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Supernatural University: Risk and Fear

What do you fear? Why does it frighten you? What risks are you willing to take, despite your fear? Those questions are at the heart of Supernatural, both in terms of how the show affects us, and how the situations they confront in it affect the Winchester brothers. This psychology seminar at Supernatural University explores what scares us, how our perceptions of risk shape our fears, and how fear and risk impact the choices we – and Dean and Sam Winchester – make.


The premise of this class is that, when you boil fear down to its barest essentials, there are basically three things that we fear:

  1. Things we don’t know or understand;
  2. Things we can’t control; and
  3. Things that we expect will cause us pain.

Those same three factors also affect our perception of risk, and thus the extent to which we fear things. The less we know, the less we think we can control, and the higher our expectation of pain, the greater our perception of risk, and the greater our fear.


Consider some examples. Death is a universal human fear. We don’t know what happens to us when we die, we can’t control or avoid it, and we know that getting there usually involves going through pain along the way. Every religion on the planet embodies an attempt to deal with and reduce the fear of death by telling us what to expect – eliminating the unknown – and by prescribing a code of behavior to follow in order to bring about the most desirable of our expectations – giving us a sense of control. Religions differ in their specifics – an afterlife of punishment or reward, reincarnation appropriate to karmic burden, unification with the creative force of the universe, perfect peace, and others – but they all cultivate the sense that we know what will happen to us, and that we know the rules we should live by to achieve the end that we desire. Thus, no matter what religion we may profess, if we have faith, we lessen fear.


Falling and fire, two common fears, combine things we can’t control with things that we expect to cause pain. Fears involving the reactions of other people – for example, fears of public speaking, attending a new school, or falling in love – combine all three elements, because we don’t know how others will react to us, we can’t control what they will do, and we often fear emotional pain – including rejection and embarrassment – as much as or more than physical pain.


Our perception of risk – how much danger we believe we’re in, and therefore how much we fear something – is driven by the same factors underlying the fear itself. A classic example is fear of flying, and people’s perceptions of the inherent risk of flying. We’ve all heard the statistics that demonstrate conclusively that we are in more danger of being hurt or killed when we’re behind the wheel of a car than we are flying in a commercial jet, but almost everyone perceives the risk of flying to be greater than the risk of driving. Most people who aren’t pilots don’t understand the mechanics of flight, but the greatest portion of this perception of risk isn’t the unknown nearly so much as it is the lack of control. We all tend to believe that if our hands are on the wheel, we can affect the outcome; we can avoid the accident, or at least minimize the damage, things we are helpless to do sitting in an airplane. For the same reason, even in a car, we generally feel more safe if we are behind the wheel, and less safe if we’re a passenger. Much of that perception of control may be an illusion, because we still can’t control what other drivers will do or how our vehicle will respond on ice or wet pavement, but the belief that we can influence the outcome lessens our perception of risk, and thus our level of fear.


We also believe that risks that we assume of our own volition are lower, and thus less scary, than risks imposed on us by others. We tend to be more frightened about potential health effects from a synthetic chemical reportedly found in minute quantities in our local water supply, even quantities lower than any associated with human health effects, than we are about the far more certain impacts from our choice to eat fast foods high in saturated fats. One risk is relatively unknown and imposed on us, and therefore scary, while the other, although far more certainly adverse, is something we choose to disregard. If we switch to bottled water while continuing to eat fast food, we’re taking actions based on our perception of risk that bear no rational relationship to the actual risk we’re confronting; we’re acting out of fear, not out of thought.


Fear itself is not a bad thing. Fear is more than psychological; it has a physiological component that makes it very useful to our survival. The evolutionary purpose of fear is to trigger the release of adrenaline into our systems, charging us with ready energy so that we’re prepared to either fight or flee. Fear also starts the production of some endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in our brains, as a defense mechanism, so that we’re less likely to feel and be incapacitated by pain. That’s why in the midst of excitement we can sustain an injury without being immediately aware of how much it hurts.


Because of this, while fear can be psychologically debilitating and thus make us feel bad, it can also be physically exhilarating: not just exciting, but even enjoyable. When we know in our minds that the danger is not real, or believe that the true risk of harm is very small, we can actually have fun flirting with fear because of the way it makes us feel. We ride roller coasters, scaring ourselves with the sensations and illusion of being out of control and daring pain. We watch action and horror movies, scaring ourselves with the unexpected and unknown. We identify with the heroes who perceive things spinning beyond their control and vicariously share their pain, their fear, and the triumph of their survival.


And that brings us to Supernatural. For us, the fans, Supernatural is a thrill ride punctuated by jump scares and the building, ominous sense of the unknown. At no real risk to ourselves, we confront things that are beyond our experience and outside our control, and the fear stimulated by our imaginations makes us feel more alive. We understand and resonate with what Dean and Sam feel, and with our emotions fully engaged, their fear and pain become ours. As they face and work through what they fear, we also share their growth and the peace of their resolution.


So the question becomes, what do Dean and Sam fear, and why, and what risks do they choose to take based on or in spite of their fears?


The brothers had a fascinating little exchange on the topic of fear in the first season episode Phantom Traveler. It went like this:


Dean: Seriously, you still having nightmares about Jess?

Sam: Yeah. But it’s not just her. It’s everything. I just forgot, you know, this job. Man, it gets to you.

Dean: Well, you can’t let it. You can’t bring it home like that.

Sam: So – what, all this, it never keeps you up at night?

Dean shakes his head.

Sam: Never? You’re never afraid?

Dean: No. Not really.

Sam scoffs, reaches under Dean’s pillow, pulls out a Bowie knife, and holds it up.

Dean: That’s not fear. That is precaution.  


The truth is that the supernatural really doesn’t seem to hold much terror for Dean. The Bowie knife under the pillow really is precaution, not fear. All of Dean’s lifetime of training under John taught him that the supernatural, no matter how apparently mysterious and dangerous, can be deciphered, understood, and dealt with in concrete, practical terms; that it just takes knowledge, patience, and the right tools to win. That removes much of both the fear of the unknown and the fear of things beyond control from the table. Dean has also dealt with more than his share of physical pain, and learned from it that he can endure it and heal. Given all of that, when confronting supernatural threats, Dean still does experience fear, but his perception of the risk, based on his history, argues that he can survive and win. That gives him an edge, because his body reacts to the physical stimulus of fear, enhancing his energy, speed, and pain resistance, while his mind stays clear.


Dean’s true fears, the ones that can paralyze him, come in two flavors. The first one we saw was his fear of flying, a phobia combining terror of the unknown, the uncontrollable, and the terminally painful. He faced it in Phantom Traveler and managed to force it down until the plane actually did go out of control, at which point he surrendered to fear and froze. He won’t have forgotten losing that battle, and it doubtless feeds into his second and greater fear, which centers on his family, and specifically, on his fear of failing them. For him, the truly unknown and uncontrollable factors are whether he can know enough, do enough, and be good enough to prevent harm to those he loves. Even death frightens him only in the context of it making him fail his family by leaving them without his protection. Physical pain holds little terror for him, but emotional pain – especially guilt, grief, failure, and shame – is something else entirely.


Sam appears to have more fear of the supernatural than Dean, for several reasons. Where Dean is physical and concrete, living mostly in the moment, Sam is imaginative, more given to thinking about possible consequences in the future. Sam can see more things to worry about than would ever occur to Dean. Because his imagination lets him anticipate things still unknown, still uncontrolled, it provides more fertile ground for fear than the more limited world that Dean sees. That imagination, combined with some childhood event, is likely what produced the irrational terror of clowns he revealed in Everybody Loves a Clown. In addition, because Sam can see and feels the need to sort multiple options, he doesn’t always react as quickly or as instinctively as Dean in response to a threat stimulus. That can be both a blessing and a curse. It saves him sometimes from making mistakes – it helped him prevent Dean from killing the wrong Sherrie in Nightshifter, for example, and has prompted him always to look for solutions other than killing people – but it can also make him hesitate to take an apparently necessary action, such as shooting the infected Mr. Taylor in Croatoan when he charged the brothers with a knife.


Sam also faces the very personal and intimate fear that he doesn’t truly know himself, that there is something unknown and uncontrollable hidden inside him that could make him into a monster, into something he would rather die than acknowledge as himself. Learning that the entire tragic history of his immediate family was tied to his existence because of the yellow-eyed demon’s unfathomable plans for him opened him to guilt and to a new world of crippling fear. With so much unknown and beyond his control, his only anodyne for fear would be faith, but events have eroded his faith in himself, and the divine is as much an unknown and beyond his control as the thing he fears.


In essence, while they each have an amusing phobia, both of the brothers are most afraid of themselves, of proving inadequate at what is most important to each of them – for Dean, protecting his family; and for Sam, at remaining himself, and good. Given the number of unknowns involved, the brothers’ belief in their lack of control over circumstances, and the likelihood of severe pain resulting from what they fear happening, both of them perceive the risk to be high. With that perception, each of them has come close to being crippled by his fear: Dean particularly in Croatoan, where he evidenced a desire to die if he lost Sam; and Sam particularly in both Playthings, where he got drunk and forced Dean to promise to kill him if he became something other than himself, and in Houses of the Holy, when he admitted that he needed to have faith in something bigger and more powerful than his brother’s protection.


Despite their fear, however, they continue to accept the risk and keep fighting. Each in his own way has taken steps to deal with his fear. Dean, for example, concluded in Born Under a Bad Sign that he simply wouldn’t consider failing to save Sam as a possibility. He’s found his peace and his courage in his conviction that he will save Sam no matter what; that he will die before he would let Sam be lost. Sam has been considerably less successful at lowering his fear, but his determination to save as many people as he can is at least a step toward asserting control over events.


And where does that leave all of us? Breathlessly awaiting the next chapter in the brothers’ story and desperate to learn what will happen to them, and how they will deal with it.


What is our greatest fear? It’s nothing supernatural, that’s for certain. Instead, it’s confronting the unknown of how ratings in this most dire of timeslots will affect Supernatural’s chances of being renewed for a third season, and more seasons beyond that. It’s knowing that the decision is totally beyond our control, and that an adverse decision would cause us great pain. Our perception of the risk of cancellation varies with the changing news: ratings for episodes going up or down from week to week can take us either way; announcements of tie-in marketing and merchandise encourage us and diminish fear; news about other series in development by the network sometimes fan our fears and sometimes give us hope; comments from critics and gossipmongers variously reassure and threaten us.


How can we deal with our fear? Have faith. Take a page from Dean’s book, and refuse to assume that what we fear is inevitable, since we know that it isn’t. Stay positive. Keep spreading the word that Supernatural is what to watch. Tell the network that we watch it, and why. And above all, be willing to accept the risk of loss that’s always inherent in love, and don’t hesitate to give your heart to the Winchester brothers. Take the full measure of joy in what we have. We’ve got seven more episodes before this season comes to an end, with the first one, Roadkill, airing this Thursday night. We have quality, passion, beauty, wit, laughter, love, and delicious fear.


And there will be a season three.

Tags: meta, psychology, supernatural, supernatural university
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