occurred, and once there, they often perform the folkloric act reputed to be the best way of defeating the supernatural force in question—after discerning which act that is.

[3.3] While many forms of ostension are harmless—in real life, if not on Supernatural—others are far more sinister. As Bill Ellis observes, folk narratives "are also maps for action, often violent actions" (1989, 218). In other words, some people use circulating folk narratives as scripts for antisocial or criminal acts. What can be called "criminal ostension" is probably the most well-documented form of the phenomenon, if only because the cases tend to be so spectacular. Dégh and Vázsonyi (1983), Ellis (1989), Lindahl (2005, 164), and Grider (1984) all discuss notable examples of criminal ostension, particularly the infamous 1974 case of Ronald "Candy Man" O'Bryan, who poisoned his son with a cyanide-laced Pixie Stick, hoping that the urban legend of poisoned Halloween candy would conceal his crime (Dégh and Vázsonyi 1983, 11–15). In Supernatural, several villains consciously use folk narratives as models for their criminality, particularly the ghost in 1.05 "Bloody Mary": Mary, a girl murdered next to a mirror, latched on to the narrative as a means of manifesting herself and doling out punishment to those who, like her murderer, had escaped retribution for causing the death of another.

[3.4] Most discussion of ostension, criminal or otherwise, focuses upon legends: because legends operate around questions of belief, the ostensive act engages with the possibility of real-world effects. However, on Supernatural, ostention is not confined to legends; in episode 3.05 "Bedtime Stories," the villain enacts fairy tales to violent ends.

4. Disney flicks and bedtime stories

[4.1] In this episode, a classic "folklore file," Sam and Dean head to Maple Springs, New York, to investigate a series of bizarre, unprovoked murders: three heavyset brothers, arguing over the proper construction of houses, are attacked by an animal-like man; a couple, hiking through the woods, come upon a house where an old lady feeds them drugged sweets and then attacks them, killing the man. The woman who survived the second attack tells Sam and Dean she spotted a beautiful little girl—black hair, pale skin—standing just outside the window while the attack was going on. Sam argues that the attacks are based on fairy tales, and Dean agrees to investigate this theory. They discover no dead children fitting that description, but do find a beautiful young woman—black hair, pale skin—who has been in a coma since the age of eight. This woman, named Callie, is the daughter of Dr. Garrison, a physician at the hospital, and he has been reading to her from the Grimms' fairy tales. After Sam and Dean rescue a woman who has been attacked by her previously loving stepmother—the mice and pumpkins on her front porch alert them to her plight—the little girl appears to Dean and hands him an apple. Sam and Dean conclude that Callie identifies with Snow White: her frustrated, angry spirit is frozen at the age of eight and is forcing others to reenact fairy tales as a way of calling attention to her trauma. Callie went into the coma from what was thought to be an accidental ingestion of bleach; her fairy tale reenactments indicate that she was, in fact, poisoned by her now-deceased stepmother. After the murder of an old woman and the kidnapping of her granddaughter (who is wearing a red hoodie) by the same "wolf" involved in the "Three Little Pigs" attack, Sam convinces the doctor to listen to the spirit of his daughter. The doctor acknowledges Callie's story and asks her to stop the attacks. This scene is intercut with images of Dean, in the role of huntsman, fighting the "wolf" to save "Little Red Riding Hood." Callie agrees to stop and is finally able to die; with her dies her control over the "wolf," and he comes to himself just in time to convince Dean not to kill him. Though the case is solved, both brothers are left frustrated and unsatisfied. At the end of the episode, which will be discussed in more detail later, Sam sneaks out and calls up the crossroads demon who holds the contract on Dean's soul; after finding out that she no longer holds Dean's contract and couldn't get Dean out of the deal even if she wanted to, Sam kills her.

[4.2] Before getting into this episode's presentation of fairy tales, some background information is in order. Fairy tales, as a genre, are considered to be a subcategory of folktales. The category of "folktale" is a broad one, defined by most folklorists as "a narrative which is related and received as a fiction or fantasy" (Oring 1986, 126), as opposed to myths or legends, both of which are making truth claims; the German term Märchen is often used interchangeably with "folktales." Within that group of stories, fairy tales are usually understood as folktales which involve magic, particularly magical acts, objects, and transformations that are not remarked upon as unusual within the story: no one in a fairy tale stops and cries, "Wait a minute, frogs don't talk!"

[4.3] The most famous and influential collections of fairy tales include those by Charles Perrault (in 1697), Aleksandr Afanas'ev (in 1855–64), and, of course, the Brothers Grimm. The first edition of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales) appeared in 1812. Though the collection was presented as an unvarnished recording of oral tales direct from the mouths of rude German peasants—"the mythical dream of autocthonous purity," as Marina Warner (1995, 193) puts it—the truth is more complicated. For one thing, the majority of the Grimms' informants were educated middle-class people, who, as we have seen, would not have been considered the authentic "folk" by the standards of the time (Rölleke 1986). While initially published for scholars, the Grimms' collection achieved some success as a book for children, and subsequent editions (seven in total, with the final and most widely available edition appearing in 1857) were extensively revised by Wilhelm Grimm to better conform to changing ideas of what was appropriate for young readers. This marked a major shift in the perceived audience, as prior to this fairy tales were generally told as stories for everyone, rather than exclusively or even primarily children: Perrault's tales, for example, were witty confections aimed at the sophisticates in the court of Louis XIV, with whom he was engaged in intellectual warfare about the validity of modern French culture versus that of the ancient Greeks and Romans (Warner 1995, 165). As Maria Tatar (1987) has demonstrated, Wilhelm Grimm, in a move that would please even the moral watchdogs of today, downplayed or eliminated references to sex and increased those to violence, particularly punitive violence. Other revisions, documented by Tatar (1987), Jack Zipes (1991, 45–70, 2002a, 2002b), and Ruth Bottigheimer (1986), reflect a systematic imposition of bourgeois mores, particularly in the realm of gender: this included curtailing the proactivity and direct speech of heroines, while increasing them for female villains (because good women are passive and silent). This was especially noteworthy in stories that featured wicked stepmothers (note 13), as the texts often, in an exception to the general rule of harsh justice, bend over backward to exonerate fathers for their failure to protect their children (Tatar 1987, 36–37)—most egregiously in the case of "Hansel and Gretel," where the father who led his children into the woods and abandoned them there is rewarded with mounds of jewels that the children have liberated from the witch's cottage (Zipes 1992, 64).

[4.4] This history of collection and revision, of the tension between the oral narrative and the literary tale, while it is best documented for the Grimms, is true of the entire genre of the fairy tale. Over the years, fairy tales became more and more identified with children, and the oral and literary narratives became even more tangled as they were deliberately adapted to contemporary notions of what was suitable or appropriate for children. Disney films add another layer to the mix, as they often become the most widely known versions of a given story; reading the Grimms after being raised on Disney flicks can be, as Tatar mildly puts it, "an eye-opening experience" (Tatar 1987, 3) (note 14). Jared Padalecki, who plays Sam, reports as much: "When I went back and read the original stories, they were creepy and freaky…I was actually a little spooked. I grew up on the Disney movies, and I'm going, 'Oh, my God, this is what it came from?'" (Rudolph 2007, 36).

5. Full of sex, violence, cannibalism

[5.1] Padalecki's comment highlights an essential dichotomy about fairy tales in our culture. We all know what fairy tales are, or think we do. But really, we have two stories about fairy tales—stories about stories, stories that matter in some ways as much as the tales themselves do. First, there's the story that many of us absorbed, which is usually blamed on Disney films (note 15): fairy tales are sweet, innocent, adorable stories for children—or our culture's most saccharine idea of children. All is cute, all is cuddly, unpleasant events are temporary and easily fixed, girls are docile princesses and boys are brave princes, and, of course, everyone deserving lives happily ever after in a candy-colored utopia. Also, the villains—older women, mostly—get their just deserts, usually a fall from a cliff, although we are spared the splat. As Donald Haase remarks, "The normative influences of Disney's animated fairy tales has been so enormous, that the Disney spirit—already once removed from the originals—tends to become the standard against which fairy tale films are created and received" (1988, 196).

[5.2] But there is another story about fairy tales. Far from being adorable delights for children, fairy tales are dark, bloody, murderous—"full of sex, violence, and cannibalism," in fact. Postmodern writers of literary fairy tales, such as Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, Emma Donoghue, Olga Broumas, and Terri Windling, are praised for getting back to the "roots" of the fairy tale, for peeling away the Disneyfied layers to get at the truth about the "original" stories. This story about fairy tales—we can call it the "recovery story"—is a rescue operation, uncovering the "real" fairy tale and liberating it from Disney oppression, and theoretically also recovering the "true" voices of the "original" tellers, usually figured as female. Versions of this approach have a long history in folklore studies, which, in the early days, tended to treat all folklore as brands rescued from the fire: in this case, the "fire" destroying a once-pure folk product is not urbanization and mechanization per se, but the stultifying effects of male collectors and male-dominated popular media. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls this "eleventh hour" folklore (1998, 300). This is why we have scholarly works on fairy tales with titles like Breaking the Magic Spell (Zipes 2002a) and The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales (Tatar 1987) and Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked (Orenstein 2002). While scholars have for the most part rejected the problematic discourse of traditionalist notions of folk "authenticity"—such as lauding the Grimms for their closeness to the "folk" or, conversely, denouncing them for their reliance on middle-class (and therefore "non-folk") sources—the "authenticity" narrative is still with us in popular culture, and in the recovery story, the bloody is authentic.

[5.3] I don't mean to suggest that this approach is invalid or mistaken, because it is one that I (mostly) support. Fairy tales have absolutely been sanitized to rid them of elements deemed unacceptable, whether those elements be violence, sexuality, nonnormative gender roles, insufficient respect for authority, or whatever bugaboos moral guardians wish to prevent young readers from encountering. In addition, female tellers, writers, and collectors have absolutely been ignored, silenced, and subsumed under the totalizing category of the anonymous "folk" by male authorities—and those male authorities such as Perrault sometimes had to turn around and defend fairy tales as worthwhile, despite the perceived feminine (or even, in the case of the French female salon writers, feminist) "taint" of the genre (Warner 1995, 168–70). I merely want to point out that, in the realm of popular culture, the "recovery narrative" is a story we tell about fairy tales, and it's one that both contradicts and relies upon the existence of the "fairy tales are sweet and innocent" narrative for its power. Disney's "normative influence" is so pervasive that any literature or media that concerns itself with fairy tales must negotiate the received Disney understanding, even if only to dismiss it.

[5.4] The genre of horror has been particularly effective at mining the contradictions of these competing narratives, focusing especially on the axis of childhood. One expects to find "sex, violence, cannibalism" in material for adults; what makes fairy tales' adult-level naughtiness so enticing is the transgression of cultural constructions of the innocence of childhood—and of its stories. The recovery narrative is exciting precisely because it relies upon the "innocent" story about fairy tales in order to work. As James R. Kincaid (1998) might put it, the best thing about innocence is the threat of its violation, and roughing up a story for kids is thrilling in a way that pre-roughed-up stories for adults are not. Thus, it is unsurprising that there are a number of horror films based explicitly on fairy tales, including Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Suspiria, Freeway, and The Company of Wolves. When horror turns to fairy tales, an interesting dance begins. Fairy tales, as the recovery narrative rightly asserts, do in fact already contain an enormous amount of material our culture deems unsuitable for children: simply by sticking closely to an uncensored version of a tale, the horror genre can have its cake and eat it too. Fairy tale horror doesn't simply emphasize the horrific episodes in fairy tales, but also makes a truth claim about the nature of the tales themselves: this is what fairy tales really are.

[5.5] About fifteen minutes into "Bedtime Stories," a noteworthy exchange takes place between Sam and Dean. While nearly every episode features a scene where one brother—usually Sam, but sometimes Dean—floats a theory on the identity of the monster of the week, this episode's theorizing perfectly encapsulates the cultural perceptions and debates swirling around the genre of fairy tales. After Sam announces that his theory involves fairy tales, Dean responds,

[5.6] Dean: Oh that's, that's…nice. You think about fairy tales often?

Sam: No, Dean, I'm talking about the murders. A guy and a girl, hiking through the woods, and an old lady tries to eat them? That's Hansel and Gretel. Then we've got the three brothers, arguing over how to build houses, attacked by the Big Bad Wolf.

Dean: Three Little Pigs.

Sam: Yeah.

Dean: Actually, those guys were a little chubby. But wait, I thought all those things ended with everybody living happily ever after.

Sam: No, no, not the originals. See, the Grimm Brothers' stuff was kinda like the folklore of its day, full of sex, violence, cannibalism. And it got sanitized over the years, turned into Disney flicks and bedtime stories.

Dean: So, you think that the murders are, what, a reenactment?

[5.7] There's a lot going on here—and not just the mislabeling of "The Three Little Pigs" as a Brothers Grimm story, either. First, there is Dean's line "You think of fairy tales often?" which Jensen Ackles delivers with contemptuous amusement: fairy tales are a dodgy, unmanly form of folklore. Later, Dean will mock Sam's knowledge of the genre as "gay"—again, unmanly. The irony of Dean mocking anyone for masculinity-failure will be reinforced at the end of the episode, when the crossroads demon characterizes him as "desperate, sloppy, [and] needy"; moreover, as Cox (2006) and I (Tosenberger 2008) note, the series positively thrives on flirtation with the possibility that Sam and Dean's love is more than brotherly. (When Dean wonders in 2.11 "Playthings" why so many people think they're gay, Sam retorts, "Well, you are kind of butch; they probably think you're overcompensating.")

[5.8] Dean's snide, defensive comments spring from the centuries-long linkage of fairy tales with women: the fairy tale is a gendered genre of folklore. More to the point, fairy tales often suffer the same fate as other female-identified artistic genres such as romance, "chick flicks," and fan fiction—widespread dismissal and denigration. It is no accident that the term "fairy tale" is widely used as a synonym for "childish, unrealistic fantasy"—the kind women must be discouraged from having, at all costs.

[5.9] In response, Sam invokes the recovery narrative, which, in the context of the rest of the scene, suggests a problematic conclusion: it is the goriness and sexuality of fairy tales that renders them appropriate for masculine interest. Sam defends his interest by claiming that the Grimms' stories were "kinda like the folklore of [their] day" (emphasis mine)—a statement that makes as much sense as "the Earth kinda revolves around the sun." Within the show, fairy tales do not automatically possess the status of "real" folklore, but must be shown to be both "scary" and "sexy"—as the show's UK tagline promises—to be worthy of the brothers' attention.

[5.10] The fact that Callie is depicted as a child, while reinforcing the problematic gendering of fairy tales as the narratives of choice for a young woman stuck in childhood, enables Supernatural to call attention to the juxtaposition of innocence and horror. The Gretel figure who first alerts them to the presence of Callie's spirit says, "She was a beautiful child; it was odd to see her in the middle of something so horrible." As it turns out, this "beautiful child" is not an innocent witness to horrific violence, but is actually causing it. Evil children infest horror films, with notable examples including The Bad Seed, The Exorcist, The Good Son, Village of the Damned, Children of the Corn, and Rosemary's Baby (note 16). Susan Stewart, speaking of horror, remarks, "The monstrous child…the child whose qualities are exaggerated inversions of our cultural notions of childhood, frightens in this manner" (1982, 42). Supernatural certainly believes in the power of this trope: evil children show up in 1.03 "Dead in the Water," 1.15 "The Benders," 1.19 "Provenance," 2.11 "Playthings," 3.02 "The Kids Are Alright," 3.12 "Jus in Bello," 3.16 "No Rest for the Wicked," 4.06 "Yellow Fever," 4.11 "Family Remains," and 5.09 "The Real Ghostbusters." (Jesse, the Antichrist in 5.06 "I Believe the Children Are Our Future," is a subversion.) Over the course of the series, Sam and Dean have probably encountered more evil children than they have innocents in need of rescuing. Callie, like the ghostly Peter in 1.03 "Dead in the Water," is out for revenge and is willing to exact retribution on innocent people; however, Peter confines himself to the relatives of his murderers, while Callie attacks random people who can be made to fit her scripts. Callie thus combines two sources of discomfort: she is not only an evil child herself, but she shows fairy tales to us as horror stories. One child, a "bad seed," is a mutant, an anomaly. But when we trouble the more abstract artifacts of childhood, such as fairy tales, we ourselves become implicated; we are forced to question the collection of cultural fantasy and memory that makes up our idea of childhood itself—including our own memories, our assumptions about our own pasts.

6. Fairest of them all

[6.1] Callie, the victim of attempted murder by her stepmother, identifies with Snow White. All of her ostensive action is designed as a cry for help, a way to tell her story even though she has been robbed of her voice. While Callie is undeniably the villain of the episode, she, like Peter, is also a victim, trying to be heard in the only way she knows how. It is interesting that Callie fixates upon Snow White, who is, according to Cristina Bacchilega, the epitome of the "passively beautiful female character with very limited options" (1999, 29); "Snow White," along with "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty," formed the centerpiece of second-wave feminist objections to the fairy tale (Lieberman 1986; Gilbert and Gubar 1986; Rowe 1986). Callie is able to mentally escape the prison of her body, and she uses this power to lash out, wreaking havoc according to the narrative conventions of the fairy tales she knows. It is a desperate, and ultimately successful, attempt to get her father to recognize the abuse she has suffered; far from letting Dr. Garrison off the hook Hansel and Gretel style, or even enabling his oblivion, she allows resolution of the story only when he listens and believes her (note 17). Freud, in "The Occurrence in Dreams of Material from Fairy Tales," remarks, "In a few people a recollection of their favorite fairy tales takes the place of memories of their own childhood" (1997, 101). Callie, however, is doing the opposite—the only way she can communicate the truth of her childhood is through the medium of the fairy tale. Callie's ostensive acts weirdly resemble the therapeutic uses of fairy tales described by Bruno Bettelheim (1991), Clarissa Pinkola Estés (1995), and of course Freud, in the "Wolf Man" case (1996), though they likely didn't envision a body count. Fairy tale therapy aims to help the patient work through anxiety and trauma through identification with fairy tale protagonists and narratives; for Callie, the tale of "Snow White" is not simply a means to work through her pain, but a necessary signifier of her own fairy tale tragedy, which she claims in order to communicate with the one who needs to hear: her father.

[6.2] In keeping with the therapeutic metaphor, fairy tales in Supernatural carry over their folkloric classification as fictions—they are not true stories in and of themselves, but they both mask and reveal real anxieties and problems. Though the Supernatural universe is chock-full of the kind of magic and brutality that would not be out of place in a fairy tale, the fairy tale's sense of justice—and its happy ending—are notably absent. "Bedtime Stories" ends on a far less hopeful note than its thematic predecessor, 1.03 "Dead in the Water," which likewise featured the spirit of a child on a revenge-fueled killing spree. However, in that episode, Peter was able—admittedly after a great deal of collateral damage—to exact justice upon his murderer. Moreover, Dean bonded with another sweet, terrified child and rescued him first physically and then psychologically, by helping the little boy come to terms with his father's murder. There is no such solace in "Bedtime Stories." Callie simply dies. There are no red-hot iron slippers (Zipes 1992, 204) for her wicked stepmother, as she is beyond the reach of mortal punishment. Her father, the sole survivor, is left alone with his crushing guilt. Even in the monster-filled world of Supernatural, the fairy tale is still a fantasy.

[6.3] The final scene of the episode drives the point home. Sam summons the crossroads demon who holds the contract on Dean's soul. He threatens to kill her unless she releases Dean from his deal. She refuses, and taunts Sam: "Aren't you tired of cleaning up Dean's messes? Of dealing with that broken psyche of his?…Admit it: you're here, going through the motions, but truth is, you'll be a tiny bit relieved when he's gone…No more desperate, sloppy, needy Dean." Sam, increasingly agitated, demands that she break the deal. She cannot; she is "just a saleswoman," and it's her boss (Lilith, as we learn later in the season) who actually holds the deal. Sam, prefiguring his moral disintegration in season 4, kills her, and the innocent woman she is possessing, even though he knows the act will do no good. Throughout this episode, Sam fails in the role of prince: he does not rescue anyone, merely stops the villains from harming further innocents—a good deed that he then negates by killing an innocent person himself. Of all the crimes committed in the episode, Sam's is the worst: Callie is a desperate child, the "witch" and the "wolf" are victims of possession, but Sam is an adult with choices, and he consciously chooses to murder an innocent woman despite the fact that killing her will not help Dean. The rough justice of fairy tales is overturned here: the "good" are not rewarded, the "bad" are not punished, and everyone suffers, not just the deserving. There is no happy, or even hopeful, ending, just sadness and futility. Sam, like Dr. Garrison, is unable to let his loved one go; Dr. Garrison's stubborn refusal to pull the plug on Callie's life-support, even when it harms her and others around her, mirrors Sam's desperate attempts to break Dean's deal—and Dean's own inability to accept Sam's death, which led him to make the deal in the first place.

[6.4] Despite this episode's overall status as a "folklore file," Sam's murder of the crossroads demon is an important step in the series' overall myth arc: we get our first intimation of Lilith, the Big Bad for this season and the next, and Sam takes his first step on the road to self-destructive vengeance for his brother, which will culminate in accidentally(!) raising Lucifer himself at the end of season 4. In this, "Bedtime Stories" bears a striking resemblance to the film Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997); John Stephens and Robyn McCallum argue that the film displays

[6.5] a penchant for postmodernist pastiche as familiar fairy-tale elements are reshaped as Gothic horror (especially in its use of grotesque paranormal elements) linked to contemporary films dealing with evil and subjectification by means of its affiliation with dystopian apocalyptic narratives. Thus the film includes several themes characteristic of apocalyptic narratives: the political powerlessness of central characters, persecution, serial killing, and subjective alienation. (2002, 206)

[6.6] Like the film, Supernatural uses the breakdown of fairy tales as a thematic foreshadowing of the apocalypse. However, what in the film is a metaphor for familial and social breakdown is, on Supernatural, also quite literal: during season 4, Dean and Sam between them manage to set the Christian apocalypse in motion.

7. In the beds of ghosts: Fairy tales and fan fiction

[7.1] It is not just Supernatural itself that enjoys "a penchant for postmodern pastiche of familiar fairy-tale elements"; fan writers have made extensive use of fairy tales in order to push at the received narrative of the series and explore the spaces contained within the text. Since fan fiction is usually understood as a primarily (if not exclusively) female space, fan fictional responses effectively pull Sam and Dean out of their canonical male-dominated narratives (note 18)—the Campbellian hero's quest, Byronic (and Beat) wanderings, the Christian apocalypse—and recontextualize them within a female-dominated art form. When fan fiction writers take fairy tales as their subject, the female-dominated narrative moves from metatext to diegesis. And they usually do "Bedtime Stories" one better: in most Supernatural fairy tale fan fiction, Sam and Dean participate as actors in the actual fairy tale narrative, instead of standing as rational male outsiders to the irrational female-identified story.

[7.2] Many fan stories use fairy tales to explore what happens when Sam and Dean—complex characters with a complex relationship—are placed inside the stylized, one-dimensional, fairy tale plot. Some stories, such as Lazy Daze's "Der Hirsch" (May 26, 2008, LiveJournal post) and Malcolm_stjay's "Sub Rosa" (July 9, 2008, LiveJournal post), remove Sam and Dean from their Supernatural milieu entirely and place them in an alternate universe, where they unselfconsciously enact the fairy tale plot. "Der Hirsch" is "loosely based on/inspired by Swan Lake," which is itself based in part on "The White Duck" (Afanas'ev 1973, 342–45) and, more obliquely, on "Brother and Sister" (Zipes 1992, 41–46); "Der Hirsch" actually more closely resembles the latter tale than it does Swan Lake. Dean, a huntsman in pursuit of a magnificent stag, meets a young woodsman, Sam; they become friends, and eventually lovers. Flashbacks reveal that Sam and Dean are brothers, although they don't know it; after the death of his wife, John was overwhelmed by the two boys, and gave infant Sam away to be raised by what he thought was a kindly neighbor, but was in reality an evil witch. At the end of the story, Dean finally shoots the stag—which changes before his eyes into Sam, who had been cursed to be human by day, stag by night. Dean, in despair, kills himself, but, as in the ballet, their souls are united in death. "Sub Rosa" is a fairly straightforward retelling of "Beauty and the Beast" that, like the Disney film, borrows elements from Robin McKinley's YA novel Beauty. Malcolm_stjay tells the love story of Sam (as Beauty) and Dean (as a pie-loving Beast)—in this story, unrelated—in a low-key style that evokes the language of fairy tales. Other Supernatural characters fill out the supporting roles, including Bobby and Gordon as John's employees, and Ellen and Jo as villagers who befriend them after the family's financial downturn.

[7.3] Stories that remain within the Supernatural universe often borrow fairy tale motifs in order to explore their effects on Sam and Dean's lives. "The Frog Princess," by Quarterwhore (November 2, 2007, LiveJournal post), uses animal transformation as comedy. Sam is turned into a frog, to Dean's combined horror and amusement. Sam, of course, is returned to his proper form by a kiss, although this method of spell-breaking owes more to popular culture than to the Grimms (in "The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich" [Zipes 1992, 2–5], the princess hurls the frog against the wall). Fairy tale motifs can also be used for tragedy: in I_am_negotiable's "Lying in the Beds of Ghosts" (June 22, 2009, LiveJournal post), Sam falls into an enchanted sleep from which he cannot be awoken, no matter what Dean does, and the story tracks Dean's spiral into despair. Here, fairy tale spells exist, but fairy tale cures do not.

[7.4] Other fan stories fully integrate a fairy tale narrative with the universe of Supernatural, in ways that more closely resemble the structure of the show: fairy tales provide the impetus and narrative logic of the story, and Sam and Dean's knowledge of fairy tales enables them to perform ostensive acts that bring about the story's resolution. Russian fairy tales form the basis of two excellent longer stories: Rei C's "L'oiseau de feu" (July 14, 2007, LiveJournal post) and Sweetestdrain's "Swear by All Flowers" (June 18, 2007, LiveJournal post). In "L'oiseau de feu," the Yellow-Eyed Demon sends Sam and Dean on an ostensive quest for the Firebird in order to rescue their father. While inspired in part by the fairy tale "Prince Ivan, the Firebird, and the Grey Wolf" (Afanas'ev 1973, 612–24), "L'oiseau de feu" is more a tour through the world of Russian fairy tales and legends (Sam and Dean encounter an alkonost, a band of vila, a dragon, Koschei the Deathless, and Baba Yaga) than a reworking of a specific story, although it follows the general fairy tale pattern of a quest and impossible tasks. Sam and Dean spend time researching Russian folklore in order to know how best to proceed when dealing with such tricky creatures. In the end, the brothers hand over the Firebird to the demon in exchange for their father, but Sam, Dean, and the Firebird know something the demon does not: "an old legend" warns that one should never put a collar on the Firebird, because, as Sam says, "binding it brings about destruction for the captor." The Firebird allows itself to be handed over, knowing the demon will put a collar on it—thus committing an act of unwitting ostension that will ensure its destruction.

[7.5] "Swear by All Flowers" is more tightly focused upon a specific cluster of Russian fairy tales that center around the great witch Baba Yaga; these stories include "Baba Yaga and the Brave Youth," "Baba Yaga," "Vassilissa the Beautiful," and "Maria Morevna" (Afanas'ev 1973, 76–79, 194–95, 363–65, 439–47, 553–62), among others. Though a cannibal, she is not a one-dimensional villain like the witch of "Hansel and Gretel"; she is, instead, more like a goddess of the forest or the underworld (Haney 1999, 98), and, if she feels like it, she will help heroes (rarely heroines) on their quests (Johns 2004). Sweetestdrain, like Rei C, does not reproduce any specific tale, but instead combines motifs from all the Baba Yaga narratives and creates a story that follows the logic of those tales, while simultaneously using the tales to illuminate Sam and Dean's relationship. Sam and Dean rely upon fairy tales in order to navigate a tricky series of encounters with Baba Yaga, performing ostensive acts in order to secure her help in releasing Dean from a curse.

[7.6] Fairy tale literary fiction has long been a space for writers, especially women writers, to interrogate culture: Angela Carter, Anne Sexton, Emma Donoghue, Olga Broumas, and Jane Yolen, among many others, have used the fairy tale to examine issues of gender, race, family dynamics, and sexuality. Fan writers take the received narratives that Supernatural's advertising presents—this is a manly, heterosexual show about manly, heterosexual men who hunt monsters—and interrogate them. Responding to the ostension depicted on the show, fans investigate folklore and fairy tales in order to illuminate both the folklore itself and Sam and Dean's relationship. Just as Supernatural transforms and comments upon existing folk narratives to tell the story it wishes to tell, fan writers transform the series itself to comment on both the narratives and the characters of the show.

8. Conclusion

[8.1] Supernatural contains some of the most interesting depictions of folklore in the current popular media landscape, and consideration of the series offers myriad possibilities for exploring the representation and transformation of folklore in popular culture texts. Using Koven's innovative fusion of folkloristics and film and television studies, anchored by his concept of "mass-mediated ostension," I hope to suggest possibilities for further research into the depiction of folklore not just in the series itself, but in popular culture in general. I have chosen to focus upon fairy tales, as both the series and its fan fiction engage with the discourses surrounding the genre of fairy tales in our culture; both fairy tales and fan fiction are gendered modes of storytelling. Fan writers, like feminist revisers of fairy tales (such as Angela Carter), interrogate our received notions of popular texts.

[8.2] I offer this essay as a starting point into further discussion of the depiction of folklore in Supernatural and its fan works; while I have chosen fairy tales as my path in, there are many potential places to begin. I hope that this framework will prove useful for future analyses not just of Supernatural, but of the multiple ways in which folk narratives and beliefs are used both in popular culture and in fannish communities.

9. Acknowledgments

[9.1] An earlier version of this paper was presented at the conference "The Fairy Tale after Angela Carter," University of East Anglia, April 22–25, 2009; travel to this conference was supported by an International Travel Grant from the University of Winnipeg. I am indebted to Tim Smith, Leni Johnson, Julia Barton, Helen Pilinovsky, Veronica Schanoes, Lazy Daze, and especially Sara M. Hines for their support and commentary on earlier drafts. I would also like to thank I_am_negotiable, Lazy Daze, Malcolm_stjay, MissyJack, Quarterwhore, Rei C, and Sweetestdrain for allowing me to discuss their stories here.

10. Notes

1. For an excellent overview of the depiction of folklore in film and television, see Koven's (2008, 3–22) critical survey.

2. See Line Nybro Petersen's essay "Renegotiating Religious Imaginations Through Transformations of 'Banal Religion' in Supernatural," in this issue, for an excellent discussion of the way the show reproduces and transforms popular attitudes about religion and the supernatural.

3. In seasons 4 and 5, myths became prominent, as the series' myth arc engaged with the Christian apocalypse. However, myths, or popular understandings of myths, had always lurked in the background of the show: Kripke has stated numerous times that the show is modeled upon Joseph Campbell's "monomyth" of the hero's journey (Kripke 2008b). (Sam and Dean's mother's maiden name is Campbell.) Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1973), though beloved of male pop culture auteurs, is roundly despised by folklorists, anthropologists, and religious historians. See Marc Manganaro (1992) and Alan Dundes (1997, 17–18) for the best-known critiques of the Campbellian monomyth.

4. The "veracity of the legends" themselves is not the only topic of folklore discussion among fans, as Koven (2000) has also documented. Like The X-Files fans Koven studied, Supernatural fans also spend a lot of time investigating the folklore record itself, and commenting on—and correcting—the show's presentation of folk material. The Library section of the Super-wiki ( is a prime repository of such commentary.

5. Supernatural has taken a few playful swipes at its predecessor, with Sam and Dean referring to each other as "Mulder" and "Scully," impersonating FBI agents, and firmly denying the existence of extraterrestrials (2.15 "Tall Tales").

6. This preference is probably not entirely aesthetic: until season 4, Supernatural, a genre show on a small network scheduled opposite Thursday-night powerhouses Grey's Anatomy and CSI, perpetually struggled in the ratings, and a preponderance of "monster of the week" episodes makes it more accessible to new viewers.

7. This distinction between the "folk" and the "not-folk"—as well as the revision of these definitions—is of obvious relevance to fandom studies. Fans have traditionally been figured as the Other, responding in unofficial and often "bizarre" ways to the official culture industry. The rise of the "aca-fan" as a category has gone a long way toward dispensing with these problematic assumptions.

8. The chief exception to Sam and Dean's general alliance with the traditionalist "folk" rather than the traditionalist folklorists lies in the series' treatment of non-Christian gods, which would do a Victorian cultural evolutionist proud. The pagan gods in episodes 1.11 "Scarecrow" and 3.08 "A Very Supernatural Christmas" owe far more to the long-discredited monomythic fantasizing of J. G. Frazer's The Golden Bough—and to Frazerian-inspired horror films such as The Wicker Man (see Koven 2008, 25–36)—than to the documented beliefs and practices of European pre-Christian religions (and modern revivals of same). In addition, the most plausible culprit for the show's bizarre and inaccurate depiction of the "demon Samhain," in 4.07 "It's the Great Pumpkin, Sam Winchester," is fundamentalist Christian propaganda such as the Jack Chick tract "Spellbound?" ( I can only assume this is the case, since a few seconds with Google turns up a wealth of basically accurate information available even on nonspecialist sites such as Wikipedia. Samhain, pronounced "SOW-in" and meaning "summer's end," is an ancient Celtic festival marking the beginning of winter; it is also celebrated in modern pagan religions such as Wicca, Druidry, and Celtic Reconstructionism. See Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), 360–70, for more information. Even the Trickster, heretofore the only semirespectful treatment of a non-Christian divine being on the show, was shoehorned into the Christian narrative, as the archangel Gabriel in disguise.

9. For a clever and hilarious exploration of Sam and Dean as objects of folklore, see MissyJack's terrific fan fiction story "We Could Be Heroes" (LiveJournal post, September 9, 2008).

10. The recent Supernatural episode 5.06 "I Believe the Children Are Our Future" played with ostension. Folk beliefs that circulate among children (don't mix Pop Rocks and Coke, your face will freeze like that, you'll get hairy palms if you masturbate) start coming true; the cause is the Antichrist, a young boy who is unaware of both his role and his near-godlike powers.

11. While Lindahl defines simply visiting a legendary site as an ostensive act, others, such as Ellis and Brunvand, require a ritual action to be performed before calling it ostension. For example, many "crybaby bridge" legends in my (and Kripke's) home state of Ohio demand that you not simply go to the haunted bridge, but that you park your car on the bridge, and sometimes leave the car, in order to hear the wails of the titular murdered infant. Stephanie J. Lane has a good roundup of Ohio crybaby bridges for would-be legend trippers (Dead Ohio,

12. Episodes 1.17 "Hell House," 3.13 "Ghostfacers," and 4.17 "It's a Terrible Life" feature Ed and Harry, parodies of the hosts of paranormal investigation shows such as Ghost Hunters and Most Haunted. Koven discusses Most Haunted extensively, arguing that the series itself functions as a form of legend tripping (2008, 153–74); in its depiction of Ed and Harry, Supernatural presents legend tripping as a foolish activity for nonhunters, particularly when done for profit.

13. Most of these wicked stepmothers were, in the oral tales, actually wicked mothers; Wilhelm Grimm clearly found the presentation of monstrous biological mothers incompatible with contemporary German idealization of motherhood, and so changed the villains to the less problematic stepmothers. See Tatar (1987, 36–37).

14. As many folklore and literature professors can attest, assigning the Grimms to Disney-raised students is an underappreciated source of mildly sadistic pleasure.

15. Disney is the focus of many arguments about the mass media's ability to circulate folk narrative, for good or ill (Koven 2008, 4–15). In addition, see Shortsleeve (2004, 1–2) for a good overview of "Disneyfication."

16. See Skal (1993, 287–306) for a brief history of the evil child in horror films.

17. The episode dispenses with the dwarves, who, as Janet Spaeth remarks, serve as Snow White's protectors (1982, 21); Callie has no one. Their influence may be ironically marked in two ways, however. In a dark parody of Snow White's role as the good little housekeeper, Callie has been poisoned with bleach; more humorously, she presents her apple to Dean, who is occasionally mocked for being the shorter of the two brothers.

18. Early episodes were far more willing to involve Sam and Dean in "girls'" stories without gender-baiting commentary, as in 1.05 "Bloody Mary," where Sam performs the traditional slumber-party ritual. However, starting in season 3, the show began grubbing for straight male viewers in an increasingly unpleasant way. The nadir of this campaign was the wretched 3.09 "Malleus Maleficarum": this episode, named after one of the most notorious pieces of misogynist propaganda in history, uncritically turned Sam and Dean into Puritanical witch hunters. Women, innocent and otherwise, are lectured or gruesomely punished, while a cheating husband gets off scot-free; in addition, a significant portion of Dean's dialogue is devoted to gender-based insults, usually directed at Ruby. The episode is capped with a display of gratuitous lesbianism that could have been fun in another episode, but plays in this context as a mean-spirited appeal to straight male voyeurism. A number of female viewers, myself included, came close to abandoning the show at this point, feeling that we were considered a less valuable audience than the sexist portion of the straight male demographic.

11. Works cited

Afanas'ev, Aleksandr. 1973. Russian fairy tales. Trans. Norbert Guterman. New York: Pantheon.

Bacchilega, Christina. 1999. Postmodern fairy tales: Gender and narrative strategies. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

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