Book review

In the hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural," edited by

Alysa Hornick

New York, New York, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan; Television

Hornick, Alysa. 2010. In the hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural," edited by [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4., ed. In the hunt: Unauthorized essays on "Supernatural." Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2009, paper, $14.95 (275p) ISBN 978-1-933771-63-2.

[1] In the Hunt: Unauthorized Essays on "Supernatural" is a collection of essays about the television show Supernatural, and to some extent its fandom and fan works. Although at a glance this collection may seem targeted toward fans and too casual for an academic readership, taken as a whole, it offers a broad and insightful look at its subject from many angles and proves surprisingly thought-provoking.

[2] In the Hunt is among the more recent entries in BenBella Books' Smart Pop series, which since 2003 has published collections of essays investigating popular culture texts and characters. The series takes pride in being accessible to nonacademics, in being "serious…but not too serious" (Smart Pop Web site:, though it accepts submissions from all kinds of writers—by invitation only. Thanks to this formula, some names have become familiar across the series. In the Hunt, however, breaks from the formula by including three essays written by winners of a fan contest co-organized with the fan Web site, and by naming this Web site as editor of the volume. As a result, In the Hunt, in addition to being the first officially published collection on Supernatural of its kind, also functions as a kind of snapshot illustrating some of the enduring tensions between academia, fandom, and publishing.

[3] The essays are not organized into stated sections, but a topical continuum is discernible: family, horror and fear, religion and morality, heroism and sacrifice, misogyny, gender and sexuality, identity and transgression, fandom and fan works, specific objects and secondary characters in the show, and folklore and other sources. The use of such a continuum reinforces the idea that the collection should be taken as a whole rather than in parts. However, other elements ultimately harm the impression of integrity. Aside from the unavoidable tensions between academia and fans, the book also reveals a consistent and troubling gendered divide between stereotypically male and female interests in the show and its fandom—so much so that it may color some readers' receptivity to the ideas presented.

[4] The foreword, "Not Just a Pretty Face (or Two)," by Keith R. A. DeCandido, who has written for other Smart Pop titles as well as penning some Supernatural tie-in novels, sets the tone by its very title, and also by opening with a fannish inside joke about his "bizarre" position as a "heterosexual man" in the "sea of female faces" (ix) that constitutes most of Supernatural fandom. This joke, while well intentioned, may seem off-putting, as may its essential message: that it's okay for a straight man to enjoy this show as long as his interests in it are masculine enough. Although it can be argued that gender is irrelevant to authorial respectability, the fact that DeCandido was asked to provide this foreword can be read as a paternalistic and potentially offensive swipe at the heavily female scholarship that it precedes. The introduction by Dawn (aka kittsbud, Webmaster of thankfully improves things, outlining further and deeper reasons that many fans love the show. In addition, the naming of a single author here, writing on behalf of the Web site named as the editor, helps highlight the book's multivalent position as it strives to be seen as a serious scholarly effort by individual voices and yet still maintain the patina of a communal, fan-generated project.

[5] Within this context, the essays most likely to be of interest to academics are those by Mary Borsellino, Jacob Clifton, Carol Poole, and Emily Turner. They are grouped together in the collection on the basis of their interconnected discussions of gender, sexuality, identity, psychology, and fandom. It is useful to read them together to form a more complete picture of the way the inherent complexity of these topics is handled by both the show and those seeking to critique it.

[6] In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jo the Monster Killer: Supernatural's Excluded Heroines," Borsellino tackles the issue of sexism. Supernatural often attempts to position itself as relentlessly masculine, and one by-product of this is the continual stereotyping and degrading of female characters. Focusing mainly on the character Jo Harvelle, Borsellino illustrates some of the ways in which Supernatural can be painfully retrograde in its gender politics, particularly as an example of post-Buffy genre television. This makes one give serious and necessary pause to either casual enjoyment of or deep investment in the show, and it should inform the work of any subsequent discourse. Interestingly, an earlier version of this essay appeared in a fan-produced, self-published, not-for-profit compilation (Jules Wilkinson and Andie Masino, Some of Us Really Do Watch for the Plot: A Collection of "Supernatural" Essays, 2007), and although Borsellino is not the only writer who contributed to both of these collections (in fact, appearance in Some of Us may have influenced an essay's inclusion in In the Hunt), the double recycling taking place here—from Some of Us and from online fandom meta before it—may have the deleterious effect of undermining the legitimization of fannish writing that is part of In the Hunt's mission. It may serve to deny a reading of Some of Us, and perhaps any similar fannish projects by extension, as important in any larger context. Although Borsellino's essay is one of the strongest in either collection, and its presence in In the Hunt ensures that it can reach the much larger audience it deserves, it is disappointing that such an outspoken writer would choose to recycle an essay rather than produce new work—perhaps on the same subject but treating the show's third season.

[7] Clifton's "Spreading Disaster: Gender in the Supernatural Universe," one of the longest entries in the collection, is as meandering as its predecessor is pointed. Clifton gamely examines the question of why Supernatural has such a large female fan base, reflecting the long-standing scholarly interest in female fan identification with male protagonists. He argues that the show's heroes are phallically-charged "masculine characters traversing a female landscape" (123) and posits that the show is thus driven by the resulting conflicts. The heroes' quest, then, must be one of containing, rejecting, and only occasionally compromising with the Female. Clifton also argues that the tensions exhibited by fans whenever new female characters are introduced are a natural outgrowth of the audience's established identification with the heroes. This is a valid reading, but also a provocative and troubling one, in that Clifton relies on traditional definitions of "femaleness" that equate it with "Otherness," evil, shadows, and permeability, doing little to problematize them or to problematize the notion of traditional masculinity. Clifton raises many good questions about the nature of fannish enjoyment but does not fully succeed in answering any of them; he never quite connects the presence of a "female landscape" (though one that still privileges the male gaze) to a working explanation of why so many women enjoy the show. However, by implying that female and queer enjoyment of Supernatural might only occur by reading against the text and "around the edges," and stating that "fan creative output [is] just as important…as the canonical work itself" (124), Clifton leaves the door open for further consideration.

[8] Next comes Poole's "Who Threw Momma on the Ceiling? Analyzing Supernatural's Primal Scene of Trauma." A practicing psychotherapist, Poole uses "depth psychology" (144) to present an elegant and captivating analysis of Mary Winchester's death scene and its subsequent influence on the characters and the narrative. Poole states plainly that "there is no way to construe this as a feminist show" (149), but she also positions Supernatural as a postmodern statement on loss, place, identity, and gender, provides a gentle and sensitive take on what she sees as the Winchesters brothers' quest to heal themselves from the loss of the Mother, and draws connections between this quest and that of American mythology, which seeks to "put [fragmented stories] either to rest or together" (151). The placement of Poole's essay between two very different entries on gender and transgression renders it even more poignant, but it is a standout essay in the collection, and a good starting point for further investigation into the psychology, postmodern fragmentation, and myth building of the characters and their world.

[9] In "Scary Just Got Sexy: Transgression in Supernatural and its Fanfiction," Turner looks at the form and content of Supernatural fan fiction and discusses how such works can function as metatexts reflecting back on the show, which itself features themes of transgression. Turner spends more time discussing fan works than discussing the show itself—not a surprise considering her background in acafandom—but this discussion sheds much light on the content of the show regardless, which is exactly what much fan fiction attempts to do anyway, making this essay a cogent example of its own argument. Turner also touches on the idea that fandom's love of transgression and metatextuality function as a mirror for the show's clear love of intertextuality, most visible in Supernatural's frequent callbacks to classic horror cinema and filmmaking. This idea leaves open new areas for the study of intertextuality on the show, and between the show and its fandom. Although the analysis sticks closely to the specifics of Supernatural fan works, this is a standout piece for anyone interested in fan studies in general.

[10] Aside from the essays featured above, there is plenty more here with which scholars can concern themselves. At the start of the collection, Tanya Huff's "We're Not Exactly the Bradys" begins a section about family dynamics in Supernatural by discussing what can be inferred about John Winchester and his sons' childhoods and emotional development vis-à-vis his parenting. Segueing into a section on horror and fear, Randall M. Jensen's "What's Supernatural About Supernatural?" then examines the show's ideas of what renders something supernatural, and whether such things have actually been rendered natural within the show's created world. Jensen also addresses the notion of familial love as a common source of horror, and the show's place within the larger horror genre canon. In "Horror, Humanity, and the Demon in the Mirror," Gregory Stevenson—a professor of theology perhaps best known in acafannish circles for his work on morality in Buffy the Vampire Slayer—here writes again about morality and sacrifice, and also about fairy tales and monsters as metaphors.

[11] Tanya Michaels's essay concerns heroism and sacrifice. Her "Dean Winchester: Bad-Ass or Soccer Mom?" analyzes Dean's presentation as a kind of bad boy with a heart of gold, who outwardly exhibits the trappings of rebellion but is at heart a loyal nurturer who takes on family responsibility as a full-time job, and who exhibits the most emotional vulnerability of the three Winchester men. Michaels notes that "bad-ass" and "soccer mom" do not have to be mutually exclusive roles (although there still exist unexamined, underlying assumptions about gender here). In a section on specific objects and secondary characters, Jules Wilkinson's "Back in Black" is one of two essays focusing on the Winchesters' car as mirror and symbol, especially for Dean, and also as a separate character in itself. The car's endless crisscrossing of America is conflated with the idea of the postmodern Road to Nowhere.

[12] From another perspective entirely, Jamie Chambers's "Blue Collar Ghost Hunters" offers a practical guide to supernatural "hunting" as if it were real and celebrates the Winchesters' "have-not" way of life. Chambers, a game designer who has worked on the official Supernatural role-playing game, is full of interesting and useful observations, but his essay also exudes a kind of reverse snobbery, touting the have-not way of life as ethically superior to one with more privilege—the kind of life likely shared by most of the show's viewers. It's a striking position to take when one considers how little the topic of class difference is directly addressed within the show itself, but this essay's macho blue-collar posturing comes off not as interrogative commentary but as an expression of earnest admiration. This will undoubtedly help to prompt further inquiry into class issues on the show, but it also becomes another example of how male and female fans' concerns are positioned as jarringly disconnected.

[13] The collection closes with London E. Brickley's "Ghouls in Cyberspace: Supernatural Sources in the Modern, Demon-Blogging World." Brickley, one of the fan contest winners, discusses the influence of modern technology in the show's narrative and on audience perception of it and points to the pervasiveness of the Internet, which she identifies as a kind of folkloric practice writ large because of its role as contemporary society's tool for rewriting and contributing to folklore and mythology. Supernatural's characters frequently put modern information technology on par with ancient tomes, and the audience never questions this parity. These characters use the tools that we give them, situating themselves in our "real world" as we create it. Brickley weaves a fascinating metatext here, one that manages to be about the show, the audience, and modern life itself.

[14] Ultimately, In the Hunt is not without its flaws, but it broaches an impressive variety of ideas and gives academic readers much food for thought. One can hope that future scholars will build on this collection to present even more thorough and nuanced work on this complex show and its fandom.

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