The CW’s Supernatural Inspired Two Academics to Study the Psychology of Fan Culture—and Turned Them Into Crazy Stalkers

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Dec. 18 2013 1:36 PM

Supernatural Fangirls

How the cult sci-fi show turned two academics into experts on fandom—and crazy stalkers.

Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean in Supernatural.
Jared Padalecki as Sam and Jensen Ackles as Dean in Supernatural.

Photo by The WB/Sergei Bachlakov

Excerpted from Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, by Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis, out now from University of Iowa Press.

How did two academics researching the culture and politics of fandom wind up getting escorted off the set of a TV show by no-nonsense security guards? It was a long road from our university offices to that Vancouver hospital parking lot. Neither of us ever set out to study fandom. Neither of us even knew that a field called “fan studies” existed. We’re both professors, but our research interests weren’t exactly in pop culture. Kathy’s background is in British literature—old British literature. Lynn is a psychologist whose research reflected her experience as a clinician.

Everything changed when we fell in love with Supernatural, a sci-fi television show about two demon-hunting brothers whose family business is “saving people and hunting things.” We arranged our lives around air dates of new episodes (and then downloaded them the next day so we’d have something to tide us over until the next episode aired). We spent every spare moment reading fan fiction, downloading photos, watching fan videos, and immersing ourselves in every aspect of fandom. We emptied our wallets to buy DVD sets and collectibles and tickets to fan conventions. When we were together, we babbled in our secret fan language, to the consternation of family members who clearly thought we had lost it.

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There were times when we wondered if they were right. Some people buy sports cars when they’re having a midlife crisis. Some people have affairs. Some start drinking. We fell for a television show. Fandom, for both of us, had been a refuge in the past in times of crisis—from the raging hormones and constant doubts of adolescence to the terrors of grad school statistics. It had provided a welcome respite during some rocky patches in both our lives, and now, as midlife loomed, we were both in need of a refuge once again, as well as a place to figure ourselves out for the second time. Who were we now, after defining ourselves as partners and mothers and professionals? What did we like, want, need, desire? What made us laugh, tugged at our heartstrings, turned us on?

Turns out we needed Supernatural.

Why Supernatural? Solid writing, an intricate mythology, scary monsters both literal and metaphorical. A story of love, loyalty, and family. An emotionally intense relationship between the main characters that generates enough chemistry to power a small city. Two very hot actors. Wasn’t that enough?

It probably would have been, but there was more. We could relate to the Winchester brothers. Both are damaged heroes who have put their own needs aside to save others. They feel deeply but show little. Putting our own needs aside and swallowing emotions was something we had both done too—for partners, children, career. Add to this the Winchesters’ appeal to anyone who’s ever felt like they don’t quite “fit in” with the rest of the world. Maybe your imagination takes you places that nobody else goes. Maybe you don’t fall in line with society’s expectations of what it means to be a man or a woman, or you’ve experienced difficulties that set you apart. Maybe you just happen to have the specifications of the USS Enterprise memorized, or can rattle off every detail of the last episode of Doctor Who. Sam and Dean Winchester don’t fit in either. They’re outsiders—but they’re also heroes. And they’re what we all recognize as family.

Rationally, we could certainly account for the appeal of Supernatural. But falling into fandom is like falling in love, and we weren’t necessarily operating rationally. These decisions—if they can even be called decisions—are made with the gut (or lower), not with the head. We were simply hooked.

We were also a little ashamed. By most people’s reckoning, we were spending far too much time, effort, and money on what was a frivolous and ridiculous pursuit. And we were puzzled. Why had this show become so important to us? In response, we did what came naturally—we turned our obsession into a research project. Surely people would stop objecting if we could demonstrate our serious academic interest in fandom (as opposed to our interest in Jared Padalecki’s biceps or Jensen Ackles’ impossibly green eyes).

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