This blog continues my series on the history and development of TV horror. I’m taking an industrial, thematic, and fan theory approach to analyzing True Blood and Supernatural.
Subscription vs. Broadcast Horror
As with every medium, innovation, or development in the horror genre, HBO faced lawsuits relatively early in its life because of graphic content that laid the groundwork for the division between subscription cable and standard cable. HBO blocked on some networks, was consequently set apart as providing content distinctively different from standard programing. It wasn’t until the 1990s (’93 to be specific, the same year I was born, because I was somehow cosmically destined for the horror life) that HBO’s original programing began to gain significant popularity, including Tales from the Crypt, a major milestone in horror TV. The nature of subscription TV uniquely lends itself to the horror genre: it isn’t necessarily beholden to legal restrictions regarding sex, death, and drugs, and it doesn’t necessarily need external advertisers that might object to racier content. While Tales From the Crypt and The Hitchhiker are barely recognizable as horror in today’s landscape of Eli Roth and Jason Blum, later series like Six Feet Under and Carnivàle took full advantage of HBO’s almost nonexistent regulations regarding graphic content (although we still don’t see actual penetration/genitalia or drawn-out, close-up, gory torture scenes). The relaxed regulations allow premium networks like HBO to actually show, rather than hint at, the visceral parts of horror that in some ways define the genre, or parts of it, at least.
Viscera in True Blood: Goop To Make Tom Savini Proud
True Blood, based on Charlain Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels, is notable for it’s stylized, gratuitous sex, solid acting and narrative design…and the horrible, goopy mess. Vampire deaths in True Blood might just be the best I’ve seen in terms of following in the campy SFX tradition of franchises like The Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead. In case you haven’t seen the show, here’s an example,
In terms of aesthetics, True Blood walks the line between enough gore to satisfy a genre fan and trying way too hard to be “proper horror.” What keeps it from going too far over the top has very little to do with aesthetic choices, however. The show lives and dies by it’s thematic triad, influenced directly by the political and historical context in which it was produced: God, sex, and death. The show takes place in rural Louisiana just after Hurricane Katrina and at the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, with the normalization of the religious right in full swing. Context of the hurricane and flooding operates on two levels, the first literal. It places the show in time and situates the show’s approach to federal government responsibility and infrastructure. Second, while the town of Bon Temps (good weather in French, because irony is not, in fact dead) isn’t flooded, references to metaphorical flooding abound. It’s in this metaphorical flood that marginal identities can be blended and individual experiences of oppression conflated. The show draws allegorical lines between racism and vampires and vampires and the anti-LGBT legislation prevalent in the early 2000s. True Blood does some excellent work in terms of representing LGBT characters on screen, especially as complex beings, and also in naming racism for what it is (although at times this serves more as a punchline than a critique). It’s politics, however, remain firmly just-left-of-center, failing to engage with intersectional approaches to marginality or look racism in the Southern US in the face.*
Lore, Family Melodrama, and Fangirls
Supernatural premiered in 2005, the same year that YouTube launched and right in the midst of a boom in fan culture. From the start, the series collected a devoted following. Fan culture, though, doesn’t just comprise people who watch the show regularly or even who wait for it each week and re-watch when the can. It also encompasses the creative, transformative side of fandom—fanfiction, fan art, and conventions. Henry Jenkins, leading scholar in fan theory (and faculty from my MA program at USC), discusses the series here just after its launch. Katherine Larsen and Lynn S. Zubernis have written both Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, and Fandom At The Crossroads: Celebration, Shame and Fan/Producer Relationships talking specifically about Supernatural and fan communities. One explanation Jenkins gives (via a survey of his regular blog readers) for the show’s popularity particularly in fandom is that it’s equal parts horror and family melodrama, particularly masculine family melodrama. This isn’t the first time these two genres have been linked, Vivianne Sobchack connects them (and science fiction) temporally, with horror existing in the past and melodrama in the present. Supernatural premiered four years into the “War on Terror,” the rhetoric for which was an amalgam of revenge and deterrence; revenge situating it in the past and deterrence actively preventing the future. Supernatural follows two brothers searching for their father, trying to navigate their own fraught relationship, avenging their mother’s death, and battling ancient monsters. None of these narrative motives places us in or even looks toward the future. A good deal of the show, in fact, is devoted to dead-end conversations about what each brother will do once they’ve accomplished their immediate goal; there are some vague answers like going back to school or living a “normal life,” but it’s clear that these are all non-starters, that there’s no such thing as getting out of the monster-hunting life. Where True Blood situates itself in its politico-historical context explicitly, Supernatural uses blended genre conventions and ongoing narrative conflicts to mimic the language and ideologies of the era in which it was created.
*I may have some major issues with True Blood, but it stars two of my favorite out bi+ women in Hollywood, Anna Paquin and Evan Rachel Wood. Just like with Bex Taylor-Klaus in MTV’s Scream, there’s always a place in my heart for bi+ women on screen, no matter my other feelings about the show.
Author: Geneveive Newman
Image Credit: HBO Enterprises © 2008