By Addison Paul
Saving people, hunting things: The family business.
These words are known to many as a tagline for the dark fantasy television series Supernatural. Created by Eric Kripke, Supernatural has become a long-running pop-cultural phenomenon complete with a loyal and eccentric fanbase. With its 15th and final season airing in 2019 – 2020, the show has inspired a passion for all things ghosts, monsters, and demons for many people. Supernatural’s cult following has earned it a chief position among television show fandoms, but for an internet environment that’s all about acceptance and diversity in entertainment, the series presents numerous cultural problems. The show revolves around stereotypical white men, namely Dean and Sam Winchester, as the main players, while women and people of color only appear as extras, often marked for death. For a closer examination, let’s delve into one of the famously parodical installments of the show: Season 3, Episode 13 — “Ghostfacers!” This episode is an excellent example of the repeated othering and stereotyping often ignored by fans throughout many seasons of Supernatural.
With Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund, also two white men, as the writers of “Ghostfacers!,” it’s no wonder that white men dominate the storyline. Released in the spring of 2008, this particular episode combines stereotypes of masculinity, homosexuality, religion, mental illness, and ghost hunting to prove the Winchesters’ supernatural superiority in comparison to the amateur and oafish Ghostfacers team. Not only does “Ghostfacers!” provide parodical commentary on the act of paranormal investigation, but it also features exploitative use of native American culture, a Jewish person making a casual Hitler joke, and a gay man as the sole victim of the ghost — all in 42 minutes. Cramming this much culturally problematic content into one episode could have been a result of the troubling 2007-08 Writers Guild of America strike, but circumstances don’t excuse the central message of the episode: the better ghost hunters are stereotypically masculine white men, not the nerdy band of misfits representing some diversity.
The Ghostfacers team is made up of diverse people (at least by Supernatural’s standards) characterized by stereotypes and portrayed wearing ridiculous head lamps, operating shaky cameras, and working out of a garage. Kripke and Edlund lean into stereotypes surrounding the Ghostfacers’ diverse backgrounds as a crutch for cheap comedy. Harry shows the effeminate fear of a stereotypical geek, Maggie — the only woman and person of color in the episode — is an object of sexual desire, Kenny’s distant Cherokee heritage makes him a “licensed shamanologist,” Alan becomes one of the many queer characters killed for effect, and Ed even pretends to be gay to enlist ghost-Alan’s help, exploiting his friend’s murder by thanking Alan for “teaching [them] how gay love can pierce through the veil of death and save the day.” The Ghostfacers are merely comedic relief compared to Dean and Sam, the burly, boot-wearing, heroes of Supernatural, affirming that the Winchester brothers, along with whiteness, hyper-masculinity, and heteronormativity, are the superior specimens of ghost hunting.
Image via Supernatural Wiki
Additional cultural problems in “Ghostfacers!” stem from stereotypes of ghost behaviors and mental illness. This episode distinguishes between two types of ghosts: a death echo, a harmless ghost trapped in a loop replaying its death, and a violent spirit, a ghost wreaking havoc because of its violent disposition as a human. The three death echoes shown on screen died from gunshots, a train accident, and the violent spirit murdering Alan. These neutral ghosts all perished from external causes and are even shown as victors at the end of the episode. Daggett, the violent spitit, stole corpses from the hospital morgue to set them up in a horrific birthday party, and later committed suicide due to loneliness. Writers Kripke and Edlund use harmful stereotypes of mental illness and depression to create a shocking backstory for this character, making him the true villain and the epitome of a stereotypically evil ghost.
“Ghostfacers!” perpetuates harmful stereotypes to get a couple laughs and gasps out of the audience, but this kind of writing has more serious cultural implications. This episode creates pop cultural hauntings by associating negative cliches with ghosts and ghost hunters. By connecting women, homosexuals, people of color, and non-Christian religions with the supernatural, “Ghostfacers!” positions these traits and beliefs as “other.” Supernatural maintains such cultural hauntings throughout the series by reinforcing that Dean and Sam, who fit the cultural norms, consistently defeat or out-perform the people and creatures who fall into the category of other.
Ultimately, Supernatural remains a beloved pop cultural phenomenon, but it still presents issues with the writers’ controversial use of cultural stereotypes to affirm white male superiority, create cheap comedy, and present scary ghosts. The Supernatural fandom often ignores these cultural transgressions, preferring to instead celebrate the show for its campy drama and charismatic protagonists. “Ghostfacers!” spoofs and pokes fun at televised ghost hunting, and yet, Supernatural itself is a TV series frequently showcasing that very subject. The show’s ironic and amusing take on televised ghost hunting indicates that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, but given its popularity and dealings with heavy topics, should Supernatural be held accountable for its problematic content? Or, is it better to let the show remain a haunted soap opera with little cultural significance outside of Tumblr?
“Ghostfacers!” Supernatural, written by Eric Kripke and Ben Edlund, directed by Philip Sgriccia, Warner Brothers, 2008.