Supernatural and the Meta Mirror


Supernatural is supported by its marked unreality: for Sam and Dean Winchester, hunting demons has become their normal lifestyle. To be sure, it has not come easily: aside from the exhaustive job they’ve taken on, they’ve also suffered a personal toll through losing their parents and being turned against one another time and again. (I’m trying to keep this mostly spoiler-free for those who want to follow the entire series’ arc, and because those developments are not the backbone of this essay.)

And yet, the series never loses its comedic touch or flair for parody, utilizing this self-referential style as the best tool with which to simultaneously force Sam and Dean to examine their odd lifestyle, as well as to acknowledge Supernatural’s vast fanbase. Three episodes in particular (from the first, third, and fifth seasons) attack the boys’ lifestyle through interactive pop-culture mainstays: an urban legends website; reality television; and a fan convention. In each instance, the Winchester brothers find themselves facing at least archetypes of themselves, if not actually themselves, prompting them to reevaluate the point of their ongoing struggle against evil.

Aristotle’s Poetics concerns itself with mimesis, or the mode of imitation that distinguishes poetry. Unlike in Aristotle’s examination of poetry (which contained varying forms that he nonetheless counted under the same umbrella term), my study of Supernatural includes three different media, as mentioned above: website, reality series, and fan convention. The objects (“men in action”) are in each case Sam and Dean; and finally, the manner, or narration, takes its form through people, “living and moving before us”. [1]

At first, the bonds between Sam and Dean and their imitators are shadowy at best: In 1×17 “Hell House”, they run into Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spengler in the eponymous haunted house. The latter are nerds laughably calling themselves “paranormal investigators”. Sam and Dean are initially too surprised to do anything but go along with the two, who puff up in self-righteousness about their tools and strategies in finding ghosts. In contrast to Sam and Dean’s fairly sparse gear (flashlights, salt, lighter, and guns), Zeddmore and Spengler are decked out in night-vision goggles and something approximating Ghostbusters‘ Proton Pack. (Fun fact: The characters’ surnames are taken from two Ghostbuster members!)

It turns out that there is a demon haunting the house — a tulpa, which comes to life through people’s imaginings — but the only reason it’s stayed alive is due to the Hell Hound’s Lair’s readership and their fervent beliefs in the demon accounts. It’s an apt metaphor for the viewers who keep a show, especially a quirky paranormal one like Supernatural, afloat. By the end of the episode, the boys burn down the house inhabited by the ghost, and Sam suffers a slight crisis:

“It kinda makes you wonder… of all the things we’ve hunted, how many existed just ’cause people believed in ’em?”

And yet, that anxiety is short-lived, as Sam and Dean accept (without the need to explicitly say so) that the demons they hunt are “real”. And while Zeddmore and Spengler in some ways imitate Sam and Dean, what we really see through them is the boys coming together against “themselves”: the episode’s subplot involved the Winchesters in a prank war, which concludes when each of them pulls a prank on the Hell Hound’s creators instead.

Spengler and Zeddmore pop up again in 3×13 “Ghostfacers!”, this time filming a reality ghost-hunting show under the same name. They’ve got the same useless gadgets and bravado, only five times worse — plus, some interns and a camera guy to film all their misadventures.

That’s not to say that the boys have hit the big time; rather, these forty minutes are actually the pilot of their show that they intend to send to network executives. A departure from the normal Supernatural flow, this self-referential style is, in the words of Jeffrey Sconce, “metareflexive”. In his essay “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries”, Sconce coins the word to describe television episodes that rely on viewers’ long-term understanding of the show’s tropes and narrative styles:

They are, in essence, speculative exercises in form, injecting “difference” into the more repetitive elements of their series architecture by foregrounding, for an episode at least, the audience’s appreciation of stylistic and narrational strategies as a vital component of the story world itself.[2]

The Ghostfacers get tangled up with the Winchesters again when investigating the Morton House, where ghosts are rumored to appear on every Leap Year. To the viewer’s surprise, Sam and Dean are secondary characters to the Ghostfacers crew; the first sighting is of them blasting rock music in the Impala, as usual, but the Ghostfacers write them off as “not cops, just hicks.”

Because the episode is filmed documentary-style, the showrunners get to stretch their creative limbs a little and play with the series’ usual conventions. These are mostly funny bits, like when Sam swears at the meddling Ghostfacers and it gets bleeped out (by the Ghostfacers logo, no less). A primetime show running on The CW would just do away with all harsh swears, but this format embraces it; ironically, in this respect it’s a bit more realistic than your standard Supernatural episode.

When Sam and Dean are trying to herd the Ghostfacers out of the Morton House and the Ghostfacers are consulting their cameras to see the footage they’ve just caught of a ghost, for just a moment the tables are reversed; the Ghostfacers seem like the more “professional” ones. Then of course, they all get scared shitless. It’s only when the ghosts start appearing in their “death echoes” that the Winchesters team up with the Ghostfacers to find their missing member and figure out what the depraved janitor (the house’s last resident) wanted with the bodies of these ghosts.

It’s actually funny how quickly Sam and Dean liken to the cameras, when in 1×17 their first words to Zeddmore and Spengler had been “Get that damn thing out of my face!” While patrolling the Morton House, they become talking heads, filling in the team’s gaps of knowledge about death echoes and proper ways to banish ghosts. The camera guy even tries to get Dean to confess to his personal issues in front of the camera, but Dean isn’t having any of it.

Ultimately, Ghostfacers is not to be — Sam and Dean erase the team’s DVDs in order to keep the amateurs out of the loony bin, themselves off the FBI’s trail, and America able to sleep soundly at night.

Although 5×09 “The Real Ghostbusters” doesn’t take as creative an approach as “Ghostfacers!”, it is equally metareflexive in that it introduces Sam and Dean to us, the fans, and how we perceive them.

5×09 opens like any other episode, with Sam and Dean racing to the next crisis. Only, when they step out of their car they encounter a string of identical Impalas (though sporting different license plates), belonging to the members of the first-ever Supernatural Convention. To recap: in an earlier episode they had met Chuck, an unlikely prophet who had profited off a book series called — you guessed it — Supernatural, following Sam and Dean Winchester as they hunt the paranormal. Everything that Chuck (as reclusive author Carver Edlund) wrote came true, so the boys forced him to discontinue the series. But, as we all know, just because something is canceled doesn’t mean that the fans will give up on it.

Kripke, a regular attendee of Comic-Con and other events, knows who his fans are, and this episode pays homage to all lovers of Supernatural with manic fans like Becky (who orchestrates the whole thing), merchandise, and semi-intellectual panels about Dean’s psyche and the perceived homoeroticism between Sam and Dean. (I cannot tell you how many entries on are about “Wincest”!)

I was particularly tickled by Fritz, who criticizes Sam and Dean’s fighting habits because he believes them to be creations; in this way, he briefly holds a power over them. (Of course, Fritz is quickly put in his place by a ghost because fandom will not tolerate whiny bitches for too long.) Then of course, we meet the ultra-fans: the LARPers. That’s live-action role-playing, in which one takes on the costume and mannerisms of a favorite character. Meet Sam and Dean Winchester:

While at first the Winchesters are bemused by their doppelgangers, the comparisons soon turn creepy.

For more of the same, check out this collection of clips (it won’t let me embed).

Imitation, Aristotle says, is an instinct of man’s nature. Indeed, a person gains the most pleasure from imitation when s/he intimately knows the original on which such mimicry is based. [1] The LARPers follow the books to a tee, and devote their time and energy to such accurate RPGs, because Sam and Dean do what they can’t: they’re brave, tough, and sexy. Of course, what the LARPers don’t realize is that they’ve got the real deal right in front of them.

While “Ghostfacers!” was a shoddy representation of what the Winchesters do, the Game reduces Sam and Dean to mere characters, turning the tables — now they’re the ones the audience feels sorry for. The LARPers, with their husky, over-dramatic delivery, trivialize Sam and Dean’s lives and especially the traumas they’ve lived through up to this point in the series. In stark contrast to the light-hearted prank war in 1×17 “Hell House”, Sam and Dean have grown apart these past four years — then they have to watch those exact issues get hashed out by two performers. The fake Sam and Dean unintentionally hold up a mirror to the real ones.

Then Dean (or as he’s known to the LARPers, “Bobby”) makes the cardinal mistake when dealing with fans — he says he hates the Supernatural books, that the story is stupid. While it’s said out of sheer frustration with the hapless doubles, it could also be a telling glimpse into his psyche, that he’s tired of their hunt and prophecies that will pit them against one another. After a conversation that’s as hilarious (Sam and Dean referring to themselves in the third person) as it is stirring, it has to be Fake-Dean who says, “They don’t care because they’re fictional characters.”

It irks me that at the end of the episode Dean concludes their partnership by telling the two LARPers that he and his brother are simply “big fans” of the book series. I wanted to see them out themselves and break the fourth wall for their fans! But then, it wouldn’t be metareflexive.

Each unique medium utilized in these three episodes is colored with a modicum of shame, something that you’d be hard-pressed to admit to: surfing paranormal websites; flipping the channel to a ghost-hunting show; dressing up as the characters and acting out your own story through them. Each is the mark of a devoted fan. It’s fanservice at its very best — acknowledging and even celebrating the fans for their dedication to the series — but each episode, in playing with the show’s traditional conventions, also allows us to move past the Winchester brothers’ tough exteriors and see them get rattled… by glimpsing themselves wrapped up in this unreality.


[1] Aristotle. The Poetics

[2] Sconce, Jeffrey. “What If?: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries”, 106

Supernatural, created by Eric Kripke (2005-)
1×17 “Hell House”
3×13 “Ghostfacers!”
5×09 “The Real Ghostbusters”

[Image sources: Supernatural Series, IGN, Recapist, A.V. Club, the next three via Supernatural Series]

[Video sources: HollowSoulEatera on YouTube, weyov6 on YouTube]


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One Response to “Supernatural and the Meta Mirror”

  1. julorean Says:

    Awesome post! Our topics are nicely complementary – mine’s more on how the audience is drawn into Sam and Dean’s world, and yours is about their encounters with ours. Very cool.

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