As a television program, “Supernatural” has never been afraid to take dares. It’s tackled the Apocalypse. It has sent both of its main leads to Hell—and brought them back. It has had a main lead without a soul for half a season. It’s looked at all those things that go bump in the night and thrust them into our living rooms unabashedly. “Supernatural” has even made one of their main leads the vessel for Lucifer himself. Riskiest of all, however, is its penchant for delving into meta fiction.
Meta fiction. The term can be confusing and misunderstood. Meta fiction is a two headed beast. Its first is indirect meta fiction. It is the invisible web a story hangs upon. It is the skeleton. A story, much like a body, is only as strong as its skeleton. Each bone in the story must connect to the rest correctly or it can fall apart. What might seem an arbitrary selection—a choice in music, the color of a favorite shirt—are all deliberate to reveal something about character or plot. Everything is essential or it is cut. Anything extraneous detracts and distracts. Those writers that employ good indirect meta fiction can take their viewers or readers any place they so choose, and they’ll gladly follow—even if it is off a cliff. Essentially, if they’ve done their job, the indirect meta fiction is largely unnoticeable, much like good mechanics such as grammar and spelling.
The other is that of direct meta fiction. Of the two, it is direct meta fiction that is most misunderstood. It is the open acknowledgment that what is being presented is fictional. It often recognizes itself, discusses its medium, and as Supernatural does, pokes fun at itself. This can either be a blessing or a curse to a story. Direct meta fiction is not always well received. It is a risky move to pull back the curtain and show the inner workings of the meta fiction skeleton, baring it to the audience. Done correctly, it can be pure gold.
As early as season 1, “Supernatural” has explored direct meta fiction. The first hint that direct meta fiction will be a part of “Supernatural’s” fabric is found in the Pilot. Dean refers to the real FBI agents that arrive to the crime scene as “Mulder and Scully.” A good portion of the “Supernatural” writing team is from the “X-Files,” thus paying some homage to the show that came before it. In “Phantom Traveler,” there are several references made to the movie Poltergeist. The show’s genre and predecessors are often brought in as quips and asides to the overall story, calling out the fictional aspect of its nature.
The episode “Hell House” is the first actual direct meta fiction episode. It is subtle in its nature. It is far away from the unabashed “The French Mistake.” “Hell House” starts off as a typical episode. A group of teenagers approach a rundown and abandoned house, talking about the rumors that it is haunted. They scoff, joke around, and dare each other to go in. They think the whole story is made up, stupid, and harmless—until they see a woman hanging from the cellar rafters, dead. By the time the cops arrive, there is no body to find. This story draws attention to the town—namely marking it as a possible hunt for the Winchesters.
The main motif this episode employs is that of pranks and pranking. It is how they introduce meta fiction in a subtle and clever manner. The episode itself is a prank upon the audience—one that they are fully let in on. It is also the technique that will carry over in some form through out every other meta fictional episode “Supernatural” has ever done.
In the first scene featuring Brothers Winchester, we find a bored Dean amusing himself at a sleeping Sam’s expense. He sticks a white plastic spoon into Sam’s open mouth, takes a photo with his camera phone, then turns up the stereo to startle his younger brother awake. Sam is not amused. He says to Dean, “Man, we”™re not kids anymore, Dean. We”™re not gonna start that crap up again.”
The prank war seen in this episode, in some ways, might be directly responsible for the fandom myth that Jared and Jensen are pranksters to the guest actors for the show. Considering it seems that none of the guest actors at conventions can tell a story about a single “pranking” incident, it makes one wonder where this idea came from. Remembering the nature of the monster in this episode, it makes one think!
When they arrive, Dean isn’t quite convinced that this isn’t simply teenagers pulling pranks on the cops. Sam makes his case that they should at least thoroughly check it out, that they really have nothing else to do now that they’ve let their father go, and so they start the normal routine of questioning witnesses.
This is where it becomes different. Every single teenager that was at the house has a different story, a different detail. Some say the girl that was hanging was a red head, others a blond. One swears that the girl was kicking while another says she wasn’t moving at all. The symbols are described in detail, most of them as contradictory as any thing else they’ve said. This will most certainly make their jobs harder.
They meet Craig, who works at a record store. He knows about the story behind Hell House, and fills the brothers in on the story—omitting the fact that it is his created story. There is no haunting in the Hell House, at least not the normal kind. Until Craig created this story, there was nothing for Sam and Dean to hunt at all. To connect the prank war that Sam and Dean are currently engaging in, the whole haunting that Craig has created is also a prank.
In this episode, we meet Ed Zeddmore and Harry Spangler, two goof balls who want to become famous and make a television series. Their very names harken back to “The Ghostbusters,” yet another reference to a predecessor to “Supernatural.” Sam and Dean are often considered by the writing team to be the Ghostbusters in a way, so by placing Ed and Harry onto the scene they’ve pulled this inside joke in for the fans. In fact, Dean even brings The Ghostbusters”™ theme further into the story by shouting out the tag line of the theme song, “Who you gonna call?” to distract the cops from him and Sam onto Ed and Harry.
They have touted Craig’s story on their website “hellhoundslair.com,” and tried everything to encourage its spread. What’s ironic about this is the fact that Ed and Harry have been pranked. This Hell House isn’t real. It’s a made up, fabricated story, and they fell for it, hook, line, and sinker. The footage they had hoped to gain and then sell to Hollywood would be missing one key ingredient: evidence of an actual ghost. Yet, they’ve unwittingly created a monster that Sam and Dean must now destroy.
It is a Tulpa, a monster that is created by thought alone, channeled through a Tibetan spirit sigil. Ed and Harry didn’t paint it, but their website surfers have certainly used it just as unwittingly to make the haunting they believe in to be real. This turns the prank Craig started back onto Craig in a weird twist.
Ed and Harry are a mirror held up to Sam and Dean. They’re the geekier, sillier, and inept version. If they seriously entered the realm of hunting, it is likely they would not survive for long. It’s not real to them. This is merely a vehicle to make it in Hollywood. Unlike Sam and Dean, they don’t bother questioning the haunting, they aren’t aware that it is a hoax, and they’ll fall for any lie fed to them, even one Sam and Dean provide—not once, but twice.
This is essentially the first time “Supernatural” makes fun of itself. It does so in a witty and novel way. The story line of the show is very serious, dark, and often earns it the classification of horror. There shouldn’t be room for such tongue in cheek behavior. Yet, time and time again, this has worked well for “Supernatural.” We, as the viewer, know that Ed and Harry ARE Sam and Dean essentially, and that is why we laugh. It’s why even Sam and Dean laugh. Their dual pranks on their ridiculous doppelgangers gives them the last laugh at the end of the episode.
It isn’t until season 3’s “Ghostfacers” that we see Ed and Harry again. Before we jump there, let’s look at the direct meta fiction episodes in order.
Our next, much more bold taste, is found in “Hollywood Babylon.” It picks up the prank motif from “Hell House,” to start the possible hunt for Sam and Dean. A man has been been found dead on set, but it is a hoax to promote the movie being made: Hell Hazers II: The Reckoning. Much like “Hell House,” the hoax turns deadly real when a studio executive, Brad Redding, dies on set. He is hung in the middle of a scene being shot for the movie. This mirrors the death of a now very real ghost: a young actress in the 1920s that had been scorned by a studio executive leading her to hanging herself.
Unlike the more brazen “The French Mistake,” Sam and Dean are not actors. They are crew members, working in the grunt position known as a PA. Dean isn’t certain what that is, but Sam quips, “I think they’re like slaves.” They watch the actors work on set, help provide coffee runs, and keep track of scripts, all the while working the actual case. It touches the “fourth wall” without entirely breaking it down, bringing the viewer into a behind the scenes exposÃ© on how the show is put together in a comical and satirical manner.
Not only is the episode itself pure meta, but a lot of the references made refer back to a real individual within “Supernatural.” The director for the movie, McG, is named for a real producer of the show. He even makes an actual appearance, not unlike Alfred Hitchcock, within the episode. When Sam and Dean are on the Hollywood tour, the tour guide announces that they might be lucky enough to meet one of the stars of Gilmore Girls. At this, Sam gets an uncomfortable look and bolts the tour bus. Jared played Dean Forrester on the program in 65 episodes. Sam complains to Dean that they’re wasting time in Hollywood, but Dean insists that he wants a break, to go swimming. Sam quips “Does this feel like swimming weather to you? It’s practically Canadian.” Supernatural is filmed in Vancouver, pulling in their real shooting location into the fabric of the show. The actress staring in Hell Hazers also starred in Boogeyman, at least within the canon of the episode. The film was penned by Eric Kripke himself.
Aside from these types of references, “Hollywood Babylon” parodies not just how the show itself is made, but how Hollywood itself operates. Brad Redding’s complaints about the darkness of the movie are the same complaints Kripke has heard from CW executives throughout the making of the show. The use of salt and Latin chanting by the actors in the movie harken back to “Supernatural’s” very own weapons against ghosts and demons. The actual use of shotguns, something brought up by the producers as a whim and shot down quickly amuses Dean. Ironically, it is the very thing they end up using in the movie after Sam and Dean, actually solving the case employ them.
The creator of the monster in this episode is appropriately a writer. Walter Dixon wrote the script that has been since rewritten to sell to the average movie goer. They’ve replaced his careful attention to detail and use of real incantations with “cleavage and fart jokes.” This expresses a frustration within the Hollywood system that favors the lowest common denominator in entertainment over quality. In the episode, Dixon wants to punish the executives and other producers for ruining his life’s work. He summons and then binds to a talisman a number of ghosts to kill at his beck and call.
Unfortunately for Dixon, he smashes it, releasing the spirits from his control. At this, they set out to murder him for forcing them to kill at all. This death will later be repeated in “The French Mistake” when Eric Kripke and a number of the producers are gunned down in the episode.