Monday, February 2, 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...


AuthorM said...

I am the mother who will always believe the child who says there is something under the bed or in the closet. I have an escape plan firmly in place for when the ax-wielding maniac comes out of the woods around my house and starts up the stairs. I have already done the "clown" drill with my kids as in -- "Kids, if you wake up in the night and see a clown outside, DO NOT LET HIM IN. Or, if you look into a storm drain and see one, don't take the balloon!"

But I loooove scary movies, love, love, love...not torture movies, but scary paranormal movies. Love them.

However, to this day, I will not go to the bathroom in the night with my eyes open. I'm that afraid of The Green Haired Lady (she's like Bloody Mary but with green hair, same concept.) I will not look in a mirror in a dark room.



Anonymous said...

ROTFL! Loved the ending of your piece. Great read, Tanya.

I have always loved creepy, scary stories. One of my earliest memories is checking out ghost stories when I was in kindergarten. But I don't do gore well. A little is okay, but over the top I'll avoid. I've never seen any of the Saw movies for this reason and I've recently been traumatized by a scene in Keifer Sutherlands MIRRORS which I didn't expect.

Anonymous said...

>>>Or, if you look into a storm drain and see one, don't take the balloon<<<

LOL, yes, M, exactly! When I'm out jogging in my neighborhood, to this day, I veer away from the storm drains and glance nervously around expecting to see Pennywise.

And don't get me started on the mirrors at night time! And I have horrible, horrible vision. If I go to bathroom at night, it's not like I put on my contacts, so everything is eerily distorted anyway. And my glasses are almost worse--looking straight through, everything's fine but my peripheral vision is a fuzzy mess. I've scared myself to near-panic downstairs writing at night, convinced that I just saw SOMETHING out of the corner of my eye. And walking through that darned mirrored hallway that connects my bathroom to my bedroom? A creepy gauntlet that I despise walking.

Even the commercials for Mirrors scared me.

Tanya, who wishes she were kidding...but no

Anonymous said...

>>>I am the mother who will always believe the child who says there is something under the bed or in the closet<<<

This is the thing with my daughter. I often leave it to her dad to convince her that there aren't monsters under the bed because, while I never want her to know this, I'm half afraid there just might be! (I'm always glad when J takes a heavy mag flashlight and checks for himself to reassure her.)

When my daughter was a baby and my son was almost three, my husband had to go out of town for a funeral. I found that being alone in the house with two young kids, I felt far more vulnerable than when I lived alone in college. (The kids and I had a dog, which makes some people feel safer, but they clearly haven't seen Signs, John Carpenter's The Thing, or the SPN Family Remains episode!) Anyway, at one point, I realized I needed something downstairs and I'd neglected to leave lights on that afternoon, so it had turned dark since we went up. I told my son I had to go to the kitchen but that he didn't have to come down with me if he didn't want to. He cocked his head like he was listening to something, smiled and said (I kid you not), "The kitchen's okay, Mommy. All the ghosts are in the bathroom."

During this SAME period of time, my little boy stayed close to the cordless phone because I'd promised Daddy was going to call to tell him goodnight. Apparently, while I was changing diapers, my son attempted to call J by randomly pressing nubmers. Which I did not know until a policeman knocked at my front door that night, scaring ten years off my life, trying to explain that they'd received a 911 from my residence. I know that what he actually said was, "Ma'am, we received a 911 call.." but what I heard was, "The calls are coming from inside the house!" and I flashed to every high school babysitting terror I'd ever experienced. (When they remade that hokey movie a year or two ago, I had to mute the commercials for it, too.)

Tanya, whose children are trying to give her a heart attack

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

OMG, Tanya! I know I shouldn't laugh, but how did you get saddled with kids who keep poking at your fears?!

This is a magnificent post. I'd never really thought about the scary parts that way, just got defensive whenever I saw something made prior to the show that had a similarity. Very nicely done!

I admit, when I watched the first season, I often went upstairs with my back against the wall. I haven't had that since, for some reason. But they've returned a lot of that suspense and scary stuff this year.

Anonymous said...

>>>This is a magnificent post

Why, thank you :-D

The writers of Supernatural are obviously well in tune with pop culture--from movie references to music and even disturbing world news--and I think they use a lot of that to amp up stuff we were probably scared of during our formative years, whether it's a vague "something's scratching at my window" to a very specific myth. Frankly, I prefer when they use those references for humor, but that's just me...


Maria Lima said...

Great post, Tanya! I have to admit, the only reason I started watching the show is because of Callum Keith Rennie in episode 2 of the 1st season. I'm easily creeped out, but after the then WB replayed ep 1 and 2 together (I'm totally anal about watching from beginning), I was hooked.

Also, b/c the actors are from my home state and hometown (I think of San Antonio as hometown and lived/worked for years in Richardson)...then of course, the OMG, HAWT factor. ::g::

I now can't wait until the show is aired, and even watch at night, by myself. And like you, I ended up writing an essay for BenBella.

The show totally sucked me a very good way.

Oh, and I totally remember the White Rock Lake story.

Maureen Child said...

Oh, Tanya, I sooo hear you! That was a great post and seriously, I think you and I might be twins separated at birth or something!

After the Bloody Mary episode, I had every light in the house on and refused to look into a mirror at ALL for days. Good thing I work at home.

The Family Remains ep with the licking...EW! Brought back all those creeped out stories we used to hear. And the bug episodes always get me.

Still, i think the creepy factor is the hardest to deal with. And yet, do I own all the DVD's? Yep. Do I breathlessly await each episode? Yep...even though I've been known to watch through my fingers....

Jammi said...

Hahah, I too was going to avoid watching it but the first episode I saw was Bloody Mary and I was creeped out but drawn in and had to go back and watch it from the beginning. Space had a marathon.

What I love the most outside of the scare factor based on creatures is that fear Dean and Sammy have of being alone. I come from a huge family and I can imagine going crazy like that if all my family members were to die and I was the last one, especially if, like Sam and Dean, I could find some way to blame myself. So the whole time I'm watching petrified of the creatures, though I agree that the first season was the scariest up until now, the whole psychological fear of losing everyone you love is what makes it that much more real.

And I used to carry my baby brother around with me everywhere when I was babysitting and it was night time. Hahah, he'd stay in my bed with me until my mom came to get him [this was a few years ago, four years and younger] because if anything came at us, I wouldn't have to waste time going into his room to get him, just hug him and run

MJFredrick said...

I love the creep factor, but not the gore. This season seems bloodier than usual. I hid during the cuisanart scene this week, the knife scene during the rabbit foot episode, the shedding scene in Skin....

But I love the creep factor, esp. Bloody Mary and the scarecrow. LOVED. Wanted more.

Natalie J. Damschroder said...

What I love the most outside of the scare factor based on creatures is that fear Dean and Sammy have of being alone.

Excellent point, Jorgianna! I think you've hit on one of the more subtle reasons why this show is so loved. That's a universal fear, and we'd all like to have someone like Dean (or Sam) to always count on, keep that fear at bay.

Norah Wilson said...

Wonderful post, Tanya. Real fans get it -- it IS derivative, but in the best possible way, building on our cumulative exposures. And the result is uniquely Supernatural.

Hey, Maria, another CKR fan! I even started watching Californication for a Callum fix.

Elizabeth said...

Tanya, I'm completely with you on this. I am almost 26 and I'm still scared of the dark. I was traumatized at age seven thanks to Chucky(I'm shivering as I type that name) and have never recovered. I will admit that I wouldn't be as scared with Dean by my side. It's amazing to think I watched Jensen in his Days of Our Lives days. It was the only reason I watched it. Sad, I know. Anyway, it's good to know that I'm not the only one with an unhealthy relationship for the show.

Beth(I used to hang out, and still occasionally do, in Catherine Mann's Bunker on EHarlequin)