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Supernatural University: On the Nature and Abilities of Demons

Demons figure as the major evil in the CW’s Supernatural. But since the show puts its own unique stamp on every other-than-natural villain or phenomenon, the demons of Supernatural aren’t a textbook type found in any one culture or tradition. Instead, they seem to come in several different flavors and draw traits from multiple sources. This installment of Supernatural University takes a look at demons through the lens of the show, summarizes some of the things we’ve learned, and opens the door to speculation on what else may be revealed.


What We Know …


Most of our initial demon lore on Supernatural was presented in the first season episode Phantom Traveler, where the demon involved seemed drawn mostly from the Japanese tradition of an evil spirit connected with a specific locale or type of event, but was vanquished through a Christian exorcism ritual far removed from anything in Japanese tradition. Information presented in that episode indicates that demons:

Ø      Can possess people and make them act totally against their natures;

Ø      Can make a possessed human perform feats of strength impossible for a human body to sustain;

Ø      Usually worm their way into a person through a weakness created by anger, fear, or other emotional vulnerability;

Ø      Can see into people’s minds or read thoughts;

Ø      Lie;

Ø      Seek to cause chaos, death, and destruction;

Ø      Leave behind a sulfur residue on things their possessed hosts touch;

Ø      When incorporeal, often manifest as black smoke;

Ø      Can be affected by the touch of holy water or the sound of a name of God;

Ø      Can be exorcised and sent back to hell by the use of appropriate rituals.


We learned additional things from observation in Salvation and Devil’s Trap, including:

Ø      A demon can maintain the physical life and intact external appearance of a possessed, damaged human body that would die absent the demon’s presence and power;

Ø      A demon can possess a human over a term as long as a year (e.g., Meg);

Ø      A possessed human may sometimes be aware of what is happening while the demon is in his/her body, without being able to influence it;

Ø      A demon possessing a human can exercise powers of mind or will to move and affect other people and things using telekinesis or some similar ability (e.g., throw Dean; pin the boys against walls; torture Dean, etc.);

Ø      Black-eyed demons may be able to enter and cross consecrated ground (e.g., Pastor Jim’s church), but are still affected by holy water;

Ø      If demonic possession is interrupted by another force (e.g., an injury inflicted by a potent weapon), the affected human may be able to contest with the demon and hold it in place for a short period of time;

Ø      The fiery-yellow-eyed demon (FYED) is immune to holy water;

Ø      The FYED has plans for Sam and the other children like him;

Ø      The FYED professed to have killed Mary Winchester and Jessica because they were in the way of his plans for Sam;

Ø      The FYED claimed that two other black-eyed demons were its children;

Ø      Incorporeal demons in smoke form can ignore doors and windows and instead pass freely through cracks in floors;

Ø      Demons can be trapped in or prohibited from entering spaces by the appropriate use of potent symbols including protective circles and devils’ traps.


In My Time of Dying further added to the lore:

Ø      A possessed human (e.g., the truck driver) may retain no memory of what happened while s/he was possessed;

Ø      The FYED can possess not only humans, but other supernatural entities, particularly including Reapers, and can utilize the powers of those entities, even powers beyond the FYED’s own abilities;

Ø      The FYED can be summoned using the Sigil of Azazel.


We picked up a few more tidbits from Cross Road Blues:

Ø      Certain red-eyed demons can be summoned at crossroads, will make pacts involving the sale of souls, and will deliver on the deals they make;

Ø      Demons of different types apparently share information with each other on humans of interest;

Ø      Demons enjoy and deliberately cultivate human misery;

Ø      An exorcised demon is sent to hell, but is not destroyed; it can return to our human world through time and effort;

Ø      A deal made by a human with a demon can be superseded by a later deal involving a  different human;


What We Can Infer …


In addition to what we know, based on what we’ve seen and been told, there are things I think we can infer:

Ø      Judging from the crossroads demon, human bodies possessed by demons are not limited to purely human, physical means of transportation: the crossroads demon(s) summoned by Dean and by Robert Johnson, for example, were suddenly simply physically present in an obviously deserted place, but the demon summoned by Dean fled a possessed body, so that body must have arrived, already possessed, by unnatural means;

Ø      Judging from the demons in the fireman and the bystander in Devil’s Trap, once a black-eyed demon has possessed a human body, the demon is restricted to using human-type access to a structure (in other words, not smoke-accessible cracks in walls or floors), and could be blocked by lining doors and windows with salt or other repellants;

Ø      Even demons apparently working together may work at cross-purposes to each other:  for example, her “brother” demon shot Meg to test the gun (sibling rivalry, perhaps?); and although the FYED has said that he has plans for Sam, Meg’s “brother” would apparently have beaten Sam to death, but for Dean’s intervention, and the demon possessing the truck driver might have killed all of the Winchesters, including Sam, simply by the collision with the Impala.

Ø      Demons may have greater power over those who have sold their souls than they could exercise over independents: witness the crossroads demon professing to be able to return to life John, a dead human who had reportedly sold his soul and whose physical body had been cremated, while the FYED had admitted to John that he couldn’t bring Dean back from the threshold of death (although since he knew someone who could, the point was effectively moot).

Ø      The FYED’s plans, whatever they are, certainly involve chaos, human misery, death, and destruction – but they are not immutable and are not certain, because humans can take unexpected actions (would you have predicted Sam shooting DemonJohn in the leg?) and other forces, including other demons, can take actions that could affect the outcome.


And All This Means …?


Our next major demon revelations will apparently come in the upcoming episode Croatoan on Thursday, December 7, 2006, and may indeed include the secret whispered by John to Dean that involves “the truth” about Sam and the FYED. (Have you seen those episode clips yet? Check ‘em out, right from the front page of!)


I know that we’ve all been obsessing fully as much as Sam himself about what the FYED’s plans for him involve, and about the way that Dean is being driven over the edge by thinking that he knows about both John’s fate and about Sam.


But what I keep coming back to is that, just before he confided in his son, John said, “Don’t be scared, Dean.” And I remain convinced that John loved both of his boys – and that Sam is one of John’s boys.


I also don’t believe in fate or destiny. I believe in self-fulfilling prophecies, in temptation, and in the power of fear – but I also believe in free will, in human choice and responsibility, and in the power of love and goodness to defeat fear and evil. I believe in Sam, and I believe in Dean, and I don’t believe that the FYED will win.


But I do believe that defeating him will involve a cost, and John’s soul in exchange for Dean’s continued life was only the first down payment.


Is it December 7 yet?

Tags: meta, philosophy, supernatural, supernatural university, theology

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