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Dave Grossman and the Depiction of the Psychological Effects of Killing in the Television Show Supernatural

For all its gruesome and sometimes gratuitous display of horror and gore, one thing sets the CW network television show Supernatural apart from the regular fare of violence-saturated film productions. Ingrained in the narrative lasagna of this entertaining television production, meanders a sophisticated discourse on combat stress, one that bears many parallels to what David Grossman coined “Killology,” the academic study of what it is like to kill and what the act of killing does to a person, particular within the contexts of the military, law enforcement, and security professions. There are distinct similarities between the TV show’s depiction of psychological trauma experienced by hunters of supernatural beings and how the real world’s warriors are affected by the act of killing other human beings. As such, Supernatural contributes valuable critical, psychological, and social commentary. This redeeming quality of Supernatural should be taken into consideration when someone critiques the show’s graphic depiction of violence. And, best of all, such sophistication does not detract but rather enrich the viewers’ experience, as it invites viewers to participate in this relevant discourse over how our society deals with violence, both in fiction and reality. As an extension of the narrative, the show encourages viewers to ask themselves how they deal with the monsters of their own reality, monsters both external and internal.

Supernatural entertains its viewers with a rich blend of popular fiction genres: horror, comedy, young adult, detective, romance, fantasy, mythology, mystery, thriller, and even a dose of science fiction and western. Dedicated fans of the show have followed the epic journey of the two main characters, the brothers Dean and Sam Winchester for eleven seasons (as of May 2016). The two protagonists are known to many law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. as dangerous drifters, but in reality they are “hunters,” members of a small community of protectors of the human species against supernatural malice. The blood descendants of a long line of hunters and supernatural experts, Dean and Sam were thrust into their roles as exterminators of malicious supernatural beings at a young age. Even though Sam and Dean do not receive compensation for their work and their existence as hunters is a great burden that they themselves do not wish on others, they bravely press on. They encounter a wide spectrum of unearthly beings that have been recorded throughout the ages in the oral traditions, mythologies, religious texts, urban legends, and the lore of many a culture and civilization throughout the ages, ranging from pre-history to the present.

Since the first season, the show’s repertoire of supernatural beings has expanded from the usual suspects – such as shape shifters, vampires, demons, wraiths, and ghosts – to some of the big league schemers from the world’s religious traditions: archangels, gods, leviathans, and even Death personified. Whenever there is an out-of-control spirit, a malicious demon, or a disgruntled homicidal pagan deity masquerading as an evil clown, Sam and Dean are ready to relieve humanity of its scourge. By the end of an episode, the “boys” usually have annihilated or otherwise rendered harmless one or several of these supernatural beings. In most cases, this involves some rather crude and very unappetizing methods, all depending on what it takes to exterminate a specific supernatural species. For instance, ghosts can be released from their earthbound wanderings by the salting and burning of whatever still remains of their former human shell. Frequently, we see the brothers dig up graves and throw a lit Zippo into a pit covered in Morton’s finest. (Salt and fire of course have multiple applications in the supernatural world, given its ancient symbolic nature.) And, the surest way to kill a vampire is decapitation – not sunlight or stakes through the heart, as many of the abundant vampire-themed TV productions of our era would have us believe. Many times, the brothers find themselves literally sprayed, splattered, or covered by the blood and gore, venom, ectoplasm, or other unsightly and disgusting fluids belonging to the wide spectrum of victims, not to mention all the filth and grime that comes with hunting “things” through abandoned buildings, caves, and sewers.

Such detailed depictions of these misadventures – the pure mention of which makes most people’s skin crawl – are not unlike many combat narratives. An excerpt of David Bellavia’s recent account of his combat experience in Iraq is a good example of how Supernatural takes its cues from real events:

… emerge from the Battle of Fallujah filthy, encrusted with dirt, and stinking. We are less than human, just ragged outlines of what we once had been. Ten days of constant house-to-house combat, no showers, no respite… . we are anomalies among the tidy uniforms and polished boots of what the late Colonel David Hackworth once called Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers, REMFs.

Our uniforms are covered with dried gore, blood, grime, concrete dust, and smoke stains. All of us have brown slicks of diarrhea pasting our pants to our backsides. We’re so sick that some of us can hardly walk.1

Like Sam and Dean, Bellavia believes that he is fighting the forces of evil. And, like our two fictitious warriors, Bellavia understands that he belongs to a different class of people, what has been and may best be referred to as the warrior class. Hardships, both physical and mental, strengthen the bonds warriors feel toward other warriors and weaken the connections they feel toward non-warriors.

One of the most intriguing and valuable aspects of Supernatural is the complex depiction of the psychological state of the two main characters and some of the other hunters who repeatedly appear on the show. The writers go to great length in their portrayal of Sam and Dean as thoroughly rounded and fairly complicated characters. This includes many flashbacks to the time when they were children and adolescents at the various stages of their development as human beings and training as hunters. In addition to providing contextual details that round out these characters, these flashbacks serve as humanizing elements. For instance, Dean, when he was still a child himself, is shown taking care of his younger brother. We see Dean protect his younger brother by six years not only from supernatural dangers, but even from the mere knowledge of the monsters that lurk in the dark and that have been making the Winchesters’ lives a living hell for generations. For much of Sam and Dean’s childhood and adolescence, the boys and their father, John Winchester, travel the country in pursuit of solving and resolving old and new cases. The family usually stays in cheap hotel rooms, which hardly seem an ideal environment for a child to grow up. It is not unusual for John Winchester to stay away for several days and nights of hunting, while the kids have to take care of themselves, with most of the burden naturally falling on Dean. This scenario, which is repeatedly shown throughout the TV show’s life, provides viewers with the genesis of the two hunters’ psychological problems and their complex and problematic relationship. The two boys were thrust into a life of adversity that no child should have to face.

Now at the end of its eleventh season, the show has been solidifying a plausible set of events and circumstances that led to the two main characters’ metamorphosis from innocent children to brutally efficient killers while remaining relatable individuals. Always teetering on the brink of (and sometimes slipping into) one or several psychological break-downs and disorders, substance abuse, and spiritual corruption, Sam and Dean Winchester march on in their quest to protect others and themselves from supernatural menace. Unlike many of their opponents, they do not have any grand ambitions or goals. The grandest of their designs are the kind driven by personal vengeance, such as the hunt for the yellow-eyed demon Azazel, the murderer of Sam and Dean’s mother, in the first two seasons. For the most part they just want to rid the world of those beings who harm innocent people. Their intent is to protect themselves and others, which places them within Grossman’s definition of a true warrior: “There are only two kinds of people once the bullets start to fly: warriors and victims, those who fight and those who are unprepared, unable or unwilling to defend themselves”.2 Ironically, in their somewhat indiscriminate – if not even naïve – approaches to monster slaying they often become victims and playthings of higher powers. Steep learning curves are part and parcel of these hunters’ every day existence. Like real life combat soldiers, Sam and Dean operate most comfortably and most efficiently on the tactical level: the close combat and in-the-trenches stuff. And, like most combat soldiers, they bring a healthy dose of cynicism toward those who strategize, be they high ranking officers, gods, archangels, or powerful demons: those higher-ups who plan every action in accordance with a grander scheme or long-term goals. Sam and Dean are very suspicious and often resentful of those who wield power with the purpose of furthering their own agendas instead of protecting the vulnerable.

With so much attention given to the psychological aspects of the main characters who are trained killers, a comparison between military milieu combat discourse such as Dave Grossman’s classic On Killing and the way that psychological discourse on killing is treated in the TV show Supernatural is compelling. Grossman’s observations and findings in regard to how the act of killing affects warriors in the real world3 are largely in sync with the depiction of the psychological effects which Sam and Dean experience as para-professional warriors. Therefore, I argue that Supernatural’s depiction of frequently gratuitous violence is balanced and possibly even redeemed by means of the relatively sophisticated psychological commentary the writers weave into their narratives.

Readers of Grossman’s On Killing may be surprised by the degree to which most human beings in the real world share a natural “intense resistance to killing,” even in situations when their failure to use a deadly weapon might lead to their own demise.4 Grossman’s review of more than a hundred years of research shows that even men in uniform with clear directions and societal absolution to kill other people are averse to killing even a clearly identified and armed enemy, one who wears the uniform of the opposing side and who poses a clear threat. During World War II, for instance, only about 15 to 20 percent of American infantry soldiers actually fired their weapons at an enemy during hostile engagements. The numbers are similar for soldiers of other nationalities.5 It is only with the introduction of modern military combat training (which makes use of classical conditioning methods) that more than 90 percent of combat soldiers have become active participants in the act of killing. Grossman is quick to point out, that – sadly – such classical conditioning also takes place inadvertently on a regular basis in the form of the depiction of gratuitous violence in all sorts of media, but most egregiously in the form of interactive video shooter games. And this type of media-based conditioning occurs without any of the controls or safety mechanisms that professional military or law enforcement training incorporates.6 An argument can be made that shows like Supernatural resist such conscience-numbing classical conditioning by inserting a meta-cognitive element that encourages and challenges viewers to think critically of what violence does to individuals, especially those who inflict it.

Since society benefits from its citizens retaining a certain degree of natural reluctance to kill, attention should be directed to how popular media of today deal with the topic of deadly violence, especially from the perspective of the perpetrators of violent acts. Grossman warns us that violence in the media (in particular shooter video games in which the player personally takes on the role of the killer) can constitute an uncontrolled classical conditioning to kill, similar to what the military does, but without the all-important controls that direct such training into producing professionals who kill only under certain, clearly defined circumstances, such as rules of engagement.7 Supernatural is certainly guilty of depicting extremely violent situations, but I argue it is done in an intelligent way that invites viewers to reflect upon the personal and societal ramifications of violence, and thus disrupts any classical conditioning that may have taken place. It puts violence in context with what led up to the event and the aftermath caused by it. And, in a positive and constructive way, it delves into and deconstructs those primal human instincts which have the propensity to catalyze violence and bring out, what Marlentes has dubbed, “the shadow warrior” and “the enemy within.”8 We all have a propensity for violence lurking in our inner psyche. The more we suppress it, the more susceptible we become to it. Marlantes suggests that we are better off making ourselves aware of the violence and atrocities we are all capable of, exactly because such an awareness helps us make better decisions. In the same vein, Supernatural informs viewers about the complex and problematic nature of violence, instead of simply inundating them with a simplistic one-dimensional paradigm that clearly splits the world into forces of good and evil. The same pertains to the treatise of violence per se: violence is shown as neither virtuous nor despicable, but as the complex and treacherously dangerous thing that it is.

In Supernatural, killing – and violence in general – is rarely celebrated or shown in a humorous or an aesthetically pleasing way, especially if the killing is done by the two main characters, to whom we are supposed to relate on some level. Some of the more nefarious supernatural beings in the show do take pleasure in annihilation and the pain they inflict on others, but such depictions of twisted behavior is accompanied by the appropriate context. Lucifer, the fallen archangel, for instance, finds humor in the act of killing humans, but we learn how such an attitude is the result of sheer arrogance and narcissistic anger that has its origins in this former archangel’s dysfunctional relationship with his creator-slash-father. The only humans who revel in violence are either those who have clearly warped minds or those who are ignorant of the psychological ramifications of violence.

The latter is nicely exemplified in the episode “Swap Meat,” in which a geeky teenager, who dabbles in black magic, swaps bodies with Sam. In Sam’s body, he acts out and does all the “cool” things grown-ups get to do. In the case of grown-up hunters of supernatural beings, this includes “kicking some ass” alongside a tough guy like Dean. The real hunters in the show, and certainly Sam and Dean, know better than to take pleasure in violence. The exception is when they themselves are on the brink of losing all moral footing due to intense psychological pressures, such as in the case of revenge killings. One prime example of this is when Dean sanctions Sam’s brutal revenge against a demon who had possessed Sam’s best friend from college in the episode “The Devil You Know.” Except when their own sinister sides take over (which does happen more frequently as the two characters become increasingly involved in the strategic aspects of supernatural warfare, as opposed to mere tactical concerns), Sam and Dean do not enjoy killing because they understand it as the gruesome, somewhat solemn, and only necessary, though ultimately sinister task that it is. They enjoy the elimination of a threat and the subsequent relief, but the act of killing is not presented as a rewarding activity. At best, killing is depicted as a cathartic event. When they are in their right minds, Dean and Sam do not kill for enjoyment, even though they are no strangers to what Grossman dubs the “exhilaration stage,” the adrenaline induced euphoria that may lead to “combat addiction.”9 They know from personal experience and their observations of others that killing constitutes a very stressful, problematic, and often traumatic act. And, the few instances when they do enjoy killing and hurting someone comprise some of most valuable lessons of what not to do under stressful and extraordinary circumstances. These instances contribute some of the most valuable psychological commentary of what happens when people lose themselves, when they give in to their shadow warrior. Grossman goes to lengths showing that killing is a grave and often a guilt-laden business in the experience of real life combat soldiers.10 Supernatural depicts it in a similar way, albeit with more emphasis on gravity than on guilt, largely because Sam and Dean usually kill non-human otherworldly beings who constitute a clear and present danger to the lives, health, and welfare of humans. In later seasons, as the Winchesters are themselves increasingly imbued with supernatural characteristics and immersed in supernatural environments, this clean and convenient division between humans and supernaturals becomes blurred, just as Sam and Dean’s consciences are increasingly burdened with managing more and more challenging ethical and moral conundra.

The trauma that the act of killing inflicts on the killers themselves, as depicted in Supernatural, is in line with what Grossman reports of most people who have actually killed, especially those in military and other security related professions, people who are professionally trained to apply deadly force under certain circumstances. Combatants who have killed tend to go through “response stages,” which consist of “concern about killing, the actual killing, exhilaration, remorse, and rationalization and acceptance.”11 However, “If the process fails it can result in post-traumatic stress disorder.”12 Since Sam and Dean kill supernatural beings, most of whom are responsible for the death of several humans, the remorse stage is typically skipped. After all, they are killing monsters, non-humans, the ultimate “others.” The brothers both exhibit classic signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as self-destructive behavior, restlessness, nightmares, and irritability.

On top of that, the extent to which a killer is affected by killing is proportional to the proximity at which the killing takes place. And, the two brothers repeatedly find themselves in circumstances which Grossman uncomfortably, yet plausibly, labels “killing at sexual range,” the closest and most traumatic of all proximities, not infrequently involving insertion of objects into the body of one’s opponent.13 In the show, the act of killing or other forms of annihilation almost always involve an ugly struggle that usually renders the “victor” exhausted, filthy, disturbed, injured, and traumatized on some level. This “dirty work,” as it is often described in the TV show as well as by real world combat veterans, affects killers in ways that are difficult to measure. In the episode “The Born-Again Identity,” Dean questions whether he is still able to “shake it off” as he usually does after a few days or a week. Even a character like Dean, whose training as a hunter began before he hit puberty and thus involved a significant dose of classical conditioning and sense-numbing experience from an early age, has trouble coping with the never-ceasing adversity that he and his brother face and the many sacrifices that the ongoing struggle demands, often in the form of killed friends and family. The prospect of a normal life, one that may involve raising a family, seems impossible. The term “survivor,” instead of “victor,” may be a better descriptor for the men, despite their many “victories.” In the episode “The Real Ghostbusters,” Dean even cautions some wannabe hunters that a life such as his own resembles “a river of crap that would send most people howling to the nuthouse.”

Like many combat soldiers, especially the ones who have not been professionally treated for any festering psychological scars, Sam and Dean have found their own ways of dealing with their inner pain. Dean is a gluttonous drinker, womanizer, and (on a lighter note) pie aficionado. Haunted by the nature of his own existence, he sleeps an average of only four hours a night. In the episode “My Bloody Valentine,” Dean learns that the true reason for his gluttony is a certain emptiness of his soul that cannot be filled with any of the earthly pleasures that he so eagerly ingests.

Sam’s way of dealing with his mental wounds are even more destructive: he bottles up his anger until it erupts at importune moments. Although Sam appears to be the more sensitive and better educated of the two hunter-brothers, there is clearly something sinister or even malevolent about him. On several occasions, he loses his grip on the better aspects of his own humanity. In one instance, Sam engages in an orgy of blood-letting when Lucifer seduces him to act out on his long pent-up anger on a number of people who have wronged him over the course of his life (“Swan Song”). In the episode “Sam Interrupted” Sam openly admits to his inner rage. After attacking his psychiatrist, whom he mistook for a wraith (a brain slurping monster), Sam apologizes. But his psychiatrist is not convinced. He confronts Sam and tells him that “… monsters are the least of your problems … The anger I saw in you. You hurt those two men. And, you were going to kill me… . The look in your eyes when you came after me! It was like you were barely human, like a man possessed.”

Supernatural dedicates significant screen time to the exploration of Sam and Dean’s psychological states and to how the Winchester brothers evolve as complex characters who struggle with ethical and moral issues on multiple levels. For instance, in Season 10, Sam compromises his resolve to not hurt any humans. In the episode “Soul Survivor” he nonchalantly sells out another human’s soul in exchange for saving his brother, who for several episodes had succumbed to becoming a demon himself. In Sam and Dean, we are shown two men who are constantly at and sometimes beyond the breaking point of what a human being can endure. It does not take much imagination to connect the brothers’ responses to violence induced stress to one or several of Grossman’s “Manifestations of Psychiatric Casualties,” such as “fatigue cases, confusional states, conversion hysteria [a hysterical state marked by confusion and/or inability to function], anxiety states, obsessional and compulsive states, and character disorder.”14

Like many combat veterans who have not been sufficiently treated for and have failed to properly deal with their combat trauma, Sam also struggles with substance abuse. He suffers from a life-long addiction to demon blood, which can temporarily give a human being supernatural powers which in turn provide feelings of euphoria. Ever since the demon Azazel gave Sam (when Sam was a mere infant) demon blood to drink, Sam has been preconditioned to eventually succumb to demon blood addiction. When Sam is a young man, the demon Ruby seduces Sam and gets him hooked on this powerful and destructive substance. In the episode “My Bloody Valentine,” when Famine (one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse) rides into town, Sam succumbs to his addiction again and even attacks a demon in the way a vampire would attack a human being. In this instance, Sam’s monstrous behavior transforms him into something similar to the type of beings that he and his brother hunt. This addiction signifies an irresistible urge not only for a stimulating substance but also for the supernatural powers that it delivers to the person who ingests demon blood, a power that Sam then in turn uses to quench the enormous wrath that boils underneath his façade of kindness and sensitivity. Moreover, consorting with demons and using demon juju constitute a tremendously risky compromise of values for a hunter like Sam. Between the two brothers, Sam is clearly the more conflicted individual. He appears to be afflicted by what Grossman describes as “obsessional and compulsive states” as well as “character disorder.”15 A case could also be made that Sam’s demon blood addiction is a metaphor for combat addiction, that Sam is an adrenaline junkie. Demon blood thus ironically serves as a catalyst for Sam’s metamorphosis into that which he has sworn to hunt and annihilate.

The need to identify and then manage acts of self-deception is especially paramount among those warriors who bear considerable responsibilities. This is true for hunters in Supernatural as well as for those who find themselves in the real world of combat. Looking back to his own experience as a young commissioned officer and platoon leader in Vietnam, Marlantes’ observations beg universal application: “When there are conflicting aspirations, one or more must be put aside. This takes a lot of difficult soul-searching and time and is extremely difficult to accomplish in the heat of war when you are young. Yet it must be done.”16 As the stakes increase throughout the seasons, and as Sam is subjected to unspeakable challenges (such as wandering the earth without his soul and, thus, apparently without any conscience), he struggles to find his moral bearings and even keep a grasp on his own identity, not unlike combat soldiers who operate under the incredible weight and pressures of combat stress.

Another way in which warriors cope with the stresses of combat is inappropriate and macabre humor, referred to as “Ganzer syndrome.”17 Dean, in particular, likes to joke to lighten the mood. In the first season especially, we see Dean playing practical joke after practical joke on his younger brother, who then retaliates in kind. As the show progresses and as the hunters mature, the jokes become fewer as well as more macabre. For instance, in the episode “My Bloody Valentine,” while Sam and Dean sort through the remains of victims of supernatural homicide in a morgue, Dean presents his brother with one of the deceased’s hearts in a Tupperware container and says with a wry smile: “Hey, be my valentine?”

Grossman warns of the dangers of bringing a warrior back into society too quickly and makes a strong case for mandatory debriefing procedures for combat soldiers (and other combat service men and women), including exhaustive discussions and retellings of one’s experiences. This procedure involves spending significant deflation time with those who understand what it is like: fellow killers. The closest that Sam and Dean come to such a debriefing opportunity is with their close friend, mentor, and father figure, Bobby Singer. But, in the male dominated world of hunters of supernatural beings, any attempt to talk about one’s feelings is frequently rejected, even ridiculed. As Bobby once said: “I hope we are done talking about our feelings, or we’ll soon start growing lady parts.”18 Still, there are occasions when fellow hunters talk to one another about the horrors that characterize their vocation. And, at times, hunters do lift up fellow hunters by means of what Grossman terms “a well of fortitude,” a term that denotes a special type of contagious strength, not to be confused with bravery.19 Naturally, the fictitious hunters of supernatural beings in the TV show are even more isolated from society than real life combat veterans are. It is almost impossible for an average civilian or even many non-combat service men and women to relate to those who have been in combat and who have killed in the name of their country. In the world of Supernatural this disconnect between hunters and “normal” people is intensified. How does one relate to average, normal people when one has been to hell and back (in Dean’s case, literally)? Or, how does one have a conversation about beings whose existence is doubted by “reasonable” people?

These two questions do not relate solely to Supernatural’s hunters. After all, combat veterans have entered and returned from a sort of Hell, a nether-land-like bizarre realm where very little of what is thought of as “reasonable” applies. Isolation is a challenge for real-life veterans and Supernatural’s fictitious hunters. Whereas most real life combat veterans are expected to fit within the exhaustingly mundane reality that awaits them upon return,20 the hunters in Supernatural know better than to get too close to “civilians.” The show explores this chasm between the two very disparate worlds that both combat veterans and demon hunters know. Those who have stepped over the threshold into that other world – the equally fascinating and horrifying realm of terrifying violence – not infrequently resist leading a more normal life. For instance, in the episode “Exile on Main Street,” after Sam is caged up with the archangels Michael and Lucifer, Dean is given the opportunity to lead an “apple pie” life. He moves in with an old flame, takes a construction job, and does his best to be a normal person, only to fall off the wagon at the first sign of supernatural trouble. Sadly, the only reason he even tries to live a normal life is because he promised his brother to do so after Sam’s self-sacrifice that stopped the Apocalypse. Dean comes to the conclusion that he will always be a hunter, despite his sincere love and devotion for his girlfriend Lisa and her son.

War correspondent Sebastian Junger’s observations of war in general and American servicemen in Afghanistan in particular form an intriguing parallel to the brothers’ love-hate relationship to their violent vocation. He writes “War is a lot of things and it’s useless to pretend that exciting isn’t one of them. It’s insanely exciting. The machinery of war and the sound it makes and the urgency about it are the most exciting things anyone engaged in war will ever know.”21 Like real-life combat soldiers, Sam and Dean find it difficult to let go of the one life they know: “Combat isn’t where you might die – though that does happen – it’s where you find out whether you get to keep on living. Don’t underestimate the power of that revelation. Don’t underestimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.”22

In the episode “It’s a Terrible Life,” a powerful angel places Sam and Dean in an alternate reality in which they lead normal, non-violent lives, with regular corporate jobs, unaware of their hunter identity, only to find themselves at the mercy of a vengeful spirit. They eventually realize that their alternate peaceful selves are not satisfactory alternatives, despite the horrendous pain of physical, psychological, and spiritual nature that they are regularly subjected to as hunters. Or, perhaps it is exactly because of this enormous pain and all the sacrifices that a return to a peaceful existence makes as much sense as an attempt to regain one’s virginity or to undo any other kind of significant threshold experience.

It is because of this exceptional experience that sets warriors apart from “normal” people (i.e. non-combatants) that a warrior all too easily assumes the role of the Other within society. References to “the warrior class” or the “other 1%” abound among American armed service men and women and their families.23 This deliberate separation of society into warriors and non-warriors is especially pronounced in nations that do not require or even encourage military service of a large segment of its population. Even more so than in real-life military institutions, the small bands of hunters in Supernatural consider themselves a society apart from the rest of humankind: an esoteric and secretive stratum of society that remains in society’s shadow and thus forgoes well-deserved public appreciation.

Ironically, what accelerates this metamorphosis from normal humans to warriors or hunters, and thus a group apart (as Others) is the act of labeling their enemies as Other. Many combatants draw deliberate and often exaggerated separations between themselves and their adversaries. As they do so, they are in danger of separating themselves from society and even humanity, sometimes at great cost. Incidentally, seeing one’s enemy as someone who is vastly different from oneself is a very useful mental tool when one tries to rationalize violence against such Others. According to Grossman, one of the enabling mechanisms for prospective killers is the dehumanization of one’s adversaries. Seeing one’s enemies as less than human makes it easier to kill them, although it contributes to the mental difficulties that warriors deal with in the aftermath of having inflicted such violence:

Even the language of men at war is full of denial of the enormity of what they have done. Most soldiers do not “kill,” instead the enemy was knocked over, wasted, greased, taken out, and mopped up. The enemy is hosed, zapped, probed, and fired on. The enemy’s humanity is denied, and he becomes a strange beast called a Kraut, Jap, Reb, Yank, dink, slant, slope, or raghead.24

Similarly Hackworth accounts for how Vietnam War soldiers and marines rationalized the violence that engulfed them:

The VC [Vietnamese communist guerilla] were not looked upon as humans by many of the Hardcore soldiers [Hackworth’s unit] – even the name “gook” was part of the dehumanizing process. I reckon that’s how grunts in Vietnam coped. And if the VC weren’t human, then there was no problem wasting, zapping and otherwise terminating them, often with extreme prejudice. But interestingly, the “kill” word was seldom used by those who did the deed.25

This process of dehumanization is intensified in Supernatural by the simple fact that the hunters’ enemies are indeed not human, even though many were at one time human before they were “turned” into an Other. Malicious restless ghosts, pagan gods pining for human sacrifice, demons, corrupt and vengeful angels, vampires, evil clowns, and a host of lesser known supernatural beings are easily objectified and thus annihilated with a minimum of hesitation or even remorse, especially if they pose an immediate threat to humans. Labeling one’s enemies as the Other also aids in group cohesion, which in turn serves as a catalyst for what Grossman calls “group absolution.”26

Hunters often see their targets as little more than vermin. Even so, the writers, directors, and producers of Supernatural deserve credit for their efforts to portray many of the otherworldly beings as complex characters who are neither completely good nor evil, nor completely anything else. Some demons, despite their clearly evil ways, are often quite entertaining and somewhat relatable, such as the witty and cynical Crowley, whom the writers have developed in the last few seasons from a mere wheeling and dealing crossroads demon into a major character in his tragicomic role of self-anointed King of Hell.

Not all demons are equally malicious. Many even evoke pity as they are maltreated by their own kind. Some other “monsters,” like certain vampires and werewolves, are also not simply pigeonholed by the creators of the show. Thus, Garth, one of the hunters who has been given repeated cameos in the last few seasons and who himself eventually is turned into a werewolf, decides to join a pack of peaceful werewolves who do not attack humans, instead of embracing his primal feeding instincts.27 One of Season Eight’s most interesting characters, Benny, is a good example of a vampire who tries to do right, not because he has to, but because he wants to. After Benny and Dean escape from Purgatory together, the unlikely companions become close friends, so close in fact that for a while it seems that Benny might replace Sam as Dean’s partner and go-to-guy. And, on several occasions, both Sam and Dean collaborate with certain demons against common enemies or for a common cause. Even Lucifer, in a Miltonian exercise, presents himself quite convincingly as the misunderstood and wronged middle brother of a dysfunctional family. Just as in war, once moral ambiguity manages to creep into a hunter’s or a warrior’s psyche, otherwise clearly defined situations become quite complex and problematic. They become a significant source of stress.

As the show matures, our two protagonists exhibit increasingly monstrous behavior, not unlike many real life warriors who are frequently thrown into damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t circumstances. In “Heaven and Hell,” Dean finally admits to Sam that he actually does remember everything that happened while he was in Hell for four months. This reticence is not unlike the behavior of combat veterans who resist talking about the violence laden parts of their wartime experience. To Dean the four months in Hell felt like forty years, thirty of which he was brutally tortured while resisting his tormentor’s (the demon Alastair) offer to let Dean “off the rack,” if only he agreed to engage in the torture of fallen and blemished souls. Dean himself, therefore, tortured souls for what felt like ten long years. In “Family Remains,” Dean guiltily elaborates to Sam that he actually enjoyed torturing souls: “I did it for the sheer pleasure … They took me off the rack, and I tortured souls, and I liked it. All those years. All that pain. Finally to getting to deal out some yourself. I didn’t care who they put in front of me. Because, that pain I felt, it just slipped away. No matter how many people I save, I can’t change that. I can’t fill this hole. Not ever.”

Compare Dean’s explanation of literal Hell to one of the most frank admissions one will ever hear from a real life combat veteran:

Combat is a descent into the darkest parts of the human soul. A place where the most exalted nobility and the most wretched baseness reside naturally together. What a man finds there defines how he measures himself for the rest of his life. Do we release our grip on our basic humanity to be better soldiers? Do we surrender to the insanity around us and ride its wave wherever it may take us?


I embrace the battle. I welcome it into my soul. Damn the consequences later, I am committed, and there’s no road back.28

Not unlike Dean’s journey into Hell, those who sojourn to their own psyche’s primal nether-regions are put under tremendous pressure.

TV shows like Supernatural exemplify that media can indeed provide violence themed entertainment and still contribute to an intelligent discourse about violence within society. Grossman said it best when he targets certain types of media that simplify and distort the issue of deadly violence:

A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity – that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth. In many ways it is simply too painful for society to address what it does when it sends its young men off to kill other young men in distant lands.29

I applaud the writers of Supernatural for directly dealing with the many consequences of deadly violence, especially from a killer’s perspective. Although this show is certainly no substitute for proper academic studies on the psychology of killing, it may still serve as an impetus for a broader discussion on the issues that so many of our returning combat veterans deal with in real life: “Today the existence of our species and of all life on this planet may depend on our not just seeing but knowing and controlling the beast called war—and the beast within each of us. No more important or vital subject for research exists, yet there is that within us that would turn away in disgust.”30 Intelligent treatises of violence in popular media may help us gain a more natural, more realistic, and hopefully beneficial understanding of those most primal reaches within our psyche, not so that we may revel in them, but that we will know how to manage them.

  1. Bellavia, David. House to House: a Soldier’s Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2007. Print. 273. ↩︎

  2. Grossman, David. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. 3rd Ed. Warrior Science Publications, 2008. Print. xix. ↩︎

  3. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. ↩︎

  4. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 4. ↩︎

  5. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 3. ↩︎

  6. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. ↩︎

  7. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 303-326. ↩︎

  8. Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2011. Print. 80-113. ↩︎

  9. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 236-238. ↩︎

  10. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 86-90. ↩︎

  11. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 233. ↩︎

  12. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 242. ↩︎

  13. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 135-7. ↩︎

  14. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 47. ↩︎

  15. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 47-48. ↩︎

  16. Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2011. Print. 133. ↩︎

  17. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 45-46. ↩︎

  18. “The Curious Case of Dean Winchester.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 28 Oct. 2009. Television. ↩︎

  19. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 82. ↩︎

  20. Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Twelve, 2010. Print. 233. ↩︎

  21. Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Twelve, 2010. Print. 144. ↩︎

  22. Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Twelve, 2010. Print. 144-45. ↩︎

  23. Thompson, Mark. “The Other 1%.” Time 21 Nov. 2011. 34-9. Print. ↩︎

  24. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 91. ↩︎

  25. Hackworth, David H. and Eilhys England. Steel My Solders’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam. New York: Touchstone, 2003. Print. 133. ↩︎

  26. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 149. ↩︎

  27. “Sharp Teeth.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 28 Jan. 2014. Television. ↩︎

  28. Bellavia, David. House to House: a Soldier’s Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2007. Print. 113. ↩︎

  29. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 94. ↩︎

  30. Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print. 95. ↩︎


Bellavia, David. House to House: a Soldier’s Memoir. New York: Free Press, 2007. Print.

“My Bloody Valentine.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 11 Feb. 2010. Television.

“The Born-Again Identity.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 23 Mar. 2012. Television.

“The Curious Case of Dean Winchester.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 28 Oct. 2009. Television.

“The Devil You Know.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 29 Apr. 2010. Television.

“Exile on Main Street.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 24 Sep. 2010. Television.

“Family Remains.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 15 Jan. 2009. Television.

Grossman, David. On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and Peace. 3rd Ed. Warrior Science Publications, 2008. Print.

Grossman, David. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Rev. ed. New York: Back Bay, 2009. Print.

Hackworth, David H. and Eilhys England. Steel My Solders’ Hearts: The Hopeless to Hardcore Transformation of U.S. Army, 4th Battalion, 39th Infantry, Vietnam. New York: Touchstone, 2003. Print.

“Heaven and Hell.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 20 Nov. 2008. Television.

Hedges, Chris. War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. New York, Anchor Books, 2003. Print.

“It’s a Terrible Life.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 26 Mar. 2009. Television.

Junger, Sebastian. War. New York: Twelve, 2010. Print. Marlantes, Karl. What It Is Like to Go to War. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 2011. Print.

“On the Head of a Pin.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 19 Mar. 2009. Television.

“The Real Ghostbusters.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 12 Sep. 2009. Television.

“Sam Interrupted.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 21 Jan. 2010. Television.

“Sharp Teeth.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 28 Jan. 2014. Television.

“The Song Remains the Same.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 4 Feb. 2010. Television.

“Soul Survivor.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 21 Oct. 2014. Television.

Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. Television.

“Swan Song.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 13 May 2010. Television.

“Swap Meat.” Supernatural. The CW. WPCW-CT, Pittsburgh. 28 Jan. 2010. Television.

Thompson, Mark. “The Other 1%.” Time 21 Nov. 2011. 34-9. Print.

About the Author: 

Born and raised in Germany and living in the United States of America since the early 1990s, Stephan Schaffrath earned his B.S. in Psychology (1995) and M.A. in English (1997) from Eastern Kentucky University and his Ph.D. in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (2004). His critical work ranges in topics from the fantastic to non-fiction and from Bakhtinian theory to narrative psychology.

Volume 1, Issue 1

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