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â€˜Abandon all hope, you who enter!â€™
- Dante Alighieriâ€™s inscription at the entrance to Hell
We donâ€™t know much about hell. In Supernaturalâ€™s universe it is a place where one month becomes a decade. It is a â€˜prison made of bone and flesh and blood and fear.â€™ It is â€˜a pit of despairâ€™, where human souls are turned into demons via endless years of agony.
All we have seen of hell are a few peeks, as Dean, after being torn up by hellhounds, hung suspended from hooks violently forced through his wrists and ankles, shoulder and abdomen, screaming for help and for the one soul who meant everything to him â€“ Sam. No one heard him. No one cared. Another glimpse of hell was given by flashbacks Dean experienced when he awoke in his coffin, remembering fragments of his time there â€“ his panic stricken, wide open eyes, blood everywhere, accompanied by jarring screams.
And we are aware of what he told Sam: â€˜â€¦they sliced and carved and tore at me in ways that youâ€¦ until there was nothing left. And then suddenly, I would be whole again, like magic. Just so they could start in all over. And Alistairâ€¦ at the end of every day, every one, he would come over and he would make me an offer: to take me off the rack, if I put souls on. If I started the torture. And every day I told him to stick it where the sun shinesâ€¦ For thirty years I told him. But then I couldnâ€™t do it anymore, Sammy, I couldnâ€™tâ€¦ And I got off that rack. God help me, I got right off and I started ripping them apart. I lost count of how many souls. The things that I did to themâ€¦ â€¦ how I feel? Thisâ€¦. inside meâ€¦ I wish I couldnâ€™t feel anything, Sammy. I wish I couldnâ€™t feel a damn thing.â€™
We donâ€™t need to become familiar with any more details. To watch Dean and his reactions to the memories coming over him is more than enough. And, frankly, does anyone of us really want to know what the demons of hell did to him? What ever it was â€“ it changed Dean profoundly. The man who returned from hell was still, essentially, Dean Winchester, loving brother and hunter of the paranormal, but he was also a broken, stunned and devastated survivor of torture. Being that, his reaction to an abnormal and unspeakable experience was absolutely normal and natural â€“ in clinical terms it is described as posttraumatic stress.
Before explaining more about that, I will take a look at torture and the psychology of it. I believe it imperative to understand the phenomenon to be able to realize what it does to a person subjected to torture.
The invasion of torture
An official United Nations document, the â€˜Manual on Effective Investigation and Documentation of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishmentâ€™, known as the â€˜Istanbul Protocolâ€™, describes it as follows:
â€˜One of the central aims of torture is to reduce an individual to a position of extreme helplessness and distress that can lead to a deterioration of cognitive, emotional and behavioural functions. Thus, torture is a means of attacking an individualâ€™s fundamental modes of psychological and social functioning. Under such circumstances, the torturer strives not only to incapacitate physically a victim but also to disintegrate the individualâ€™s personality. By dehumanizing and breaking the will of its victims (â€¦) torture can profoundly damage intimate relationships between spouses, parents, children and other family members and relationships between the victims and their communities.â€™
The disintegration of Deanâ€™s personality happened over the course of three decades, and eventually he did what he (given normal circumstances) never would have even considered while alive: torture others to save himself. The Dean we got to know throughout this show would have rather died.
The World Medical Association defined torture in its â€˜Declaration of Tokyoâ€™ as this: â€˜the deliberate, systematic or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons acting alone or on the orders of any authority, to force another person to yield information, to make a confession, or for any other reason.â€™
The declared goal of Alistair and his torturing bunch was not to get information of any kind, but to get Dean to break the first seal, to start the apocalypse. Thatâ€™s what they needed him to do (but, of course they did not tell him. Itâ€™s safe to assume, given what we know about Alistair, that he tortured Dean without even telling him why. Torture is commonplace in hell, usually without any further purpose. And, eventually, they managed to weaken Dean enough to get him to pick up the blade and be the â€˜righteous manâ€™ who â€˜sheds blood in hellâ€™, thereby â€˜jumpstarting the apocalypse.â€™
The human body is the one place where we know our privacy and inviolability to be safe. We are in control of it (as far as that is possible, of course). We decide how to dress it, feed it and in which manner to take care of it. It is our own country, one we take with us wherever we go.
During torture, this safe region is invaded and violated by acts of perverted intimacy, as the pain is inflicted via e.g. physical methods, psychological, pharmacological, but also sexual violence. It is done repeatedly, often publicly. The sadistic, deliberate manner in which torture is administered results in long-lasting, often irreversible and devastating effects to the victimâ€™s body and soul, as the torturer invades the suffererâ€™s psyche to claim his mind, bereft of any control or freedom.
Torture is a means to destroy a personâ€™s soul and directed towards establishing a profound sense of powerlessness and terror in victims. As the human soul often possesses a huge amount of resilience, it might take some time to be broken. With Dean the demons needed three decades. And just as in real life medical personnel often participating during sessions of torture ensure that the victim will live long enough, the demons made Dean â€˜whole again, like magic, just so they could start in all overâ€™.
Surviving torture long enough will often culminate in the suffererâ€™s change of his exegesis of reality. Everything he believed to be true will be twisted, and the victim will be open to be indoctrinated by the torturerâ€™s view and goals. Before that the victim will have experienced depersonalization and derealization, often hallucinations and dissociation, basically strategies of the human mind to construct a kind of alternative reality to mentally survive horrific periods such as torture. In the course of which the victimâ€™s identity will begin to fragment and anything he held on to will eventually crumble under perpetual agony. When the sufferer is deprived of other human interaction, he will often bond with the tormentor, sometimes trying to become one with him (what psychologists call introject).
Alistair and Dean probably formed a dyad â€“ we know only of Alistair torturing Dean, which is considered to be one very effective method of torture as it produces interdependency between tormentor and victim, another perverted form of intimacy.
Eventually the sufferer will swallow the torturerâ€™s view of him and plans for him â€“ for instance, believing that he has â€˜such promiseâ€™ and that he should become a torturer himself. And sometimes inflicting torture can serve as a strategy to reclaim control over oneâ€™s life, as a means to â€“ however twisted â€“ regulate their self-worth.
After having changed during thirty years of agony, Dean had to find a way to survive mentally â€“ not realizing, though, that he was giving his mental stability away by succumbing to Alistairâ€™s offer. He perhaps did not see that he most likely channelled his humiliation, agony, aggression, fear into inflicting pain, a misplaced venting: â€˜I tortured souls and I liked it. All those years. All that pain. Finally getting to deal some out yourself. I didnâ€™t care who they put in front of me. Because that pain I feltâ€¦ it just slipped away.â€™
In his case, for a while, Dean found relief by putting others through agony. It is safe to assume that he did not think about his former selfâ€™s conscience. His psyche will have provided him with â€˜likingâ€™ what he did, in order to protect him from realizing what he was doing, which is a form of suppression. His deeds might have surfaced later, back in life, haunted by screams he caused â€“ which is evidence that hell had not yet managed to really turn Dean, that the values he held dear were still there, now providing the kind of torture only guilt is able to muster up.