Constructs of normality and unreality in Supernatural

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Reality is rather subjective. In TV, it’s carefully constructed using sound and image. The audience sees something different from the characters, but they’re closely linked. The differences probably aren’t noticed by the people of the show, but with just a few techniques, those watching can experience the sense of altered reality along with the characters. 

To start off, here’s a fan-made video that shows how easy it really is to change the tone of a show. Some basic video editing and a bit of music, and Supernatural becomes something else.

One of the show’s favorite tools to use in creating a sense of reality, altered or otherwise, is image and color. From the beginning of the series, the atmosphere the filmmakers are going for is rather dark. It’s similar to the grayish filter used for filming CSI in New York, as mentioned by Karen Lury in “Image”. This is appropriate, as Supernatural is a horror/drama. Horror is used as a vehicle for the character-driven story.

A few simple techniques are used to create visuals that have a powerful effect on what the audience feels. The gray/blue tone of the Winchester’s world represents true reality – it’s dark and often violent. Also kind of depressing, which fits with the show’s overall tone. Psychologists have found that depressed people see the world more realistically. Normal people are more optimistic. In Supernatural they have that luxury, as they don’t know about the monsters and demons living just beyond their own little world. Sam and Dean work to keep it that way. Episodes nearly always take place in small towns. The idea of that may be foreign to many of us, growing up in cities, but popular thought seems to hold that small towns are peaceful, the epitome of normal (whatever that is). Nothing out of the ordinary would happen there. Yet this is where most of the monsters are found. About two-thirds of the American population lives in or close to big cities, so small town America may be more marginal than you’d think.

Sam and Dean drift through Middle America, outcasts through necessity. Their knowledge and their work, place them outside the normal. They live in darkness – they have knowledge of what’s out there, and most of their hunts occur at night, secretly saving the people that don’t know better. The overall gloomy tone of the show this reflects their true reality, even during the day.

But when they deviate from this set-up, it means something has gone wrong. And it hits very close to home. In this particular series, these deviations are usually used to enhance the sense of disconnection from their reality. In several instances, this “un”reality is closer to what people like us regard as normal, reminding us of the Winchester brothers’ tragic circumstances and their own disconnection from regular society. For them, the supernatural has become typical. Normality doesn’t last.

The most obvious example is the season 5 episode “Changing Channels”. As hinted at by the title, the episode features the reluctant adventures of Sam and Dean in various well-known television tropes, including a medical drama, a sitcom and a police procedural.  

A rather sly little reference can be found in the font used for the sitcom-style opening credits. It’s very similar to the one used for Full House, that light-spirited portrayal of the (near) ideal family. Their mom was dead too, but they never talked about that. It’s terribly ironic, since Sam and Dean have no other family.

Here’s the opening of this particular episode:

From the very beginning we can see something’s not right. The colors are extremely saturated, rather unsettlingly so, compared to the blue-ish filter they usually use. This scene after the theme song is what’s “normal” for this series – it’s rather gloomy and muted.
Changing Channels - reality
It’s the same setting, but just turning up the color and adding more light had set a completely different tone. An unspoiled viewer of the series would be quite bewildered by this opener, especially since Supernatural usually goes for a cold open and a title card rather than a theme song.

This clip continues the sitcom scene.

The “sets” are artificial realities created by a demi-god. They are obviously simulations, but there are no cameras or directors. When the real world (in the form of Sam and Dean) collides with the manufactured worlds of TV Land, it brings the audience closer to the characters. Their adventures may be outside the scope of our own lives, but we can all agree that we wouldn’t want to live in the hyper-normal world of a sitcom either, playing almost grotesquely exaggerated versions of ourselves. If the unreality is dangerous, it’s better to know the truth.

As a long-time fan of the show, I found the sitcom-inspired segment to be somewhat disturbing. In its own way, it was as horrifying as any of Supernatural’s regular episodes. It was like something out of the Twilight Zone. It seems like just a gimmick, but it subverts expectations and makes a very serious point. This reality was familiar, yet freakish at the same time. The characters were caricatures of themselves, taking familiar traits and exaggerating them for humor. The use of the laugh track was quite unsettling. Unlike in every other sitcom, the laughter was diegetic, prompting Dean to comment on the sick joy the unseen audience took in their misfortune, seeming to feed off their suffering rather than commiserate with them. It also came on when the topic was very serious (i.e. the end of the world). A viewer would feel just as alienated from this world as Sam and Dean.

“Changing Channels” provides the clearest example of the dangers of normality, but there have been other episodes sprinkled through the seasons that are similar.

Link to whole episode of What is and What Should Never Be

“What is and What Should Never Be” is an episode near the end of season 2. Dean finds himself in a world where his mother is still alive, and his family lived a normal, unremarkable life. Like Dean, we’re at first happy, but we soon become suspicious. He may have his family, but they’re somewhat dissociated from each other. The brotherly relationship is everything to Dean; when it’s not there, it feels wrong. We feel as out of place as Dean does.

Appearances are deceiving. Despite the bright, suburban setting, it’s not real; a djinn has given him this dream and is slowly draining his blood. I like to think the inexpert Photoshopping used to create the Winchester family photos seen in this episode is another sign that this world isn’t real. Dean may not know exactly what’s going on, but even subconsciously he recognizes he’s in danger.

The scene where he’s mowing the lawn is especially poignant. He takes joy in such a mundane thing, while a rock cover of “It’s a Wonderful World” plays on. Supernatural is known for its classic rock soundtrack, so having the Ramones play isn’t very unusual. But combined with that scene of domesticity, the song extolling how wonderful the world is when it actually isn’t, highlights the disconnection between realities. The song cuts off at “…and I say to myself…”, also signaling that perhaps this world isn’t so great after all.

Another example is “Dream a Little Dream of Me” in season 3. Sam and Dean must save their adoptive father figure Bobby from a murderous dream-walker. One particular moment stands out. They’ve entered his dream and found themselves in a version of his home.

Bobby's house as see within the dream
Link to whole episode

The colors are very bright, signifying the house’s dissociation from reality. The green grass and colorful flowers are especially odd given fans know that Bobby lives next to his salvage yard. It contrasts highly with its normal (within the show) interior.

The inside of Bobby's house - within a dream but true to the reality of the show

The house neatly encapsulates what’s happening to Bobby – a seemingly peaceful sleep that hides the dark truth inside it. Inside the cheerful-looking house, he’s fighting for his life against a supernatural menace.

In each case, the unreality is created by a creature native to Sam and Dean’s supernatural world. They’re in danger when their reality turns “normal”, all bright and shiny and optimistic. They can recognize this, to one degree or another. Our type of normality is an illusion, and not knowing the truth can get you killed. Supernatural invites us into the darkness, where reality hides. The Winchesters can’t be part of our normality, so we (the audience) must enter theirs.

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