Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tanya is a Wuss--and those Winchesters Aren't Helping!

very mild spoilers for episodes past


I've always been a total wuss, but I tried to hide my shameful secret. I went to scary movies with dates, reluctantly played Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board at slumber parties (never actually worked, btw, but was thoroughly creepy), graciously read Stephen King when a well-meaning friend who knew my parents couldn't keep me in books gave me a bunch of free novels, sat through Scream with my college roommates... I thought if I toughed it out, I'd become braver. Eventually. Instead, what happened was that during my two pregnancies, I experienced nightmares so vivid that they made HiDef look like grainy black and white, and I abandoned the stupid Get Brave plan. I've now embraced the much more effective Cover Your Eyes! approach. I avoid books that I think will scare me--if I'm a friend of the author, I'll buy a copy and give it to my fearless sister--I take the kids trick-or-treating at Halloween, but only in funny costumes and only in well lit yards of people we trust not to jump out at us, I make my husband go see horror flicks without me, and I won't go anywhere near Six Flags for the entire month of October. (One FrightFest in my teens was quite enough, for me, thank you.)

J (the husband) finds it amusing that I refuse to see any movies with demonic activity in them, but for awhile, my favorite TV show was about a high school girl who slayed demons (namely vampires)on a weekly basis. I was a devoted fan of Buffy and Angel and a casual watcher of Charmed and Gilmore Girls (Jared Padalecki's previous TV gig) so when I first heard about Supernatural, I thought I'd give it a try. The night it premiered, I tuned in...and didn't even make it to the first commercial break. I freaked out about Mary running back up the stairs to check on the baby and changed the channel even before the disturbing part of her being pinned to the ceiling, dripping blood on her infant, and bursting into flame. Of course, as I was watching, J was downstairs in his recliner and our toddler was in her crib down the hall. Perhaps the situation cut a little close to home--not that I've ever been pinned to the ceiling. And I'd like to keep it that way.

Friends of mine, who are wise and have good taste, were aghast that I wasn't watching. "Come on!" they prompted. "It's a combo of horror and wise-ass remarks. Strong writing, interesting characters--right up your alley! You've seen every single episode of Buffy. This isn't that much scarier... Jensen Ackles is in it. He was cute in Dark Angel!"

(Cute is not the word for Jensen. The word you are looking for is smokin' hot.)

Still, I held off. For two whole seasons! Until my plane out of Nashville was delayed and Trish kindly let me crash at her place for a few hours. Which was more than long enough for her to put the pilot episode in her DVD player...


So, I'm hooked. Own the DVDs, seen every ep, wrote an essay for BenBella, have Carry On My Wayward Son and Eye of the Tiger as ring tones... But mine is not an entirely healthy relationship with the show. It's more like those classic gothic romance novels where the heroine was falling in love with the hero but also, on some level, scared to death of him. There were one or two episodes of Buffy that I will admit to having to watch with all the lights on, episodes that would haunt me as I tried to fall asleep ("Hush" being among the worst) but I didn't have to cover my face or hide behind my husband every week.

Have I become an even BIGGER wuss since my Buffy/Angel days, or is there something specific about Supernatural? I vote the latter (because, frankly, the former is embarrassing.) A few weeks ago, Natalie recapped "Family Remains" and referenced a scene that reminded her of The Changeling, which she credited as the scariest movie she's ever seen. Natalie mentioned other classic horror movie tropes used in the episode and, while this probably goes without saying, I'm sure each and every one of them were deliberate. Critics of Supernatural will occasionally say that the show is too "derivative." Those people are missing the point.

The reason Supernatural is so freaking scary is because, usually, it's about stuff we we're already scared of (whether that's getting on a plane, growing old, or "Bugs"). It's like why a good running gag works--because it builds on amusement we already feel--but in some sort of sick reverse, calling up bad memories and phobias I already own and exacerbating them. I remember as an elementary school student near Dallas being terrified when someone told me about a ghost sighting at White Rock Lake. That story, of picking up a girl in a car, only to reach her destintation and learn she was a ghost who could "never go home," gave me shivers for years, when I was far too young to know what Urban Legend meant or to realize that there were hundreds of variations for different locations. Then I watched the first episode of Supernatural, where the dude picked up the (dead) woman in his car and tried to take her home. ("I can never go home.") You know how many slumber parties I suffered through when I was the only girl awake, worried about Bloody Mary, for hours after everyone else was sleeping in the dark house? Watching that episode from season one (thanks a lot, Trish! *g*) reignited the long-held anxiety I feel whenever I walk by a mirror in a dimly lit room. (Random aside, to get into my bathroom, I have to pass between two mirrored walls. After the Blood Mary episode, I began taking this corridor at an Olympic sprint.)

Now, not all Urban Legends are equally scary. The Hook Man story always struck me as more hokey than creepy--I was absolutely fine watching that episode until I suddenly recalled another urban legend that I heard on the same camping trip. With a shudder, I turned to the friend who was watching the episode with me and said, "Do you know the one about the dog licking the hand?" She said, "Do I even want to ask?" I said no and quickly repressed the memory. (Thanks a lot, "Family Remains" for bringing that up again!"

The show doesn't just rely on familiar legends, but even visual cues--like the ball rolling down the stairs Natalie mentioned or the first season episode "Home" with the creepy wind-up monkey that evokes an old Stephen King cover. Those ugly little cymbal-playing simians are always shorthand for Evil! Seriously, do you know anyone who would actually give one of those to a little kid? And the garbage disposal later in the same episode? Come on, we all saw that coming! The only question was a tense, apprehensive when?. (An event I could identify only by sound, because you can be damn sure I had both eyes securely covered any time a character got within twenty feet of the sink.) The writers were fully aware that parts of that episode were reminiscent of Poltergeist; just like they know that the Scarecrow episode was a bit Children of the Corn crossed with The Lottery (a disturbing little short story by Shirley Jackson).

Come to think of it, this was my main problem with "Hush" (the aforementioned Buffy episode), too. Sure The Gentleman were visually creepy and don't even get me started on the deranged lackeys in their straight-jackets, but my fear went a lot deeper than the makeup and visual effects. Do you know how many times I've had the nightmare where I was trying to scream but couldn't?

Sometimes, episodes are gory or disgusting ("Skin," this means you...) but a lot of time the fear Supernatural evokes is more than just me being squeamish. It's deeper than that because it's playing on an old emotion the same way people married a long time or siblings can press each other's buttons because they know exactly what those unique button are. I sometimes see a fan post on-line that they thought a certain element of the show was a cliche, but in at least 99% of the cases, I don't think it was the writers being lazy. It was usually the writers playing up something in the collective conscious for effect. Often, that effect is fear, but sometimes it's comedy, playfully recognizing the every day objects that give many of us the heebie jeebies--such as Sam's fear of clowns in season 2 or Dean being unnerved by the dolls in "Playthings."

DEAN: This is a lotta dolls. Er, they're nice...Not super creepy at all.

When it comes to the overall plot of Supernatural, the writers give us the twists (Dean's going to hell--and the angels pulling him out!) but when it comes to the monsters of the week, they usually go back to basics. Why? BECAUSE IT WORKS! True story:

J and I, for obvious reasons, wait until the kids are safely tucked away in bed before we try to watch an episode of Supernatural. We had just started "Home" in the DVD player (with the family moving into Dean and Sam's childhood house and the girl who should be in bed comes to tell her mother that There's Something In The Closet) when we heard footsteps on the stairs. I automatically paused the show and changed the channel (my daughter doesn't fall asleep easily--if she accidentally glimpses this show, she won't sleep again until she's thirteen) and waited. Sure enough, my little girl appeared in the doorway. And said, "Mommy, there's something in my closet."

J and I turned to each other with simultaneous, "YOU go check!" And then we watched a nice soothing sitcom...