What’s Not Going Bump in the Night?: The Missing Folklore of Supernatural [TV Correspondent Tryout]

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

There are five stories I would love to see added to Supernatural Canon:

  • A Gettysburg battlefield ghost haunting focusing on one of the many Civil War era tales.
  • Anything dealing with the Salem Witch Trials and Tituba.
  • A Gullah or Southern African-American story, like The Talking Eggs that takes Sam and Dean to the Cape Fear region or lower, into South Carolina.
  • Anything that deals with a haunting dating back to the days of slavery, in the vein of The Legend of Pin Oak.
  • A trickster story where the trickster isn’t a white male, but some personification of Anansi, or Br’er Rabbit. (Or, in my wildest dreams, a Heyoka personification, but that is neither here or now and probably far too complicated for network television…)

Unfortunately, after six seasons I’ve given up on ever seeing these or anything that reflects the folklore and legends I grew up with as an African-American kid.

For those of you not in the know, Supernatural is a show about two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, who travel across America with an arsenal in the back of their old ’67 Impala so that they can battle various supernatural beings across the country. Aside from the good looking male leads  — a staple of any CW show, here played surprisingly well by Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki — the thing that kept me coming back when I started watching was the focus on playing around with American Folklore and its use of America itself as a setting. For a show shot in Vancouver it captures the essence of the country with a surprising attention to detail. From the fabled western highways to the roadside diners to the small country towns, America is as much of a character as the characters from her folklore.

Well, part of America, anyway, and therein lies my problem.

When I was younger, I was terrified of the Boo-Hag, and even after devouring pages of folklore and horror tales, I still found them scarier than anything Anne Rice could come up with. Curious about Tarbaby and Br’er Rabbit, I sought out the rest of the Uncle Remus stories after being introduced to them by my mother. Somewhere in my search for tales of supernatural, I vividly remember reading that one might meet the devil at the crossroads to make a deal for all the riches in the world in exchange for your soul. But I also remember laughing to myself when I got to the end of the story only to find out that the devil could be so easily fooled, handed the sole of a shoe instead of the soul he really wanted. The lesson that the devil could only take your soul once stuck with me throughout childhood.

Most of the folklore I could retell came directly from Southern African-American or Gullah Island culture and a lot of it was first recorded during or soon after The Civil War. I was a reader growing up and had books full of folklore and supernatural stories collected by Patricia McKissack, Virginia Hamilton, and Zora Neal Hurston, but having family history solidly rooted in both cultures and a mother who actively read and told me the tales certainly helped ground my interest. Though the themes explored in each of the stories mentioned are somewhat universal in the realm of folklore, fables and morality tales, I enjoyed them because they were all about characters who shared my history and looked like me.

Though they shared lessons with the lore of other cultures, these stories were often collected, written and told in dialect (perhaps more accurately when Hurston was collecting folklore with the Federal Writers Project during the Depression, than when Br’er Rabbit’s scribe, Chandler Harris, took the job upon himself according to some like author Alice Walker. Her ‘Uncle Remus, No Friend of Mine’ is an excellent read) unique to the African-American South. Combined with the dialect, the period of enslavement the stories emerge from make them uniquely American. It’s safe to say that without the American history of slavery, the former slave Uncle Remus would not have become quite the character he did.

Supernatural occasionally offers references to Native American mythology (or even, with the episode “Wendigo,” an hour dedicated to the Algonguian wendigo myth — still, you’ll rarely ever see a Native American on the show. My count is once, in the episode “Bugs”), though if we’re luckier still we’ll get a reference to some aspect of Black (not necessarily African-American) folklore, usually from some mention of hoodoo or voodoo. But as rarely as Native mythology is mentioned, any mention of African-American folklore is non-existent. For a show that seems to pride itself on it’s Americanness (again, American cars, American guns, American rock, roadside diners, road trips down scenic western high ways, apple pie, family loyalty to a fault, and everything that makes you wonder why this isn’t Sarah Palin’s favorite show) I find it amazing that they’ve yet to touch on the oral history of a group of people or a point in American history that not only shaped modern America, but gave way (directly and indirectly) to a huge chunk of American folklore.

Like one of my other favorite CW shows, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural is a show that strives to root itself in the American past while at the same time conveniently ignoring said past. The stories I grew up with will most likely never be featured on the show, even as the sixth season steers back to the Monster of the Week theme, because acknowledging African-American folklore and giving an episode to the Boo Hag might mean having Sam or Dean talk about –or god forbid even explain– the past that so much of that folklore comes from.

This continues a trend that I’ve noticed in way too many of my favorite television shows, leading me to believe that a show runner’s train of thoughts must go something like, “Well, if we have some black people in there on the periphery, maybe even throw them an entire hour of focus once a season, then we never have to go any deeper than that.” If that fails, and a small group of fans does complain about the lack of inclusion or diversity, the next excuse is always, “this is a certain narrative about a certain group of people, hence why we’re not focusing on your group. We’re not excluding you on purpose, there’s just no place for you in this story!” (The latter being Matthew Weiner of Mad Men fame’s  personal favorite excuse.)

As far as I can tell using my Google-fu, show runner Erik Kripke has never been forced to publicly answer to any racial or diversity issues concerning Supernatural, so we don’t have any record of how he might respond to hearing that his show has a problem. We don’t even know if he knows his show has a problem (though I’m assuming he doesn’t because if he knew, he would have fixed it. Right? Right??) Maybe I’m not giving him enough credit as an aware individual, but I can’t help but think Kripke assumes he doesn’t have to delve into African-American folklore –saving himself from the awkward question of the African-American past– because he’s given us two episodes: “Route 666″ and “Crossroad Blues.”

Here, he says, I’ll give you an episode about a racist truck in a formerly segregated town (never mind that they never say the words ‘segregated’ or ‘Jim Crow’, and the word ‘racist’ is said twice, which I find amazing for an hour-long episode whose plot is comes about completely because of the Segregated South. Or that while the episode tries to disguise itself as a kinda-sorta treatment on Civil Rights, it comes down to the idea that three Black men killed a white man, causing a haunted racist truck to terrorize a bunch of innocent people and thus still managing to make the Black men partially villainous and responsible– something Supernatural loves to do) and next, a full season later, one episode featuring a three minute flashback to the death of blues musician Robert Johnson which is going to end with him being violently ripped apart by hellhounds. Neither of these episodes focus on any kind of African-American or Black folklore specifically, but they are an indication as to how much examining of the American past Supernatural is willing to do.

If a show has to use euphemisms like, “There was a time when this town wasn’t too friendly to all its citizens,” and “this was forty years ago!” to even just allude to the existence of segregation (both uttered in episode “Route 666″), I can only imagine that dealing with a Monster of the Week that makes them think about the realities of slavery would induce a writer’s room full of sweaty palms, nervous looks, and awkward stares.

I’ve read before that I’m being greedy in demanding for representation on certain shows, and trying to wiggle my way into a narrative that is not my own. I’m perfectly willing to admit that this show is about two white brothers from Kansas– there’s no denying that. But it’s also a show that embraces America and Americana to a greater extent than anything else I watch. Sam and Dean travel everywhere from New Jersey, to California, to Texas, To Mississippi exploring folklore, urban legends, and even religion everywhere they go; they also happen to spend a significant amount of time below the Mason-Dixon line. Their father, John Winchester, their pseudo-father, Bobby, and the other older Hunters (some of whom are even Black, like the character Rufus) they run into have been doing it even longer than they have. There is absolutely no reason why I, as an African American, should not have my stories represented on this show. Yet, in six seasons they’ve only managed to run into one ghost story that deals specifically with African-American issues, and have yet to run into or hear about any folklore or legends with African-American origins or themes.

I’m not being greedy as much as Erik Kripke and company are being unrealistic. And if they’re really that hard up for ideas (which, hey, it’s a creative staff of five white males and one white female, so it’s possible?) I invite them to check out Pat McKissack’s Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural and Virginia Hamilton’s Her Stories. They might not be stories about H.H. Holmes’ ghost, but told the right way, with a little of that “Bloody Mary” episode CGI, they’re just as terrifying and, more importantly, just as relevant.

  • http://devilinmydreams.blogspot.com/ Eddie Louise

    “Though the themes explored in each of the stories mentioned are somewhat universal in the realm of folklore, fables and morality tales, I enjoyed them because they were all about characters who shared my history and looked like me.”

    Herein lies a very large part of the problem – we like stories that we can resonate with. Writers write stories that they can resonate with. The VAST majority of writers in the media are white. Hence the stories are white.

    My question? Should white writers start writing Stories of Color? Will they not be accused of a lack authenticity? Do we just hire more writers of color and segregate the story-lines? It is a complicated question – writers are taught to ‘write what you know’ and our world is still far too segregated for many of us to ‘know’ the other side.

    I have another solution:
    As a writer myself, I try to write mixed race stories that shadow my own experiences with friends of all colors who long ago stopped being ‘other’ and became my friends. I don’t write stories based on one racial point of view, but rather on a human POV that lives in a world with black people, or Japanese people, or Lakota Sioux people. I have been blessed to know friends of dozens of different races and cultures – so to write what I know involves writing not ‘white’ stories, or even observed ‘race’ stories, but rather writing the place where these cultures and backgrounds intersect.

    I think if we began to expect the (currently mostly white) media to write the intersections, then there would come a time when the divergent stories would also find space to be seen.

  • Anonymous

    I’ve been a long-time watcher of that show and a fan, but I sincerely would fear for how they might treat those stories. They already did an episode where a large number of gods from various traditions came together, including traditions from groups of color. That episode thoroughly established that Christianity within the shows mythos is the most powerful supernatural force around, easily stomping on figures from beliefs that have been around just as long if not longer. I was really upset at that episode, as someone who is a fan of that kind of supernatural ‘everything but the kitchen sink” kind of set-up and all it did was reinforce Christian supremacy.

  • nicepebbles

    I’m a SPN fan. Perhaps once or twice I had an issue with the folklore not being more diverse. As an AfAm woman, I’m not too familiar with AfAm folklore, which is a shame. My problem has been with the number of people of color on the show. I think the fact that Sam and Dean go to small towns most of the time is a shorthand way of saying, “Most white people live here” or “Only white people live here.” When they have gone to big cities, I had hoped at the start of each episode that we’d see some color. Never happened as fas as I can recall. I was sad when we never heard from Cassie again and when Victor died. Both had great potential. (I didn’t shed any tears over Gordon since I didn’t like the character.) Not too spoil anyone about season six, but a certain episode pissed me off (s0 unnecessary).

    As much as I like the character of Cassie, I wondered why she couldn’t have two black parents and hair like me? (Though I think I was just so happy at that point to see someone of color, that I didn’t pay attention to the language they were using in in describing the past. I have to rewatch that episode.)

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  • http://twitter.com/hyungniiim Katharine K

    Very well-said. I wasn’t even aware of all these black folk tales. They sound very interesting, and would definitely make awesome SPN episodes. But like you said, slim chance of that happening.

    What bugs me is that most black characters appearing on the show have basically either been evil or had unlikeable characteristics (particularly the men, as that girl described in her open letter to Kripke). I was recently rewatching all past episodes and it occurred to me that the writers border on racist with their treatment of characters of colour. Kripke could have white-man guilt or something (much like the Germans when WW2 is mentioned), but that would in fact clash with the way he treats all coloured characters.

    I raise my eyebrow at you, Kripke. Answer for this.

  • Logoskaieros

    The move from American folklore to Judeo-Christian mythology plus the overwhelming number of actresses in the show who are white, blonde, and petite (seriously, it’s ridiculous if you count them) made me really frustrated that the show’s creators couldn’t see that while they thought they had the main characters travelling all over the US, they rarely ever stepped outside their narrow conception of white america.

  • Guest

    “Supernatural occasionally offers references to Native American mythology”

    That could be offensive. These are active belief systems, not ‘myths’ or folk-stories to entertain white people. Is this column asking for white people to approriate other peoples’ culture more? I’m not American but personally I am offended when my religion turns up as entertainment on a tv show writen by the people who stole my land and continue to oppress my nation.

    That’s totally different from African American folk stories which would be interesting, maybe they’ll try it when they run out of European folk-stories!

  • Kevin

    Hey, great article- not personally a fan of this show but I think your criticism was well organized and a good read. Definitely got me thinking.

    While individual writers should be held to account, I think in general the television form privileges narratives that are easy to digest. Maybe certain shows play with “experimental” narrative structures more than others, but at the end of the day the story arc of any television show doesn’t gesture towards problems with our social order.

    If anything, they’re far more likely to reinforce it. Mad Men is a great example- it’s seeming “realism” is just a smokescreen for the fact that it is telling the story from the perspective of American Capital. So when they say “there’s no place for you in this story” they mean, “we’re representing the HIStory that already displaced yours, not seeking to recover or redeem the past”

  • Chrysantha

    I hate that thinking about this show just makes me angry now, and it’s only half because of their representation of POC or the lore of other cultures. I miss the old trope. It’s like they got bored of using fan fiction for their plots, so someone threw a Bible at them like, hey, try this! Anyway. Even if they did have the voice of a POC in their writing staff, I don’t know that they’d know what to do with it. And as much as I want to say that research isn’t their strong suit, I’m more likely to believe that they just change stuff knowingly to make it ‘more entertaining’. Incoherent rant over. Awesome post.

  • Guest

    Though I don’t watch Supernatural, I do find it odd that a show which focuses so much time on American culture would not focus on such a HUGE part of American culture. Maybe I’m just a product of the enforced multiculturalism of the ’90′s, but even I, a little white kid from Nevada, remember seeing kid’s shows with a few American slave stories, like the people who grow wings and fly away. Okay, that one wouldn’t make a good ghost story, but good lord, I remember taking some standardized test way back (I’m also a product of No Child Left Behind) that featured a passage from one of Zola Neale Hurston’s accounts of collecting folklore around her home town. The freaking SATs are realizing they need to be more inclusive of stories from outside the white mainstream, why can’t TV networks get with the program? I also don’t get their conspicuously refusing to refer to Jim Crow laws explicitly. It seems that there is an unspoken effort to try and erase that part of American history. Perhaps the descendants of rural whites who participated in lynch mobs and the like don’t want to think of great grandpa being a racist murder, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. I’m glad to see they’ve done at least one plot on Native American stories, though you’d think there’d be a lot more of those, since they’d presumably have been here a lot longer than anything else, but if stories imported from Europe, or told by descendants of European immigrants abound throughout this narrative of Americana, then why on earth aren’t there more stories about people who’ve been here just as long as European-Americans, and longer than many? I’m convinced something’s rotten in the state of Hollywood. The ’80s and ’90s representations of black culture weren’t without flaws, but at least they had shows featuring predominantly black characters, or black leading roles. Suddenly, it seems like just having a non-white character in some semi-supporting role is all you need nowadays. I for one find it frustrating.

  • Donald

    There are several difficulties in producing a series about a black family in England during the Edwardian era. Firstly there weren’t that many, secondly they were mostly poor (i.e. uninteresting for TV) and thirdly there isn’t much in the way of original sources to base a story on. Given that combination I dread to think of the likely result.

    If a good author were to write a well researched novel a British TV company might well commission an adaptation but they aren’t going to put the money into something entirely speculative.

    • http://edwardianpromenade.com Evangeline Holland

      Untrue Donald…there’s a book written by Jeffrey P. Green called “Black Edwardians” that gives a very detailed and well-rounded story of black Brits in the early 1900s.

  • Metisgirl

    I’m Metis and live Vancouver-I even have a photo of the Impala on my cellphone as Supernatural was filming next door to my old work place.

    I love Supernatural but the Christian thing is tiresome. The wendigo story was wrong as it’s an Ojibway term-the Cree term is wihtikîw. Wihtikîw is translated as the Cree “legendary eater of humans, the cannibal” and is a metaphor for gluttony and excess. The wihtikîw is a person that becomes a horrifying monster because he or she committed cannibalism and although it eats more and more, the wihtikîw is insatiable and never satisfied. The wihtikîw enforces the cannibalism taboo but it also serves as a caution against selfishness and greed.

    Just because Supernatural portrayed a Cree story, it doesn’t means it correct. I’m not sure which is worse-erasure or misrepresentation.

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Kendra. You have to wonder how much of this stems from a simple lack of diversity among writers, who probably are drawing heavily from their own personal histories. Likely explains why even when they do attempt a plot dealing with African American issues it takes an introductory-history-of-the-civil-rights-movement approach instead of one that is actually derived from an African American perspective.

  • Anonymous

    I do not think this is “greedy” at all. It’s just stating that black people are part of America and to cut out certain folklore is to state that the default of America is always white.

  • Mjshah

    I am very behind (season one lol) and got all excited about their episode on Djinn and the fact they mentioned the Quar’an but was very disapointed they mis-represented the actual belief about the creatures as what they showed was more the western belief about genies as opposed to Islamic beliefs on them -since then i have wondered how much research goes into ths stories they tell and how lazy they are with other myths and legends. but thats just one of the many problems with this show.

  • amorYcohetes

    Great commentary! Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for, though ; )
    At one point, I participated quite a bit in the Television Without Pity forums and they have a thread called “The Race Card” where people hash this stuff out all the time, for ex a rant on race and Scifi: http://forums.televisionwithoutpity.com/index.php?s=&showtopic=2342442&view=findpost&p=10310199

  • http://thezombieheadquarters.blogspot.com/ Jadey

    It’s telling to me that all the specific folklore episodes you reference happened in the first two seasons – the reason I stopped watching SPN altogether after the third season was because the racial ignorance and misogyny were getting more obnoxious *and* the whole show moved away from folklore and became some boring heaven versus hell/demons and angels extravaganza. More generic pseudo-Christian mythos than I needed given the general market saturation. More folklore and more diverse folklore (and more of that damn awesome car) would have been a much more enjoyable dimension for me. I don’t think the show creators were ever that adventurous though. Wasted opportunity.

  • Kwaku

    Is it just me or are these sort of problems really evident on the CW? This is the channel that in its previous/early form had Sister, sister, The Jaime Fox shoe, Steve Harvey and others.

    There are actually some shows where I can understand why there aren’t a lot of regular characters of color or stories about people of color. But what is stopping AMC from doing a show about a black businessman in the 1960s, that could be interesting. I understand why Downton Abby or Upstairs, Downstairs doesn’t have a lot of POCs but what is stopping the BBC or ITV from doing a show about a black family in England during the Edwardian era?

  • Kwaku

    Is it just me or are these sort of problems really evident on the CW? This is the channel that in its previous/early form had Sister, sister, The Jaime Fox shoe, Steve Harvey and others.

    There are actually some shows where I can understand why there aren’t a lot of regular characters of color or stories about people of color. But what is stopping AMC from doing a show about a black businessman in the 1960s, that could be interesting. I understand why Downton Abby or Upstairs, Downstairs doesn’t have a lot of POCs but what is stopping the BBC or ITV from doing a show about a black family in England during the Edwardian era?