The Two Americas: How Modern Horror Programming Sees American Society

by Rachael Sherwood

Television is saturated with shows that do not fit into a simple genre category. These increasingly complex ways of storytelling reveal even more complex ways of coding messages. Modern horror programming relies on genre-hybridity to create a narrative of America. Two examples of this are Supernatural, which uses the western genre to reinforce traditional American ideologies and True Blood, which uses the satire genre to subvert them. In an increasingly polarized society, these shows depict very different visions of America.

Genre theory is, to put it broadly, the study of genres. A genre can be defined as a “type” or “category” a work is placed in (Chandler 1). Genre theory analysis of a work looks at how the genre is used within the work and compares that to the typical conventions of the genre.

Some questions a genre theorist might ask are: What genre does this work appear to fit in? What genre will an audience assign to this work? What expectations will they have on the work because of this genre classification (Chandler 10)? Genre theory also seeks to place a work within the context of historical perspective. A theorist will try to identify texts that influenced and shaped the piece (Chandler 9-11).

The origins of genre theory can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks with Aristotle, who began to categorize plays and literature into such categories as “tragedy” and “comedy” (Mittel 1). Historically genre studies was more prescriptivist, but now is often tied to poststructuralism and deconstructivism. Modern day genre theorists are interested in questioning the assumed genre of a work (Mittel 1). The most influential scholar who started this trend in general analysis was Northrop Frye with the publication of Anatomy of Criticism in 1957 (Synder 5).

Terms that are essential to understanding genre theory are: conventions/tropes, hybridity, and taxonomy. Conventions and tropes are the elements that a genre typically contains. For example, a medical drama contains elements such as a hospital, doctors, and injuries. Hybridity is the process by which genres are blended. When a work contains conventions and tropes from multiple genres, it is said to be a hybrid. By its basic definition, taxonomy is the science behind classification. When applied to genre theory, it is examining the system of categorizing used to identify a work within a genre category (Chandler 15).

First, we must understand what makes up the horror genre. Although Supernatural and True Blood are hybrids, they are culturally understood as horror. When examining the promotion for the two shows, it is clear that they were both intended by their respective networks to be considered horror. In promos for Supernatural, the WB stated that it would be “the scariest hour of television”. True Blood’s initial promotional imagery focused on its lead character, a young blonde woman, and images of blood. This combination, along with the red and black typography, recalls familiar horror tropes. The marketing for both these shows sends a clear message: these shows are to be understood as horror.

In his paper, “The Nature of Horror”, Noel Carroll pinpoints that what the horror genre does, essentially, is to examine a conflict of man vs. other, where the other is seen as a “monster”(Carroll 53). The monster can be a creature, such as a werewolf, or it can simply be a madman. The important part is that even if the audience has some sympathy for the monster, they do not identify with it. Instead, they view themselves through the protagonist. Carroll argues that if the audience does not feel this dynamic, they will fail to experience the other key feature of the horror genre: catharsis (55). Catharsis occurs when the threat is vanquished and the protagonist is safe.

Both Supernatural and True Blood use this dynamic in their pilot episodes. In the first episode of Supernatural, we are introduced to Sam and Dean Winchester. Sam is a successful college student and Dean, his older and “street smart” brother, who Sam has not seen in years, interrupts his normal life to ask him to help find their father. Immediately, with these familiar family dynamics and struggles, the audience is pulled into identifying with Sam and Dean on a personal level. They care not only that the Winchesters solve the mystery at hand–but also that they live to see another episode.  The identifying protagonist of True Blood is Sookie Stackhouse, a young waitress in a Louisiana bar. In order to create sympathy and identity, the show quickly illustrates the day to day struggles Sookie has: the stresses of her family, friends, and unique telepathic gift.

The “monster” in the pilot episode of Supernatural manifests in a Woman in White–a creature from folklore and urban legend. Although the show creates sympathy for the monster (a deeply disturbed woman who killed herself and her children), it also makes it apparent that she must be stopped. The episode only ends after they have successfully thwarted the Woman in White. True Blood does not make it as easy to identify the monster. Although it introduces Bill Compton, a vampire, he quickly becomes a figure of sympathy and intrigue. His “goodness” is vouched for by Sookie’s belief in him.  By the end of the episode, the “monster” is quite clear: the mysterious entity that is murdering innocent women in Bon Temps. Since True Blood is a serialized show, the catharsis of this storyline is not experienced immediately, but the audience is given an understanding that it will be.

While Supernatural and True Blood are both firmly set into the horror genre–they are completely different shows. There are a number of factors that influence this. They are on different networks, have different creators and writers, and are in different formats. However, beyond even this, they seem fundamentally different. This is likely because of the influence of genre hybridity. Both shows are tied to one other genre, and these new genres are what inform the show’s narrative ideology. Both are tied to genres that are concerned with examining American perspectives: the western, which upholds a traditional reading of American culture, and the satire, which often seeks to undermine or criticize that reading. This difference in their hybridity accounts for the feeling that they are fundamentally different.

Supernatural, while having the appearance of a horror show, can easily be placed within the genre category of western.  According to Lee Clark Mitchell, there are several important  themes that resonant through all Westerns: masculinity, the lone man, the frontier, honor, and the law (Mitchell 6). There are also visual elements that play in most westerns: cowboys, sheriffs, horses, pistols, saloons, etc. The effects of genre hybridity are not always visually obvious. We must be able to understand the difference between the archetype of “cowboy” and the stereotype of “cowboy.” The Winchesters are the Western outlaw/cowboy hero, even if they do not wear boots or hats. It does seem that the show itself even recognizes this, as later in Season 1, the  Winchesters come into possession of a early 1900s Colt pistol, weapon of choice for many on-screen cowboys (Herring 5). In fact, their very name is a reference to famous guns: the Winchester rifle.

In the pilot of Supernatural, all the elements of a western are present. Stripped of all its genre trappings, the story is of two men, outside society and the law, who travel West to a small town and save the people from a threat they cannot understand. There are visual stand-ins for the things that cannot fit into a modern context. For example, instead of riding a horse, Sam and Dean have their beloved car, which receives as much attention and affection as a cowboy would give a horse. Instead of conflict with the sheriff, the boys must deal with the local police and feds.

In her essay “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens”, Eileen Boris argues that the archetype of cowboy/outlaw has long been used in American culture to represent white male conservative ideals (Boris 602). In Supernatural, we can see this at play too. Dean and Sam must stand apart from society–they get where they are going through hard work and they are rewarded through the narrative for their individualism. Although they face difficulties, they are at an advantage because of their background and education. Boris points out that the problem surrounding the Western myth is that it ignores the historical reality. The cowboy and western frontier, far from romantic figures, were a battleground of warfare and genocide (604). The Western myth is just that–a Western one. Supernatural’s America likewise does not reflect the demographic reality of the areas it portrays. Although it sets most of its stories in poor Southern and Western towns, its character demographics are overwhelmingly white suburban families (Johnson). By leaving out this perspective, Supernatural reinforces a traditional white male reading of America.

Supernatural also seems to support a conservative narrative of leadership. Dean and Sam are able and capable leaders. What they do they do in secret and alone. Anytime they attempt to let anyone in on their circle, the situation becomes complicated and escalates. For example, in the episode “No Exit”, the brother’s friend Jo decides to join them in demon hunting. Exasperated, the brothers attempt to send her home. When she refuses, she is eventually captured and they must save her. Although Jo is not portrayed as a bad character, it is clear that things are better if they work alone. This plot line and variations of it are repeated through the seasons of Supernatural, echoing a conservative call for small government and executive power. Every time Sam and Dean expand their operation, it becomes bloated and inefficient. This is a direct parallel to the “man” alone often found in the Western genre, who is often hindered by the if good natured, clumsy attempts of others (Smith 46).

True Blood fits into the satire genre, which often subverts traditional American ideologies. What makes up a satire genre? It is easy to think of conventions of a genre like a Western. Certain images are easily associated with it. Satire is more difficult to define. Charles Knight argues that satire is both “pre-generic and modal” and that it opens up the boundaries of other forms instead of containing its own (14).  However, if one takes a more postmodern approach that there is no such thing as a “pure” genre, it can be accepted that satire is a genre, just one ripe for hybridization.  Satire is the usage of humor to criticize (Bakalar 1).Thus, the defining characteristics of something in the satire genre are humor and social criticism.  There is a long history of satire in America that is critical of the ideology of the dominant institutions, from African American slave satires in the late 18th century to The Daily Show with Jon Stewart of today (7).

True Blood sets itself up as a show that is critical of the dominant institutional interplay between government and religion. The show uses the idea of “Vampire Rights” to criticize and comment on the state of civil rights for the GLBT community in America. Rather than come out and say it overtly, True Blood uses clever manipulation of language to make this association with humor. Vampires do not arrive in society, they “come out.”  They are not just desiring of rights, they have lobbyists and amendments. In the opening credit sequence, there is an image of a church sign with the phase “God Hates Fangs”, a clear reference to the “God Hates Fags” slogan of the Westboro Baptist church. By equating vampires with the gay rights movement and then making a lead character a vampire, the show adapts a position of support for the gay rights movement.

True Blood also satirizes the two big institutions of small-town life: the church and the police. Although neither religion nor law are presented as bad, the establishments are inefficient and comical. The church introduced into the True Blood universe, Fellowship of the Sun, is exaggerated and corrupt. Although it preaches love and salvation, underneath all the make-up and hairspray it is actually training young men to be “soldiers”—culminating in a suicide bombing. This is the kind of reversal common in the satire genre (Knight 77).

The entire first season of the show can be read as an indictment of the police. The two cops, Bud and Andy, are blinded by their prejudice of vampires and ignorance. They are only interested in subjects who are either vampires are associate with vampires. The actual killer is right under their noses the entire time. However, because he is just “a normal guy”, their profiling doesn’t work. Instead of noticing him, they spend most of their bullying those who are innocent. The plot line is a critique of racial and ethnic profiling. In one episode, the sympathetic hero Bill Compton is pulled over because the cop suspects he may be a vampire—a subtle reference to “Driving While Black” (Callahan). Since racial profiling is still commonly accepted, especially amongst conservatives, this portrayal is rather subversive.

The link between horror and satire can be problematic. A common criticism leveled at True Blood is the issues caused by equating Vampire Rights with Civil Rights when in the show, many vampires are shown as dangerous and lewd (Shen). It would not be ridiculous for the audience to sympathize with the position of the universe’s fictional church. Could it be argued, then, that it inadvertently supports the position it is trying to oppose? This confusion is caused directly because of the ramifications of genre-hybridity. Each genre makes its own demands on the story.  True Blood is not a simple satire, it is a horror-satire.  The horror genre demands certain things of its material–it has a need for violence. Without violence, there is no catharsis.  By combining genres, True Blood does not make it simple to analyze.  However, in examining the message of the show, it is easy to see that the added satiric elements only serve to further subvert a traditional American narrative.

In conclusion, it is the hybridity that creates these conflicting ideologies. Although individual pieces can be different, genres have a dominant belief system. In the Western, the dominant ideology is a conservative narrative of traditional American values. In the Satire, it is a progressive narrative of subversion. It may not have even been the creator’s intention to introduce these ideologies, but they are so pervasive that just by including elements of the genre, they come to the forefront. By adding these genres to a horror story, the creators of Supernatural and True Blood created very different views of America.

Works Cited

Bakalar, Nicholas. American Satire: an Anthology of writings from Colonial Times to Present. New York City: Plume, 1997.

Borris, Eileen. “On Cowboys and Welfare Queens: Independence, Dependence, and Interdependence at Home and Abroad.” Journal of American Studies 41 (2007): 599-621.

Callahan, Gene, and William Anderson. “The Roots of Racial Profiling.” Reason.com. Aug. & sept. 2001. Web. 20 Sept. 2009. <http://reason.com/archives/2001/08/01/the-roots-of-racial-profiling>

Carroll, Noel. “The Nature of Horror” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (Fall), pp. 51-9.

Chandler, Daniel. “An Introduction to Genre Theory.” 1997.

http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/intgenre/intgenre.html

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Johnson, Alayne D. “An Open Letter to Eric Kripke.” Web log post. Angry Black Woman. 9 Sept. 2009. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.

<http://theangryblackwoman.com/2009/09/09/an-open-letter-to-eric-kripke/>.

Knight, Charles. The Literature of Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Mitchell, Lee Clark. Western: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Mittell, John. Genre and television: from cop shows to cartoons in American culture. New York: Routledge, 2004.

“Pilot” Supernatural. Exec. Prod. Eric Kripke. WB. September 13, 2005.

Shen, Maxine. “Flesh and ‘Blood’: HOW HBO SERIES HAS TURNED HOT VAMPIRES INTO GAY-RIGHTS ANALOGY “. New York Post. September 20th 2009

<http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/tv/item_WKvyfOFvvONjfWj5S1xa8N>.

Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1950.

Stewart, Susan. “The Epistemology of the Horror Story.” The Journal of American Folklore.95.395 (1982): 33-50.

“Strange Brew.” True Blood. Exec. Prod. Alan Ball. HBO. September 7, 2008.

Synder, John. Prospects of Power: Tragedy, Satire, the Essay, and the Theory of Genre. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.