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09 Aug

Supernatural & the Compulsion to Repeat

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"I know everything that's going to happen": Supernatural's Self-Reflexive Compulsion to Repeat (with a Difference)

In his book Difference and Repetition (1968), Gilles Deleuze remarks that "repetition is in essence symbolic" (17). More importantly, however, he stresses that "[d]ifference is included in repetition by way of disguise" (17). As Deleuze elaborates in The Logic of Sense (1969), "only that which resembles differs," and "only differences can resemble each other" (261). In his attempt to counter Sigmund Freud's concept of compulsive repetition, Deleuze thus suggests a generative principle inherent in repetition—that of (ever so slight) difference. J. Hillis Miller spells out this argument in more detail in his book Fiction and Repetition (1982), in which he distinguishes between repetition-as-sameness and repetition-as-difference and—in truly poststructuralist manner—claims that "each form of repetition inevitably calls up the other as its shadow companion" (16). This "shadow companion," Miller emphasizes, "is not the negation or opposite of the first, but its 'counterpart'," which exists "in a strange relation whereby the second is the subversive ghost of the first, always already present within it as a possibility that hollows it out" (9). Echoing Roland Barthes's assertion that a "text is a tissue of quotations" (146), Miller concludes that any cultural artifact "is a complex tissue of repetitions and of repetitions within repetitions, or of repetitions linked in chain fashion to other repetitions. In each case there are repetitions making up the structure of the work within itself, as well as repetitions determining its multiple relations to what is outside it" (2–3).

Serial television thrives on the use of both repetition-as-sameness and repetition-as-difference. Indeed, as early as 1985, Robert Allen argued that soap operas are characterized by "paradigmatic complexity," for even though plots may not necessarily advance in a given episode, events cause ripple effects across the storyworld due to their apparently endless repetitions (69–72). Jason Mittell has more recently emphasized that even though contemporary prime time serials have reduced repetition, television narratives still rely heavily on iteration in order to, on the one hand, offer entry points to new viewers and, on the other hand, remind longtime viewers of narrative strands that have been dormant for several episodes (82–91). In this context, Lorna Jowett and Stacy Abbott have observed that in the case of Supernatural images of "the (character-based) start point of Mary's death," for example, "repeatedly return," as does "the (mythology-based) endpoint of the apocalypse," which is "glimpsed in various episodes" (51).

However, in Supernatural this (over)reliance on repetition not only springs from a poetics that strives for internal coherence and owes much to the serio-episodic storytelling typical of contemporary television, but also self-reflexively draws on the American Gothic, repeating its conventions in the process.1 Of course, Supernatural is far from the first Gothic text to consciously employ the "reservoir of recognizable and repeatable features" (Łowczanin 185) which define the American Gothic. Accordingly, Allan Lloyd-Smith has concluded that "[a]ny study of genre is a study of repetitions, the patterns that constitute a tradition and the way that writers imitate, learn from, and modify the work of their predecessors" (1). Catherine Spooner has elaborated on this point, highlighting that even though any given genre "is profoundly concerned with its own past, self-referentially dependent on traces of other stories, familiar images and narrative structures, [and] intertextual allusions," the "Gothic has a greater degree of self-consciousness about its nature, cannibalistically consuming the dead body of its own tradition" (10).

Despite the apparent self-awareness that guides the employment of conventionalized plot structures, (stereo)typical characters, clichéd settings, and self-conscious intertextual references in many examples of the American Gothic, scholars have repeatedly returned (possibly even felt compelled to return) to Freud in analyses of the significance of repetition to Gothic texts, for he "identified repetition as one of the central characteristics of the uncanny" (Lloyd-Smith 2).2 Roger B. Salomon has arguably taken this line of argumentation to the extreme, for, in his psychoanalytic exploration of horror texts, the reliance on repetition creates a genre that "offers" recipients "neither the consolations of meaningful causal explanations nor the promises of some temporal pattern suggesting a movement toward some significant resolution" (97).3 In effect, Salomon suggests that the entire genre suffers from a compulsion to repeat, which "leads away from meaning rather than encouraging its generation" (98), because "horror narrative can only dramatize one paradigmatic experience or multiply meaningless events toward no other possible end than random death" (99). In the end, he argues, "the structure of horror narrative denies, obfuscates, or otherwise inverts any possible meaning that goes beyond the mere assertion of present horror" (100).

Compare Salomon's perspective on the functions (or even lack thereof) of Gothic texts' repetitive structure (and the attendant "compulsive" return to the same settings, characters, motifs, and plots) to Stacy Abbott's introduction to TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural (2011), in which she remarks that Supernatural takes its viewers on a "journey through the horror tradition, building upon what has come before, but taking the genre further and making it darker" (xi). While I agree with the notion of Supernatural "taking the genre further," in this chapter, I will argue that rather than "making it darker," the show emblematizes the playful engagement with the Gothic tradition omnipresent in our day and age. Whereas, despite their playfulness, other recent examples of meta-Gothic (e.g. Mark Z. Danielewski's book House of Leaves [2000] and the video game Alan Wake [2010]) succeed in eliciting the "staple emotional responses" typical of Gothic texts (Botting, Gothic 6), Supernatural epitomizes a type of ludic relationship with the genre's past that is less interested in producing "fear, anxiety, terror, horror, disgust and revulsion" (Botting, Gothic 6) than playing with conventions. Some critics may thus be spurred to consider Supernatural as emblematic of the "candygothic" representative of the Gothic's loss of "its older intensity" (Botting, "Aftergothic" 287).4 However, I maintain that far from performing the superficial intertextuality Fredric Jameson considered defining of postmodernism (12), Supernatural's ludic text creates an excess of meaning and functions as an anchor for establishing an imagined community, a secret handshake of sorts, which establishes an intimate bond between the creators and the fans.

Supernatural's playful, tongue-in-cheek dialogue with the Gothic tradition was already evident in its pilot episode. Apart from highlighting the Gothic trope of intratextual repetition—which the show would (re)turn to time and again—the visually excessive and structurally iterative display of Mary's and Jess' burning bodies that (more or less) bookended the episode emphasized that the American Gothic is "firmly centred around images of the family and familial trauma" (Wheatley 123). In addition, the pilot established Supernatural's creative use of folklore, urban legends, and (American) mythology through its semantically loaded monster of the week, the Woman in White—which came packed with highway horror associations, connections to the "monstrous-feminine" (Creed), and a spectral haunting—as a defining feature of the series. Finally, when Dean addressed two FBI agents as "Agent Scully, Agent Mulder" in the diegesis, this brief utterance tipped the show's proverbial hat to one of Supernatural's most important ancestors, a series that "is more Gothic than numerous horror films which aim to shock" (Robson 243), and established the show's brand of excessive intertextuality. This allusiveness, as Alison Peirse has noted, is part of the series' success, which "can be partially attributed to its popular culture references, exploration of urban legends, and incorporation of horror film tropes" (264).

These allusions—these repetitions of texts created in the past, which have truly come to define the show—are sometimes made blatantly obvious and other times left more implicit. Consider, for example, the season one episode "Asylum" (1.10), which borrows its plot from The House on Haunted Hill (1999) (itself a remake of the 1959 movie directed by William Castle and starring Vincent Price) and sees Sam and Dean trying to dispose of the titular asylum's former head doctor's ghost. When the two hunters first explore the building, Dean asks, "What do you think, ghosts possessing people?" Sam theorizes, "Maybe it's … like Amityville." "Yes, ghosts driving them insane. Kinda like my man Jack in The Shining," quips Dean. "[T]he dialogue," as I have remarked elsewhere, "effortlessly moves from present to past and from reality to artifice" in this scene (Fuchs, "Hauntings" 66), as the genre's past evoked by The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Shining (1980) both segues into the real-life events that took place in Amityville, New York, in 1974 and the reality of the world the Winchester brothers inhabit. This creation of a hyperreal space is continued later in the episode when the brothers encounter teenagers, who are looking for a little thrill ride in the local attraction, the sanatorium.5 Dean asks one of the teenagers, "You've seen a lot of horror movies, yeah?" and then emphasizes, "Do me a favor, next time you see one, pay attention! When someone says a place is haunted, don't go in!" Dean thus advocates applying movie knowledge to the real world, thereby implying that the same rules apply to the fictional world of the movies and the diegetic world. Although, at other times, the characters distinguish between their world and fictional universes—"The X-Files is a TV show. This is real," Dean stresses in "Monster Movie" (4.5)—Dean's insistence on applying movie knowledge to the real world suggests that the Winchesters' reality is invaded, possibly even replaced, by artifice, which would become a staple of the show in later seasons.

This desire to build a hyperreal space in the diegetic space (or even establish the diegetic space as hyperreal) is first made truly explicit in the episode "Monster Movie." This highly self-aware and intertextual episode opens with a Warner logo that is reminiscent of the company's logo used in the 1930s, which establishes the episode's aura of days gone by right from the outset, an aura that is further amplified by the fact that the episode is presented in monochrome colors. The coloration (or, rather, the lack thereof) emphasizes that the entire episode is steeped in nostalgia; a nostalgia for a time when things were easier. This applies both to the episode's meta-discourse on the Gothic's past—a time when, fittingly, one could differentiate between black and white, with no shades of gray in-between (so the episode implies, that is)—and Dean's yearning for simpler times. As the older Winchester, tellingly, notes at one point, "[W]e can't save the world, … [b]ut what we can do is chop off some vamps' heads. … [I]t's like the good-old days, an honest-to-goodness monster hunt[,] … a straightforward, black and white case"—an utterance that is effectively repeated in "Swan Song" (5.22) when Sam wonders, "Remember when we used to just fight wendigos?"

To return to the repetition of the Gothic's past, however, Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd-Smith have pointed out that the genre's penchant for referencing "its own … past … tends to imply a critical relation between the present and the past" (1). From this perspective, the genre's past becomes a "site of terror, of an injustice that must be resolved, an evil that must be exorcised," as "[t]he past chokes the present" and "prevents progress" (Spooner 18). Indeed, this notion of purging the past may be linked to the aforementioned nostalgia, which highlights the differences between the good-old, simple times and the complex present. In fact, this notion is supported intradiegetically through a monster who tries to escape the complex realities of the early twenty-first century by creating a simulacrum based on the Universal horror movies of the past.

The important point, though, is that as ridiculous as the monster's attempts to re-create fiction in the "real" world are, this re-creation of the past not only takes place within the story, but also on the discursive level of the television show. Just as the episode's monster tries to imitate, indeed even simulate, Dracula, the Mummy, Victor Frankenstein, and other iconic monsters of the 1930s and 1940s, "Monster Movie" effectively does the same. After the Warner Bros. logo, the credits further highlight the episode's invocation of the Gothic horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s by providing the character names of lead actors Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki using a (simulated) aged style for the credits, which leads straight into the prototypical shot of a crescent moon wrapped in foreboding fog accompanied by an ominous, violin-heavy horror theme. As is typical of Supernatural, the diegetic action begins on a remote road, as the black '67 Chevy Impala passes a "Welcome to Pennsylvania" sign in a Gothic-inspired font that the camera lingers on for a few seconds before the letters transform into "Welcome to Transylvania" when lightning strikes, thus hammering home the show's invocation of its Gothic forebears. The viewers are then virtually transported to Canonsburg, a small town somewhere in Pennsylvania that is celebrating Oktoberfest (complete with lederhosen and dirndls), which serves as a simulacrum of the "real" Bavaria. What the boys find in Pennsylvania is a monster-of-the-week that re-stages villainous acts from Dracula (1931), The Wolf Man (1941), and Frankenstein (1931). Tellingly, the witness to the second murder describes the killer as follows: "It was a werewolf. … With the furry face and the black nose and the claws and the torn-up pants and shirt—think from the old movies." The flurry of near-campy references does not end until the monster is killed by the girl he thinks he is expected to love. His reaction after being hit by silver bullets? Quoting King Kong's (1933) conclusion: "It was beauty that killed the beast."

As Sam notes, "This is stupid." Indeed, even though the episode fleshes out the changes Dean has gone through after returning from Hell and thus expands on the show's serialized narrative, on another level, "Monster Movie" truly is stupid—consciously so. At one point, for example, the monster—dressed up as a Lugosian Dracula—escapes on a Vespa, while Dean is saved from electrocution when the pizza boy rings the doorbell. If "Monster Movie" had been intended to confront or even to exorcize the demons of the Gothic past in order to lead the genre into the future, it would have been a rather lame attempt, since the episode resurrects the past rather than putting a nail into the coffin of the Gothic's past (and burning it to ensure that it will return no more). Admittedly, "oppositional postmodernism only functions through the repetition of the very dialectical structure it is attempting to overcome" (Muckelbauer 8). Yet the episode's humorous tone, which emerges from the parody of both monster movies of the past and the self-deprecating humor directed at Supernatural itself reveals a lack of the oppositional impetus characteristic of postmodernist cultural artifacts. In light of the episode's tongue-in-cheek approach, it is not surprising that Alberto N. García has remarked that "Monster Movie" is "a work of terror from the '30s, but without the terror" (153). While this assertion seems undeniable, eliciting horror or terror in the audience is obviously not one of the goals of this episode (nor, I would argue, of the show at large). Rather, the references to the Universal classics of the 1930s and 1940s create an in-group, a community of those who understand these allusions, these effective repetitions of past movies that thus become part of the present moment.

The episode's excessive intertextuality, however, also capitalizes on the affordances of digital media, be they DVRs, DVDs, or Blu-Rays, and it encourages and supports repeat viewings. The home video, as Laura Mulvey has noted, already made it possible that films and television shows "can be seen and re-seen and reinterpreted along lines that might change with changes in interest and knowledge but also are open to the chance insights and unexpected encounters that come with endless repetition" (230), a tendency that has increased in the digital age. In other words, the episode's repetitions invite further repetitions through repeat viewings. In this way, "technological advancement" sparks, as James Walters has stressed, "critical endeavor" (66), which results in the creation of wikis and other fan practices. At the end of the day, the various repetitions employed in the show are thus the foundation for the establishment of an intimate relationship between the text and its audience.

A similar idea drives a specific kind of the show's intradiegetic repetitions. Of course, as indicated above, intradiegetic repetitions abound in serialized television, from recaps to recurring motifs and much more. However, Supernatural has also employed diegetic mirrorings of a metatextual kind. This dimension was introduced in the season four episode "The Monster at the End of this Book" (4.18), the title of which refers to a Sesame Street book. In this highly metafictional book, Grover constantly seeks to stop the reader from turning the pages, since Grover is absolutely certain that "there will be a Monster at the end of this book." On the final page, Grover (and the reader) comes to understand, "I, lovable, furry old Grover, am the Monster at the end of this book" (Stone). In light of what happens in the final hours of Supernatural's fourth season, the episode's title foreshadows that the monster the two Winchesters are really after (or, rather, should be after) is not Lilith, the demon who emerges as their nemesis in season four, but one of them.

Yet beyond this intertextual dimension, the episode also introduces Chuck and his pulp fiction series titled Supernatural. The existence of these books in the storyworld is established in the opening moments of "The Monster at the End of this Book" when a comic book store clerk mistakes Sam and Dean for LARPers imitating the characters from the books: "I knew it! You guys are LARPing, aren't you?" Dean's flabbergasted response is merely, "Excuse me?" The vendor explains, "You're fans," which only leads to more confusion, as Sam wonders, "Fans of what?" Dean is still befuddled by the shop assistant's previous utterance and asks, "What is LARPing?" The assistant, with a self-assured grin across his face, responds, "Like you don't know. Live-action roleplaying. And pretty hard-core, too." After Dean has clarified that he still doesn't "know what [the shop assistant is] talking about," the salesman explains, "You're asking questions like the building's haunted, like those guys from the books. What are they called? Supernatural! Two guys use fake IDs with rock aliases, hunt down ghosts, demons, vampires. What are their names? Steve and Dirk? Sal and Dane?" Sam, somewhat afraid of the response, inquires, "Sam and Dean?" "That's it!" replies the sales clerk and shows them the first book in the series. Dean reads the blurb: "Along a lonely California highway, a mysterious Woman in White lures men to their deaths …," words that obviously evoke the events of Supernatural's pilot. After leafing through a few more volumes in the series, the Winchesters conclude that the author, Chuck Shurley a.k.a. Carver Edlund, must be able to somehow follow their actions.

However, when the action moves to Chuck's home, the audio-visual text suggests that things are not so simple. Chuck, working on his latest manuscript, reads, "Sam and Dean approach the run-down… approach the ram-shackled house with trepidation." Once he has finished the sentence, Sam and Dean get out of the Impala and do exactly that—approach the run-down house and meet the author who might be their creator. Beyond the humor that emerges from the absurd situation of a writer meeting his creation, the paradoxical setup also taps into the postmodern fear of artifice supplanting reality. As Slavoj Žižek has maintained,

[t]he ultimate American paranoiac fantasy is that of an individual living in a small idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he is living in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he is living in a real world, while all the people around him are in fact actors and extras in a gigantic show. (12–13)

In terms of Supernatural, the paranoiac fantasy diagnosed by Žižek suggests that rather than depicting a prime mover who is the primary cause of all events in the universe, "The Monster at the End of the Book" reflects the postmodern fear "of substituting the signs of the real for the real" (Baudrillard 2). Effectively, the episode repeats and performs a hypodiegetic reality (i.e., that of the books-within-the-show) in the diegetic world. Yet even if the characters, similar to "Monster Movie," try to stress, or possibly even to re-establish, the boundary between reality and fiction (Chuck insists that "Sam and Dean are fictional characters, I made them up; they are not real!"), the textual evidence presented to audiences indicates quite the opposite: The uncanny repetition suggests that "reality" is preceded, to conjure up Baudrillard's ghost again, and predetermined by representations(-within-the-representational-apparatus-of-the-TV-show).

While this intradiegetic repetition amplifies the theme of predestination vs. free will that is essential to the show in seasons four and five, as it implies that nothing in the diegetic reality is the result of free will, the intratextual mirroring presents another instance of the show's ludic self-reflexivity. In his book on play in postmodernist fiction, Brian Edwards asserts that "the metonymic play between writing and building" (254), exemplified by the ways in which Chuck's writing apparently builds the world he and the other characters inhabit, is one of the most important kinds of textual play. Yet, more importantly, "[p]lay is always already interplay" (xii), for it "blur[s] distinctions between observation and participation, and between spectators and collaborators" (17) and thus encourages interaction. As a result, Supernatural's ludic textuality may be said to have sparked the overabundance of Supernatural fan productions, for the show engages in similar processes.

As the examples have shown, rather than offering the meaninglessness Salomon considers characteristic of Gothic repetitions, the intertextual repetitions in "Monster Movie" and, to a lesser extent, "Asylum" and the intradiegetic repetitions in "The Monster at the End of this Book" produce an excess of meaning. Yvonne Leffler has suggested that repetitions create a "determinist pattern … so intense that the fictional world is portrayed as containing nothing that is unique" (191). There is a paradoxical process at work here, as Matt Hills has noticed, for this "pan-determinism offers completely controlled – and thus completely and precisely meaningful – fictional repetitions" (65). The déjà vu elicited by repetition thus implies semantic annihilation caused by semiotic excess.

Rather than vacating meaning, Supernatural's effective compulsion to repeat conventionalized narratives, well-established tropes, and clichéd monsters opens up the series' semantic potentials. Indeed, the show's ludic dialogue with its ancestors (and its self-deprecating attitude) not just "problematises the relationship between reality and fiction" (Beville 7) in typical postmodernist Gothic fashion, but also builds upon the expectation of its fans' "familiarity with the rules of the game" (148). In this way, Supernatural encourages a playful engagement with the series. Tellingly, Eric Kripke said in an interview, "I wanted to create a universe where we welcome others to come and play" (qtd. in Zubernis & Larsen 214). Fans have most certainly accepted this invitation.

Finally, Supernatural's ludicity questions the prominent categorization of horror as one of the "body genres," an umbrella term for the genres "which sensationally display bodies on the screen and register effects in the bodies of spectators" (Williams 4). Xavier Aldana Reyes has more recently emphasized that such an "affective approach is not predominantly preoccupied with whether something is actually scary but rather with the conventions followed by a genre or mode in the hope that it will be" (16, italics in original). However, as early as 2006, Catherine Spooner diagnosed a problem that arises from such an approach, namely that "as a genre deliberately intended to provoke horror and unease," the Gothic "plays to audience expectations and therefore is rather too self-conscious to illuminate our most secret fears" (8) and, thus, also largely fails to elicit bodily responses. Supernatural does not simply highlight the practical impossibility of Gothic texts to generate emotional and bodily effects that "exceed reason" (Botting, Gothic 2) in the (post-)postmodern age, but rather employs this impossibility for its own purposes and, indeed, thrives on its viewers' cognitive responses instead. Thus, the show emerges as an exemplary text that clarifies that the Gothic may rather be considered a "mind genre" (Hills 171). As Hills explains, repetition allows the Gothic to "[become] a matter of performed cultural value … for sections of its … audience" (171). Janet Staiger has argued along similar lines, noting that "intertexuality obviously serves … to give [the audience] cultural capital" (186). However, it is not only the fans who accumulate cultural capital, but also the show itself, which thereby aspires toward cultural spheres usually inaccessible to Gothic texts. In this way, Supernatural may, indeed, take the Gothic to uncharted territories.


1 Both fans and scholars (not to mention aca-fans) may release cries of despair upon hearing "coherence" with reference to Supernatural, especially in view of reinterpretations of the show's mythology in the post-Kripke era. As the selection of examples in the following pages may indicate, for me, Supernatural concluded in May 2010. I am still trying to forget the roughly eighty episodes which were broadcast after this date of a show with the same title that mere scholarly thoroughness drove me to watch. | return to main text |
2 For (in part) Freudian-inspired analyses of repetition in Supernatural, see Fuchs, "Temporality," and Fuchs, "Time Loop." | return to main text |
3 Please excuse the slippage between "Gothic" and "horror." I do not mean to suggest that these were synonymous or that one were a hyponym and the other its attendant hypernym. However, since repetition proves key to both horror and Gothic narratives, the equation of Gothic and horror seems adequate in this case. | return to main text |
4 As Xavier Aldana Reyes has recently stressed, while "an affective approach" to the Gothic "allows for a model of the gothic that encompasses texts from horror film and fiction that do not 'look' but 'act' the part," this emphasis on the affective dimensions of the Gothic does not entail "a denial of the gothic qualities of other texts that are not experientially so" (20). | return to main text |
5 On the creation of a hyperreal space in Supernatural, see also Fuchs, "Trapped." | return to main text |

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