TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural

TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural

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by Stacey Abbott

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As a natural heir to the hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural has risen to prominence with a strong cult following, and this series of essays from contributors around the globe investigates the genre-bending series’ cultural footprint both in the United States and abroad. The writings explore topics such as folklore,


As a natural heir to the hit television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural has risen to prominence with a strong cult following, and this series of essays from contributors around the globe investigates the genre-bending series’ cultural footprint both in the United States and abroad. The writings explore topics such as folklore, religion, gender and sexuality, comedy, music, and much more, and a brief guide to all the episodes is also included. Supernatural follows brothers Dean and Sam Winchester as they encounter and battle evil beings such as vampires, shapeshifters, ghouls, and ghosts from a multitude of genres including folklore, urban legends, and religious history.

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"The writers clearly know their show lore, utilizing it to examine topics ranging from religion to feminism, fandom to the business aspect of television." —San Francisco Book Review (December 2011)

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TV Goes to Hell

An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural

By Stacey Abbott, David Lavery


Copyright © 2011 Stacey Abbott
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77090-035-6


Rabbits' Feet and Spleen Juice: The Comic Strategies of TV Horror

Stacey Abbott

I lost my shoe. Sam ("Bad Day at Black Rock")

I'll man the flashlight. Dean ("Yellow Fever")

In "Bad Day at Black Rock" (3.3) and "Yellow Fever" (4.6) Sam and Dean come under the influence of magical forces that not only threaten to kill them but yield slapstick comic moments that one does not expect to see in a show that presents itself as horror. In "Bad Day at Black Rock" Sam loses a "lucky" rabbit's foot and is cursed with bad luck, which causes him to fall over, lose his shoe down a sewer, catch on fire, get shot, and sit in a chair, unable to scratch his nose for fear of the dire consequences that may follow. In "Yellow Fever," while Sam is squirted with spleen juice when observing an autopsy, Dean catches "ghost sickness" from the corpse. This contagious virus, according to Sam, causes its victims to "get anxious, then scared, then really scared, then your heart gives out," reducing Dean to the comic "fraidy cat" role more typical of Lou Costello in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) or Bob Hope in The Cat and the Canary (1939). Dean becomes afraid of heights, speeding, junk food, teenagers, cats, Yorkshire terriers, and even carrying his own gun, choosing to "man the flashlight" instead. It's classic slapstick at its finest.

Other television shows that can be described as TV horror, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Angel (1999–2004), The X-Files (1993–2002), and Doctor Who (2005–), similarly contain both comic moments and episodes, but these series are more overtly characterized by their genre hybridity, allowing for a greater expectation of comedy within their particular matrix. The X-Files brings together science fiction, conspiracy thriller, procedural series, melodrama, comedy, and horror, while Buffy is a hybrid of the teen genre, horror, melodrama, romance, and, occasionally, musical. Lorna Jowett has argued that Angel "slips from one [genre] to another and thus retains multiple associations that help frame its narrative or emphasize its themes" ("Plastic, Fantastic?" 176), while Matt Hills has argued that the new Doctor Who is "more generically flexible and multiple than its predecessors" (13).

Supernatural is, of course, also a hybrid series, mixing horror and the road movie with melodrama, but unlike the other shows mentioned above, it privileges horror as its dominant generic mode, visually and narratively. The first season clearly establishes the show's horror credentials with monster/urban-legend-of-the-week storylines, regular blood and gore, and near-weekly allusions to classic examples of the horror genre, including The Ring (1998), Don't Look Now (1973), The Shining (1980), and Poltergeist (1982). It is only once the horror genre conventions are established that the show begins to infuse comic moments into otherwise dramatic episodes or incorporate comedy episodes into its seasonal narrative arc. Much of the humor on display in Supernatural is generated by the show's intertextuality and postmodern narrative interplay, as demonstrated in "The Monster at the End of This Book" (4.18), in which Sam and Dean discover the Supernatural series of books that chronicle their every mission. When they meet the writer of these novels, Carver Edlund, a.k.a. Chuck, he is shocked to discover that his literary creations are real and horrified by what he has put them through:

Chuck: I toyed with your lives. Your emotions for ... entertainment.

Dean: You didn't toy with us, Chuck. Okay? You didn't create us.

Chuck [turning to face Dean with a horrified look on his face]: Did you really have to live through the bugs?

Dean: Yeah.

Chuck: What about the ghost ship?

Dean: Yes. That too.

Chuck: I am so sorry. I mean horror is one thing but to be forced to live bad writing.... If I would have known it was real I would have done another pass.

The humor of this scene is derived from Chuck's reference to "Bugs" (1.8) and "A Red Sky at Morning" (3.6), episodes that Erik Kripke has openly criticized as examples of bad writing on the show (Knight, Supernatural: The Official Companion Season 1 50–51; Season 3 45). This postmodern approach to the show is discussed in detail by Alberto N. García in this volume. I am interested in those comic episodes that use physical or slapstick humor and draw out from Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki decidedly comic performances that undermine their more conventional heroic personas and seem, on the surface, to be at odds with the show's horror identity.

Despite their seeming opposition in style and content, horror and comedy do share a great deal in common. They are both affective genres built upon the emotional effect they have on their viewers, evoking fear and laughter respectively. They also share many thematic similarities and preoccupations. Both genres regularly undermine social or cultural conventions, transgress accepted gender roles, and exploit, for comic or horrific effect, the body out of control. They both exist within a liminal space in "between the set rules of society" (Horton 5). Andrew Horton argues that "a work that is identified in a way as comic automatically predisposes its audience to enter a state of liminality where the everyday is turned upside down and where cause and effect can be triumphed over and manipulated" (5). Horror similarly operates within a space in which the rules of the natural world and society are overturned through the existence of ghosts, vampires, and other monsters, as well as human serial killers or slashers. Furthermore, both genres are preoccupied, as Pete Boss argues, with presenting the body in "profuse disarray" (15). Andrew Tudor argues that "whether set to the task of conveying the peculiar fascination of monstrousness or simply portraying the horrific violence practiced by movie monsters upon their victims, bodies are inevitably to the fore in horror movies" (25). Comedy is similarly preoccupied with the body under attack, whether that be a pie in the face, a pratfall, or the coyote falling off yet another cliff in his never-ending pursuit of the road runner. As Lorna Jowett argues in "Biting Humor: Harmony, Parody and the Female Vampire," theory explains the similarities between comedy and horror "in terms of the carnivalesque, the grotesque, or transgression and subversion. Horror films have often contained humor and there has been a long tradition of horror-comedy (like Shaun of the Dead, 2004) and comedy-horror (such as Dracula: Dead and Loving It, 1995). Horror on television operates rather differently than on film and, perhaps, draws on humor more consistently to achieve its effects and success with its audience" (17–18).

Here Jowett highlights the difference between TV and cinematic horror, generally attributed to the restrictions upon the representation of violence and the body on television, as well as the positioning of television within the domestic space, which can affect how viewers engage with their programs. These fundamental differences have meant that creators of TV horror must reconfigure the conventions and aesthetics of the genre to suit the industrial and cultural specificity of television. Part of this reconfiguration involves the interrelationship between humor and horror, designed to enhance horror effects and the exploration of the genre's cultural preoccupation with the notions of good and evil, the body in disarray, and the abject. As Jowett points out, serial television offers greater opportunity for character nuance and development and enables "more scope to use both comedy and horror as ways of offering new stories or angles on a familiar premise and cast" (18). The aim of this essay will, therefore, be to explore how the comic is used in Supernatural, not to diffuse the genre and make it more acceptable for mainstream television, but as a strategy for the construction of TV horror and in the representation of the monstrous hero.

Physical vs Verbal Comedy

Despite the series' dark overtones, Supernatural is a very funny show that places particular emphasis on verbal humor. Its dialogue is replete with innuendo, sarcasm, comic insults, and witty retorts, delivered in almost equal parts by demons and hunters. As Jana Riess has argued with regard to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, verbal "humor not only entertains but also signals which of the characters is in control" (42). In Supernatural, demons such as Alastair and Ruby are prone to humorous verbal exchanges with Sam and Dean as a means of asserting their power. In this they have much in common with villains from contemporary horror films such as Freddy Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991), both of whom are assigned a macabre wit that grants them absolute authority. Similarly, each of the hunters in Supernatural uses sarcasm as a means of asserting machismo in the face of evil and overwhelming odds. For instance, Gordon uses sarcasm to taunt Sam. Aware of Sam's concern for the peaceful vampire Lenore, Gordon pulls out a knife to kill her and then reassures Sam by telling him "I just sharpened it so it's completely humane" ("Bloodlust," 2.3). In "When the Levee Breaks" (4.1), after Dean swears his allegiance to Heaven, Bobby asks him, "Correct me if I'm wrong. You willingly signed up to be the angel's bitch? ... I'm sorry, do you prefer sucker?"

However, it is Dean in particular who repeatedly uses "joking" as a means of asserting his control over the people and situations around him. For instance, when Sam questions Dean on his taste in music, Dean tells him, "Driver picks the music, shotgun shuts his cakehole" ("Pilot," 1.1). In "The Benders" (1.15) Dean is tied up and questioned by a group of red-neck Texas Chainsaw Massacre– inspired hunters and undercuts their attempt to threaten him with a series of comic one-liners that play on this hillbilly stereotype: "If I tell you, promise not to make me into an ashtray"; "It's not nice to marry your sister"; and "Eat me ... no no no wait, you actually might." In "A Very Supernatural Christmas" (3.8), Dean is chastised for swearing while being bled by a pagan god, to which he responds, "I'm going to fudging kill you." Finally, he repeatedly undercuts the angel Uriel's authority by nicknaming him "Junkless." Dean uses humor to take control of a situation, convey his confidence in the face of danger and horror, and undercut any opposing forces, be they demon, pagan god, or angel. Humor is a sign of Dean's heroism.

The series, however, also uses humor to speak to Dean's need to be in control and to distance himself from others. In "Route 666" (1.13) former girlfriend Cassie tells him "whenever we get, what's the word, close — anywhere in the neighborhood of emotional vulnerability — you back off or make some joke or find any way to shut the door on me." Dean retreats, or attempts to retreat, behind humor as a form of emotional protection. For instance, in "On the Head of a Pin" (4.16), when Dean is forced to question and torture Alastair, the demon who tortured him in Hell, Dean attempts to use humor to convey his confidence, despite his misgivings about the situation. When Alastair asks Dean if he thinks he'll "see all your scary toys and spill my guts," Dean quips, "Oh, you'll spill your guts one way or another. I just didn't want to ruin my shoes." The delivery of this line feels forced and is spoken without Dean's cocky smile or aggressive tone. Rather than putting Dean in control of the situation, this weak attempt at humor comes across as an act to cover up his fear about reliving his experience as a torturer, and it is notable that Dean remains silent throughout most of the remaining torture sequence. Instead it is Alastair who keeps up the regular comic banter, undermining Dean by responding to each of Dean's physical torments with a series of comic retorts. After Dean removes a blade from the demon's abdomen, Alastair, still spitting blood, responds with "it's your professionalism that I respect," and after Dean pours salt down Alastair's mouth, Alastair comments, "Something's caught in my throat ... I think it's my throat." While Alastair may be the "victim" in this sequence, his comic wit tells us that he is clearly still in control.

In contrast, physical comedy is often about a lack of control, particularly control of the body. If one looks at the slapstick comedy of the Keystone Cops, Jerry Lewis, or Jim Carrey, the humor comes from depicting of the human body as out of control, prone to pratfalls, accidents, and bodily contortion. As Nöel Carroll argues in "Notes on a Sight Gag," slapstick "comedy was generally less a function of [narrative] structure than of the transgression of social inhibition about the proper way in which to treat the human body" (26). The body out of control is the heart of the genre, as embodied by Charlie Chaplin being pulled through the cogs of a machine in Modern Times (1936) or Jim Carrey transformed into a cartoon character by donning a magical mask in The Mask (1994). If verbal comedy is used inSupernatural primarily as a means for Sam and Dean to maintain control, physical comedy is used to wrest control from them. For instance, in "Hell House" (1.17) Dean initiates a battle of practical joking that escalates as the episode progresses. These practical jokes do not advance the episode's narrative but rather offer comic moments to convey the brothers' sibling rivalry. Dean stuffs a spoon down the sleeping Sam's mouth; Sam raises the volume on Dean's car stereo, making him jump when he turns it on; Dean puts itching powder in Sam's underwear; Sam puts crazy glue on Dean's beer bottle. The humor is generated by the brothers undermining each other's cool image by causing each other physical discomfort. Sam squirms and scratches, while Dean complains that he "barely has any skin left on [his] palm." While they playfully mock each other, however, their heroic image largely remains intact. In contrast, in "Tall Tales" (2.15), the boys' sibling rivalry begins to chip away at the brothers' image by attacking their dignity through physical comedy, for, as Alan Dale argues, "the essence of a slapstick gag is a physical assault on, or collapse of, the hero's dignity" (3). In this episode, Sam and Dean, who have been bickering from the start, recount different aspects of their case to Bobby, but in doing so they portray the other brother in a ridiculous manner. In Sam's story, Dean is seen drunkenly slurping shots called Purple Nurples, cavorting with a peroxide blonde named Starla, and stuffing chocolates in his mouth until his cheeks bulge — all a grotesque exaggeration of Dean's insatiability. In Dean's narration, Sam is presented as prissy and overly sensitive as he lectures Dean on the importance of the case and later tells one of the witnesses of these strange events, "I know this all has to be so hard.... but I want you to know that I'm here for you — you brave little soldier. I acknowledge your pain." Sam's words are even taken away from him in Dean's memory as Sam tells Dean, "This is an important investigation. We don't have any time for any of your blah, blah, blah ... blah, blah, blah, blah...." While it is revealed that it is a trickster who is fueling their rivalry, it is Sam and Dean who, through their narration, wrest agency from each other and launch a comic assault on each other's physical image. While the comic gags in "Hell House" are narrative digressions, "Tall Tales" integrates these physical gags into the show's broader narrative and thematic arcs, as it highlights the tension between the brothers and begins to present Sam and Dean's bodies as under attack. It is through this notion of bodily attack that the series' use of comedy interacts with the show's horror genre preoccupations.


Excerpted from TV Goes to Hell by Stacey Abbott, David Lavery. Copyright © 2011 Stacey Abbott. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stacey Abbott is the editor of Falling in Love Again, Investigating Alias, Reading Angel, and the Investigating Cult TV series. David Lavery is a professor of English at Middle Tennessee State University. He is the author of 17 books, including The Essential Cult TV Reader and Joss, as well as the author of numerous essays and reviews. He lives in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.

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TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
LittleCrit More than 1 year ago
If you're going to author a book, unofficial or official, please at least get the basic facts straight. The two brothers do not canvas the countryside in a 1968 Chevy Impala, but a 1967 Chevy Impala. A small, almost meaningless tidbit, but how could I purchase a book that can't get the small facts straight?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Book Review Outline Book title and author: TV Goes to Hell an Official Road Map of Supernatural by Stacey Abbott Title of review: The Best TV show/ Book I have read Number of stars (1 to 5): 5 Brothers, Sam and Dean crisscross the country picking fights with ghosts, demons, and monsters. Description and summary of main points Sam and Dean Winchester’s mother was killed and they were raised as warriors by their father. They Melt silver into bullets, sharpen stakes, and when scared are given a gun. The boy’s father John Winchester has turned into a hunter (one who hunts for vampires, werewolves, shape shifters, and demons, wendigos, etc.) to find the thing that killed his wife Mary Winchester. John goes on a “hunting trip” ( to find and kill the thing that is killing people in any area) and hasn’t been seen or contacted in weeks, so Dean and Sam go looking for him, on the way the boys do jobs (kill whatever creature that is killing people in the area) The author Stacey Abbott has got this book compared the book perfectly to the TV show maybe a few minor details are wrong, for example Dean drives a 4 door 1967 Chevy impala. In the book they drive a 1968 Chevy impala. The book is just like the show full of action and mystery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago