"Hey, check it out, there's actually fans": (Dis)empowerment and (mis)representation of cult fandom in Supernatural

Laura E. Felschow

State University of New York, Buffalo, New York, United States

[0.1] Abstract—As Supernatural enters season 5, its status as a cult hit is becoming more evident both in the press and within the text of the series itself. The open acknowledgment of the show's fandom within 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" has altered the power relationship between the product and its fans and brought on controversy regarding the creative team's attitude toward fandom in general. To investigate this relationship between Supernatural and its devoted fans, I will first develop a working definition of the cult fan and illustrate the many ways in which Supernatural is an ideal cult text, despite not having been marketed by its producers and network as such. Having set forth this framework, I will outline the dynamic that existed between Supernatural and its cult fans prior to "The Monster at the End of This Book." I will then demonstrate how "The Monster at the End of This Book" simultaneously empowers and disempowers Supernatural's cult fans by representing them within the show's diegesis and what the consequences of these (mis)representations might be.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan communities; Internet; Television

Felschow, Laura. 2010. "Hey, check it out, there's actually fans": (Dis)empowerment and (mis)representation of cult fandom in Supernatural. In "Saving People, Hunting Things," edited by Catherine Tosenberger, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 4.

1. Introduction

[1.1] With her hand clutched to her chest, a young woman gazes teary-eyed at the two men standing, bewildered, in front of her. "The best parts are when they cry," she declares, emotion riding high in her wavering voice. The woman, publisher of the cult-novelized comic series Supernatural, is discussing one of her favorite elements of the beloved stories: that Sam and Dean, the male protagonists, are in "touch with their emotions." What she doesn't know, however, is that the two men listening to her speak are in fact the "real" Sam and Dean Winchester. The joke here is that the "real" Sam and Dean are characters on a television show, Supernatural, and we, as viewers watching the program, recognize this meta-nod to the show's own die-hard fans.

[1.2] Episode 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" is divisive among Supernatural fandom precisely because of this open address to the show's core group of fans. Viewed by some as playful and inclusive, and by others as harsh and demeaning, this season 4 offering illustrates some of the ways that Supernatural and its creative team have responded to its status as a cult text with a dedicated following. While its relationship to fandom is most explicitly explored within the context of this particular episode, Supernatural and its ancillary products provide many opportunities to investigate the level of interaction between producer and cult fan. How much power and respect does Supernatural's creative team really extend to their fan base? Are cult fans being given temporary, controlled access to their favorite program, or are they taking power by acting without invitation? If so, how are Supernatural's producers retrieving that power? Drawing on the work of Matt Hills, I will outline what it means to be a cult fan and why Supernatural has found success as a cult show before placing the program in a broader context of the currently changing landscape of television fandom in order to more clearly see how Supernatural relates to its cult fans.

[1.3] Supernatural is not the first television program to self-reflexively acknowledge its dedicated fans or the first to approach its fan base in ways that go beyond the product/consumer relationship. As discussed by fandom theorists such as Henry Jenkins, John Tulloch, and Sharon Marie Ross, spectatorship and reception are no longer adequate terms for how the modern fan operates in today's media culture. The barriers between the cult fan and the producer are being both challenged by the fan and willingly altered by the producer. Interested viewers are being allowed, even asked, to affect the action that will take place on their screen. Sometimes fans so loudly demand to be heard that success depends upon the producers conceding to viewer opinion. However, the power accorded to the fan is still most often at the mercy of the producers of the text. Supernatural's "The Monster at the End of This Book" highlights the tenuous power cult fans actually possess and how the show's creators can both misrepresent and disempower them just as easily as they can do the opposite.

[1.4] Before looking more closely at "The Monster at the End of This Book" and analyzing Supernatural in terms of the relationship between the producer and the cult fan, it is first important to understand what cult fandom means and why and how Supernatural fits within that category (note 1).

2. Neoreligiosity, interactive communities, and online fandoms

[2.1] In a 2007 study for Television and New Media, Victor Costello and Barbara Moore conducted "a web-based survey to collect qualitative data about online fans' use of the Internet for keeping up with a favorite television program and for interacting with other fans" (124). In doing this, Costello and Moore encountered a community of sophisticated fans devoted to the exchange of meaningful ideas in online forums. The collective body of an online fandom changed the private act of viewing a television program alone in one's home into a group activity that significantly enhanced emotional involvement (Costello and Moore 2007, 127). Sara Gwenllian-Jones describes these fans as such:

[2.2]Fans combine conspicuous, enthusiastic consumption of official texts and spin offs with their own creative and interpretative practices. Fans are viewers who do not merely watch films but also write fan fiction and cultural criticism, produce fan art, scratch videos, websites and so on, and who seek out other fans who share their enthusiasm…Fans are distanced from "ordinary" consumers because their modes of consumption are considered excessive. (qtd. in Costello and Moore 2007, 127)

[2.3] Gwenllian-Jones's definition of a fan is quite similar to what Matt Hills defines as a cult fan. In Hills's estimation, the cult fan shares with the fan "a deep personal and emotional involvement" wherein being a fan constitutes part of the symbolic project of self (2000, 73). But cult fans, both fascinated and frustrated by their chosen text, will challenge "discursive and productive monopolies" and "delegitimize institutional authority" through fan activities (Johnson 2007, 291). In other words, a fan of the television program Grey's Anatomy may discuss Meredith and Derek's weekly fights during the morning carpool and engage in a brief connection over the shared experience of watching the primetime soap. Meanwhile, a cult fan might log into ABC's online forum, criticize McDreamy for his churlish behavior, lambaste creator Shonda Rhimes for utilizing generic female stereotypes that he or she finds personally offensive, and then create a piece of fan fiction to "correct" the text to represent their own marginalized interests, such as the desire to see "MerDer" break up for all time. Cult fans may even organize campaigns to make their interests known, such as shipping bottles of Tabasco sauce or pounds of peanuts to producers, as was done in an effort to save the WB's Roswell and CBS's Jericho from cancellation.

[2.4] These activities, which some theorists and critics such as Gwenllian-Jones have labeled as excessive, are what partly separate the fan from the cult fan. The behaviors, which go above and beyond the "normal" behavior of the fan, have helped to create an image of the cult fan as deviant or Other. Joli Jenson observes that the emotional "obsession" of the cult fan is labeled as "bad" or "dangerous," while an "unemotional, detached, 'cool' behavior" is permitted by society (1992, 20–21). Jenson rightly states that this outlook is "insulting and absurd" (24–25). Nevertheless, cult fans in today's media culture still sometimes experience what Sharon Marie Ross calls an "us vs. them rhetoric" that devalues the emotional investments that cult fans make in their chosen text and privileges presumptively objective academic responses (2008, 48). To combat this definition of cult fandom as deviant and unequal, Matt Hills (2000) utilizes the concept of neoreligiosity to more clearly demonstrate the value of studying the cult fan's emotional response to a certain text.

[2.5] It is important to understand that the term neoreligiosity does not unequivocally mean religion as it is commonly used—that is, an institutionalized belief system such as Catholicism or Islam. Nor does neoreligiosity invoke cult practices such as those of the Branch Davidians or Heaven's Gate. As Hills observes, "organized (institutional) religion may have declined in the West, but a privatized and individualized space remains open to the voluntaristic adoption of sacred themes and ideas, and it is here that discourses of 'cult' media and fandom find specific and historical context" (2000, 76). In other words, Hills believes individual neoreligiosity is centered on loosely grouped themes that can be derived from encounters with the mass media, experiences that are defined in the private sphere by the individual and not by socially bounded institutions in the public sphere.

[2.6] Furthermore, "while religion and fandom are arguably different realms of meaning they are both centered around similarities of experience…At the very least, the discourse of modern religion may provide fans with a model for describing the experience of becoming a fan" (David Cavicchi, qtd. in Hills 2002, 118). Media forms can play a role in the "ongoing constitution and reconstitution of patterns of sociability and friendship," offering individual fans a reason to come together and form social bonds, and a social community that may develop around a television program fits readily into the similarities of experience that define neoreligiosity (Longhurst, Bagnall, and Savage 2007, 135). The television study conducted by Costello and Moore found that online fandoms fit the model of interpretive communities wherein "the participants have in common only an interest in a program, a desire to talk about it, and access to the Internet" (2007, 135). An interpretive community does not passively receive media content, but actively creates meanings that are partly its own, shaped by its institutional, sociohistorical, and textual context (Lindlof, Coyle, and Grodin 1998, 221; Tulloch and Jenkins 1995, 102). These meanings are variable and therefore nonnormative; in other words, interpretive communities allow for varied emotional responses to material that may or may not adhere to strictly provable academic approaches or widely accepted definitions. This consideration of dynamic readings that produce meaning by active engagement with the text, first put forth by critic Stanley Fish, recognizes the social legibility of a plurality of response (1980, 2085–89). Hence, for cultural studies theorists such as Hills, the subjective neoreligiosity of a fandom carries equal weight to supposedly more objective academic readings by critics. Thus, an interactive online fandom can produce new and multiple meanings for a text, whether it be a film, a novel, a television program, or any other kind of media. In short, media is not just media anymore—how we receive it and share it offers the opportunities for new social communities and new ways of thinking.

[2.7] Cult programs, which tend to have what John Fiske (1987) calls producerly stories that invite viewers to contribute to their meanings, often inspire strong viewer loyalty and involvement (Ross 2008, 61). The faithful viewers that comprise online fandoms demonstrate an attachment to a program, its actors, and the characters and become emotionally invested in the storylines. The Internet has only enhanced this involvement as it enables discourse among like-minded cult fans across the globe and offers recourse to viewers who may feel as if they cannot engage in an in-depth discussion of their favorite shows with their immediate family and friends. Viewers become loyal not only to the program and its producers, but also to the social community that is centered upon it. This shared experience with a text can often transfer from online interaction to face-to-face meetings, gatherings/conventions, and, for some, long-lasting friendships (Costello and Moore 2007, 134). This interactive discourse of cult fans online is an excellent example of a privatized emotional response leading to the formation of kinship with similarly focused individuals based on the arbitrary designation of a media text as the point of convergence. The text becomes a "shared property" that "can prompt fans to lay claim to their status as fans," thereby further solidifying the bond to the television program and the interpretive community to which they belong (Ross 2008, 57–58). In the case of Supernatural, a cult community with a strong feeling of shared ownership has definitely taken shape. A closer look at the many ways Supernatural fits into the cult television model reveals why this is so.

3. "Demons I get. People are crazy": Supernatural as a cult property for the Other

[3.1] Supernatural by its very nature lends itself well to cult sensibilities. Catherine Johnson (2005) categorizes science fiction, fantasy, and horror television programs such as Star Trek, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer as prime examples of cult television. In Johnson's estimation, programs that utilize elements of these three genres are by their nature candidates for developing loyal and dedicated followings. The prior studies of prominent fandom theorists such as Henry Jenkins, John Tulloch, and Camille Bacon-Smith, along with many others, support Johnson's classification. With its use of fantasy and horror, Supernatural showed all of the markings of a potential cult show from the beginning, most particularly by its narrative grounding in monster-of-the-week cases and heavily mythological overarching storylines. Gwenllian-Jones states: "The fictional worlds of cult television are governed by logics that mark their distance from the everyday. Gods, ghosts and monsters are tangible presences in these realms" (2002, 85). Grounded in a world inhabited by monsters, Supernatural takes place in a realm of the fantastic, but it is also a realm wherein the viewers' relationship to the fantastic and the horrific is complicated by a complex relationship with the Other that only increases the show's potential for cult success.

[3.2] The horror genre, Robin Wood states, depends upon patriarchal, capitalistic heteronormativity, the "racial, ethnic, and/or political/ideological Others" and the relationship between the two (qtd. in Benshoff 2004, 63). In other words, there is normal and there is monstrous, and when the two collide, horror is created. For the Winchester family, this Otherness that ostracizes them from normalcy is doubled. Firstly, they are Othered by their encounters with supernatural monsters and otherworldly beings. According to Noel Carroll, in works of horror like those outlined above by Wood, humans must regard the monsters they encounter as "disturbances of the natural order" (1990, 16, 57). For viewers, the monsters and ghosts that the Winchester brothers regularly hunt would qualify in that category, and in this way, Supernatural is a program that fits within the horror genre. However, in the Winchesters' world, that which society views as abnormal—the supernatural—is normal (Jensen 2008, 28). For Dean and Sam and other hunters like them, horrific and exotic creatures are part of their day-to-day lives, and as viewers, we are invited to deal with them in the same nonchalant fashion. While the supernatural is still horrible enough in principle for the Winchesters to dedicate their lives to protecting civilians from monstrous attacks, if the viewer assumes the Winchesters' matter-of-fact attitude regarding the terrors to be faced, the horror factor is lessened and a participation in the fantasy of acting as a supernatural hunter can be entered. Either way, Supernatural has invited the viewer into a world with a majority population of Others.

[3.3] The Winchesters are placed as Other in opposition to normative culture not only by their interaction with the supernatural, but also by the socioeconomic status that results from the necessary life choices of a hunter. Discussing the Winchesters' Gothic lives, Julia M. Wright states that by their mother's supernatural death, the boys are propelled from a comfortable, middle-class, nuclear family, suburban (read: normal) lifestyle to an unstable, insecure world wherein "two young children [are] left alone for days in a cheap motel, their food running out, the sole parent absent because of work, and a loaded shotgun leaning against the wall as their only means of protection" (2008, 7). Their father, John Winchester, was more drill sergeant than dad, training Sam and Dean to be warriors after their mother's terrible murder. They have no established home apart from their beloved '67 Chevy Impala and spend most of their childhood and adult lives on the road, changing schools frequently and staying in cheap motels or temporary squats. Strange is the province in which the Winchesters live, where playing soccer rather than training to bowhunt (1.08 "Bugs") or going away to college rather than living life on the road (1.01 "Pilot") are abnormal desires.

[3.4] Economically, the Winchesters are lower class. In order to live and complete their work, they run fraudulent credit card scams, carry around a cache of illegal weapons and fake IDs, and frequently find themselves on the wrong side of the law. While in earlier episodes Sam attempts to be or passes for upwardly mobile and often holds Dean to higher standards of polite or legal behavior, by season 4 both brothers are firmly encamped in a blue-collar lifestyle and Sam displays less reluctance to engage in immoral or criminal acts. Any last claim to normalcy Sam might have made is gone by 4.09 "Wishful Thinking," when Sam states that he has no wish to go back to his college life and all he wants is "Lilith's head on a plate. Bloody." Sam's middle-class aspirations have been set aside and he, as well as Dean, operates outside of what Wright calls "the consumerist, homogenizing aesthetic of suburbia"; they are "freed of property, legality, and other middle-class constraints" (2008, 13).

[3.5] The Winchesters' outsider status is reinforced by the fact they are punished whenever they try to transgress boundaries and lay claim to anything normative in terms of relationships or lifestyle. This is demonstrated most clearly with the fiery death of Sam's beloved Jessica at Azazel's hands (1.01 "Pilot") and Dean's rejection by his one and only serious girlfriend, Cassie, after his honest admission of his hunting activities (1.13 "Route 666"). Relationships are no more easily formed in the realm of the supernatural; among the underground network of hunters, the Winchester family remains distinct and separate. After John's passing, Dean and Sam discover a whole world of hunters that they never knew existed because their father often alienated his friends and preferred to work alone. Yet if Sam and Dean attempt to form bonds with other hunters or civilians, those people usually wind up dead or estranged. In later seasons, the Winchesters' interaction with the civilian population is so severely limited that most of their time is spent with demons and angels. In fact, the Winchesters are exiled from society to the extent that they are Othered from the human race in general. More than once, both of the Winchesters are referred to or refer to themselves as freaks having more in common with the monsters they hunt than with other people. Throughout the series Dean often reiterates the sentiment he expresses in 1.15 "The Benders": "Demons I get. People are crazy." By the end of season 4, there is even some disagreement over whether Sam, having ingested vast quantities of demon blood, is still human or if he has become one of the creatures they hunt.

[3.6] The blurred line between human and monster leaves the Winchesters outside the realm of normalcy. If, as stated earlier, horror media and folklore are the genres of the Other, Supernatural's protagonists do offer an opportunity for engagement on that plane. Catherine Tosenberger links the work of Harry Benshoff to Supernatural by stating that a narrative that equates "their monsters with racial, gender, and especially sexual others" has a potential to be read as queer, and that Supernatural, in depicting its heroes as Other, opens up myriad possibilities for minority identifications (2008, 3.1–3.3). While Tosenberger is primarily concerned with questions of sexuality, viewers who may struggle to find representations of their likenesses on the television screen, such as female or queer audiences, may respond strongly to material that is offered from a position of the Other. While Jenkins states that cult fandoms in general are well suited for marginalized groups anyway, as participation and recognition within fandom are predicated upon contribution to the community and not social status, this does not adequately explain all the reasons why Supernatural in particular has struck such a chord with cult fans (1992, 213). Considering the show is predominantly focused on two white men who have thus far been presented as exclusively heterosexual and the show has been criticized for its attitude toward both women and minorities, it seems odd that the show has developed a strong cult following consisting of a majority of female fans (Tosenberger 2008, 7.9). While aesthetic appeal helps, that many consider the lead actors to be attractive is not enough to account for the devotion of the show's fandom. Somehow Sam and Dean, with a masculinity extended by cars, guns, and machinery and reinforced by their lack of permanent relationships with women, still seem to offer points of identification for viewers of different sexualities, genders, and races. Given the numerous ways the Winchesters are placed so far outside of patriarchal, capitalistic heteronormativity, enough substantial evidence is offered to raise the question: when the heroes are so definitively Other despite their gender, sexuality, and race, is there much need for any other Other? That is a question better addressed as its own topic altogether, but the Winchesters themselves may be enough to represent Other for some of the show's viewers.

[3.7] This Othered status of the Winchesters links directly to the presence of the cult fan, for one characteristic of the cult fan is certainly this identification with the Other in relation to mainstream media: "They [the fans] do their own interpretation of the text, ignoring the opinions and desires of producers, advertisers, network executives, and critics. And because fans go beyond the accepted boundaries of viewing, they are sometimes ridiculed" (Jenkins 1992, 86). Apart from the denigrated Other status mentioned previously, cult fans may conversely feel a superiority or pride in belonging to a privileged group that knows more than the average fan. The cult fan believes they are different than the normal viewer and therefore take enjoyment from connecting to a serialized drama such as Supernatural that allows them to create a community fascinated with the finer details, multiple story arcs, and heavy mythology (Costello and Moore 2007, 135). It is precisely this privileged status of the cult fan that producers have begun to tap into to help secure the success of their product. Yet while the cult fan may be viewed as a powerful tool for those producers, the cult fan is not merely a mindless consumer machine. Supernatural's evolution into a cult hit shows that while the producer most often has control over both the text and the fan, sometimes the fan can exert control over the producer and the text without being expressly invited or permitted to do so.

4. Off-screen and on: Changing the relationship between cult fan and product

[4.1] As the Internet's popularity as a meeting ground for cult fans increases, the commercial viability of directly appealing to that particular niche market also grows. Realizing the potential of an audience of extremely loyal viewers who would be more likely to spend extra dollars on goods tied into their favorite show, producers see cult communities online as opportunities to ensure built-in audiences with purchase power. A cult audience with a solid reputation can also lend a critical stamp of approval and offer creative credibility (Harris 1998, 46–52). But as producers turn toward cult fans on the Internet to serve the interests of consumerism, the question must be asked: Is the relationship between the cult fan and producer a two-way street, a give and take? Are cult fans, to borrow Tulloch and Jenkins's terminology, a "powerless elite," or do they possess real influence (1995, 145)? This question is at the core of the fandom debate over "The Monster at the End of This Book." To properly address the issue of possible disempowerment of the Supernatural fans by its producers, it is first necessary to look at the changing landscape of producer/fan relationships and how Supernatural fits into that picture.

[4.2] Tulloch and Jenkins approach the issue of empowerment by defining "the ideal audience" as one that mindlessly buys into whatever the producers are selling and then contrasting that ideal audience with the idea of "the resistant and creative audience," which is now commonly associated with cult fandoms by academics (1995, 4). Cult fans are a conduit between the mass audience on whom the success of a show so often depends and the producers who have the most control over the text. Cult fans may produce their own meanings, but Tulloch and Jenkins present an image of the fan as relatively powerless over the product. Their powerless elite was a conception of 1995, however, and in today's media culture, the powerless elite may yet be powerless, but they are in higher demand by the producers than they used to be. In Hills's estimation, "fan consumers are no longer viewed as eccentric irritants, but rather as loyal consumers to be created," and the "loyal consumption" by those fans certainly appeals to television producers (2002, 36). He goes on to state that the supposedly resistant fan has become integrated into "market rationalizations and routines of scheduling and channel-branding" (36). For Hills, if producers court fans, the fans may begin to feel that they are empowered, but in reality the cultural power they possess is very limited (38). Hills is careful to state, however, that locating cultural power solely in the hands of one camp or another is problematic, as it can never be firmly located with either the audience or the producer (43).

[4.3] By the same token, it is important to underline that however powerless fans might be, audiences are not "cultural dopes" and it should not be assumed that they are unaware of their place in the producer/fan power structure (Grossberg 1992, 53). Cult fans may not be able to fully control the product they are consuming, but that does not mean that they consume without thought or care. And if the power balance between cult fan and producer is always changing, the increased visibility of the Internet's effect on the relations between the two parties has given cult fans greater reason to believe that they can exercise more control than ever before. There may be an expectation for an audience to follow the guidelines set forth by the producers, but the cult fan/producer relationship can be more accurately described as "processes of negotiation" that continually alter and develop over the course of a show's life (Ross 2008, 75).

[4.4] As producers branch out into the Internet, cult fans have begun to "see themselves as an audience that at least occasionally can exert influence over the creators of their programs, and therefore, to a limited extent, they are part of the creative team" (Costello and Moore 2007, 137). Forums such as Television Without Pity (TWOP) and Entertainment Weekly's FanTV have become effective forums for fans to voice their opinions and often be heard/read by television executives and writers (Torrez-Riley 2008). In the past, copyright issues made the relationship between the industry and online fans contentious, but savvy producers now utilize the Internet to cultivate buzz and maintain viewer loyalty (Ross 2008, 108). In a sense, producers have exercised control over online fans by inviting them to the party before they can crash it. Also, by receiving encouragement or acknowledgment from producers, writers, and actors—or at the very least permission to borrow copyrighted materials for fannish activities—the sense of family and togetherness among fans is increased. This strategy assumes that people will be far less likely to abandon a particular program if they are immersed in "lifestyle media"—that is, they feel attached the show's stars and production team, are engaged creatively, and have a large group of friends who view the program as well (Ross 2008, 117–18).

[4.5] Some television creators/producers are taking advantage of what the Internet has to offer them by way of connecting with fans, cult or no. Veronica Mars series creator and executive producer Rob Thomas and Battlestar Galactica's co–executive producer Ronald D. Moore both contributed to a 2006 article in the New York Times that investigated the breakdown of the barrier between fans and television production. Moore observed that "television writers really work in isolation [and] the Internet has really changed the immediacy of the contact" between writers and viewers (Aspan 2006). TWOP's cofounder, Tara Ariano, has stated that while many television writers come to the message boards and check things out, a show runner like Rob Thomas is one of few who actually interact with the fans on the message boards. During Veronica Mars' 3-year run, Thomas utilized the forum as a focus group but then backed off once heavy criticisms of certain characters and storylines began to affect his narrative decisions and undermine his own personal goals for the series (Aspan 2006). For Thomas, the execution of his individual creative vision became more important than listening to the opinions of the fans. Battlestar Galactica executive producer David Eick agrees: "I particularly want to know what the criticisms are…but the worst thing you can do is take any opinion or any small segment of opinions, and use it to drive you" (qtd. in Ross 2008, 248–49). In other words, show producers would like fans to be invested enough in their product to offer their opinions, but this does not mean that they are necessarily going to listen.

[4.6] Fandom, however, does not always remain heard/read but not seen. Over the last decade, some producers have taken the behaviors of cult fans and utilized them as plot points or characters within their shows. Programs from The West Wing to The X-Files have produced episodes that contain sly, knowing nods to their devoted fans (note 2), while Buffy the Vampire Slayer paid dubious homage to their fans in season 6 by featuring a trio of villains who could be categorized as obsessive fanboys with a desire for power (Johnson 2007, 294–98). Xena: Warrior Princess went further than most, with three episodes over the course of its six-season run featuring acknowledgment of its cult fandom (Ross 2008, 39–44). These types of episodes recognize cult fans and their opinions in a way that postings in online forums cannot—openly in the mainstream for even the casual viewer to witness. Cult fans may receive this recognition as a celebration of their unique connection to the show, while others may view this mainstream acknowledgment as a betrayal, in that their privileged relationship and special interests have been exposed for ridicule or critique by any passive channel surfer who might happen to be watching.

[4.7] These two facets of teleparticipation—interaction with the producer online and acknowledgment by the producer onscreen—and the degree to which they are present are strong indications of how the producers of a program view their cult fans and how they are prepared to interact with them. While producers of The X-Files and Lost were aware from the start that there existed cult potential in their product, other programs were surprised by their cult status, developing into a cult property well after their inception (Johnson 2005, 100). The balance of power between the producer and the fan can be affected by the degree to which a production staff is prepared for the cult activity that surrounds their work. With Supernatural, the cult that has grown up around the program was seemingly unexpected and as a result, the power structures between creative and the fans are less controlled—strong but strained. In Supernatural's case, an invitation to participate was offered after cult fans had already invited themselves, and "The Monster at the End of This Book" demonstrates the ambivalent nature of the show's producers' attitude toward its fans.

5. "Hey check it out, there's actually fans"

[5.1] With a cult fandom described as both "fiery" and "intense" by Entertainment Weekly, the comparatively small average audience of 2 to 3 million viewers makes up for its meager size with large amounts of passion and devotion (Wheat 2009, 30–31). When Supernatural premiered on the WB on September 13, 2005, the most readily apparent marketing strategy was that it followed Gilmore Girls on Tuesday nights in hopes that fans of Jared Padalecki, who had previously been on Gilmore, would follow him to his new show. Besides the presence of Padalecki, the only thing these two programs shared was a focus on a stronger-than-usual familial bond; the similarities began and ended there. The Gothic horror drama seemed an odd pairing with the sunny, chatty dramedy, but it posted reasonable ratings in the timeslot, retaining about three-quarters of its lead-in ( Since its move to follow Smallville on Thursdays and the WB's merger with UPN to become the CW, Supernatural has retained modest but consistent ratings. Yet it has never gained heavy promotional backing from its network and remains a relatively unheralded stalwart in its lineup (Jester 2009).

[5.2] Unlike the watercooler sensation Lost (2004–10), which had millions of dollars of strong promotional backing and a creative team of self-described fanboys that purposely and skillfully marketed the program as a cult property, the WB/the CW did not put much weight behind promoting its product and Supernatural producers did not act, at first, as if they knew they had a potential cult hit on their hands (Porter and Lavery 2006, 158–62; Jester 2009). The cult fans of Lost were offered overt invitations to participate with the text via an official message board, interactive podcasts, hidden Easter eggs, alternate reality games, mobisodes, and other extras that required dedication that went well beyond that of the casual viewer. Fans of comic books and fans online were targeted as possible audiences for the serialized sci-fi mystery drama, and new approaches to marketing such as "Have you seen this person?" ads featuring Lost characters and "messages in a bottle" planted on shorelines increased the show's visibility while requiring people to dig a bit deeper if they wanted to know their meaning (Porter and Lavery 2006, 158–62; Lachonis and Johnston 2008). Supernatural fans, however, were offered the text of the series' episodes and little else. Whereas Lost invited fan activity as a means of drawing interest, maintaining hype, and making money, the fans of Supernatural came to the show without a strong invitation to participate and the producers played catch-up with their rampant interest. The program grew into a cult hit on its own steam.

[5.3] Ancillary products were created well into the series' run in season 3 as a response to overwhelming fan demand. In this way, Supernatural fans do seem to be Tulloch and Jenkins's ideal audience, as Supernatural fans are more than willing to pay for their extras and then ask for more. Thus far, Supernatural has spawned an official magazine, five books, season companion guides, an Origins comic series, a collection of academic essays titled In the Hunt, and fan conventions held in Dallas; Los Angeles; Chicago; Orlando; Birmingham, UK; and Sydney, Australia—as well as the 2009 additions of conventions in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and Vancouver, British Columbia, where the show is filmed. This impressive tally of Supernatural properties does not even begin to touch on the vast quantity of fan fiction, videos, art, reviews, and meta discussion that are available online, including the open-content collaborative Supernatural wiki site (

[5.4] Supernatural conventions are useful illustrations of the kind of fan loyalty and high level of interaction that Supernatural has created (note 3). These conventions allow access to the show's full roster of actors—from its two leads, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, right down to one- or two-time guest stars, anyone who has appeared in a Supernatural episode is welcome on the convention stage. Unlike the fan conventions chronicled in Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women (1992), when it was difficult to drum up enough money for one or two actors to visit, Supernatural conventions may feature as many as 10 of the shows' actors. Conventiongoers may purchase weekend packages, brunch and cocktail/dessert hours with the stars, question and answer sessions, photo ops, autograph signings, auctions, or concert tickets for musicians Jason Manns or Steve Carlson. That these two performers happen to be close friends with series star Ackles (and have little to do with the series) is only one example of the kind of "friends and family" attitude that has become part and parcel of the Supernatural experience and one that fans don't seem to mind paying for (Zubernis and Larsen 2009, 56). Padalecki himself is known to pop into the audience for an impromptu bear hug, while other actors can be seen hanging out in the hotel bar and singing karaoke with the attendees (58, 61).

[5.5] For the fans who cannot attend conventions in person, those who do attend quickly share their experiences through online communities and individual journals. Conventiongoers race to the Web to post their photos and videos; some even post immediately after sessions end, or send text messages and pictures to online friends all over the world while the actors are still on stage. These gatherings, along with the accessibility of some of the show's actors on the Internet via blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, have earned Supernatural an immense amount of goodwill from its fans and are often cited in online journals as an impetus for viewer loyalty (note 4). One Supernatural fan wrote, "When you consider their accessibility to fans via conventions and the like, I'd say they've done a pretty good job of letting us know we're appreciated. Far more than the makers of anything else on television that I know of" (invisiblelove, April 3, 2009). Actor Charles Malik Whitfield (Agent Victor Henriksen) echoed the fans' sentiment at the 2008 Chicago Convention: "It's kind of like hanging out with family…it's a lot of fun to interact with fans and get their perspective on things" (Zubernis and Larsen 2009, 59).

[5.6] But audience interaction goes beyond lighthearted fun; each convention inevitably brings on what fans term wank, with certain fans acting out of line while at the convention and/or angry gossip spreading about events afterward. Whether it be a person with an agenda (as with an audience member questioning Jared Padalecki's work with PETA at "Salute to Supernatural" Vancouver 2009) or a fan being too hands-on (as with the implementation of a "no touching" rule at Asylum 2009), fans have come to expect that there will be trouble whenever a large group is permitted to interact with the show's stars. However, even though the rules set forth are often broken, with the options of skipping conventions and angering fans or attending and making fans happy, each convention sees more and more of the show's actors making appearances.

[5.7] It is not only postconvention wank that causes contention between fandom and the actors and producers of the program. Fan opinion also has direct repercussions on Supernatural's text. When fan comments reach series creator Eric Kripke, he often responds indirectly to fans' concerns via print and video interviews or replies directly to fans online, as when he posted on the Web site Daemon's TV (2008) regarding fan outrage over Sam calling Dean a "dick" in 4.06 "Yellow Fever." Kripke has, along with members of his writing staff, also revealed that certain story arcs and characters in the show have been altered, reconceived, or entirely axed as a result of fan reaction. Most notably, in season 2 the character of Jo Harvelle began as a strong female character and a possible romantic interest for Dean Winchester (2.02 "Everybody Loves a Clown"). She then shifted to more of a little sister figure and a damsel in distress (2.06 "No Exit," 2.14 "Born Under a Bad Sign"), before she was erased from the show entirely. The adjustment of Jo Harvelle and her exit from the narrative were based on the reactions from the show's predominantly female fan base, which immediately made clear they brooked no interference with the Winchester brothers' solid relationship by an outside female source (Borsellino 2008, 107–17). The writers attempted to add female characters to the mix again in season 3 with demon Ruby and thief Bela, but by season 4 had learned their lesson. The only new lead character added to the roster was Castiel, angel of the Lord and decidedly male, while Ruby was revealed to be a traitor and violently killed. Female characters, Jo Harvelle and her mother Ellen included, may make temporary visits in the future, but as for permanent fixtures in Supernatural's world, the writers now take heed of viewers' past reactions.

[5.8] It is in the writers' room that most of the issues between the Supernatural cult fan and the show come to the fore. The relationship between writer and cult fan appears to be a double-edged sword; while the creative team has direct control over the text, they are pressured by Supernatural's incredibly vocal fandom. With Supernatural's fans having "discovered" and celebrated the text independently of a dedicated pursuit by the network and an overt invitation by its producers, the degree of shared ownership felt is stronger than that of a program such as Lost, where the relationship between the product and fan has been calculated and controlled since the program's very inception. For Supernatural's staff, the figure of the cult fan is both a boon and a burden, simultaneously assuring their power and threatening it. "The Monster at the End of This Book" is an effort to tip the balance back in the producers' favor while acknowledging that the program is nothing if not a cult show, buoyed by fans' emotional and economic attentions. Speaking of this episode, creator Eric Kripke stated at Comic-Con 2009: "I have such a tempestuous, loving, conflicted relationship with the online fandom that…I was attracted to the possibility of poking…very loving fun" (Gonturan74 2009). Whether or not this fun was in fact poked lovingly is one of the main criticisms that Supernatural fans brought against "Monster" and one of the most important to consider when discussing the power structures between Supernatural and its fandom.

6. The power of (mis)representation

[6.1] "The Monster at the End of This Book," written by Julie Siege (with story by Julie Siege and Nancy Weiner), begins with Sam and Dean Winchester visiting a comic book shop in the course of an ongoing investigation. This investigation, however, is promptly dropped when they are led to discover a series of cult novels titled Supernatural that mind-bogglingly chronicle every intimate detail of their lives. Attempting to track down the writer of Supernatural, the boys first hit the Internet, where they encounter a small but rabid following that Dean observes "sure do complain a lot" while dividing themselves into fervent factions of Sam Girls and Dean Girls. Dean takes issue with a complaint lodged by poster "Simpatico" (which happens to be the username of an actual TWOP critic), while Sam makes particular note of a genre of fan fiction wherein the two brothers engage in a sexual relationship (Tosenberger 2008, 1.1). "As in Sam slash Dean. Together," he explains to Dean, leaving them both feeling disturbed. The reality is that in Supernatural fandom, this Sam/Dean genre, identified by the slang term Wincest, is one of the most popular romantic pairings, taking up an estimated 40 percent of the online creative output (Turner 2008, 157).

[6.2] If the winking joke had stopped there, perhaps "The Monster at the End of This Book" would warrant only a passing mention in critical studies of fandom as an audacious acknowledgment of cult fan criticism, fiction, and community, but the knowing nods continue on and much more pointedly. In-jokes are made for the devoted fan to catch, such as the pseudonym for the author of the pulp series within the episode, Carver Edlund, which is a combination of series writers Jeremy Carver and Ben Edlund. In trying to discover the true identity of Carver Edlund, Sam and Dean meet with the book's publisher, Sera Siege. Her name, another mash-up of writers' names, is only listed on the IMDB information for the episode and is never mentioned in the show; hence, learning this additional information is a reward only for fans who go the extra mile and do their research. That the publisher is a woman (and not a man, as "Carver Edlund" is revealed to be) underlines this direct and debatably hilarious send-up of the stereotypical Supernatural fangirl. As she discusses Supernatural, Sera lingers over her complete set of the novels, caressing their bindings lovingly. Suspicious of Sam and Dean's true intentions in pursuing information about the novels, she quizzes them about the Winchesters' birthdays, favorite tunes, the make and model of Dean's car, and Sam's score on the LSATs. She refers to Sam and Dean as "my boys," a common practice among SPN fans, and reveals her pentagram tattoo, which matches the design the Winchesters each have inked on their chests (hers is inked in a far more suggestive and private location). Going a step further, the publisher is portrayed by actress Keegan Connor Tracy, whom fans in the know would recognize as having previously appeared as grieving widow and future murder victim Karen Giles in 2.07 "The Usual Suspects" (note 5).

[6.3] Fan response to the three opening scenes of the episode ranged from honored and amused to embarrassed and hurt. Some others were plainly unsettled by the open acknowledgment of fandom and all of its quirks, most especially the mention of slash fiction (Charles 2009). (Episode recaps with fan reaction are available at,, and One fan, Zara, posted a positive response at "I loved this eppie! All the references to the real life fan stuff, from Sam girls, Dean girls, to the comments about slash and the negative comments that are sometimes posted on the boards…It was a very cool way to validate us fans" ( 2009b). More negative responses were archived at other communities, some of which focused on the representation not just of fangirls in particular to Supernatural, but also of fandoms in general. Sometimes referred to as the "Fandom is Fight Club" rule—that is, "Don't talk about fandom"—many fans were bothered by their online activities being so blatantly exposed. Some fans expressed worry about mainstream viewers not really understanding the full context of cult fan practices, while others were concerned they'd suddenly face uncomfortable questions from casual fans regarding slash fiction and the like.

[6.4] Supernatural has never shied away from shining a light on the Internet and the practices of its users, so perhaps this collision was a natural progression given the closeness of the online world to the text. Sam's laptop is his main research tool and he visits amateur and fan communities to find leads on possible cases; Internet sources have been continually reaffirmed within the show's diegesis to be worthy source material (Brickley 2008, 271). Fun has even been poked before at the expense of online fans of the supernatural: 1.17 "Hell House," 3.13 "Ghostfacers," and 4.17 "It's a Terrible Life" featured the duo Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spengler, bumbling amateur ghost hunters, Webmasters of, and pointedly, huge Buffy fans. With "The Monster at the End of This Book," Supernatural turned its gaze onto its own community of fans, and in so doing, further blurred the boundaries between fan and product.

[6.5] "The Monster at the End of This Book," however, references not only its fans, but also its creators. When Sam and Dean locate the true author of the Supernatural books, Chuck Shurley, they find him holed up in a run-down house, self-medicating his headaches with alcohol and writing his novels for no monetary gain. Once the brothers explain that Shurley has somehow been writing about their real lives, Chuck determines that "there's only one explanation. Obviously I'm a god…I write things, and they come to life. I'm definitely a god. A cruel, cruel, capricious god. The things I put you through!" This bombastic assumption shows the writer as laughably egotistical and presumably is supposed to show that the Supernatural writers are poking loving fun not only at the fans, but also at themselves, especially when Chuck, dismayed, continues: "Did you really have to live through the bugs? What about the ghost ship? I am so sorry. I mean, horror is one thing, but being forced to live bad writing…" These self-deprecating references are to episodes 1.08 "Bugs" and 3.06 "Red Sky at Morning," with which Eric Kripke has mentioned being disappointed at their quality (Knight 2007, 50–51, 2009, 12–13). This self-reflexive exercise jokingly positions Eric Kripke as an all-knowing, all-powerful god and we, the fans, as his followers. While this is a relationship referred to in jest, underneath the joke lies a kernel of truth, even more so later on when Chuck is revealed to be a prophet whose "Winchester Gospel" has earned him protection from the archangels.

[6.6] For while Kripke and company may be laughing at themselves, they do so from the comfort of the writers' room, a serious position of power. In doling out jokes, there is the presumption that by directing criticisms at themselves there will be a feeling that they are laughing with the fans, not at them. But jokes made at the writers' and fans' expense have unequal costs, as the writers have nothing to lose by making fun of themselves. "The Monster at the End of This Book" reinforces the power of the writers and reminds cult fans that they may only receive what is offered. In this situation, the cult fans' activities and emotional attachments are exposed for mainstream consumption and the cult fan has no way to recall that information once it is released. The acknowledgment of fan behavior within this episode is not an overt invitation to participate, but a demonstration that the producers/writers of the program are aware of exactly what their fandom is doing without an invitation. Whatever the producers' stated intentions, whether their die-hard fans view this as an inclusive or exclusive act, a compliment or an insult, the end result is the same. The cult fan is reminded that s/he cannot decide what is to be included and excluded, who can be complimented or insulted. Fans may feel a certain way in response to the episode, but they cannot change it. They can post about their anger or their delight, but they cannot create an official episode of their own wherein the cult fan is depicted in a manner of their choosing. By representing their fans in the manner they see fit within the canon of the program, Supernatural has wrested some control back to the side of production and left the fans to either accept it or not. Although not a harsh disciplinary action like the villainy of the obsessive fan trio in Buffy's season 6, "The Monster at the End of This Book" can be seen as a reminder to Supernatural fandom, delivered with a smile, of who exactly is in charge.

[6.7] As if to show that it was not a gesture of ill will, the acknowledgment of fandom within the show's canon will apparently continue in season 5. In 5.01 "Sympathy for the Devil," Chuck turns to his self-professed number-one fan, Becky, for help when he is unable to get a message to Dean and Sam. Taking a break from writing a Wincest fic in order to speak with Chuck, Becky is excited by Chuck's call but quickly becomes disappointed when she believes Chuck is merely making fun. After chastising Chuck for treating her like a crazy fangirl who doesn't know the difference between fantasy and reality, she giddily proclaims: "I knew it!" when he informs her the stories are real. This "I'm honored/I'm insulted/I'm honored" flip-flop of a reaction by Becky echoes fandom's reaction to "The Monster at the End of This Book." Becky, unlike the fan figures depicted in Buffy, is then enlisted as an aid to the heroes' quest, helpfully getting the important message to Sam and Dean (and taking an opportunity to coo over Sam and feel him up in the process). Becky may return in later episodes or she may never show up again, but the message to the show's fans is clear. Cult fans of Supernatural may be vocal, sometimes demanding, sometimes difficult, but a cult show needs its cult fans in order to continue on. Whether Supernatural's cult fans like it or not, there will always be Sera Siege, tearing up over the boys' hardest moments, and there will always be Becky, smiling at her computer screen as she types up her latest Wincest story. Offensive to some, endearing to others, Supernatural's producers may (mis)represent Supernatural's dedicated fans, but in the end, Sera and Becky are the only cult fans over whom the producers have complete control. And while Supernatural's real cult fans will never have more power over the text than its producers, that does not mean they are entirely powerless.

7. Acknowledgments

I thank Julia Arébalo, Tarah Brookfield, Megan Reilly, and Erika Sweet for reviewing and commenting upon earlier drafts.

8. Notes

1. Throughout, the term producer will be used for the sake of ease and clarity to represent not just those who hold the title of producer, but also those involved in the preproduction, production, and postproduction of the text, i.e., the writers, directors, editors, and network executives.

2. The West Wing 3.16 "The U.S. Poet Laureate" featured Josh Lyman interacting with his own team of online fangirls. The X-Files 6.18 "Milagro" depicted Scully dealing with an admirer writing stories involving her as a character. The three Xena: Warrior Princess episodes that nod to fandom are 2.15 "A Day in the Life," 6.13 "You Are There," and 6.16 "Send in the Clones." See Ross (2008, 39–40) for detailed descriptions of these episodes.

3. Creation Entertainment is responsible for the bulk of Supernatural events. EyeCon, held in Orlando, Florida, and hosted by Interstellar Productions; All Hell Breaks Loose, held in Sydney, Australia, and hosted by The Hub Productions; and Asylum, held in Birmingham, UK, and hosted by Rogue Events, are among the few not part of Creation Entertainment's catalog. The Supernatural team has also made appearances at the San Diego Comic-Con. Supernatural fans annually hold an unofficial fans-only gathering called Winchester Con (or "Wincon") at changing locations.

4. Supernatural guest stars Jim Beaver (Bobby Singer), Chad Lindberg (Ash), and convention entertainer Jason Manns all hold Facebook accounts and leave them open to public consumption, while Samantha Ferris (Ellen Harvelle) has her own blog,, where she communicates directly with fans. Season 4 addition Misha Collins (Castiel) has become something of a sensation with his Twitter account, where he converses with Supernatural fans who call themselves "Misha's Minions."

5. Other fandom nods within 4.18 "The Monster at the End of This Book" include the diner's name, "Kripke's Hollow," a combination of show creator's Eric Kripke's name and Stars Hollow, the fictional town of Padalecki's previous television program Gilmore Girls, with Luke's Diner as one of the main locales. Dean instructing Sam to use the Magic Fingers or watch Casa Erotica is a reference to previous episodes 2.13 "Houses of the Holy" and 2.04 "Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things," respectively.

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