Book Review: George, Susan A., and Regina M. Hansen. Supernatural, Humanity, and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. 223 pp. Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-137-41255-3.
Reviewed by Gregory Stevenson, Rochester College
When done well the horror genre is an accurate barometer of the things that frighten us. Fictional monsters become a means of plumbing the depths of the monstrous within ourselves and within society. As such, horror wears many hats: it is at once a psychologist who forces us to face our fears, a commentator who critiques social issues and concerns, a philosopher who pushes us to think more deeply about evil in all its varied manifestations, and a theologian who counsels us regarding our innate desire to connect to a reality outside ourselves—one that can be as frightening as it can be benevolent. Because horror addresses some of the most complex and meaningful questions of life, it provides fertile ground for academic analysis. The television series Supernatural, which has just completed its tenth season on the CW network, is a horror show in the best tradition and one that has generated a significant amount of academic attention.
A recent collection of essays, Supernatural, Humanity, and the Soul: On the Highway to Hell and Back, edited by Susan George and Regina Hansen, examines various aspects of the series from social, philosophical, and theological perspectives. Following an introduction by the editors, the book unfolds in three sections, with the first section reading aspects of the series through theological and philosophical lenses. Included in this are an allegorical interpretation of several characters as representations of the virtues of faith, hope, and love and an interpretation of the show’s concept of the soul in light of Platonic and Augustinian thought. In an essay that also contains a good treatment of the role of determinism in the series, Regina Hansen argues that Supernatural employs angelic hierarchies as a means of deconstructing the authority of religious faith and replacing it with the authority of the narrative. The most intriguing essay in this section is K. T. Torrey’s examination of free will, which demonstrates how Sam and Dean Winchester, the main characters of the series, actively resist being reduced to characters in someone else’s story by regularly asserting their own narrative agency.
Section two of Supernatural, Humanity, and the Soul looks at the show’s representations of evil and monstrosity. Amidst discussions of the show’s use of canines and fairy tales is an essay that represents the tradition of horror shows embodying societal issues in the form of monsters. Erin Giannini analyzes the monsters from season seven, the ancient Leviathans whose leader masquerades as CEO of a large corporation, as a reflection of the psychopathic qualities of corporate America at a time when the Occupy Wall Street Movement was happening concurrently with the show. The best essay in this section, and arguably in the book as a whole, is “The Hunter Hunted: The Portrayal of the Fan as Predator in Supernatural” by Cait Coker and Candace Benefiel. Supernatural is a show that has an active fan base that regularly engages the show in critical and creative ways through the writing of fan fiction and the posting of messages on social media. The showrunners of Supernatural not only recognize the activity of their fans but engage it themselves by incorporating fan activity as a recurring theme within the series itself. Coker and Benefiel examine this avenue of mutual critique, particularly since the showrunners of the series do not always portray fan activity in complimentary ways, sometimes going so far as to depict fandom itself as a predatory activity. As the lines continue to blur between the writers of television shows and the fans who view them, studies like this become an increasingly helpful guide for thinking through the ever-evolving nature of fandom.
The penultimate essay in section two, “‘A Shot on the Devil’: Female Hunters and the Identification of Evil in Supernatural” by Ralph Beliveau and Laura Bolf-Beliveau, introduces a topic that resurfaces throughout many of the remaining essays and is particularly represented in section three, which focuses on the portrayal of gender in Supernatural. This topic is the show’s often problematic relationship with gender issues. The major characters on Supernatural are all male and the show itself actively embraces a traditional masculine ethos. This ethos finds representation in the essays that look at the show’s treatment of father issues, its use of classic rock within the context of white masculinity, and its exploration of the masculinity of Dean Winchester as viewed through his obsession with his beloved 1967 Impala. The extent to which gender issues dominate the discussion in this book is clear from the fact that half of the essays (seven out of fourteen) address the issue in a substantive way.
Several of the contributors undertake a feminist interpretation of the series, examining, for instance, how the show both promotes and challenges its own patriarchal structure and how the show situates the rare female hunter within its male-dominated world. Not a few of the essayists are critical of the show’s overarching masculine viewpoint and its representation of female characters, yet they clearly write as fans of the series. This highlights a missed opportunity. An interesting sociological question, an examination of which would have fit well within this collection but which goes mostly unaddressed, is why a show without any female leads and which actively embraces a masculine identity is so popular among women, who make up a huge portion of the Supernatural fan base, even among academics (fourteen of the sixteen contributors to this volume are women). The one essay that comes closest to addressing this dichotomy is Rhonda Nicol’s examination of “Feminism without Women in Supernatural.” She poses the interesting question of whether a show that embraces traditional masculinity and is even borderline misogynistic in its portrayal of women has to be considered antifeminist and regressive. She suggests it does not, arguing that the show is not only aware of its overwhelmingly masculine orientation, but regularly challenges the validity of its own masculine privilege.
As with any collection of essays, Supernatural, Humanity, and the Soul is uneven in quality. When taken as a whole, however, it is a helpful addition to the growing body of literature on Supernatural as well as on the academic analysis of television. For those unfamiliar with the series, this book would be of limited value, but for fans of the series it offers a provocative and diverse look at the series that allows them to appreciate it in new ways.