by Paula R. Stiles
A double protagonist
It may seem rather odd to say that the CW show Supernatural has any connections to the works of H.P. Lovecraft or Mythos (the shared universe created by Lovecraft and his friends), but they’re there. Most horror today owes at least some tip of the hat to Lovecraft (The X-Files certainly did). But Supernatural‘s connections seem particularly strong.
Lovecraft’s version of the Mythos universe is dark and bleak. Humans are small and powerless in it, pawns (at best) of larger, pitiless forces that barely notice them at the best of times. Similarly, Supernatural is a universe where powerless humans are trapped between demons (ex-humans comparable to Lovecraft’s Old Ones in power, and to the Hounds of Tindalos in their natural, smoky form, who can possess a human, much like Asenath Waite does her husband in “The Thing on the Doorstep“) and angels (incredibly powerful and ruthless non-humans comparable to the Elder Gods). As co-protagonist, Dean Winchester, says in season four’s episode, “Criss Angel Is a Douchebag”, “It ends either bloody or sad [for human hunters of the supernatural].”
Dean and his brother Sam make, together, a classic Mythos character. Sam has been contaminated with demon blood since age six months, due to a deal his mother made with a demon, Azazel, ten years before his birth. Like Lovecraftian heroes such as Delapore, the protagonist of “The Rats in the Walls“, his life is darkened and distorted by tainted blood and heritage. Like the fishy denizens of Innsmouth in “The Shadow over Innsmouth“, he is part of a group with similar “blood”. His mother was chosen to give birth to him ten years after she made her deal to save his father’s life.
This is strongly enhanced by Sam’s season-four arc. Increasingly throughout the show, Sam has been confronted with the idea that he will become a new type of being, more than human, who will release demonic powers and lead them to conquer the Earth. This resembles Lovecraft’s messianic figure Nyarlathotep, who fulfills the will of the Outer Gods on Earth, and not to our good. Sam becomes obsessed with killing the demon, Lilith, who killed his brother. She has apparently started a countdown to the Apocalypse and Sam hopes to avert her ultimate goal – the release of an Outer God (here, represented by the fallen angel Lucifer) from Hell. However, to his horror, he discovers after he kills her that her death is the final broken seal needed to release Lucifer.
Fantasy and reality
Dean, meanwhile, seems mostly free of this dark heritage – at least on the surface – and is a much more active and aggressive personality than your usual passive Lovecraftian protagonist. But Dean has been seriously disturbed by the brothers’ dysfunctional upbringing, which was sparked by their mothers’ fiery death at the hands of Azazel after she tried to renege of her deal. Dean feels like a “freak”, to the point where a psychopathic shapeshifter in season one’s “Skin” empathises with him and steals his identity, and law enforcement wants him as a serial killer and devil worshiper. He is a violent loner isolated from everyone except his brother and father, hostile toward any authority not paternal. He even talks regularly to angels, receiving information that cannot be confirmed independently by others. It’s as if one of fellow Mythos writer Robert E. Howard’s vigorous heroes (like Conan) had strode into a Lovecraftian situation (as in the classic “Queen of the Black Coast“) and grabbed it by the short hairs.
Dean’s odd worldview makes him a very unreliable narrator, both to other characters in his world and to the audience. The show’s Mythos aura is enhanced by the fact that Dean (and not the more overtly rational Sam) is frequently the only viewpoint character, so that we are never quite sure if what we are seeing is the absolute, sane truth. The audience often sees the story through his eyes, but does not notice this tunnel vision, partly due to the illusion of an omniscient perspective in television and partly due to the ease with which Dean gains the audience’s sympathies. Dean kills vampires and demon-possessed humans (Tammi in “Malleus Maleficarum”, for example) so brutally that even a demon compliments him, yet we accept his bloody actions as a normal, “human” response to his environment. It’s difficult to drop this view even when the show clearly intends Dean to be “tailspinning”, as in early-season two’s infamous trilogy: “Everyone Loves a Clown”, “Bloodlust” and “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”, which ends with Dean confessing that his revival from near-death in the season premiere, “In My Time of Dying”, has convinced him that: “I was dead, and I should’ve stayed dead.” This echoes what he says about the female zombie of that episode: “What’s dead should stay dead.”
There is debate within the fandom whether Dean could be called “insane”, but in Lovecraftian terms, he is indisputably a mad narrator. Like many of Lovecraft’s “mad” protagonists, he holds a viewpoint so radically different from that of those around him (and that of the audience) that he appears psychotic, even though, like many of Lovecraft’s protagonists, he’s right and everyone else is wrong. Already unstable and subject to altered states of consciousness (notably, his djinn-induced hallucination in season two’s “What Is and What Should Never Be”), Dean was yanked out of Hell in the season-four premiere,”Lazarus Rising”, by angels who have since visited him in dreams, altered his memories and dragged him from pillar to post when they so chose. Meanwhile, he is haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of Hell that threaten his tenuous hold on sanity. It has become a common trope in the show that what Dean thinks is occurring around him may be decidedly not the case.
Morality and corruption
An interesting thing about Sam and Dean is the way their morality is portrayed. Sam initially appears to be the one with a strong moral center while Dean is hedonistic and almost sociopathic. Yet, Sam is slowly corrupted, not so much by his tainted blood as by his anxiety about his tainted blood. It’s no secret that Lovecraft was negatively obsessed with race and culture, but perhaps less obvious is that what Lovecraft’s stories turned on was not so much the actuality of ethnic mixing and the encroachment of other races as the fear of them. Lovecraft’s protagonists seem to get along well enough until they discover the reality of their tainted blood. It’s the discovery, not the blood itself, that starts them on their downward spirals to madness and death.
Delapore, the narrator of “The Rats in the Walls”, for example, doesn’t lose it until he discovers the family catacombs and realizes just what his ancestors got up to (cannibalism, selective breeding of humans, worship of mad gods, and other ugly stuff). The scientists of “At the Mountains of Madness” are perfectly fine until they discover an ancient city in Antarctica that may contain the secret to the dark origins of life on Earth. It all goes downhill from there.
Similarly, Sam seems very normal at first in Supernatural. It’s not until he begins to realize that he has demon blood inside him (near the end of season two in “All Hell Breaks Loose, Part 1” when Azazel visits him in a dream) that he starts to fall apart. This unease is foreshadowed in season-two episode “Croatoan”, when Sam and Dean are besieged in an isolated town by people who have been infected by a demonic virus that turns them into creatures sort of like “At the Mountains of Madness'” shoggoths or “Re-Animator”‘s zombies. They are motivated solely by the desire to infect uninfected humans and drag them down to damnation. Sam is apparently infected, too, but the unease of the audience only ratchets up when he turns out to be immune (those infected invariably turn). So, is he just lucky? Human? Not human? Even possibly turning into one of the demonic enemy?
Zombies R Us
Mythos also appears late in season three in the gruesome “Time Is on My Side”. Here, the brothers hunt Doc Benton, a doctor from New Hampshire who discovered the secret of eternal life via alchemy in the late 18th century, according to legend. In the episode, the brothers at first assume Doc Benton’s “alchemy” means magic, but Sam soon discovers that it’s actually science. However, Benton has a problem – his organs wear out and he needs to replace them periodically. Which means killing people.
“Time Is on My Side” references two Lovecraft stories. First, there’s “Cool Air“, in which a Spanish physician, Dr. Muñoz, keeps himself alive via refrigeration for 18 years after his “death” (the brothers bury Benton in a fridge). Second, and much more strongly, is the “Re-Animator” series about Herbert West, a physician who comes up with a serum that can revive dead tissue. This is exactly how Benton has kept himself alive. And, like West’s zombies, Benton is very, very hard to kill as a result because you only need to take the serum once.
The episode also references the films Re-Animator (1985), Bride of Re-animator (1991) and Beyond Re-Animator (2003), which are based on Lovecraft’s series. The films have a recurring theme of lost loves being revived as zombies (the show did a non-scientific version of this using Ancient Greek black magic in “Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things”). Sam is so desperate to keep Dean from being dragged to Hell at the end of the deal he made with a demon at the end of season two that he is willing to inject Dean with the serum. Dean, however, forcefully rejects this idea, partly because of his experiences with the girl zombie, but mostly because Doc Benton’s form of “immortality” grosses him out.
The season-four character arcs for the brothers are disquietingly prefigured by the late season-three episode “Dream a Little Dream of Me”. In it, the brothers go “dreamwalking” to save their friend, Bobby Singer. The brothers are separated and have very different experiences. In the first dream, for example, Sam finds himself outside of Bobby’s house in scenery so bright it belongs in a Tide commercial. During a second dream, he is able to take control of his part of it and kill the MOTW, a graduate-student-turned-vengeful-shaman who can’t dream except via a specific hallucinogen. This control may be tied to prophetic dreams that Sam had in season one, which were later tied to Azazel. At the end of the episode, there is a lingering suspicion that Sam’s actions in the dreams are a revival of this demon-based power.
Dean’s experience is very different. In the first dream, he is able to save Bobby while Sam is trapped “outside”. In the second dream, he confronts a doppleganger of himself who embodies his darkest fears. Much like Sam, Dean attempts to take control of the dream and wake himself up by snapping his fingers, but it doesn’t work for him and DreamDean begins to mock and berate him. When Dean kills this shadow self in a rage, it turns into a demonic version of him, with black eyes: “You can’t escape me, Dean! You’re gonna die! And this – this is what you’re gonna become!”
Dean wakes up when Sam kills the student, but in a twist at the end, “our” Dean reappears, smiling, black eyes utterly mad, and turns off the episode with a snap of his fingers. This evokes the narrator’s confusion between reality and dream in Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the WitchHouse“, but it also mirrors Lovecraft’s description of Nyarlathotep in “The Rats in the Walls” as “the mad, faceless god [who] howls blindly”. It also brings up the chilling image of the Hindu creator/destroyer god, Shiva, evoked by J. Robert Oppenheimer upon seeing the first nuclear test in his famous quote from the Hindu epic Mahabharata: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”.So, where does this leave season five? Still in Mythos land, rather like Dirk Manning’s comic, NIGHTMARE WORLD, where Lucifer tries to recruit Lilith and Cthulhu to help him escape Hell. In Supernatural season five, Lucifer is free and walks the earth. Sam appears to be off the hook in Mythos terms, in that his role has apparently been fulfilled (though I bet he won’t be looking forward to the reward his demon lover Ruby promised Lucifer would give him). Dean, on the other hand, is just gearing up. The angels have set him up opposite Lucifer as a truly terrible figure. Dean must stop the Apocalypse by killing Lucifer, but in the process, it appears that the world will be completely destroyed. The angels have given Dean a pretty vision that he will bring in a new paradise, but the reality seems to be that Lucifer won’t destroy the world – Dean Winchester will. Not exactly comforting, but it’s bound to be one hell of a ride.
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