Supernatural University: On the Genesis and Regenesis of Monsters
Supernatural has always done its own takes on classic monsters, often giving them unique twists. Over the seasons, the show has also revisited monsters, sometimes appearing to change the monster rules in the process.
I’ve written a lot about monsters in Supernatural over the years, and I haven’t been shy about criticizing changes that made no sense to me and appeared to have no logical support. Reapers, anyone? Witches becoming and being able to do whatever thing the writers wanted? But I’m not bothered by a lot of the changes, and thought it might help others if I explained why.
My reasons are fivefold. Four of them are simply that the monster “lore” itself – often based on previous hunter encounters, ancient legends, and unreliable campfire stories – is necessarily incomplete and potentially misleading because:
- Most of the available monster sample sizes are too small to support reliable generalization from the specific to the species;
- Hunters (unlike the Men of Letters) are focused primarily on killing, not on studying and understanding;
- Hunters (not to mention the MOL!) often have not shared information they have with each other; and
- Tales from non-hunters often have spread confounding misinformation.
The show has relied on those four things right from the beginning to provide a rationale for even established, classical monsters not to be predictable and thus boring.
My fifth point is that season six of the show established an additional reason for many monsters to change rules, since their creator – Eve, an adjunct of Leviathan – returned to Earth from Purgatory for the first time in ten thousand years and was able to tweak their parameters. We don’t yet know whether those changes survived Eve’s demise, but we also don’t know whether those “changes” were actually new tweaks or were a function of the Winchesters and other hunters learning better information as they were exposed to a larger sample size of representative monsters.
Let me explain my reasoning, using werewolves as a pertinent and timely case in point.
Season 2’s Heart was our first direct encounter with werewolves. In that episode, Dean said they hadn’t encountered a werewolf since they were kids, and that suggested the silver-tipped crossbow bolt Dean earlier mentioned in Bloodlust – recounting for Gordon his first monster kill at the age of sixteen – might well have been shot at a werewolf. It seems to me a werewolf would have been much more likely than a shapeshifter or skinwalker, given the brothers’ limited knowledge of those creatures in Skin and All Dogs Go To Heaven, respectively. That conclusion also may be supported both by the summer werewolf-hunt short story Sam wrote at Truman High School in season 4’s After School Special, and by Dean’s snarky but possibly truthful comment in season 9’s Bad Boys that the bruises on his wrists – which Sonny clearly assumed were parental abuse – were caused by a werewolf.
Madison’s case led to the brothers summarizing the werewolf lore they and Bobby knew at the time, including the possible cure John had speculated about that Bobby already knew to be a dead end: the thing about killing the werewolf that had infected a victim. This was an early demonstration that even hunters who knew each other well, like John and Bobby, didn’t necessarily share all they learned with each other, whether because they thought the other already knew, because they got caught up in the next hunt and forgot, or for some other reason. When Dean killed werewolf Glen, the brothers also made the brand-new-to-them discovery that these infected, bitten humans didn’t even know they were werewolves or what their werewolf-selves had done. That absence of self-knowledge combined with the apparent impossibility of control created the tragedy of Sam killing Madison at her own request to prevent her from turning into a monster again and hurting others.
Eve’s advent in season six apparently brought some changes to werewolves, particularly in terms of when they could change form with regard to the lunar cycle. Samuel mentioned in Exile On Main Street werewolves who turned on the half moon, not the full, and nocturnal monsters hunting in daylight. For reasons I’ll get into later, however, that anomaly might not have had anything to do with Eve at all.
Beginning in Two And A Half Men and developing throughout season six, we also learned that the oldest monsters – particularly the Alphas, the first of their kind – were substantially stronger than newer ones not only because their vast experience made them more cunning, but because their powers themselves, closer to the point of their creation, were more pure, developed, and refined than those of their more time-diluted offspring. We didn’t meet the Alpha Werewolf, but we have no reason to think he or she would have been weaker than the Alpha Vampire or Alpha Shapeshifter.
Bitten expanded on that idea with the brothers’ discovery of a previously unknown-to-them entry in an old hunter’s journal – possibly one from the Campbell collection? – suggesting that werewolves turned up to four generations from the “pureblood” (presumably Alpha) remained self-aware, could change without regard for the lunar cycle, and were less feral, with some ability to control themselves and restrict their diet to animal hearts rather than human ones if they were determined enough. While Michael, infected by the professor – a presumably “close-to-pureblood” who had only occasionally slipped up and killed a human, and deliberately bit Michael to cover his mistake by giving hunters an obvious patsy to kill – wasn’t conscious of his first transformation and didn’t initially remember what he did during it, once he understood what was going on and had video evidence of the truth, he began to recall things. He, Brian, and Kate were all – unlike poor Madison – able to understand what they were and exert some choice and control over themselves, with Kate even resolving to not eat people.
Sharp Teeth, with its story of generations of werewolves born to the condition living in organized family packs in full awareness and control of their natures, and indicating that bitten humans like Reverend Jim and Garth could learn to recognize and control their were-selves, seemed to depart even more than Bitten from most of that prior lore we knew on werewolves. I know that troubled a lot of fans, who perceived it as a retcon of previous lore in the show. I wasn’t nearly as disturbed, and this is why.
Let’s start with a look at monster reproduction.
Born Or Made?
First off, I’m excluding certain beings from my taxonomy of monsters in this particular section of the discussion because we’ve been told their origins were different. The ones I’m leaving out are:
- Angels, because they reportedly were created directly by God;
- Leviathan, also reportedly created directly by God even before angels;
- Ghosts, who are simply human souls who refuse to depart from Earth when they die;
- Demons, who are the twisted remnants of human souls consigned to torture in Hell;
- Witches, who in the show are simply humans who either have made deals with other supernatural beings in order to gain power or (like “white witches,” some hunters, or Chef Leo from Dog Day Afternoon) have found and been able to utilize potent spell-recipes that trigger abnormal real-world effects without the need for a deal with a demon or other being;
- Other non-witch humans who deliberately transform themselves into monsters by violating societal taboos or pursuing means of violating the natural order, such as wendigos, the Benders, and Doc Benton;
- Tulpas and similar thought-form beings, which exist simply because humans believe in them;
- The denizens of Fairie, which purportedly are native to an alternate dimension; and
- Reapers, because I’m too confused about them to try categorizing their origins.
We were told by both Samuel Campbell and Eve’s Khan-worm in And Then There Were None that most if not all of the rest of the supernatural monsters we’ve met in Supernatural were apparently crafted by Eve in pre-history warping or infecting baseline human stock to produce her Alpha monsters. There’s a certain logical symmetry in that, especially when you consider the Alpha Vampire’s claim in There Will Be Blood that Eve was related to Leviathan. After all, the two things all those monsters – even dragons – seem to have in common include either having or usurping an essentially human form (which is useful, given that the actors portraying the monsters are all human!), and preying on humans for sustenance; both traits the Leviathan took to extremes. It also provides a satisfying rationale – for me, at least – about why most of the show’s monsters are so boringly fixated on eating people.
We’ve seen established monsters reproduce in two different ways: infection or sexual reproduction. Infection seemed most common. For example, we’ve seen vampires, werewolves, skinwalkers, and Jefferson Starships multiply by infecting humans and transforming them into copycat monsters. Monsters who reproduce by infection have one major advantage: they can increase their numbers at high speed because they don’t need to wait for their “offspring” to mature before they become effective. To me, however, that rapid multiplication is also their greatest weakness, because their newly made offspring tend to be sloppy and careless, making them obvious hunts and relatively easy kills.
I think the rugaru of season four’s Metamorphosis was the first monster we were shown as definitively reproducing sexually. (The changelings of The Kids Are Alright came in both grownup and juvenile flavors, but for all we know, since killing the grownup did for the kids too, the apparent juveniles might just have been extensions of the mom-creature. That’s a mystery for another day!) Jack Montgomery, the rugaru we met, appeared to be and thought himself a normal human, but he carried from his father and presumably passed down to his unborn child a genetic trait that caused a monstrous transformation to occur in adulthood if his sudden voracious appetite for human flesh was not successfully repressed.
We learned that sexual reproduction – monsters having genetic children manifesting their same natures, whether through crossbreeding with humans or by liaisons with like monsters – also applied to ghouls in Jump The Shark, djinn in Exile On Main Street and Pac Man Fever, shapeshifters in Two And A Half Men, and kitsune in The Girl Next Door. We were introduced in those episodes to the idea of parent monsters knowingly raising their children and teaching them to survive and pass in the human world by hunting judiciously to stay off hunter radar.
Until Sharp Teeth, I don’t believe we’d knowingly encountered one monster using both means of reproduction, but I see no reason why the werewolf design would preclude it. The Winchesters even theorized that poor hapless Glen back in Heart bit Madison not to kill her, but to transform her into a suitable mate. As a human, he didn’t know what he was doing, but his were-form apparently retained his affection and desire for his beautiful, unattainable neighbor and pursued a strategy to get her.
That said, the question remains why we and the Winchesters had never heard – in the context of the show – of self-aware, self-controlled werewolves before Bitten, or of genetic werewolf family packs before Sharp Teeth. The obvious real-world writer reason is simply that the brothers discovering and being surprised by these new developments made for good stories, so information they hadn’t found before conveniently became available just in time. Truth is, that’s been the case for every single monster hunt through the entire history of the show – and the show’s design incorporates that, which is why it doesn’t bother me. That takes me back to those first four reasons I mentioned at the beginning of this discussion. Let me clarify.
The Intentional Information Gap
In order to keep surprising us even when building a story around a monster we’ve met before, Supernatural relies on playing an information shell game, hiding the essential thing we don’t know while distracting us into looking at something else. Most of the time, it works pretty smoothly precisely because the show established from the outset that hunters aren’t a trusting lot and play their cards close to their vests, so reliable first-person information can be hard to come by.
The other major factor working in its favor is the whole concept underlying the show that most monsters are statistically rare, which explains why the majority of people know nothing about them apart from their echoes in urban legends, folk tales, and horror/fantasy stories. As fans of the show and witnesses to years of Winchester adventures, we’re conditioned to accept monsters being everywhere and the brothers’ cases all being truly supernatural in nature. Still, we have to remember that in the show, we usually see only their seminal hunts. Hunts that turned out to be non-monster things wouldn’t become episodes unless they made good stories in their own right, like The Benders and Family Remains. Chuck’s narration in Swan Song reminded us there were time gaps between cases, at least until the apocalypse preparation heated up, when the brothers sometimes even did things just for fun.
Monster rarity also plays directly into the problem of the unreliability of drawing general conclusions from isolated specific cases. The more times we’ve met a monster, the more things we’ve learned about it, and the more reliable our conclusions became – but even then, we have to remember that our knowledge isn’t complete, and thus our assumptions might be mistaken. We may have based our conclusion on a carefully crafted misinterpretation of what we saw, or been misled by thinking an outlier represented a central tendency.
Let’s look at some examples.
Demons are my first classic go-to monster for illustrating these principles. Our first exposure to demons in Supernatural was season one’s Phantom Traveler, and the brothers made clear they weren’t yet experienced at dealing with demons. At the time, Sam and Dean didn’t even know about the broader community of hunters they finally began to meet in season two: their information sources were limited to John’s journal; the few hunters they knew personally because John had arranged it, including Pastor Jim, Caleb, and Bobby (although we didn’t actually meet or hear about Bobby until Devil’s Trap); some books; and the internet. We later heard from Bobby in Devil’s Trap that instances of demonic possession were vanishingly rare in his research and experience – no more than three or four cases in a year – up until things started to go majorly crazy with the show’s march toward the apocalypse. Because of that, it wasn’t surprising to me that some of the core demon lore the brothers had in Phantom Traveler eventually turned out to be crap. I would posit it was based on too few confirmed data inputs to permit reliable extrapolation.
Think about it. The brothers believed the conclusions they read in their available sources, particularly including that people were susceptible to possession if they were fearful or beset by other negative emotions. With that belief in operation, the brothers and other hunters didn’t make a practice of using symbols to guard against being possessed themselves because they thought their knowledge protected them and the danger of possession was rare. We’ve all learned since then that virtually anyone can be possessed; hell, we’ve seen both Sam (Born Under A Bad Sign) and Bobby (Sympathy For The Devil) taken by demons despite knowing signs to watch for and being predisposed to fight against possession. While it’s probably easier for a demon to stay in possession of someone inclined to be influenced – just look at The Magnificent Seven jumping into people who embodied their principles, for example – we’ve learned the only reliable way for someone to prevent possession is to wear a potent symbol blocking it. Even then, we’ve seen that any symbol worn – even as a tattoo – can be undone by a forewarned demon disfiguring or removing it (What’s Up, Tiger Mommy).
The brothers’ earlier information was based on insufficient evidence. I’d guess hunters drew mistaken conclusions based on what they saw from the very few documented instances of possession. We know now that the inferences they drew to explain why certain people and not others were possessed were simply wrong. Demons present a perfect illustration of how monster rarity could skew the information presented on them, and how an increase in sample size could present new and better data leading to amending understanding.
For a smaller and simpler direct demonstration, look at the vitalas of season seven’s Adventures In Babysitting. Sam, equipped only with John’s journal account of the one and only vitala hunt he’d done, assumed he, like John, was up against a single monster. Dean told Krissy he’d almost died making the same mistake before he learned John’s hunt hadn’t been typical and realized he was up against a matched pair. Dean hadn’t updated John’s journal, but since John had been alive at the time, Dean might very well not have thought twice about it, figuring he’d told his dad and knew the information himself. Sam hadn’t known because he was away at college at the time, and we’ve never seen Sam perusing Dean’s personal journal. Unlike fans of the show, hunters don’t have a central Wiki collecting and organizing their information; one hunter may well learn the truth, but never share it with the rest of the hunter universe. That failure to share – like Dean’s here – may be due simply to circumstance, or to things like the Campbells’ mistrust of non-family hunters and the MOL’s structure as a secret society restricting knowledge to its members.
And for all those reasons, I’m not tweaked by the seemingly changing lore around werewolves. It occurs to me that most hunter encounters with werewolves could well have involved outliers: bitten humans who became weres by careless infection and attracted hunter attention precisely because they were ignorant of their condition and didn’t know any better than to be sloppy killers. It would have been reasonable for hunters to conclude that the werewolves they killed were typical of all werewolves – but they might have entirely missed the genetic variety simply because lycanthropes raised to full understanding of what they were in a family pack and trained from childhood to avoid attention never pinged on hunter radar. Even if some – like Joy’s brother or the Reverend’s first wife – did get careless and fall to hunters, they might well have protected the rest of their families by pretending to represent the ignorant lone wolf stereotype the hunters expected to find.
This also suggests to me that, irrespective of the whole “close to pureblood” concept raised in Bitten, even a run-of-the-mill infected werewolf like Madison might have been able to develop self-awareness and control over time had she been given both knowledge and coaching, as Garth, Reverend Jim, and Kate were. The “close to pureblood” explanation itself may just have been that unknown hunter’s attempt to explain why one unusual werewolf he had hunted defied his expectations; it may be as wrong as the “cure a werewolf by killing the one who turned her” theory turned out to be. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that knowledge, understanding, and training – not proximity to the Alpha generation or even being born to it rather than infected by it – are the keys to werewolves being able to control their changes and their natures. I think we still have the opportunity to learn more and different things about what makes werewolves tick.
I’m also particularly curious to learn what lore the MOL bunker may have on werewolves, because the MOL – unlike run-of-the-mill hunters – placed an emphasis on studying and understanding things, rather than concentrating simply on learning how to kill them. I would not be surprised if the brothers, finally given a little time to explore the wealth of data in the bunker, discovered documentation on genetic family packs of werewolves, and perhaps on other monsters – say, skinwalkers? – being able to breed true as well as multiply by infection.
There are definitely some silly points about monster lore reveals in episodes that just make me shake my head. On the werewolf front, that includes the Reverend Jim’s lycanthrope family chowing down on raw organs at the dinner table while in their fully human forms. Since all our previous werewolves ate and drank normally while looking human and went for raw hearts only when in their wolf shapes, that struck me as absurd – particularly with pie promised for dessert. Maybe sticking to a raw diet (plus pie) is part of the key to being able to resist eating human hearts? Whatever.
I also had to laugh at Dean instantly finding on the internet corroboration for and expansion of the Fenris-worshiper interpretation of Ragnarok after seeing the ancient wolf scripture in Reverend Jim’s office. It would have made more sense to me if all the new wolf-cult information came from the previously unknown lycanthrope book; that, at least, would have supported the brothers never having had the opportunity to come across any of it before. I think the internet bit was a careless choice that undermined organized werewolf religion being a revelation new to hunters. But I’m quibbling.
I suspect the single biggest reason for Sharp Teeth being written was to help set up Supernatural: Tribes, the new series, by establishing the existence of long-standing, genetically bonded werewolf families and suggesting multiple other monsters might live in similar organized communities hunters never knew about precisely because the monsters were careful not to attract attention. I must admit, I’m not fond of that idea, in part because the proliferation of monsters in organized groups makes their societal invisibility ridiculously implausible. That was one of my very many complaints about the absolutely execrable Man’s Best Friend With Benefits: the whole idea that St. Louis would have a classy witch jazz club where many witches of every type, stripe, and belief system would hang out, socialize, and enforce a common moral code while remaining absolutely secret from the human city was utterly absurd. If Tribes calls back to that kind of setup, it won’t work for me because it won’t pass my laugh test. But that’s just me.
I do not doubt we will continue to find new wrinkles on old monsters as new cases bring us more data prompting us – and the Winchesters – to revise the things we thought we knew. And most of the time, understanding the importance of sample size to study reliability and the impact of secrecy on data exchange, I really won’t mind. Bring on the Wiki updates!