Over the past month, Emily has watched the first nine seasons of Supernatural, eight of them for the first time. In the first of several articles, Emily explores how Supernatural’s use of the supernatural makes for some incredible telly.
There will be some light spoilers here.
A new hierarchy
There was a point where both the TV series Charmed and Supernatural were on the air, with new episodes being produced. The first season of Supernatural ran as Charmed aired its final season. Both series heavily featured elements of the paranormal, monsters, divine and hellish beings, sibling love and rivalry, and of course: magic. But when I now think of Charmed in relation to having just watched the first nine seasons of Supernatural (season ten hasn’t made it here yet), I know which series gave me more opportunities to suspend my disbelief and roll with the punches. It was and is Supernatural.
And do you know what else is even crazier? The systems, because that is what all magic in fiction is – schemas for taking and using power – of Supernatural actively save verisimilitude more than the magical plot devices of Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel. And believe me, until recently I didn’t think it was possible for me to think a little less favourably of Buffy in any regard.
But how and why does any of this matter?
The case for saving verisimilitude
Some people will never want to watch a TV show with two brothers driving from place to place each week, fighting monsters, exorcising demons, conversing with angels and generally just going about the business of saving the world and each other. No amount of rigorous lore creation will entice them, but for the rest of us who are interested in these kinds of things, a show needs to walk a fine line so that you don’t stop watching the show to question the reality of itself within itself. It needs to attain a level of verisimilitude, which the OED defines as:
The fact or quality of being verisimilar; the appearance of being true or real; likeness or resemblance to truth, reality, or fact; probability.
Plenty of shows manage to do this. Plenty don’t. I find that TV shows I would generally describe as “cheesy” hardly ever manage to convince me of their reality and so do not obtain the state of having a truthfulness about their fictional world. By maintaining verisimilitude, Supernatural allows you to get on with watching the show and pay closer attention to the characters and its overall narrative.
How does Supernatural do this?
Now, the show does do it a lot through the way it aligns itself with attitudes and settings that can found in our actual world, but that’s not the aspect I want to discuss here. What I want to look at is how Supernatural’s magical systems and use of religion and the paranormal – the incredible – help to maintain the show’s verisimilitude. Because it doesn’t just make stuff up off the top of its head a lot of the time. Instead it works with existing lore that, is actually familiar and will have featured in tales and existing religious and occult texts to some degree, but will have also featured in existing popular culture too.
This familiarity means that viewers don’t have to keep questioning the why behind the incredible that happens in the show, even on a subconscious level. Blood as a component of many of the show’s invocations just makes sense. Using Enochian symbols, especially from the fourth season onwards, draws upon a spiritual and cultural tradition started in the 16th Century by the likes of John Dee. Werewolves and many other creature disliking silver, and the material proving fatal to them, also draws upon existing ideas about the many fantastical beings. And on the Judo-Christian side of things:
The angels of Supernatural are described in close accordance with biblical sources and other religious scriptures.
(“I am an angel of the Lord”: An inquiry into the Christian Nature of Supernatural’s Heavenly Delegates by Jutta Wimmler and Lisa Kienzl, as featured in the collected essays: TV Goes to Hell: An Unofficial Road Map of Supernatural)
While often of a more Roman Catholic tradition, the lore for many biblical beings will be familiar to viewers bought up in such circles. And also familiar to those who have viewed or read similar stories in films like The Omen and The Exorcist or books like even the more humorous Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Gaiman’s American Gods (if we’re including other pantheons) and films like Kevin Smith’s Dogma.
In a way it’s like all of the incredible depictions of religious-occult symbology, creatures, narratives and texts creates an intertextuality that helps to maintain the show’s verisimilitude. This also means the more that you’ve read or watched around all of this, the more incredible and interesting Supernatural as a show will seem.