From Alice – I’m constantly surprised how popular “Supernatural” is as a topic in the academic world. Our college professor friends at Fangasm use “Supernatural” a lot for their fandom studies, and even our own staff member Bookdal has written papers on this show and others in terms of the characters and how they stand in traditional themes in literature. There are whole conferences that feature multiple papers on “Supernatural.” The show inspires in ways many of us could never imagine!
This academic thesis, submitted by guest writer Ellaine, was written back in season five. I always love anything that digs deep into “Supernatural” themes and seasons one through five gave plenty in that regard. So, I hope you don’t mind something different (since we have a long Hellatus to kill), but here’s part one (part two to be shared soon) on “The Concept of Good and Evil In Supernatural.”
Since the 18th century the Devil has been slowly disenchanted in Europe. European philosophy and culture reduced the demons to the role of inner metaphors or caricature figures and stripped them of their frightening influence on people’s imagination. At the same time in America it is still a seriously taken subject, according to the Puritan tradition, which shaped American mentality. This tradition seems to be still alive – the Evil needs to be visible and recognized to mark the boundary between good and evil. The message of North American pop culture is: take a look but don’t follow the example, as Robert Muchembled suggests. There is a need to take a closer look at the evil to recognize the danger, but only under the condition that this example would not be followed. The Devil is still alive in America and symbolizes the borderline that should not be crossed. Although Puritanism seemingly lost on impact and influence, it is still present in American culture and the witches from Salem are still haunting American consciousness.
Rationalism and empiricism seem to have superseded all forms of irrationalism, but especially popular culture witnesses a renaissance in topics revolving around the supernatural, over the last few years. Since the big commercial success and critical acclaim of series like X-Files or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, showrunners and TV stations willingly delve into the world of witches, vampires, ghosts and all other kind of preternatural creatures. Almost all TV stations today have in their offer at least one show somewhat connected to this genre and series like True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Charmed, Angel, Carnivale, Ghost Whisperer, Moonlight, Reaper, Pushing Daisies, Heroes and Fringe, or series at least partially using supernatural topics, such as Smallville and Lost gained popularity and prove that there is still space for mysteries and unexplained phenomena in our highly materialistic and pragmatic world. Popularity of those shows outside the United States confirms that the secularized Europe still shows interest for myths and fairy tales. Perhaps this retreat indicates some kind of longing for a substitute of religion, to fill the pragmatic reality with a spark of the mysterious and the unknown.
Those of the series, which appeal to our sensitivity and ask the still basic questions about the nature of humans and of good and evil, have the chance to become our modern mythologies. Created by Eric Kripke in 2005, Supernatural has already become a cult series. Delving in urban legends and at the same time asking questions about the sources of good and evil and analyzing troubled relationships within a dysfunctional family of hunters, “Supernatural is more than a show about fighting demons. It’s about more than a cool car, a kick-ass soundtrack and hot guys with guns. Supernatural is about family and sacrifice and heroism – about good and evil and the choices you make to stay in the hunt.”
This paper is an attempt to analyze Eric Kripke’s conception of good and evil presented in his show Supernatural and to answer the questions about how far is the Evil in the universe of the Winchester brothers depending on human choice and what part of it is an inevitable result of instincts or predestination (if at all). For the purpose of this analysis the characters have been divided into groups, depending on their adherence to either purely supernatural beings, humans or boundary cases (however, it is not fully possible to draw clear lines in this classification since many of the characters could belong to more than just one group). The last chapter concentrates on an in-depth analysis of Sam Winchester – one of the two main characters of the show – and his road to perdition and redemption.
I. The Supernatural
Dean: What part of ‘vampire’ didn’t you understand, Sam? If it’s supernatural, we kill. End of story. That’s our job.
Sam: No, Dean. That’s not our job. Our job is hunting evil. And if these things aren’t killing people, then they’re not evil! (“Bloodlust”)
The story starts simple – two brothers looking for their missing father and getting rid of all kinds of supernatural creatures, which endanger humans. The line between good and evil seems to be drawn very clearly – Sam and Dean Winchester as the good heroes on the one side and the whole preternatural world, hidden from the eye of the regular mortals, on the other. The majority of creatures the Winchesters encounter on their journey across America are those of supernatural nature. Taking the concept of the show, everything out of this world should be considered as a threat to humans and therefore eliminated. Because in Supernatural all the imaginary evil from the other side is not a metaphor anymore – it is real. As Dean says in an argument with Sam “Don’t be afraid of the dark? What, are you kidding me? Of course you should be afraid of the dark. You know what’s out there!” (“Pilot”) But as the story progresses the boundary between black and white becomes blurred, and not everything is what it seems to be at the first glance or according to the traditional interpretation. The Winchesters encounter beings whose motives and nature are at least controversial and not clearly evil, because it is not obvious if they are really to be blamed for their actions.
Even if they are never really portrayed as mindless devils, but more like intelligent individuals with their own twisted argumentation, a big group of the â€˜monsters of the week’ is plain evil, and they physically or mentally feed on humans – siren from “Sex and Violence”, shapeshifters, djin, pagan gods from “A Very Supernatural Christmas” alongside with the Norse god from “Scarecrow” and Leshi from “Fallen Idols”, creepy changelings, crocotta, ghuls, wraiths and shtrigas. Remarkably, those are beings of purely supernatural nature. What about those who were humans themselves? What about good in the reality filled up with so much evil?
1. Even the spirits are afraid
“The pilot sets up one of the show’s constants: angry spirits are created by violent death. The angry spirits are responding to violence done to them.” Peter Sweeney punishes men, who accidentally drowned him when they were kids (“Dead in the Water”), Maggie tries to defend her home and protect her family (“Playthings”), Jonah Greeley every year haunts the road where he got killed and punishes people who pass there (“Roadkill”), Callie tries to tell her father the truth about her death by making cruel fairy-tales become real (“Bedtime Stories”). Some of the ghosts are just lost and the strong bound to their lives and their relatives prevents them from moving on. A good example of this kind of spirits would be Molly from “Roadkill” who does not even realize that she died fifteen years ago, Cole Griffith who cannot leave his grieving mother (“Death Takes a Holiday”), or Father Thomas Gregory who after his sudden death sees punishing sinners as his mission (“Houses of the Holy”). Dean Winchester too was “in danger of becoming an angry spirit, having to choose between accepting his death and moving on, or continuing to fight death and haunt the hospital.” Some of the spirits may even help people – Claire Becker warns the victims of a murderer (“The Usual Suspects”), Corbett saves lives of his friends (“Ghostfacers”). But obviously there are purely malevolent spirits, as Dean says about Nurse Glockner “In life, she’s a vigilante. In death, the same thing.” (“Folsom Prison Blues”). The same applies to the ghost of preacher Jacob Karns (“Hook Man”), the murderous little Melanie who slaughtered her adoptive family, Doctor Ellicott and America’s first serial killer H.H. Holmes (“No Exit”). An interesting reversal of perspective on the other hand is the angry ghost of the school bully Dirk, from the time Sam and Dean were still teenagers – the deeper the Winchesters look into his story, the more they realize that what seemed to Sam to be an act of bravery and heroism back then, added in fact to someone’s misery and makes him responsible for creating the vengeful spirit of “Dirk – the jerk” (“After School Special”). The villain turns out to be a victim himself, with a dying mother and personal issues, and the supposedly good-willed hero having good intentions triggers evil.
Whether they are good, evil or confused – the ghosts in Supernatural always have a back-story rooted in their once human lives and the show tries to understand them and go beyond the image of supernatural as mindless evil. As Sam tries to explain it to Molly:
Molly: I don’t understand how a guy like this can turn into that monster?
Sam: Spirits like Greeleyâ€¦ are like wounded animals. Lost. In so much pain that they lash out.
Molly: Why? Why are they here?
Sam: Well, there’s some part of them that’s keeping them here. Like their remainsâ€¦ or unfinished business. It could be revenge. It could be love or hate. Whatever it is, they just hold on too tight. Can’t let go. So they’re trapped. Caught in the same loops. Replaying the same tragedies over and over.
Molly: You sound almost sorry for them.
Sam: Well, they weren’t evil people. You know – A lot of them were good. Justâ€¦ something happened to them. Something they couldn’t control. (“Roadkill”)
In season’s two episode “Bloodlust” the Winchester brothers discover that also vampires are not all bloodthirsty monsters, like they have been portrayed earlier in the series. Their opinion about the creatures changes when they investigate the case of cattle mutilation and meet a group of human friendly vampires who refuse to drink human blood and feed on animals. Lenore not only sets Sam free but also passes Gordon Walker’s test and is able to repress her thirst as Gordon lets Sam’s blood drop on her face. She pushes the two brother hunters into an uncomfortable situation and forces them, for the first time, to have doubts and to realize that “they’ve basically been raised as â€˜monster racists’.” As Dean says to Sam “Think about the hunts we went on, our whole lives. What if we killed things that didn’t deserve killing? I mean, the way dad raised usâ€¦ The way he raised us to hate those things?” (“Bloodlust”)
Nevertheless, not all of the otherworldly creatures have a chance to decide – sometimes it is people who make decisions and choices to use the supernatural for their own purposes and even against its will. When Pastor Le Grange loses his eyesight and eventually his faith, his wife uses a spell to bind a Reaper. She convinces her husband that now he can miraculously heal dying people in order to give him back a purpose in life, even if he is unaware of the fact that the Reaper has to take another life to give it to someone (“Faith”). As for the Reapers being the only neutral supernatural entities in the universe of Supernatural, she is the one responsible for the evil.
As much as Sue Ann Le Grange’s motivation can still be understandable to a certain degree – she is desperate and wants to help her husband – the Winchesters often have to deal with people who deliberately use the supernatural to harm the others or do not fully realize the consequences of their doing. Revenge and jealousy is what drives the production assistant Walter Dixon in “Hollywood Babylon” to summon ghosts of tragically deceased actors from a Hollywood studio. In the name of what he believes is justice, Walter kills the people who stole and ruined his script, but ironically the moment he destroys the talisman used for summoning rituals, the ghosts – angry for being forced to kill against their will – punish him the same way.
Using black magic and ancient spells without thinking of the consequences may sometimes bring bad outcomes and those who decide to do it, often have to pay the highest price for their wrong decisions. Neil, the young assistant of Professor Mason does not realize that “what’s dead should stay dead” (Dean, “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”) when he brings back Angela, whom he secretly loves, after she died in a car crash. Not until the zombie girl murders her boyfriend, who cheated on her, almost kills the other girl, and finally Neil himself. Neither do the students from “Hell House” understand the danger, when – just for fun – they create the Tulpa of Mordecai Murdoch, bringing him to â€˜life’ with a Tibetan sigil and a horrifying story spread around the Internet, or the kids who summon a demon and almost get Dean killed and Sam handed out to Lucifer.
2. Today we all are demons
Nancy: When I was little I would come home from church and talk about the devil. My parents would tell me to stop being so literal. I guess I showed them, huh? (“Jus in Bello”)
Starting from season three, the major part of the supernatural world are demons. Having the form of black smoke, they need to possess a human to get a body if they want to interfere with the outside world. They are portrayed as manipulative, violent entities, wreaking havoc and destruction wherever they appear. There are no exceptions among them – all demons cause harm and are evil, no matter how fascinating and charismatic Azazel, Alastair, Casey, Crowley or Lilith (most of the time taking form of a cute little girl) may be as characters. Even Ruby, who claims to remember how it was to be human (“Malleus Maleficarum”) and helps Winchesters on many occasions, even saving their lives and eventually becoming Sam’s accomplice and lover, in the end turns out to be a traitor, feeding him on demon blood to strengthen his psychic powers and finally manipulating him into breaking the last seal and opening the doors to Lucifer’s prison and preparing him as devil’s vessel. The apparently more human demon outdoes the other demons in treachery and manipulation when she uses Sam’s weakness and state of emotional devastation after his brother’s death to achieve her end by playing the supportive comforter. Evil seems to be an inherent demonic trait and “Manipulative’s kinda in the job description.” (Ruby, “No Rest for the Wicked”). Considering the pattern of good and evil in the series, this particular coherence in describing demons without any trace of grey seems to be an exception. But as the analyses go on deeper and reach to the roots of demons’ existence par excellence, the exception only supports the philosophy behind the show’s plot. It becomes evident, that “demons, too, are beings whose evil results from human choice.”
According to Judeo-Christian tradition, demons are mostly fallen angels (like Azazel or Astaroth, who both make an appearance in the series, (although their origins have never been explained) who broke Heaven’s rules or rebelled against God alongside with Lucifer. Kripke replaces this familiar myth with a new history of demonic lineage. In “Malleus Maleficarum” Ruby reveals to Dean that every demon was once a human being:
Dean: You were human once, you died and went to hell, and you became aâ€¦
Dean: So all of them, every damn demon – they’re all human once?
Ruby: Everyone I’ve ever met.
Dean: Well, they sure don’t act like it.
Ruby: Most of them have forgotten what it means. Or even that they were. That’s what happens when you go to hell, Dean. That’s what hell is. Forgetting what you are. (â€¦) Yes, the same thing will happen to you. Might take centuries, but sooner or later, hell will burn away your humanity. Every hell-bound soul, every one turns into something else. Turns you into us.
There is no place for humanity in hell and after it gets burnt away, “a demon is what one would see in the mirror once all pretensions of humanity were stripped away.” Ruby’s suggestion is worrying for Dean, who at the end of season two sold his soul to resurrect his brother and now is more and more scared by this perspective. The next episode in fact shows him facing a demonic doppelganger in a nightmare – Dean’s greatest fear of becoming something he was hunting his whole life and hated the most – a truly ironic turn for a hunter.
This means also that all people, who ever made a deal with a demon, will eventually become part of the demonic hordes. George Darrow sold his soul in exchange for artistic talent, Evan Hudson to save his wife from cancer, Bella Talbot to get rid of her abusive parents, Dean to resurrect his brother – it does not seem to have any significance, what was their reason for the deal. Interfering with the normal way of life with the assistance of unholy forces makes it a sin already, no matters whether the intentions were good or not. The same applies to witches, like Ruby and the suburban wives from “Malleus Maleficarum”, who make deals with demons to receive the knowledge of witchcraft.
Though, the idea of humans turning into demons is bad news not only for those who for some reason await punishment in hell after their death, but for Sam Winchester too, whose demonic nature inevitably comes to the surface.
3. Father Lucifer
Similar to humans and angels, demons too have their beliefs and something, which could be called their own religion. This idea that sounds like a mirrored and inverted Bible is for the first time introduced by the demon possessing Casey in “Sin City”, as she explains it to Dean:
Casey: Some [demons] are true believers. What, you think humans have an exclusive on a higher power?
Dean: You have a god?
Casey: Sure, his name’s Lucifer.
Dean: You mean the devil?
Casey: Your word, not ours. Lucifer actually means “light bringer”. Look it up. Once, he was the most beautiful of all God’s angels. But God demanded that he bow down before man, and when he refused, God banished him. They say he made us into what we are. They say that he’ll return. So you see? Is my kind really all that different than yours?
Kripke’s Lucifer appears to be patterned after the Talmud, where he is the angel, who rebelled against God out of jealousy of mankind. He is a soft spoken, cultivated Devil from Milton’s Paradise Lost, very far from the image of a bloodthirsty monster. Actually, Casey is not so far from the truth when she compares demons to humans, considering that all demons were humans back then, including Lilith – “Lucifer’s first” (Ruby, “Lucifer Rising”), and the reason, why they have been created in the first place. Morning Star makes it clear during the conversation with Dean from the season five’s episode The End, where the older Winchester has the opportunity to take a trip in the post-apocalyptic future and see what will happen, if his brother becomes one with the Devil. The ideology behind his rebellious actions is less directed at God (“Because I loved Him, more than anything”, “The End”) than at the “little hairless apes” – humans – whom he sees as “flawed, murderous” creatures, deserving nothing more than to be wiped out from the surface of the Earth. Therefore demons as an act of anti-creation serve as a proof of mankind’s inborn inclination for evil – humans do not deserve the high position in creation’s hierarchy and are certainly not superior to angels, being just a bunch of wild and violent animals that kill each other on the first best occasion. History only convinces Lucifer of the validity of his argument, as he says “Look what the six billions of you have done to this thing. And how many of you blame me for it?” (“The End”) Consequently, humans do not need the Devil to turn into demons – it is all a matter of their own choices. They do not even need the demonic assistance, as mentioned by Casey in “Sin City”:
I didn’t pull any triggers. I had a lunch. Me and Trotter. And I just pointed out the money that could be made with a few businesses that cater to harmless vice. So Trotter built it and, man, did they come. Supposedly God-fearing folk, waist-deep in sex, booze, gambling. I barely lifted a finger. All you gotta do is nudge humans in the right direction. Some whiskey here, a hooker there. And they will walk right into hell with big, fat smiles on their faces. Your kind is corrupt, Dean. Weak.
Merely, demons like Casey or Meg are blinded by their own faith in their creator as their savior – in fact the fallen angel who hates human race values them even less than Homo sapiens. “They’re just demons”, as he says shrugging while sacrificing a bunch of them for a ritual in “Abandon All Hope”.