SPN DePaul: A Celebration of Fandom, Academia and “Supernatural” Part I

If you’re a fan of the show, you know that the academic side of the Supernatural fandom is quite strong. There have been scholarly journal articles, books and meta-discussions about Supernatural ever since the show premiered back in 2005. Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls, written by Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, is a cult classic and has brought an air of legitimacy to the work of Supernatural scholars who love the show and work to connect it to the academic study of popular cultural, the definition of an aca-fan. On May 9-11, DePaul University in Chicago hosted an academic conference celebrating ten years of Supernatural, welcoming attendees from all corners of fandom, including Keynote Speaker and writer on the show, Robbie Thompson. Unfortunately, Chicago is a bit out of the way for either of the Collective gals, so we asked our friends KT Torrey and the Fangasm girls to keep us abreast of the goings-on at the conference. We sat down to ask them a few questions, and here’s what they had to say about SPN DePaul.

The Collective: What were some of the differences between the SPN event in dePaul and other Supernatural events you’ve attended?

Lynn Zubernis: The SPN DePaul conference was organized as an academic conference, not a convention, unlike most of the other Supernatural events I’ve attended. Conventions have paid guests, usually actors, and attendees pay substantial amounts of money to listen to panels, take photo ops and get autographs. DePaul, in contrast, was free to attend; instead of actors, there was SPN writer Robbie Thompson as keynote speaker, who was more than happy to take photos with anyone who wanted one and to sign anything fans brought with them.

The panels were set up as traditional conference style discussions, with panelists submitting their ideas as paper proposals and each panel revolving around a topic. There were panels on Genre Antecedents to SPN, Problematic Tropes in SPN, Monsters on SPN, Gender and Race, Morality and Religion, the Family on SPN, Social Issues and SPN, Supernatural and Meta, Fan Works, Fan/Producer Relationships, and Writing about Supernatural, and a workshop on podcasting. As is typical at an academic conference, there was lots of spirited discussion at all the panels. One of the best things about the DePaul conference was that it put academics who study the Show on panels with fans who write meta about the Show, because really, there’s no difference! I got to talk about writing about Supernatural next to Mo Ryan, the television critic for the Huffington Post (who happens to be one of my favorite people, so yay!)

In some ways, the DePaul conference was most similar to WinCon, which is a fans-only conference/convention (originally stood for Winchester Writers Conference, I think). WinCon also has panels where fans talk about the same sort of topics as we did at DePaul, the main difference being that not all the WinCon panels are entirely G rated.

WinCon, the DePaul conference and Supernatural conventions also have things in common – mainly the opportunity for fans to meet and hang out together. There was a pizza dinner the night before and one the night of the DePaul conference, and some of us flew in early to spend time sightseeing together and talking about our favorite television show. There was a cosplay contest, just as there always is at a con. There was also a screening of ‘Fan Fiction’ – a room full of fans singing along to “Single Man Tear” and “Carry On” was enough to make me all emotional. Similarly, karaoke night at conventions is the same sort of informal get together, and I never fail to get teary-eyed when the entire room starts singing “Carry On” or one of the Show’s other signature songs.

KT Torrey: DePaul was honestly the grooviest, most inclusive fanspace I’ve been in, SPN or otherwise. On the one hand, it was old home week for SPN academics–I ran into so many Twitter friends, fan studies colleagues, and at least two people I’ve quoted in aca-essays about SPN. I didn’t expect that! It was awesome.

On the other, however, I *loved* getting to meet and talk to so many non-aca fans. What made the event sing for me was that, once the panels got going, it didn’t matter if you were aca or fan or both: we were all there to talk about SPN, and the conversation in the panels was what mattered, not what your affiliation was. The last panel I attended, for example, featured two academics who’ve published on SPN, a medievalist, and a 17-year old fan who made one of the best presentations of the day. Putting fans and academics into active conversation about this show was freaking genius. Paul Booth and his team did an amazing job.

The Collective: Why is academia interested in the social phenomena of the Supernatural fandom? What makes Supernatural and it’s fans an effective social study?

Lynn: Good question! The reason we initially focused our academic study on the Supernatural fandom and the reason it’s a ‘social phenomenon’ are different. When we first fell into fandom, we quickly realized that a) it was an amazing, supportive community for those on the inside, and b) it was an amazingly maligned and shamed ‘thing’ to those on the outside. We wanted to set the record straight and challenge that shaming, as well as the internalized shame created as a result in the community itself.

We chose to focus on the Supernatural fandom because that’s what we knew best. SPN was the Show we had fallen in love with, and we were at the time immersed exclusively in that fandom (which is still the case for me). Much of the research that had been done on fandom up until that time had been ethnographic studies conducted from the outside, which tended to put fandom ‘under a microscope’ and to pathologize, even if subtly. We wanted to throw away the magnifying glass – because we didn’t need it. We were under it already, and hoped we could understand fandom norms and interactions from a unique perspective as a result. Looking back, of course we were immersed in our own little corner of fandom, which is far from a homogeneous culture, but I do think it gave us a perspective that was different and less pathologizing. I think ‘Fandom At The Crossroads’ and ‘Fangasm: Supernatural Fangirls’ succeeded in challenging that shaming and that internalized shame, and explicated some of the fandom dynamics that had been misunderstood.

KT: As a fan studies scholar, what makes studying SPN so appealing to me is the sheer volume of ways in which fans interact with the canonical text–and ever-growing body of meta- and paratexts–of SPN. Further, those texts continue to talk back at (or with) fans, generating this never-ending ecology of fan-text-producer interactions.

Though it’s much more common now, SPN was one of the first TV shows of the 2000s to embrace its fandom within canon; that is, recognize and then insert fans (or at least, TPTB’s perception of the series’ fans) into the canonical text. Now, after a decade, the symbiotic ecology between fans and canon is now central to the series’ continued success, for better or for worse, and this kind of push-me/pull-you relationship has given rise to some really interesting tensions between fans and creatives.

Plus, these fan-creatives relationships are both tangled and distinctive. The relationship Misha Collins has with his fans, for example, is very different from the one that someone like Carver or Michaels or Singer has with “the fandom” writ large. And now the writers are in on it, too, as Robbie Thompson’s appearance at the DePaul event suggests.

Lynn: The Supernatural fandom is worthy of study today because it has existed for over a decade and is still going strong. The Show and the fandom began before social media transformed fandom (and everything else!) and thus, their evolution has paralleled the changes in fandom in general. There are long-standing subgroups and long-standing disagreements among fans, as well as constantly evolving tensions between fans and producers, particularly as the ‘reciprocal relationship’ between them changes along with online interactions. There is also a consistent strength and optimism that has only grown stronger over the years.

KT: It’s like Dean says in “Fan Fiction”: “This is Marie’s Supernatural,” and I think we’re at the point where not only do each of us as fans have our own version of the show, but so do each of the writers (and maybe even the actors). From a fan studies perspective, it just doesn’t get better (or more frustrating!) than this show. It’s kind of glorious.


This show is kind of glorious! Tune in on Monday for Part II of our DePaul interview, in which we discuss nonfans, conference panel topics and future Supernatural academic projects. 

C. Diva

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