Wednesday, February 4, 2009

My latest pop culture book chapter is out (or almost out): "What's Supernatural About Supernatural"? in In the Hunt: Unauthorized Essays on Supernatural, from BenBella Press. Here's an excerpt:

Supernatural seems to be part of what we might think of as a new trend in horror fiction. Classic horror tales describe how something strange and forbidding breaks into our everyday world. As Noel Carroll puts it in “The Nature of Horror,” characters in horror tales “regard the monsters that they encounter as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order.” Some particular thing shows up that just doesn’t obey the rules; it defies our categories and so we don’t know how to think about it. In fact, this is one way of thinking about what a monster is: something singular that doesn’t fit our view of the world. A number of more recent horror narratives, including our show, seem importantly different. These stories naturalize their horrific elements, making them familiar and, at least in some sense, normal and natural, so that horror somehow becomes part of the mundane world. Although we should be wary of offering exact classifications here, we can divide such stories into two broad categories without exercising too much force.

The first kind of story re-conceives a supernatural creature as a natural one: the monster isn’t from the pit of hell, or animated by an amalgam of magic and science; he’s just a human being who’s been infected by a virus, not really “supernatural” at all. A scientific monstrosity, not a supernatural one. Think of the undead creatures from 28 Days Later or the recent film version of Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. Or consider Ridley Scott’s Alien. These stories locate a horror story inside the natural world as we understand it; they work without any intervention from the outside. Unforeseen events give rise to something that looks supernatural, but really isn’t. This kind of story eliminates the supernatural piece by piece, showing how what looked like magic or mystery can be explained in scientific terms. Although this kind of horror has been flourishing fairly recently, thereby earning the title of a new trend, it’s not really a new phenomenon. In fact, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is perhaps the quintessential scientific horror tale. And, more generally, a lot of science fiction stories can be classified as belonging to the horror genre, too. It’s no surprise that a modernist sensibility would favor reducing the magical to the scientific, the inexplicable to the explicable. But this isn’t how Supernatural rolls at all; our show isn’t into reductionism.

The second kind of story involves expanding or altering our conception of nature. Such horror stories have a lot in common with fantasy, because they take up the project of building another world, an alternate reality. They’re extended exercises in wondering “What if?” In such a story, vampires are magical creatures, perhaps, but then the world of the narrative is a magical world! Consider Laurel K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series or Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books. In these popular story arcs, vampires and werewolves are just part of American society. They have jobs and they have to pay the rent. They even have their own bars and nightclubs to frequent. Laws have to be written to handle their special circumstances, maybe even some anti-discrimination legislation. And, of course, they’re potential dates for whoever is our current protagonist. Here, too, the presence of a monster requires no intrusion from the outside—there need be nothing supernatural in that sense. It’s just that the inside of these storied worlds is a lot bigger than the inside of our world (and, as we’ve seen, that creates an ambiguity in what it means for something to be supernatural). Joss Whedon’s endearing and enduring Buffyverse is one of the earliest and most formative examples of this kind of story. Buffy goes to class, chats with her friends, and stakes a vampire in the cemetery. As I’ve characterized it in this essay, “the Winchesterverse” is this same kind of place, although sadly it makes for a much less graceful moniker.

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