Krys on Edmundson, 'The Gothic Tradition in Supernatural: Essays on the Television Series'

Author: 
Melissa Edmundson, ed.
Reviewer: 
Svitlana Krys

Melissa Edmundson, ed. The Gothic Tradition in Supernatural: Essays on the Television Series. Jefferson: McFarland, 2016. 204 pp. $19.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-9976-2.

Reviewed by Svitlana Krys (MacEwan University) Published on H-SHERA (May, 2018) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (Independent scholar)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50450

Melissa Edmundson has edited a collection of essays written by scholars about the popular American television show Supernatural (2005-), which has been in production for more than ten years and is currently in its thirteenth season. The show is an epitome of the American Gothic—hence, the interpretative angle of the collection—and centers around two protagonists, brothers Dean and Sam Winchester. The Winchesters lead the nomadic lifestyle of monster hunters, attempting to free the seemingly safe American suburbia (and, by extent, the world) of the evil lurking in the dark, while simultaneously discovering and fighting their own monstrous, repressed selves. More than once, the brothers face a dilemma: they must choose whether to save the ones they love (including each other) who have been tainted by evil, or eliminate them for the greater good. This uneasy, constant battle and the contested, subjective nature of morality is at the core of the series and is a central theme of many works of the Gothic literary tradition, tying the two together in the present collection under review.

The Gothic Tradition in Supernatural consists of four parts and thirteen articles in addition to an introduction penned by Edmundson, a note on contributors, and an index. Each article approaches the show from a unique perspective, be it a gender, a queer, or a postcolonial interpretation, but all make reference to the manner in which the show both adheres to and defies the Gothic literary canon, fighting to establish “its own particular mythology,” in the words of one of the collection’s contributors (p. 75). In addition to a number of references to the classic Gothic texts of the past, such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796), Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), or Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897), the articles reference contemporary examples of the Gothic genre in both film and literature, such as contemporary TV horror shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood) or fiction (and its screen adaptation, where applicable) by Stephen King, Cherríe Moraga, J. K. Rowling, or Markus Zusak, to name a few. The present collection thus makes a valuable contribution to the study of the evolution of the Gothic genre and to the rise of Gothic horror TV, as well as to the interpretation of the series’ ever-evolving and complex Gothic universe, with its basis in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition and its varied borrowings of universal and culture-specific folkloric motifs.

Part 1, titled “Gothic Tropes and Traditions,” features three articles tied together by the presence or absence of key Gothic motifs in the show, such as the angst created by a disturbed, disjointed reality; the Winchesters’ car as a variation of an old European castle; and the atmosphere of darkness characterized by a universal chaos and the absence of God. Alexandra Lykissas considers the manner in which the series depicts a post-9/11 anxiety and the fear of terror from within (of the “homegrown terrorists,” p. 23). Lykissas speaks about a response in the post-9/11 speculative fiction and horror films to the violated domestic sphere, which resulted in the appearance of hypermasculinization and the reaffirmation of traditional gender roles in the majority of these narratives. Lykissas argues that Supernatural both adheres to and problematizes such trends, following the Gothic canon’s traditional vacillation between conservative and revolutionary positions, as other contributors to the volume repeatedly point out. Thomas Knowles’s contribution proposes to broaden the spectrum of Gothic motifs by viewing the car the brothers drive and live in in the series as a modern castle, underscoring the hybridity and adaptability of the Gothic genre. The car, which in the show is destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, becomes a symbol of the brothers’ own disjointed, troubled personalities. Furthermore, similar to the Gothic castle, which may serve as a safe haven or a place of confinement, the car functions as a hearse, driving the Winchester brothers to danger, as they fight a monster-of-the-week, and a home, carrying “the nexus of familial feeling” (p. 34). Finally, Dana Fore’s essay on intertextual links between Lewis’s The Monk and the series Supernatural explores the Gothic motif of duality and imbalance when it discusses “the debased Christian cosmos” (p. 42), the absence of God, and the hero-turned-villain trope in both works.

Part 2, “Gothic Storytelling,” focuses on the series’ meta-episodes and self-referential habit. Edmundson argues in the introduction that by studying plot, repetition, and mythology in the series, the contributors investigate the manner in which the show’s self-awareness turns the familiar into the unfamiliar, following the Gothic tradition of the uncanny. Jamil Mustafa studies the phantoms, doubles, and slash relationships in the show—examples of the uncanny, which, as Mustafa argues, are markers of repressed queerness. Michael Fuchs speaks about the show’s ability to engage the viewers’ cultural capital through numerous repetitions, cultural references, and intertextual links to Hollywood horror films of the past, thereby creating a sense of community for its viewers and, through such engagement, modifying the parameters of the Gothic genre. Daniel P. Compora studies the series’ creative engagement with a number of folkloric motifs, documented in Ernest W. Baughman’s index of the folktales of England and North America (1966), and argues that Supernatural adds complexity and depth to them, as well as to its two lead characters, Dean and Sam. According to Compora, “Supernatural routinely presents narratives that are unique and intriguing, but also somewhat familiar because they are based on popular legends, stories that we seem to have heard before” (p. 77). This highlights the show’s uncanny effect of cultural familiarity and unpredictability and its creative reimagining of “real world fears and anxieties” (p. 78).

Part 3, “Gothic Women: Heroes and Victims,” moves the analytical focus to the gender aspect of Supernatural. Three contributors—Leow Hui Min Annabeth, E. J. Nielsen, and Ashley Walton—study the female characters in the series, attempting to deconstruct the show’s repeated damsel-in-distress versus dangerous monster dichotomy. Leow Hui Min Annabeth links the discussion of gender to that of nation-building and immigration in her in-depth analysis of the Llorona motif in the series’ pilot episode. The author points to the “conquest, colonization, and violence against subaltern peoples” (p. 91) that the Llorona legend carries and the show, for the most part, ignores, putting forward a premise about the series’ “manipulation of Indigenous stories to serve colonial ends” (p. 98). E. J. Nielsen speaks of the “abhuman” nature of the series’ female characters, which puts them in a liminal position and deprives them of agency compared to male characters, dooming them to become vessels for angelic or demonic forces. This allows Nielsen to point to the dispensable nature of the female characters on the show who, as her analysis demonstrates, often function as fictional devices to “advance the plotline of the show’s male characters” (p. 112). Ashley Walton’s contribution takes the discussion further by analyzing the show’s most proactive female character, Charlie Bradbury, whose lesbian identity makes her different from the rest of the female characters, depriving her of a potential “object of desire” status. Despite Charlie’s eventual death—the fate of other dispensable women—Walton argues that “Charlie’s character … makes strides toward a more positive representation of women in horror at large” (p. 115).

Part 4, titled “Gothic Others: Monstrous Selves,” deconstructs the concept of “monstrosity,” posing the question of who the real villain on the show is. Jessica Seymour’s contribution discusses the Gothic convention of the fragmented or Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde split self, applying it to the series’ nonhuman characters and comparing them to the protagonists, Sam and Dean. Seymour perceives that the fragmented identity of nonhuman characters suggests the appearance of positive traits, whereas the split personalities of the show’s human protagonists can lead to negative agency. Samantha J. Vertosick continues the discussion by pointing to the neutralization techniques on the show that add human agency to evil characters through the depth of their backgrounds, their allegiances, and their emotions, an agency expressed when they take on a human vessel. This continues the Gotho-romantic tradition of a Byronic hero and sympathy for the devil, as Vertosick argues. Megan Fowler moves the discussion to the Gothic trope of incest, tackling the ongoing covert allusion to Sam and Dean’s incestual relationship, based on their “all-consuming love for each other” (p. 155). Indeed, on the show the brothers make numerous sacrifices for each other. Fowler brings up the Gothic’s inclination toward excess, pointing to the vacillation between the natural and the unnatural in the brothers’ relationship and arguing about their potential, through such unnatural inclinations, “to corrupt each other into monsters” (p. 165). Finally, Lisa Schmidt’s concluding essay, with the telling title “We All Have a Little Monster in Us,” speaks about the violation of nature that turns many of the show’s characters into monsters, developing an argument about a “new monster” paradigm that the show puts forward where “even ‘ordinary’ human beings could be monsters” (p. 168).

The present collection of essays offers a variety of perspectives on Supernatural and a clear thematic thread that unites them—the Gothic. By no means have potential topics for such a thematic core been exhausted. As a comparative literature specialist and a Slavist, I would have liked to see a separate section of articles dealing with the show’s relationship to world folklore. At least in the first few seasons, there appear monsters of specifically Scandinavian, East European, and Indian origin, to name a few. Furthermore, one of the episodes at the end of season 5 features a group of gods from various cultural and religious traditions, who are portrayed as inferior to the Judeo-Christian tradition, being slaughtered by Lucifer at the end of the episode. This invites a more in-depth postcolonial exploration of the show’s Gothic content, which would take into account the Gothic’s historical reinforcement and subversion of imperial values and consider who controls the discourse. [1] 

Edmundson has gathered a wonderful set of articles that will impact not only future studies of the series Supernatural, but also contemporary horror TV in general. Both the editor and the publisher deserve praise for their meticulous editing of the essays in the collection. The only point lacking is the explanations of the origin of the collection: Was it based on a conference, or a seminar, or simply a call for papers? How were the contributors chosen? These questions and suggestions notwithstanding, The Gothic Tradition in Supernatural: Essays on the Television Series is an important scholarly contribution that will be of interest to a variety of readers—academic and general, let alone numerous fans of the show—and its essays may be used in a variety of academic contexts, from courses in English or comparative literature to film studies and folklore.

Note

[1]. For more on the Gothic and the empire, see Andrew Smith and William Hughes, eds.,  Empire and the Gothic: The Politics of Genre (Houndmills, Basingstoke, HampshirePalgrave Macmillan Ltd., 2003); and Johan Höglund, “Catastrophic Transculturation in Dracula, The Strain and The Historian,Transnational Literature 5, no. 1 (2012), http://dspace.flinders.edu.au/jspui/bitstream/2328/26432/1/Catastrophic_Transculturation.pdf, accessed April 20, 2018.

Citation: Svitlana Krys. Review of Edmundson, Melissa, ed., The Gothic Tradition in Supernatural: Essays on the Television Series. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. May, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50450

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