“If Dean can go to hell for 40 years, I can go to school today.”
That was how my daughter, then a sophomore in high school, managed to get through the day—finding inspiration from the Winchester brothers, the protagonists of Supernatural, the long-running horror-fantasy series on The CW.
The 2014-2015 school year was a rough one for Jordan, her anxiety and depression reaching critical heights. Her one solace, it seemed, was latching onto a TV show about fighting demons and saving the world, over and over.
“It felt really good to be so into something and share it with someone I love—my best friend, Lily,” she recalls. “We would wear flannels and get merchandise and get excited about new episodes. We would even bond by literally just sitting on Tumblr together and showing each other things that we found. I would bother my family with trivia—and not only facts about the show, but things that happened on set with the actors.”
It seemed like every conversation with Jordan that year steered back to Supernatural, from its frequent meta-jokes to the lives of its stars Jared Padalecki (Sam Winchester), Jensen Ackles (Dean Winchester) and Misha Collins (Castiel).
If I’ve learned anything from TV, it’s that Dad is supposed to be an island of stability during times of crisis, but I tend to be more of a wreck than a rock when my kids are in trouble. Still, I realized that if I was going to keep my daughter from slipping away, I needed to make that connection on her terms. In September 2014, I made her a deal: I’d watch the entire series with her from the beginning if she watched all of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with me.
“I originally went into the deal because I needed someone at home to talk about Supernatural with and really didn’t even give Buffy a second thought,” she says. “Eventually I got to find a whole new show to fall in love with, and it created the same bond it did with me and my best friend with my dad. We could make jokes and talk about the shows and we really created the father-daughter bond.”
It didn’t take long for me to realize what I’d just committed to. Supernatural debuted in 2005, when The WB (the original home of Buffy) was still a network. It’s about to enter into its 14th season, making it the longest-running fantasy series of all time. I weaseled my way out of Season Two, with the argument that most shows took a while to really find their footing. We’d alternate an episode of Supernatural with Buffy, eventually watching a few in a row of each depending on our moods. She quickly saw where some of the inspiration for Supernatural came from, and I quickly learned why it’s developed such a rabid fanbase. I also started getting more of her references and stopped glazing over every time she wanted to talk about some prank Misha had just pulled on set.
We took an unexpected break from our TV-watching deal in January 2015.
I was in Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival when I got the call. My beautiful, clever, charming, creative daughter was headed to a psychiatric facility. She’d hit rock bottom and needed help. Over the next week, she’d be confined to the youth wing with limited visitation. It was a turning point for Jordan, getting the tools she needed to deal with her darkest thoughts—anger, anxiety, depression. Knowing that it was the best thing for her didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye when visiting hours ended.
When she got home, I couldn’t wait to get back to our deal. Before each episode of Supernatural, I’d get the mini-review. Sometimes it was giddy excitement over the introduction of Ghostfacers, from the amateur documentarians who stumbled their way into the world of real monsters, or to Chuck, the novelist who unwittingly wrote the entire story of the Winchesters’ lives. Sometimes it was a warning that an episode was particularly scary or subpar.
I was more coy with Buffy. When we got to Season Five and the introduction of Dawn, like Buffy and her Scooby gang, I acted like she’d been there all along. I didn’t want to spoil any of Joss Whedon’s “What the hell is going on?” moments. And she fell in love with characters, just as I’d hoped.
In October 2016, just before an election that felt like its own horror show to so many of us in America, I took Jordan and a friend to Creation Entertainment’s Supernatural Official Convention in our hometown of Atlanta. When we walked in, the Peachtree Plaza ballroom was full of mostly 20-something women, all superfans of the show. Rob Benedict, who plays the author of novels based on the lives of the Winchesters in the show (in one of its many meta-twists, he’s later revealed as someone… more substantial), welcomed his Georgia audience in the most meta way possible: His L.A. band broke into R.E.M.
And Richard Speight Jr., who plays the Trickster (also revealed to be another character—nobody is just as they seem), has the charisma of a carny emcee. With the band grooving behind him, he held forth about Southern food—in particular, boiled peanuts. He also set clear expectations for attendees. “If you think this is the time you’re going to finally grab Jared’s heart, you’ve got a long weekend ahead of you,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean don’t try. Those security guards who just want to play on their phones, make those motherfuckers work for a living.”
Benedict and Speight, who play two minor but significant characters on the show, have become the core of Creation’s traveling Supernatural convention over the last several years. Speight had no idea what he was getting into when he went to his first convention back in 2008 after having taped just two episodes of the show.
“When I was asked to do it,” he says, “I just had this image of myself in a high-school gym at a folding table with a banner saying, ‘Meet the Trickster,’ with people kind of shuffling by, like that scene in The Wrestler with Mickey Rourke. I went out to Chicago to do the convention with truly no understanding of what it was I was going to be doing or how it was going to work or even why it existed.”
“That sounds crazy knowing what I know now,” he adds, as 2,000 fans in the convention hall next door start screaming as if on cue.
The first panel was a Q&A with two of the women on a series that can be criticized for the short life spans of many of its female characters (of course, it’s hard to think of any character, male or female, who hasn’t died at least once in 14 years): bad-asses Kim Rhodes (Sheriff Jody Mills) and Briana Buckmaster (Sheriff Donna Hanscum). “They talked a lot about female empowerment and their own battles with sexism,” Jordan says, “and the audience, which mostly consisted of women, responded really well to their candor.”
Next came Julian Richings, the 63-year-old Oxford-born actor who plays Death on the show. The journeyman character actor, best known for playing creepy or villainous figures on shows like Orphan Black, Channel Zero and Patriot, said people who only know him onscreen are often surprised to see him smile. “He was actually the bubbliest person of all time,” says Jordan. “This puppy man stole my heart. He was very charismatic and kind and so genuine with the audience.”
It was these kinds of interactions between the people behind the show and the fans who adore it that defined the convention. For Jordan, an aspiring actress and psychology major who’s now in her second year at Georgia State University, it was an opportunity to hear firsthand what it’s like to create a TV show that had come to mean so much for her:
On Julian Richling’s process: “I was very interested in his method of acting. As someone who is so clearly different from the characters he plays, I had to know his secret. Julian says he roots all his characters in a primary color. He grounds the initial components of the character in a simple and easily comprehendible concept and builds from there.”
On Sebastian Roché’s session: “A hilarious and beautiful 40-minute ramble with frequent jumping into the audience. Sebastian was exactly as I expected. He started his performance by singing a confusing song about peaches while rubbing his own ass. This beautiful man held nothing back from the audience and gave a wonderfully crass talk.”
On the interactions with the audience: “Ruth Connell (Rowena), Osric Chau (Kevin Tran), Briana Buckmaster and Kim Rhodes all had actual conversations with the audience. Osric gave us anime recommendations, Ruth got a dance lesson, and it all felt like I was hanging out with 60 of my closest friends, including the cast. They seemed as excited to be there as we were. The whole convention had the vibe of a casual conversation with our favorite actors. They all were so enthusiastic and fun, and I felt like it was a treat for everyone including them.”
That night, we returned to the hotel for Halloween karaoke. The cast showed up in costume: Buckmaster as Harley Quinn, Osric Chau (Kevin Tran) as Batman, Benedict as Two-Face, Speight as the Joker. Jordan described it as a “fun night of poorly sung but well-performed classics. I can only assume the hotel guests weren’t happy, but we were.”
Music was a big part of the weekend, with the night of karaoke, which has been one of the best ways to break down the walls between actors and fans over the years, plus friend-of-the-show Jason Manns playing a set and Benedict’s indie-rock house band Louden Swain performing between guests.
“It’s so great to combine both worlds,” Benedict says. “The band for me was always more like my extracurricular activity, and now it’s very much a part of the mainstream of what I’m focused on in addition to the acting. It’s great to have this atmosphere of people who want to hear you play and are really curious to hear your music. It’s really a dream.”
Louden Swain has been playing together since the 1990s, but they’ve gone from putting up flyers to get people into a show to touring the world and releasing seven albums, thanks to the connection to Supernatural and the conventions.
“On the street, it doesn’t sound as good if you say, ‘We’re playing the Westin,’” Benedict says, laughing. “But in reality, the music industry has changed so much that we have musician friends who say, ‘Hey, how can I get into that? I want to do that.’ Because you’re playing to a couple thousand people. Why do you play clubs? Because you want people there, you want them to buy your CD, you want them to hear your music and tell their friends about it. Well, this is that in spades. We’d never fill a club with 2,000 people. We’ve embraced it. We’ve more than embraced it; we thrive on it.”
Benedict’s very first convention, in 2009, coincided with the airing of an episode that featured his character, author Chuck Shurley, putting on the first Supernatural convention in an old haunted hotel for a few dozen fans of his books. “It was weird because I came on stage in real life, in Chicago, and I was super nervous, and I didn’t know what to expect. Packed house, and I’m holding a water bottle and kind of shaking, and I’m like, ‘This is exactly what I did in the show.’ So I take a drink, and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening? What’s real?’”
Supernatural has had a huge impact on the musical tastes of my daughter, who will surprise me by playing tracks by Bob Seger, AC/DC or, as any fan of the show can guess, Kansas. “Carry On Wayward Son” has become a traditional season closer since its appearance in the Season 1 episode “Salvation.”
“I discovered a new love of classic rock through the show’s soundtrack,” she says. “They often play classic rock since Dean thinks it’s the only acceptable genre of music, and, just like his dad, refuses to listen to anything that came out after the ’70s. As my love for Supernatural grew, I learned more and more about classic rock. I would listen to the songs from the show and find similar artists and songs on my own. The only problem was all I was discovering was white, male classic rock. After this came to my dad’s attention, he insisted on playing some more diverse music for me. But this one show introduced me to a whole other love—classic rock—and that only grew my connection with the show. Honestly, for a TV show, it did a lot. It brought me closer to my dad, it showed me a whole genre of music and it even helped me through a seriously tough time in my life.”
Supernatural provided more than just an escape to my daughter, when she discovered it back in high school. It provided a community and a link to people who understood. “The actors on the show helped me as well,” she said. “Jared Padalecki was fairly public about his own struggles, and knowing that someone I looked up to so much was going through the same thing as I was made me feel like I could do it, too. It made me feel like people cared because it would come [into the] public eye that Jared was having a hard time, and people on Twitter would send him messages of support. Hundreds of people would actually band together to tell this one guy that they loved and cared for him and that they hoped whatever was going wrong in his life at that moment would get better. It made me feel so much better because even though the comments were not directed at me, I read the messages of hope and it brought me comfort.”
For me, Supernatural provided a lifeline to someone I loved when I needed it most. Nothing hurts quite like seeing your child in pain, and that experience can make you feel so helpless. Jordan loved this TV show, so I was determined to connect to her through it. And I’ll treasure all those nights in the living room reacting to whatever craziness the writers, cast and crew could dream up. We finished Season 12 just in time to watch last season’s new episodes each week. We finished Buffy and plowed through other strange and fantastical shows, like Legion, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and, currently, the Buffy spinoff Angel. We’ve had plenty of adventures as a family that didn’t involve sitting passively in front of a television, but we’ve probably grown closer chatting about whatever story we’ve just watched, reveling in clever plotting or favorite characters, than just about anything else. And we’ll be doing that again on this week, when the 14th season of Supernatural begins. Sam and Dean will survive whatever the angels, demons and monsters continue to throw at them. And so will we.
Season 14 of Supernatural premieres Thursday, Oct. 11 at 8 p.m. on The CW.