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).

We were certain there were perfectly good reasons why we seemed to have left some of our good sense behind us, we just needed to find them. Some of what we found seemed plausible, but none of it reflected our own experience. We couldn’t find ourselves—our fangirl selves—in the research. Some theories hinted at frightening levels of pathology. Were we about to go off the rails at any moment? The research seemed to suggest we were just a slippery slope away from believing that the Winchester brothers were secretly besotted with us. That was alarming enough, but pathology aside, none of the research resonated with us or seemed to adequately explain why we felt the way we did. Clearly we were going to have to forge our own path. So we decided to write a book. We would figure out what being a fan was all about, and we would get it right!

Our first trip to Vancouver to attend a small convention of Supernatural fans was the first time we were made to feel like bona fide researchers, basking in the warm glow of our academic credentials. It was also the first time we were made to feel at various times like crazy fangirls and dangerous stalkers.

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

As researchers, we had set up interviews with the convention organizer and the director of the film that was screening at the convention. We felt important, being invited “behind the scenes” at the convention and breezing off to brunch with the director. We carried voice recorders and note pads. We took notes and asked “serious” questions about the perception of fans from the producers’ side (this was way before the advent of Twitter). The organizers, the director and the gathered fans called us “Dr.” and regarded us with something like respect.

Then the official convention ended and we shifted into fangirl mode, piling into a van with several other fans for a tour of past Supernatural filming sites. We giddily took pictures of the place where Dean almost cried and Sam fought with a demon, before winding up at midnight floundering around in the dark without a flashlight, searching for the site of a highly emotional scene in which Dean reveals a pivotal secret to his brother. We finally found the right bit of fence, beside the right river and stood at just the right angle to take photos we knew had no chance of coming out in the dark. We posed in the same positions as the actors and re-enacted bits of dialogue from the scene. We touched the fence we knew they had touched. We had entered fan nirvana.

Flushed with triumph, we stumbled back up the wooded path to the van only to be met by a Vancouver policeman wondering what we were doing there.

Officer: Is there a problem?

Us: No.

Officer: It’s very late.

Us: We were looking for a fence ...

Officer: [skeptical silence]

Us: From a television show … where something happened …

Officer: [sighing and holstering his flashlight] Oh. Fans.

Slightly chastened by that experience, we shifted back into academic mode the next day when we joined a woman who lived in Vancouver and was familiar with the ins and outs of finding current filming locations. Through a series of fortuitous misunderstandings that might have been misrepresentations (neither of us would have called them outright lies) we found that day’s filming location, a small suburban hospital. Neither of us were brazen enough to think we could ever talk to any of the cast, but figured speaking with crew members might be possible and might even yield more insights into fan/producer interactions. They were, after all, the ones most likely to interact with fans who showed up to watch filming. (This was of course a category we actively separated ourselves from, presenting business cards, wielding those voice recorders, and trying as hard as we could to look blasé about the fact that we were on the Supernatural set and in such close proximity to the people we fanned so hard.) We figured they would be happy to talk to us.

We were wrong. In the middle of a conversation with one crew member who was on the verge of spilling some juicy gossip about her time working for a different show, a call came through on her walkie-talkie. Someone was coming down to speak to us. Great! Perhaps we’d get to talk to some more crew members!

When studio security arrived it was clear they were not inviting us to sit down for a chat over afternoon tea. They were banishing us. We were told to leave immediately and to talk to no one. We were even followed into the hospital parking lot to make sure that we vacated the premises forthwith.  Somewhere along the line we had been miscast as the “wrong” kind of fans, the kind we were trying to argue were media stereotypes, the very stereotypes we were seeking to dispel. We were shocked—we were academics! Couldn’t they see that?

The next morning at the airport we presented our passports to the U.S. Immigration official, who asked what we had been doing in Canada. Typically, Lynn said “pleasure” while Kathy simultaneously declared the trip to have been all about business. This engendered a raised eyebrow and a long conversation about what we had been doing, and eventually an explanation of fans.

Official: Fans? [Making whirly motion with his hand].

Us: No, like fans of television shows, movies, bo–

Official: Oh! You mean crazystalkerchicks!

Us: [with sighs of resignation] Yeah.

It was just that kind of weekend.

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

Correction Dec. 18, 2013: Due to a production error, this article originally contained an image of a cover for a different book.

Katherine Larsen teaches at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is the co-author of Fangasm.

Lynn S. Zubernis is associate professor of counselor education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of Fangasm.

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