"The epic love story of Sam and Dean": Supernatural, queer readings, and the romance of incestuous fan fiction

Catherine Tosenberger

University of Winnipeg, Winnipeg, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—This article examines incestuous slash fan fiction produced for the CW television series Supernatural. I argue that "Wincest" fan fiction is best understood not as perverse, oppositional resistance to a heterosexual, nonincestuous show, but an expression of readings that are suggested and supported by the text itself. I examine the literary, cultural, and folkloric discourses of incest and queerness invoked by the series, paying special attention to Romanticism, the Gothic, and horror as underliers to those discourses, and how those genres inform both the series and the fan fiction. I discuss a number of Wincest stories in detail, focusing upon how these stories build upon thematic elements within the series. In conclusion, I argue that the most resistive aspect of Wincest fan fiction is that it gives the main characters a lasting happiness that the series eternally defers.

[0.2] Keywords—Fan fiction; Gender; Supernatural; TV

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

1. Introduction

[1.1] On the surface, the television horror series Supernatural (2005–present) appears to be a testosterone-charged romp about two excessively good-looking brothers who, armed with phallic weaponry, roam the country in a '67 Chevy Impala hunting monsters from American folklore. However, according to many fans, the primary appeal of the series lies not in its macho trappings, but in the extraordinarily intense relationship between protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester. Supernatural fans have produced an enormous amount of fan fiction exploring the nature of that relationship, and a significant portion of that fan fiction speculates that the brothers' love for one another is far more than brotherly. In this essay, I will follow the lead of Sara Gwenllian Jones and argue that Sam/Dean slash fan fiction is best understood not as a perverse "resistance" to the show's presumed nonincestuous heteronormativity, but as "an actualization of latent textual elements" (2002:82). To that end, I will discuss the myriad ways in which Supernatural makes queer, incestuous readings available to viewers, and then examine how these available readings play out in specific fan-fictional texts.

[1.2] Supernatural's pedigree gives some clues to its popularity among slash fans. The format of the show links it to classic male-male buddy series such as Starsky and Hutch and The Professionals, both of which have venerable slash fandoms. Moreover, Supernatural shares not only a thematic resemblance but an actor (Jensen Ackles) with its lead-in show, Smallville; Louisa Ellen Stein (2005) and Melanie E. S. Kohnen (2008) have written extensively on fans' queer readings of that series. In addition, Supernatural is a direct descendant of The X-Files: in addition to similar themes, structures, moods, and styles, the two shows share many writing and production personnel. Supernatural's most striking inheritance from The X-Files is its focus upon the intense relationship between its two main characters: as critic Whitney Cox (2006) remarks, Supernatural "is fueled past its failings almost entirely by the chemistry between the two principals, the boys who, like Mulder and Scully, generate enough sexual tension to power a small city" (note 1). The fact that Sam and Dean are brothers in no way detracts from the slashy vibe. In fact, as brothers, they are given a pass for displays of emotion that masculinity in our culture usually forbids, which intensifies the potential for queer readings. Executive story editor Sera Gamble described her conception of the show as "the epic love story of Sam and Dean" (Borsellino 2006); while she quickly avowed that her comment was made in jest to tease creator Eric Kripke, many fan writers consider her statement to be a perfectly accurate description of the show, and they use their own narratives to explore all the implications of the "epic love story." These fan-fictional narratives are known as Wincest (note 2).

[1.3] The majority of scholarship about slash is, understandably, grounded in audience and reception studies and focuses on fans' "appropriations" of presumably heteronormative material to tell the stories they wish to tell. Slash scholarship often celebrates slash's transgressive, subversive, resistive potential: slash resists the compulsory heterosexuality not only of a given source text, but also of the culture at large. This is not necessarily inaccurate: in a heteronormative culture, any depiction of queerness, by definition, resists cultural norms. However, not all source texts are created equally heteronormative; too strong a focus upon slash as a subversion of canon can mask consideration of the ways in which the canon itself may make queer readings available. Alexander Doty (2000) explains, "To base queer readings only upon notions of audience and reception leaves you open to the kind of dismissive attitude that sees queer understandings of popular culture as being the result of 'wishful thinking' about a text or 'appropriation' of a text by a cultural and/or critical special interest group" (4).

[1.4] Jones (2002) applies Doty's arguments to the "special interest group" of slash fans of the television series Xena: Warrior Princess and concludes that slash fans are not so much resisting that show's text as articulating "latent textual elements" (82). Similarly, while Stein (2005) and Kohnen (2008) focus upon slash fans as an audience, they foreground fans as interpreters of, rather than interlopers in, texts. As Stein (2005), speaking of Smallville, puts it, "Rather than understanding Smallville's queer meanings as distinctly separate from the program's overt narrative…fans see those meanings as deeply connected to Smallville's broader thematic project" (20). Supernatural fans make very similar arguments about their show.

[1.5] Far from shying away from its queer, incestuous implications, Supernatural frequently calls attention to its own homoerotic energy; while the show's most overtly queer moments are those instances when Sam and Dean are taken for a couple, the show's "broader thematic project" of valorizing the brothers' Romantic, transgressive Otherness is profoundly queer, as I discuss below. Doty remarks, "I'd like to see queer discourses and practices as being less about co-opting and 'making' things queer…and more about discussing how things are, or might be understood as, queer" (2000:2). With this in mind, Supernatural slash writers' most significant subversion of the text is not that they make things queer, but that they make things happy—a consistent theme of Supernatural slash is that a romance between Sam and Dean will give them a measure of comfort and happiness that they are denied in the series.

[1.6] Given that a queer reading of Supernatural is necessarily an incestuous one—and that both queerness and incest bear a similarly conflicted relationship to normative sexuality—I will now turn to a discussion of the incest theme in Western thought and culture, and the manner in which Supernatural makes use of the theory and representation of incest.

2. The lore and language of incest

[2.1] Incest is certainly not a new theme in literature, folklore, or popular culture. While incest narratives are most often associated with Romantic and Gothic (historical and contemporary) works—which will be discussed in greater detail below—they are by no means limited to those particular strains of literature. In the West, cultural discourses of incest run headlong into discourses of romantic love, and the resulting tangle is endlessly fascinating to writers, artists, scientists, and thinkers. Whether we are looking at Plato or modern genre romance novels, our constructs of romantic love emphasize oneness with the beloved: two becoming one, two halves of a whole, soulmates, my one and only, you complete me. Therein lies the rub: in this construct, incestuous unions become, arguably, the ne plus ultra of oneness, as lovers are united not simply in body and soul, but in blood. Therefore, it is unsurprising that 20th-century literary and cultural theorists consistently articulate incest as a key element in understandings of desire. Ellen Pollak (2003:5–17) provides an overview of constructions of incest in the work of Freud, Lévi-Strauss, Lacan, Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault, among others; a leitmotif of these theoretical figurations of incest is that "normative sexuality is always inherently incestuous because all legitimate love objects are always already substitutes for the objects of incestuous longing" (Pollak 2003:15). Francisco Vaz da Silva (2007) argues further that this understanding of marriage and incest is not simply a theoretical or literary construct, but finds active expression in folklore and mythology. In these literary, folkloric, and theoretical models, heterosexual exogamous marriage—"normative sexuality"—functions as both a reproduction of and a replacement for incest. Although the construct of incest as both marginal or transgressive and central to understandings of desire incorporates both parent/child and sibling incest, it is important to note that these two forms carry significantly different levels of cultural disapprobation; sibling incest, because it lacks the automatic power differential and betrayal of trust of parent/child incest, is far more likely to be treated sympathetically in our cultural narratives. Sibling incest as a mirror and model for marriage was most explicitly documented by the Romantic writers, about whom more later.

[2.2] If marriage, then, can function as a mirror of incest, the reverse can also be true. If heterosexual exogamy is made possible by blocking incest, what happens when heterosexual exogamy is itself blocked? Supernatural cuts off all avenues for exogamous heterosexual marriage for Sam and Dean; both Kripke (note 3) and actor Jared Padalecki (note 4) have indicated that no long-term romantic prospects for the brothers are likely. While such blockage is certainly commonplace in serialized narratives, which don't want main characters bogged down in relationships that distract from the plot, Supernatural goes far beyond simple avoidance of long-term romance: all of Sam and Dean's serious romantic relationships with women are doomed to failure—and if Sam is involved, usually violent failure. The series begins by killing off Sam's girlfriend Jessica; Sam had never told her the truth about his life before college, and his silence left her vulnerable to demonic attack (1.1 "Pilot," 1.5 "Bloody Mary"). Dean has numerous one-night stands, but Cassie, Dean's only serious girlfriend, rejected him when he told her the real nature of his work (1.13 "Route 666"). Madison, the only woman Sam has slept with since Jessica's death, turns out to be a werewolf, and he must destroy her (2.17 "Heart") (note 5). Carmen, Dean's perfect girlfriend, is merely a djinn-induced fantasy construct (2.20 "What Is and What Should Never Be"). And so on. As Pollak (2003) notes, while the theoretical discourses discussed earlier treat incest as central to cultural narratives of desire, they also conceptualize incest as "endlessly deferred…an ungraspable limit," because they understand incest as the fantasy referent for romantic attachment, and not as a lived practice (16)—even stories that overtly depict incest are understood as being more about symbolic relationships to general constructs of desire than about incestuous desire itself. However, Supernatural, by blocking Sam and Dean's chances for normative sexuality, enables incest to escape from the realm of the safely symbolic. Sam and Dean are unable to form romantic attachments to others, and therefore their love is locked in an eternal feedback loop, referring back only to itself. They don't have anyone but each other (and their father) to love, and since their father's death, they love none but each other. All others are expendable—Sam is even willing to kill Bobby, their surrogate father figure and only trusted friend, if doing so will save Dean. The intense, exclusive, excessive nature of their love is not only central to the plot, but also named by the creators, actors, critics, and fans as the show's primary strength. While this love is not necessarily romantic, our culture codes romantic love as similarly excessive, so the show makes it very easy to read Sam and Dean's excessive love as romantic (note 6).

[2.3] Supernatural sets up Sam and Dean as, to use a fannish term, the show's One True Pairing. Their love is the kind that can, within the context of the show, literally destroy the world (note 7). Fans remark upon the excessive nature of the brothers' attachment and cite it as one of the chief incitements to slash them. Setissma, a fan, explains, "They don't have a normal sibling relationship…They need each other, deeply and overwhelmingly, and I don't think they would ever be OK living separate lives. Hell, I don't think they'd be OK living as next door neighbors" (August 14, 2007, LiveJournal post). Sam and Dean's love is a zero-sum game: the only intensity of familial love that can make either fully happy entails a sacrifice of all long-term romantic heterosexual prospects. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the show consistently treats romantic and familial love as funhouse mirrors of one another. Henry Jenkins (2007) remarks that the monsters "represent unresolved emotional issues, often within the context of family life, and they are also external correlatives for the emotional drama taking place in the lives of the series' protagonists. Sam and Dean go out there looking for things that are strange and unfamiliar and they end up seeing themselves and their relationship more clearly."

[2.4] The series is deeply concerned with love, obsession, and obsessive love; the discourses of romantic and familial love are often so tangled within it that they are indistinguishable from one another in outcome and effect. Sam and Dean are far more likely to be taken for a couple when their cases concern family conflict; it's as if the show has a particular ratio of romantic to familial attachment it needs to maintain, and if the case is using up the allotted quota of family, romance is channeled through the brothers. Sometimes this takes the form of eroticizing Sam and Dean's bodies, but just as often the show will posit, through other characters, that their attachment is more than brotherly.

3. Straights and queers, normals and "freaks"

[3.1] Sam and Dean's romantic involvement violates not only normative sexuality's imperative to exogamy, but also its compulsory heterosexuality. Supernatural directly engages the primary axis upon which queer theory operates: that of the normal versus the Other (note 8). This engagement is, of course, standard within the horror genre, as are many of the urban legends that furnish the show's stories. Horror media and folklore have a long history of equating their monsters with racial, gender, and, especially, sexual Others. Harry M. Benshoff argues that

[3.2] in the case of monster movies…the narrative elements themselves demand the depiction of alien "Otherness," which is often coded (at the site of production and/or reception) as lesbian, gay or otherwise queer…[H]orror stories and monster movies, perhaps more than any other genre, actively invoke queer readings because of their obvious metaphorical (non-realist) forms and narrative formats which disrupt the heterosexual status quo. (1997:6)

[3.3] Supernatural plays with this trope by making Sam and Dean as alienated from the normal as the monsters and demons they fight: here, the heroes are the Other (note 9). The brothers were raised on the road by their father, John, who was obsessed with finding the demon that murdered his wife. The life of an itinerant hunter of supernatural evil does not guarantee a steady income, and so the Winchester family survived—and continues to survive—by credit card fraud, petty theft, gambling, and pool hustling (note 10). While the show does romanticize the Winchesters as outlaw warriors, it is a self-aware romanticizing: one character pegs Dean's (and by extension, John's and Sam's) motivations for hunting, not inaccurately, as "vengeance and obsession—you're a stone's throw from being a serial killer" (3.06 "Red Sky at Morning"). Sam, who was only six months old when his mother died, always resented their precarious lives at the margins of society; at age 18, he rebels and leaves John and Dean to enroll at Stanford and try for a "normal" life. In the pilot episode, Dean shows up when Sam is about to graduate, seeking Sam's help in locating their missing father. Sam agrees to help Dean for the weekend, but insists upon returning to his normal life and his girlfriend, Jessica. However, when he returns, Jessica has been murdered by the demon in the same manner as his mother. Now hell-bent on revenge, Sam rejoins Dean with the twin goals of finding their father and the demon.

[3.4] Jessica's murder marks the end of Sam's attempt at a normal life—and, moreover, shows how illusory that normality was. Sam had never told Jessica about his past and resolutely ignored his premonitions of her death—which causes him a great deal of guilt. His attempt to be normal, to cut himself off from what he knows about himself and the world, backfires spectacularly. Moreover, within the context of his family, his desire for normality—including, significantly, a long-term committed heterosexual relationship—is the transgression. It is only when Sam abandons normality, and the potential for long-term heterosexual attachment, that his relationship with Dean can be fully repaired; as the series progresses, it becomes clear that Dean—and, eventually, Sam—can only be happy if the other is with him at all times. The narrative trajectory of the entire first season is designed not only to force Sam to abandon his quest for normality, but also to come back to the world of the "freaks" to which he truly belongs—freaks like Dean, who fully embraces both the life and the label. Ironically, Sam is destined to become far more freakish than Dean—he is a psychic, chosen somehow by the yellow-eyed demon who murdered his mother. This makes him a freak among freaks, and Dean must protect him from other hunters, who fear his power.

4. Romanticism and the Gothic

[4.1] The celebration of the semicriminal life of tortured outcasts roaming the earth is nothing new; it hearkens back to Romanticism (note 11). Romanticism, and its sister, the Gothic, provide several other important tropes for both show and fan fiction, including the formal study of the folklore Sam and Dean track, a fascination with the otherworldly, and, most importantly, persistent discourses of both queerness and sympathetic sibling incest. It is no surprise that the series's most overtly Gothic episode, 2.11 "Playthings," also contains the most overt and extensive representation of Sam and Dean as queer, incestuous siblings; this episode will be discussed in greater detail below.

[4.2] Alan Richardson (2000) builds upon the theoretical model of marriage as replacement for incest to illuminate certain elements of Romantic poetry, and argues that "Romantic sibling incest is presented not as a perversion or accidental inversion of the normal sibling relation, but as an extension and intensification of it" (554). The bond forged between Sam and Dean when they were children on the road, with an unreliable, often-absent father, is the deepest and most profound relationship that they will ever have with anyone. As mentioned earlier, the most intense Sam/Dean moments—and the moments when they are mistaken for gay—often take place in episodes that concern family relationships, especially when those family relationships involve children. Richardson (1985) remarks in another article that Romantic literature's sympathetic depiction of sibling love is linked to "the Romantic valorization of childhood": no future romantic attachment can compete with the intensity of siblings' early childhood love (739).

[4.3] The first episode of Supernatural sets the tone for the brothers' relationship: as fire consumes their house after Mary's murder, John shoves the infant Sam into 4-year-old Dean's arms and tells him to run; at the end of the episode, Dean again saves Sam from the demon fire that follows Jessica's murder. Later, the show relies upon flashbacks that directly comment upon Sam and Dean's present-day relationship. As the brothers' relationship becomes more intense in the present, we are afforded more glimpses of their past, which reflect our greater understanding of their bond. Episodes 1.18 "Something Wicked" and 3.8 "A Very Supernatural Christmas," both of which feature extended flashbacks, reflect the show's pattern of never lingering too much upon familial love, especially Sam and Dean's brotherly bond, without linking it to romantic love: both of these episodes feature Sam and Dean being read by other characters as a couple.

[4.4] If Romanticism contributes to a queer, incestuous reading of Sam and Dean's relationship, the related genre of the Gothic, which helped create modern horror, amplifies it. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1985) remarks that "the Gothic was the first novelistic form in England to have visible links to male homosexuality" (91); moreover, the Gothic is famously "preoccup[ied] with the possibilities of incest" (91). The Gothic discourse of incest is somewhat different from that of Romanticism, but is not entirely divorced from it; while Romantic sibling incest treats the intense bonds formed in childhood as the ultimate in romantic fulfillment, Gothic incest tends to be born out of the genre's "fascinated proscriptions of sexuality" (Sedgwick 1985:91) and obsession with claustrophobia.

[4.5] The episode 2.11 "Playthings," as mentioned earlier, is the most Gothic episode of the series, and, in keeping with the genre's concern with incest, it makes perfect sense that this episode contains the most significant instance of the brothers' being taken for a gay couple. Sam and Dean come to investigate, in Dean's words, "an old-school haunted house," an inn where mysterious deaths have been occurring. The old inn has all the Gothic accoutrements, up to and including dark corridors, mysterious servants, creepy (rather than adorably innocent) children, and, of course, a secret in the attic. The central mystery is a mirror of Sam and Dean's worst-case scenario: an elderly woman has spent her entire life magically keeping the vicious ghost of her dead sister at bay, but now she is paralyzed by a stroke and cannot control her sister anymore. Sam and Dean do what they can to rescue the inn's inhabitants, but in the end, it is the woman's sacrifice of herself that neutralizes the ghost. The end shot is of two little girls, the spirits of the sisters, playing together forever. Of course, this is a perfect echo of the brothers' fears and desires, which will be made manifest in later episodes.

[4.6] In keeping with the general patterns of the show's depiction of love, since the case is so overtly about familial love—and an explicit analogy to Sam and Dean's own situation—"Playthings" contains some of the most eroticized brotherly interaction in the series. Upon their arrival, Sam and Dean are asked by the hotel owner if they are "antiquing," and when Dean agrees, she says, "Well, you just look the type. So, king-sized bed?" Sam quickly informs her that they're "just brothers," and Dean wants to know what she meant by "look the type." The scene ends with the arrival of the valet, who provides the punch line: "Let me guess: antiquers?" Once alone, Dean asks, "Why do these people assume we're gay?" Sam offhandedly replies, "Well, you are kind of butch; they probably think you're overcompensating."

[4.7] This scene both calls attention to and undercuts the show's performance of hypermasculinity; Sam's response locates their identification as queer in Dean's machismo, the performance of which is traditionally intended to fend off accusations of homosexuality. Sam is consistently presented as being more sensitive than Dean to matters of gender and cultural difference, and his response affirms this—and allows him to get a dig in at Dean, who often twits Sam for being less masculine than himself. Unusually, Dean pursues the issue; in 1.18 "Something Wicked" and 1.8 "Bugs," he simply laughed it off, even slapping Sam's ass and calling him "honey" in "Bugs." Perhaps he is more jocular there because the cases in those episodes involve conflict between fathers and sons—the brothers do not speak freely until there are no fathers present. There's also the fact that "Playthings," as a Gothic, is meant to be claustrophobic, and so the tighter focus forces the eroticism out into the open. In a later scene, Sam gets drunk and begs Dean to kill him if he starts turning evil; this begging involves stroking Dean's face and pulling him close. Dean shoves him off, but the camera—and Dean's eyes—linger upon Sam's body writhing drunkenly upon the bed.

[4.8] The end result of this tangle of romance and family, Romanticism and the Gothic, is an underlying dynamic of a love so all-consuming that even the other characters within the show recognize it as excessive. The Trickster, in 3.11 "Mystery Spot," remarks, "The way you two keep sacrificing yourselves for each other? Nothing good comes out of it!…Dean's your weakness. The bad guys know it too. It's gonna be the death of you, Sam." Sam and Dean's all-consuming devotion is of the kind, in our culture, usually reserved for romantic partners: Esorlehcar, a fan, points out that, in Sam and Dean's case, "love that intense tends to read romantic whether it's intentional or not" (August 30, 2006, LiveJournal post). Indeed, many fans argue that their love is so excessive that sexual desire will not fundamentally alter their investment in each other. In the following section, I discuss fan-fictional responses that posit Sam and Dean's romantic attachment as merely an "extension and intensification" of their already overwhelming love.

5. Rough safety, or, MacGuffins made us do it

[5.1] Supernatural's rich stew of generic tropes has given fan writers a huge variety of associative chains to draw from in order to tell their stories. Fans invoke discourses, symbols, and narratives not just from the show itself, but from all that the show references. It is to be expected that Wincest writers borrow elements of other representations of sibling incest; in contemporary popular culture, the most famous narratives of sibling incest—and sympathetic sibling incest at that—are the novels of V. C. Andrews. Supernatural fan writers have jokingly christened the series "Flowers in the Impala," a reference to Andrews's 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic. While Andrews's novels are overtly Gothic, they also incorporate many of the Romantic tropes identified by Richardson, including the profundity of bonds formed in childhood. Incest in Andrews's stories functions as a source of comfort despite societal disapprobation—in fact, the incest serves as a refuge from the irredeemably corrupt adult world. Though Sam and Dean never need deal with the condemnation of society at large in the way Andrews's incestuous lovers do, many fan writers repeat Andrews's move of treating consensual sibling incest as excusable, or at least not especially wrong, when considered in the context of all the other wrongs within the story world. But while the incest of Andrews's characters is contrasted with the crimes committed by the surrounding adults, Wincest considers incest in the context of the horrors not just experienced, but perpetrated, by Sam and Dean.

[5.2] Probably the single most common trope in Sam/Dean fan fiction is that it treats incest not as a uniquely horrible transgression, but in the context of all the other social norms the boys smash through in the course of the series—and the usual prohibitions against incest are found to be less compelling than prohibitions against violating those other norms. Sam and Dean need not fear further social isolation or marginalization; because they are consenting adults, the specter of child molestation is neutralized; and unless you're reading in very specific subgenres, there is no potential for genetically compromised offspring. Compared to their usual horrors, consensual adult incest—a victimless crime, unlike, say, living on stolen credit cards or killing possessed people—starts looking relatively tame.

[5.3] This contextualization extends to fans' use of folklore in Wincest narratives. Supernatural borrows the majority of its plots from folklore, and fans have incorporated folk narratives and beliefs from all over the world in their stories. However, despite the numerous instances of sibling incest in folklore, most Wincest does not invoke folkloric incest narratives. On the surface, this might seem surprising, but an examination of such narratives indicates why Supernatural fan writers haven't made use of them. Folklore about incestuous siblings—such as numerous English and Scottish ballads in the Child collection—is likely to treat the siblings neutrally or sympathetically, and their relationship as tragic rather than monstrous, even in situations where both siblings enter into the incestuous relationship knowingly (Perry 2006; Syndergaard 1993; Twitchell 1987). However, most folkloric sibling incest narratives hinge upon the discovery of the incest by society at large and the punishment suffered by the incestuous siblings. The usual story is that the incest takes place between a brother-sister pair, who are discovered and punished when the sister becomes pregnant. As James Twitchell (1987), talking of folk ballads, remarks, "So the sister must die and the brother must mourn, or vice versa, not because of their illicit love, but because of the family's revulsion and the group stigma imposed by breaking the code" (63–64). Sam and Dean's social isolation, not to mention biology, does not lend itself to the type of tragic discovery-and-punishment story found in most folk narratives of incest. Especially after the death of their father, Sam and Dean are so far outside the realm of normal societal interaction that there is none to discover (note 12), and certainly none to punish. The threat of community expulsion that comes from the breaking of the incest taboo is simply not present for Sam and Dean, which means that the folkloric incest story cannot be imported wholesale. Since Supernatural fan writers do not have access to the consequences usually present in folk incest narratives, they have to invent their own climaxes.

[5.4] Therefore, fans, whether writing Wincest or not, often use folklore much as the show itself does: as a way of reflecting and commenting upon Sam and Dean's relationship. The series takes place within a supernatural universe, which means that fan writers can justify just about any situation, no matter how outlandish, with "it's magic!" The show deliberately avoids depicting the supernatural as consistent or unitary; Supernatural posits simply that folklore in its entirety is real, which means that fan writers can press into service folk narratives and beliefs from anywhere in the world, even those that may contradict previous canon information, and be perfectly canon compliant.

[5.5] Many Wincest narratives use folklore not just as a commentary on Sam and Dean's relationship, but as a catalyst for getting the boys to express their feelings for one another. "Fine Wonderful Things," by Balefully (October 3, 2007, LiveJournal post), has Sam and Dean investigating the ghost of New Mexico train robber Blackjack Ketchum; she makes some adjustments to the existing legend of Ketchum's ghost, depicting him, like the ghost in "Playthings," as motivated by a desire to be united in death with his brother. Blackjack's ghost mows down Dean, and Sam, after destroying it, rushes to Dean's side, resulting in the classic hurt/comfort scenario of cathartic sex. While any scary experience can be used as a justification for cathartic sex, Balefully takes a cue from the show and carefully sets up the ghostly relationship as paralleling and foreshadowing Sam and Dean's own. In Rei C.'s "L'oiseau de feu" (July 14, 2007, LiveJournal post), the yellow-eyed demon sends Sam and Dean on a quest for the firebird, a creature of Russian folklore, to exchange for their father. The story weaves together a number of Slavic folk beliefs and narratives, and every encounter with a legendary being—Baba Yaga, a band of vila, a dragon—serves to illuminate Sam and Dean's relationship. The most significant of these beings is the alkonost, a divine bird not unlike the firebird they seek, which steals their memories for several days. During that time, Sam and Dean, not knowing who they are, act upon their feelings for each other and have sex; they wake up in bed together, all memories intact except for those of the last few days. Uncertain as to what actually happened, they spend the rest of the story dealing with the fallout, in addition to completing their quest. Eventually, Sam decides that he won't tear himself up over it any more:

[5.6] Dean, start to finish, the one thing that his life is wrapped up in, has always been wrapped up in. From the moment John put him in Dean's arms, he's been Dean's, and, just the same, Dean's been his. If they did have sex during those hours neither of them can remember, it's just another layer of everything they are. And if they didn't, if they do in the future, it'll be one more layer of belonging.

[5.7] The alkonost in "L'oiseau de feu" is not the only supernatural being that has caused Sam and Dean to have sex in fan fiction. The need to overcome the incest taboo means that Wincest contains numerous examples of the fan-fictional tale type commonly known as "aliens make them do it": replace "aliens" with "demons," "ghosts," "witches," "fairies," "mystical forces," "magic spells," "cursed amulets," "sex pollen," "cultists," and so on, and you've accounted for a large percentage of all Sam/Dean narratives. Magic spells are especially popular, as the motivations and effects of the spell are infinitely adjustable. In Lazy Daze's sweet and funny "I Wanna Hold You 'Til I Die" (March 17, 2008, LiveJournal post), Dean gets hit with a spell that causes him to lose his inhibitions concerning physical affection. It turns out he can't keep his hands off Sam, and cuddling leads to sex. When the spell wears off, Dean is deeply embarrassed, but Sam refuses to let him freak out: "I know you want me…and I'm telling you I want you, and you can't seriously give a shit that other people would say it's wrong, so just. Come back to bed." Here, Sam—it's usually Sam; he has the more finely tuned sense of "normal"—points out that Dean has never before cared about breaking social laws, and this transgression matters to no one but themselves.

[5.8] "Fuck or die," a subgenre of "aliens make them do it," tells a more urgent story; interestingly, the "or die" imperative often mitigates, at least partially, any horror or anxiety Sam or Dean may be feeling—they are willing to murder innocents and go to hell for eternity to save each other, so incestuous sex is, comparatively speaking, a much lighter sentence. In Astolat's hilarious "Bad Blood" (2007a), Sam and Dean get sprayed with succubus blood, which means that they must have sex with someone within an hour, or die. Unfortunately, they are at least two hours from the nearest town. Dean initially refuses Sam and attempts to fuck a horse instead, to Sam's outrage ("Bestiality trumps incest!"). A farmer chases them away, and they are forced to go through with it—and wind up loving it. Dean puts up a token resistance afterward, more to assert his manliness than anything else, and the sequel, "Bad Company" (2007b), ends with them contentedly holding hands in the Impala. Lenore's stark "Factum Amoris" (2005) locks Sam and Dean in a trap designed to lure and keep those who have "never known the act of love" as a sacrifice to a forgotten agricultural divinity. Sam is able to leave if he wishes, but Dean is caught—though Dean is no virgin, he has never slept with anyone who loved him. Sam convinces Dean to have sex with him, which releases the trap. Afterward, Sam feels desperately guilty not for doing it, but for enjoying it: "Apparently in Sammy logic it was one thing to blow your brother to save his life, but another to get hard thinking about it afterwards." The story ends on an ambiguously hopeful note, as Dean reasons that making love to Sam is just helping him out, and that is "nothing he would ever be sorry for."

[5.9] Despite the popularity of using supernatural means to overcome Sam and Dean's resistance, incest in Wincest fan fiction does not usually function as a pure fetish; fans often write the incest taboo as just one more social norm that is ultimately irrelevant to the Winchesters' lives. Unlike traditional (non-fan-fictional) incest narratives—folk, literary, and pornographic—in which the thrill (and the tragedy) lie in the transgression, Sam/Dean writers don't usually present the breaking of the taboo as titillation. Esorlehcar expresses a common sentiment among Wincest writers: "The nastyhotwrongness of people who share blood having sex has never been a factor; brother pairings interest me because of the intense closeness possible" (September 5, 2007, LiveJournal post). In many Wincest stories, the incest taboo is the obstacle that Sam and Dean have to negotiate before their relationship can reach its full potential. And the payoff is not so much in the breaking of the taboo, but in the fulfillment—sexual and emotional—that comes afterward. Fans take the discourse of sibling incest in capital-R Romanticism and combine it with the discourse of love of the lowercase-r romance novel.

[5.10] This combination is, of course, not new in fan fiction; Catherine Driscoll (2006), Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons (2001), and Jones (2002) have all discussed the relationships of genre romance to fan fiction, with the latter two works focusing on slash. In contrast, Elizabeth Woledge (2006) has rightly questioned the privileging of genre romance in considerations of slash, arguing that it is unnecessary to "recast homoeroticism into heterosexuality" (98); further, she argues that what she dubs "intimatopia"—homoerotic fiction whose "central defining feature is the exploration of intimacy" (99)—furnishes a better generic model for studying slash. Woledge describes intimatopia as stories in which "intimacy is normally established before sexual interaction and is always maintained after it" (106), a description that fits many Wincest narratives perfectly. However, it is worthwhile to note that Wincest slash—although not necessarily slash in general—often displays what scholar and romance novelist Jennifer Crusie Smith (1999) names as genre romance's overriding theme: belief in "an emotionally just universe" (56), where good people are rewarded with love. In canon, Sam and Dean live in a brutally unjust world, one that is hell-bent not only on ensuring that they can never lead normal lives, but on destroying them, and their love, personally. But Wincest gives Sam and Dean some small measure of "emotional justice" by allowing them to find romantic fulfillment with each other. Or, as Lazy Daze puts it at the end of "A Peacefulness Follows" (March 11, 2008, LiveJournal post), "This is where they've ended up, alive and together after everything they've clawed through. It gives Sam peace like nothing he's ever felt when he can slide into bed with Dean, kiss his sleep-warm skin and tangle their legs together, so why not? Why not. They deserve this."

[5.11] That Sam and Dean deserve better than their lot is foregrounded in Setissma's "Mile Zero" (June 26, 2007, LiveJournal post) and Sevenfists's "Life as We Know It" (April 30, 2007, LiveJournal post). The stories have near identical plots: after one of the brothers is badly injured, Sam and Dean hole up in a house and make a go at living a normal life; over the course of learning how to settle down, they realize the true depth of their feelings. "Mile Zero" is gentle, a slow retirement for Sam and Dean in Key West; the story is as much a love letter to the island as it is to Sam and Dean. Over the course of the story, Sam and Dean settle into the peaceful rhythm of life in the Keys, and when they finally kiss, it's almost an afterthought. The sex is presented as the last thing they needed to acknowledge before they could finally call someplace home: "He and Dean fit together, had been made to fit together, and it made sense, because there wasn't ever going to be room in his heart or head or life for anybody else." "Life as We Know It" is sharper, spikier, and angstier: Sam is recovering from a near-fatal injury, and Dean has continual nightmares of not saving Sam in time. It is after one of these nightmares that Sam kisses him—"terrifying, half-expected." All is not immediately sunshine and roses; Sam, frustrated with Dean's morning-after awkwardness and denial, snaps, "Well, this is all a little new to me, assface"—and Sam's use of the language of his usual brotherly exasperation breaks the tension. Dean can finally acknowledge that Sam is here, alive, and wants to be with Dean more than anything, and this realization is both "terrifying" and ultimately cathartic.

[5.12] In conclusion, Supernatural, through a productive entanglement of generic tropes, affective masculinity, and valorization of the marginalized "freaks," provides an ideal space for queer, incestuous readings. The most resistant, subversive element of much Wincest fic is therefore not its depiction of homoerotic incest, but its insistence on giving Sam and Dean the happiness and fulfillment that the show eternally defers. Killa's beautiful "Carry Me Over the Sky" (2006) describes this fulfillment as "the rough safety of letting himself go with the one person he could trust to put him back together." Wincest writers tell stories in which Sam and Dean carve out some joy for themselves—a joy that defies all codes of normative sexuality, but has a profound depth and intimacy that epitomizes ideals of romantic love.

6. Acknowledgments

[6.1] A version of this paper was presented at the Console-ing Passions 2008 conference. I thank Lyndsay Brown, Kristina Busse, Alysa Hornick, Alexis Lothian, Marythefan, Tim Smith, Louisa Ellen Stein, Heidi Tandy, and Andrea Wood for reading and commenting on earlier drafts.

7. Notes

1. Dean and Sam compare themselves to Mulder and Scully in 2.07 "The Usual Suspects"; Dean, naturally, insists that Sam is Scully.

2. Although the term Wincest, as a portmanteau of "Winchester incest," could theoretically refer to any combination of the Winchesters (Sam, Dean, and their father John), in practice, the unmarked term almost always refers to Sam/Dean. Incest narratives that involve John are usually referred to as "John-cest" or "Daddycest," or simply by pairing (John/Dean, John/Sam). At a rough estimate, Wincest makes up slightly less than half of all Supernatural fan fiction.

3. In Michael Ausiello, "Supernatural exec: 'We won't be One Tree Hill with monsters!'" Ausiello Report, TV Guide, July 21, 2007 (

4. In an interview on The CW Video (

5. In 2.11 "Playthings," Sam extracts a promise from Dean to destroy him if he ever turns evil (a promise Dean proves incapable of keeping—see note 7); the situation with Madison in episode 2.17 "Heart" forces Sam to consider the position in which he has placed Dean. In keeping with the show's practice of using the plot of each episode to illuminate the brothers' relationship, Sam's execution of Madison takes place offscreen, while the camera focuses upon Dean's anguished reaction to the gunshot.

6. Stein (2005), discussing Smallville, argues, "Where the homoerotic extends from the homosocial into the realm of hinted and suppressed sexuality, the homoromantic combines gendered generic discourses of male heroism with romantic structures, so that epic relationships between two males become readable as romantically charged" (14).

7. Though Sam's latent demonic powers may provide the horsepower for an apocalypse, the real danger comes from the fact that Sam and Dean are willing to do anything to save each other. In 2.14 "Born Under a Bad Sign," Dean proves that he is incapable of killing a Sam turned evil (luckily, Sam is just possessed); the possessing demon taunts Dean, "Are you that scared of being alone that you'd rather let [another character] die?" Dean is willing to do evil to keep Sam with him, and this willingness culminates in his selling his soul to bring Sam back from the dead: though Dean was horrified when his father sold his soul for Dean, he doesn't even hesitate to sell his own when Sam is involved. His statement that "What's dead should stay dead" (2.04 "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things") does not, for Dean, apply to Sam. Sam is also willing to do evil for Dean's sake. In 1.12 "Faith," Sam brings a dying Dean to a faith healer who, though he himself doesn't know it, saves those brought to him by killing others in their place. Although Sam doesn't know the price paid for his brother's life at the time, this episode foreshadows his later development. By season 3, Sam has progressed to consorting with demons, a readiness to ritually sacrifice innocent victims, and murdering (what he thinks is) Bobby to rescue Dean. Fans have therefore, logically, predicted that if Sam ever turns evil for real, it will certainly be to save Dean.

8. Supernatural's lead-in show, Smallville, similarly invokes the narrative of the queered Other, albeit through the genre of superhero fantasy rather than horror; see Stein (2005) and Kohnen (2008).

9. Unfortunately, especially for a series in which the heroes are gleefully queered Others, Supernatural does not have a good track record when dealing with more overt types of Otherness. Both openly gay characters have been killed off (although the second, Corbett in 3.13 "Ghostfacers," saved everyone by a heroic self-sacrifice). Black men fare even worse—of the five who have been on the show, only one has survived. The creators don't appear to know or care about the "dead minority" cliché, which has caused fans no small amount of frustration. And while the continual blockage of Sam and Dean's heterosexual relationships creates an intensely queer space, many fans express discomfort with the manner in which women are depicted on the show; see Borsellino (2007).

10. In Dean's case, possibly by prostitution as well—at least if one takes a comment by Ackles in TV Week seriously (

11. And not just that of the early 19th century. Kripke has stated that Sam and Dean are named for Sal and Dean in Kerouac's On the Road; of course, Sal, as an avatar of Kerouac, and Dean, of Neal Cassady, are not exactly models of normative heterosexuality. See Bill Keveney, "'Supernatural' is an eerie natural for WB," USA Today, August 17, 2005 (

12. Aside from Bobby, but he's not likely to care.

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