Loving Supernatural: Inside The Psychology of Fandom

 

 

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The leading actors of ‘Supernatural’, Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki

In a TV world of intense competition, where series are repeatedly cancelled for unsatisfactory ratings, there is a peculiar anomaly: the show Supernatural. The cult TV hit follows two brothers, Dean and Sam Winchester, as they fight various demons and supernatural creatures across America, which would seem pretty ordinary except for the fact that the series has managed to reach its twelfth season – an impressive feat for a show whose plot can often be reduced to ‘monster of the week’.

 

More crucially, however, it has achieved this despite consistently low viewing numbers; Supernatural’s recent seasons have averaged under 3 million viewers per episode whereas Grey’s Anatomy, which has also reached twelve seasons, has never had an episode dip below 8 million. With both fighting for spots on major networks, namely The CW and ABC, the competition seems rigged.

In truth, Supernatural has a secret weapon: its fans. Most series will have a loyal following, but the Supernatural viewers operate on a much higher frequency. These are fans who set up their own fan conventions as early as 2006 in Nashville, spreading across the Atlantic to London the following year. They are fans who are known to hijack every post on community website Tumblr, littering the site with Supernatural-specific quotes and GIFs to the point where the actors themselves have begun quoting “We have a GIF for that” at public appearances (these in turn have been made into GIFs). There are fans who have shown up on set wearing orange vests and posing as assistants so that they can be closer to the action. In 2015, Supernatural Fandom: The Movie was made and released by two fans, Clif and Mitch Kosterman.

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The fans take their commitment to the TV show seriously.

For Kathy Larsen, she can remember the exact moment that she was hooked: the Season One episode ‘Home’.

“That was the first time that the bond between the brothers really struck me,” she explained. “The emotion of that episode was so wrenching, I couldn’t help being sucked in. Something about Dean’s vulnerability, even as he’s trying to hold it together for his brother, and Sam’s confusion and fear over what’s happening to him struck so many cords for me.”

Larsen’s openness about her personal connection with these fictional characters reflects the shifting landscape of fandom. There have been media fans for as long as there has been media, but as ‘nerd’ culture becomes more mainstream, it becomes more socially acceptable for fans to speak out, to organize and to participate in their fan communities in new and evolving ways.

Even our attitudes towards television content itself are changing; where it was common to feel ashamed about staying home and watching a show, now there is frequent pressure to be watching the latest ‘it’ show.

“As ‘nerd’ culture becomes more mainstream, it becomes more socially acceptable for fans to speak out, to organize and to participate in their fan communities”

“It’s hard to remember that television was, for most of its history, a garbage medium,” says Brett Martin, journalist and author of Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution. “Now I think it’s become the dominant American art form of the 21st century.”

With the past decade commonly regarded as a golden age in television, TV shows are increasingly created to be ‘hyper-serialized’, meaning that they are designed to be consumed intensely, a process now known as binge-watching. By teasing viewers with an overarching story, TV-show creators encourage the audience to watch the next episode so as to have their questions answered. In a comment to Newsweek, Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan explained that the 1990s didn’t allow for this kind of content because viewing patterns were different.

“When I started doing TV almost 20 years ago, studies showed that a so-called fan of a TV show probably saw one in four episodes on average,” said Gilligan. This meant that the most popular shows were ones that told a neatly concluded story per episode, so that each could be watched in isolation; think Law & Order or Seinfeld. “With a serial like Breaking Bad, someone watching one episode out of four would be pretty lost as far as what the hell is going on.”

But now, we have Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now – the online streaming options are endless. More importantly, viewers are increasingly utilizing these platforms. In 2007, Nielsen counted just over 2million people who were watching television via unconventional means, such as a laptop, tablet or smartphone. By 2013, the number had more than doubled to 5million.

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One of many binge-watching memes circulating the internet.

The appeal is clear: if you miss an episode, it takes just a couple of clicks to have it ready and waiting for you on a screen. If you love an episode, you can replay it over and over at your convenience. Discover a new series and you can watch one episode right after another, with the only limitations being how many episodes exist.

Social psychologist Karen Shackleford sees the availability of media as a catalyst for more invested viewing. “You can become engrossed in something now that you have immediate gratification, because you have the next story and the next story and you never want it to end,” said Shackleford, who teaches at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, C.A. When you take a show like Supernatural, which has aired 249 episodes as of December 8th 2016, it’s easy to see how a binge-watching cycle could get a little out of control.

That’s not to say that there weren’t invested fans before the age of Netflix; it simply required more effort. For Lynn Zubernis, an associate professor of clinical psychology at West Chester University, P.A., her first brush with fandom came after renting the VHS of the indie film Velvet Goldmine from her local video store in 2000. She fell in love with the story and turned to the Internet to find out more information, where she stumbled upon her first fan community.

“At the time, online fandom consisted of mailing lists and UseNet groups where people posted fanfiction and interacted with each other,” said Zubernis. “This makes it sound like 100 years ago!”

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The old method of fandom.

It was through reading each other’s fiction that Zubernis connected with Larsen, who had also fallen in love with Velvet Goldmine. Their mutual conversion to Supernatural actually came about through a third fan in their community, who had watched the show and wanted to be able to discuss it with them. Larsen didn’t have cable at the time that Supernatural was first airing, so that friend would send her VHS tapes so that she could keep up with the series. At first, both women couldn’t see past the formulaic ‘monster of the week’ plotlines and so would play it in the background rather than watching it intently. While Larsen suddenly connected with the characters in season one, for Zubernis it didn’t click until season two.

“One evening I was sitting in the living room grading papers, half watching Supernatural on the television,” she recalled. “Suddenly I remember thinking ‘Oh my God, this show is amazing. Why am I not watching this show?’ I literally dropped the stack of papers on the floor and said that out loud, to which my confused daughter commented, ‘But mom, you’ve been watching it for a year…’”

The turning point phenomenon isn’t just a myth. Netflix regularly conducts studies of its users watching habits in order to determine which episode is most likely to ‘hook’ a viewer, meaning the episode that, once watched, leads to a strong chance of people coming back to finish the season. Once Zubernis had reached that milestone, watching the show only when it aired on television wasn’t enough. She immediately dug out the still-unopened Season One DVD she had been sent by her optimistic friend and proceeded to re-watch the show. This time around the episodes carried a much greater weight. Being able to replay the series allowed her to cement her commitment to the show.

“Netflix regularly conducts studies of its users watching habits in order to determine which episode is most likely to ‘hook’ a viewer”

Perhaps it’s because more of us are engaging in this binge-watching culture, but perceptions of fandom may also be changing. It wasn’t too long ago that fans were equated with extremism; consider the crowds of hooligan sports fans running riot, or the young women who screamed and passed out while waiting on the tarmac for the Beatles to arrive. They weren’t a community, they were a pack.

“We saw fans in the media mostly as large groups of people who had this kind of crazed group mentality, so stalker fans who trample each other to death,” explained Tanya Cochran, an associate professor of English at Union College, N.E., who specializes in fandom. “Or you have the other extreme of the loner, single, white guy who still lives in his parents’ basement and who’s so obsessed with a star that he ends up on her doorstep and kills her.” As Cochran points out, both these interpretations imply that the fan might be unbalanced.

You can see those same assumptions at work in many portrayals of obsessive TV show fans, or science fiction fanatics; in this case, it’s a pale, nerdy young adult who has few friends and social skills, choosing instead to immerse himself in an alternate universe. The Big Bang Theory, the highest rated television show in the US with an audience of 30million per episode, embraces this stereotype by focusing on endearing but profoundly nerdy lead characters who obsess over various sci-fi shows; at one point, a character purchases a life-sized ‘time machine’ used as a prop in The Time Machine. Repeated jokes on the show revolve around their inability to talk to women – see Penny’s interaction with any male lead – or their lack of normalized masculine qualities, such as an interest in sports or a muscled physique. Although they’re the protagonists, The Big Bang Theory encourages audiences to laugh at them as much as with them – and this is a show that premiered in 2007.

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‘The Big Bang Theory’, the most popular TV show in the US.

But times are a-changing. So-called ‘nerd culture’ is increasingly popular, or at least out in the open, with attendance for New York Comic Com reaching 180,000 this year; in 2006, it was just 33,000. What’s becoming clear even to those outside of the culture is that fans don’t exist in isolation in their basements, they exist as part of a larger fandom. These communities function online, yes, but they also live and breathe in the real world, and this community aspect is often one of the biggest draws. Dragon Con, the sci-fi and fantasy convention in Atlanta that is entirely fan-run, is already attracting 77,000 guests as of this year.

Fantasy series in general have become much more mainstream. “Everyone will tell you to watch Game of Thrones,” pointed out Shackleford. “Sci-fi stuff has been over time associated with being a nerd but everyone will expect you to have seen the latest Star Wars movie, it’s kind of an event.”

Of course, not everyone who watches a form of entertainment will call themselves a fan – so what is it the difference between liking a show and declaring yourself a fan? The term itself is important; most people will have something that they love, follow and think about on a slightly deeper level – a music artist, a book or a television series – but they might not openly acknowledge this or define themselves as a fan. In fact, the act of self-identifying as a fan can be traced to a social motive.

“Calling yourself a fan in part is a conscious decision and a lot of times it relates more to the social aspect,” explained Shackleford. “You’re calling yourself one because you want to tell other people ‘oh I’m a big fan of Game of Thrones too, let’s talk about that.’”

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Fandoms can be very tight-knit communities.

It’s for this reason that online communities are so important to fandom; they provide the opportunity to connect with other fans. Friendships are commonly sparked from the discovery of a shared interest and it isn’t rare for these online friendships to become a lot more than just discussions about the show itself.

Scroll through the comments on Buzzfeed articles about the intensity of the Supernatural fandom and you’ll mostly just find declarations of how wonderful it is to be a part of. With fans announcing things like “Proud to be a part of the SPNFamily” and “The amount of people I’ve gotten hooked on Supernatural is alarming”, it’s not surprising that people start watching just to be able to participate. The top comment currently belongs to Chelsea Cloud: “I binge watched all available Supernatural episodes this summer and am so happy to finally be a part of this fandom now.”

And these aren’t purely virtual friendships. Zubernis and Larsen bonded in particular with two other fans, and have since taken their friendship offline.

“Karen and Laura, Kathy and I became a foursome in real life too,” said Zubernis. “We all get together a few times a year for a ‘girls weekend,’ where we talk nonstop about the things we fanned, sample the food of whatever city we were in, and stay up all night watching our favorite films or television shows on video.”

Fan conventions are another opportunity for the community to connect in the physical world. Cochran explains the experience as simply that of gathering together in a room with people who are as excited about something as you are. Even more dedicated behaviors, such as dressing up for Cosplay activities, can often boil down to people building confidence. Dressing up as a character, in outfits that can often take months to make, can allow people to embody those they admire and relate to.

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Comic Con cosplayers at the New York City Comic Con in 2014

Cochran, who attends Dragon Con annually, says that sometimes it’s just about being able to express something that maybe at one time made them feel like an outsider. At a convention, fans are surrounded by many other people who feel the same way and so it can be something of a healing process. On the other hand, it can just be about the fun of playing dress-up.

“At some level it doesn’t even have to be sociologically or psychologically complex,” reasoned Cochran. “It is, but at the same time it’s very simple: it brings people joy.” They meet, they talk, they have fun, they go home.

Even people who aren’t as invested in a particular show will have experience with certain television series can dominate chunks of conversation. As Martin acknowledges, “There are hundreds of thousands of words written about every minute of these viral shows, and a sense of real participation in the process that is shocking and kind of wonderful, whether you choose to participate in it or not.”

There is a darker side to the intense commitment that fans have for their show. Social hierarchies can develop, with fans questioning each other’s involvement in the community. It could be as simple as ‘how much of the show have you watched? or it can extend to ‘how involved you were in the letter campaign to save the show?’

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Castiel (left) and Dean Winchester (right) have inspired a group of dedicated shippers.

Then there are the campaigns themselves, which have the potential to twist emotional connection into coercion. In the Supernatural fandom, there are groups putting pressure on the writers in support of a gay relationship between one of the brothers, Dean Winchester, and another character, Castiel. This intense personal dedication felt by fans about their show’s key relationships is not rare, in fact the bond between the Winchester brothers is regularly cited as the reason why fans first fell in love with the show; both Larsen and Zubernis recall feeling particularly moved by the sibling relationship. Yet these campaigns risk manipulating a selling point into a bargaining chip.

“You can’t prove it 100%,” said Cochran, “but when you have a fandom that’s that active and ‘in the face’ of the writers and directors, when your show depends on ratings and this particular group has a major impact on your ratings… As an artist, you have to take the narrative in the direction it needs to go. But at the same time, because of our ability to communicate with these creators more directly than ever before, there’s no way that they can ignore the kind of activism, the kind of pressure, the kind of communication that they’re receiving from fans.”

This kind of mob behavior is something that many fans have been trying to disassociate themselves with. A huge amount of good faith that has been built between fan and creative team in our era of social media and panel talks, particularly in the case of Supernatural where the actors regularly interact with fans and embrace their fervent interest in the show. Both cast and fans describe themselves as part of the ‘SPN Family’. By pressuring the writers into doing what they want, the fans risk losing this intimacy.

“As an artist, you have to take narrative in the direction it needs to go… But at the same time, there’s no way they can ignore the kind of pressure they’re receiving from fans.”

But for psychologist Shackleford, it’s important to recognize this enthusiasm that comes from personal connection, rather than any unbalanced pack mentality.

“If you’re so close to the story and you’ve thought about it so much in connection with you, you feel like you may own it or that it’s really for you,” argued Shackleford. “So there can be this sort of hostility between the people who are producing it and whether they understand you or not.”

This concept of personal investment in the narrative is possibly the most interesting discovery arising from contemporary fandom research. Shackleford and her colleague Cynthia Vinney have been conducting studies that trace fandom to the human connection to storytelling. Since humans first walked the earth, we have used stories as a way to make sense of the world and there is an element of autobiographical reading that occurs when we hear a story.

More simply, we frequently talk about reading a story to escape into the world of a new character. However, you also bring along your own thoughts and experiences, meaning that the story evokes a personal response in you that is connected to your own story, or autobiography. By speaking to your own experiences, stories can frequently allow you to work through issues on a subconscious, or conscious, level, which explains why so many fans attribute their show to helping them through a difficult time.

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Many fans gain comfort or motivation from themes in TV series.

For Larsen, the sibling relationship in Supernatural allowed her to work through questions she had about siblings due to being an only child. More abstractly, she was drawn to Supernatural by the show’s willingness to discuss the larger issues. “Good and evil, right and wrong, it is always acknowledging that these categories are not black and white,” she explained.  “It resides in those grey areas we are all confronted with at one time or another.”

This use of television as a therapeutic tool can actually be one of the most effective methods of thinking about these issues, according to Shackleford. “In some ways, these stories help us do it better than if we were just thinking about it or going to a therapist because story provides a safe distance for processing those kinds of things,” she said. “That we know whatever happens on the screen, we’ll feel strongly about it maybe but we won’t be hurt by it.”

Fans may find themselves participating on many different levels: they think about, they write about it, they talk about it, they form friendships through it, they build confidence from it and they influence the wider community surrounding it. “It’s an emotional investment,” said Martin. “Good art is an emotional rollercoaster and it should be, it should be something that consumes you.”

Those outside the bubble might not fully understand it, but Martin argues that the fandom should be given respect.

“It’s built a community around it that’s almost as vibrant and important as the work itself.”

 

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