Supernatural is one of those rare shows able to blend an episodic monster/planet/villain/problem of the day with an overarching plot that's lasted season after season. And a number of the monsters from the show have some grounding in popular culture: urban legends, real figures and stories passed down year after year.
For the 20th in our series of 31 posts for the 31 days of Halloween, here are 13 episodes from the show that draw inspiration from some real ghost stories.
The "woman in white" is from Mexican folklore and is also known as La Llorona. Most stories point to a woman who drowned her children to be with the man who loved her, and who ends up killing herself. The resulting ghost of the woman is unable to rest, and numerous stories point a variety of behaviors: killing children, marking them for death or simple kidnapping.
The show's two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, are reunited after a number of years to track down their father and pick up where he left off in the family business: hunting the supernatural. They end up in Jericho, a town where a number of young men have vanished along a roadway over the years, presumably at the hands of the ghost of a girl who murdered her children: a woman in white.
A wendigo is a supernatural being that comes from Native American tradition: a cannibalistic evil being that is commonly associated with the winter and death. It's commonly believed that a wendigo is created when a person resorts to cannibalism or is inhabited by an evil spirit to much the same effect. Sufferers were irrevocably transformed into gaunt, skeleton-like creatures. The term is also used when a person develops a desire to consume human flesh, with several noted examples in Canada.
In Supernatural's second episode, Sam and Dean investigate the disappearance of some hikers in the middle of a forest, learning that there have been similar reports for more than two decades. Talking with a survivor, they learn that it was a supernatural creature, not a bear, and set off with a search party to track down the creature, killing it with a flare gun.
You probably played this game with a group of friends when you were a kid. Coming out of English folklore, Bloody Mary is a ghost who appears when called three times before a mirror. Mary, according to the stories, had lost her children, through either murder or the false accusation of murder, and is enraged when summoned. It's said that when she's called, she hurts those on the other side of the mirror, or haunts them for the rest of their lives.
Supernatural's take on the Bloody Mary story sees a sleepover foolishly summon the ghost, with fatal and bloody results. The brothers look into the story, searching for a person named Mary who was killed in front of a mirror. Tracking down the original mirror where she was killed, the brothers smash it and "kill" the ghost.
This story from the 1950s/1960s is another urban legend that lingers. Two teenagers park down at Lover's Lane for a bit of personal time when a report comes over the radio: An escaped convict (sometimes a rapist, sometimes an insane prisoner) has been spotted in the area, and anyone who sees a man with a hook should report him to the police immediately. The girl freaks, while the boy feels bold but reluctantly takes the girl home. Upon reaching her house, they find that there's a bloody hook dangling from her door handle.
The show's take on this is a bit more grim: Back down in Lover's Lane, the boy and girl hear a noise, and the boy goes out to investigate. When he doesn't return, the girl, Lori, finds his body hanging from a tree above the car. Sam and Dean head out to find out what's going on, and find that there had been a preacher who had committed a number of murders (all in the same place) and that he had a silver hook. The spirit had latched onto Lori, killing her roommate, because of the silver cross that she wore: the same silver from the killer's hook.
Run a Google search for Haunted Asylum, and you'll come across a number of hits across the United States. From the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, insane asylums were places where the mentally ill were kept away from society in a progressive move to improve the country, but one ill-guided in its practice, as untold thousands of cases of abuse, torture and death took place. As a result, hundreds of asylum campuses, abandoned for years, have reputations for the spirits that still reside within their walls.
It's no surprise, then, that the brothers find themselves at one such location, in the episode "Asylum." When someone breaks into the Roosevelt Asylum, two cops investigate: One ends up committing a murder-suicide, bringing in Dean and Sam. It turns out that there was a violent riot, and they go to investigate, torching the corpse of the former administrator who ran the place.
In Norse mythology, the Vanir are gods associated with fertility and wisdom. They have a long and storied association with hostages, but also with sacrifices. Fast-forward to the 19th and 20th centuries, when the United States saw a major immigration from Europe to the continental Midwest, drawn by low prices for farmland.
Both of these elements are thrown together in the episode "Scarecrow," where year after year a couple vanishes into an apple orchard, in a town with exceptionally good luck and health. Drawn by the disappearances, the brothers find that the town has kept some ancient, vaguely pagan roots: In exchange for two sacrifices, the town is blessed. The sacred tree is burned, saving future victims, but leaves the town's future uncertain.
A Shtriga is a witch from Albanian folklore, one that is said to act similarly to a vampire, sucking the blood of children at night and transforming during the day. These creatures are born as women who later turn evil when they are either unable to have children or lose a child.
In the episode "Something Wicked," the brothers are drawn to a town where they find a group of sick children. Searching a house, they find an odd handprint and recall seeing something similar years ago. After a bit of research, they come across the Shtriga legends. More research finds that there have been similar cases over the years across the country, and that one of the doctors at the local hospital might be involved. They lie in wait with one potential victim, and kill it when it attempts to feed off Sam.
During the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, a number of women vanished from a hotel owned by Henry Howard Holmes (real name Herman Webster Mudgett). The sensational mystery was revealed shortly after the end of the fair, when it came to light that H.H. Holmes had constructed an elaborate hotel, designed specifically for murder. It's thought that he may have claimed more than 200 victims, earning him the title "America's first serial killer."
Holmes makes an appearance in Supernatural in the episode "No Exit," where a series of brutal slayings in an apartment building over the years has garnered some interest. Finding the presence of an angry spirit, they do some research, where they find that the building was right next to where Holmes was executed, and that Holmes is still claiming victims. Finding his next victim, they're able to trap him for eternity in the sewers with a large quantity of salt.
Black dogs are often thought of as omens, hailing from Great Britain. Associated with the devil, they're generally a sign of impending doom and, interestingly, associated with crossroads. American blues singer Robert Johnson, known for his song "Cross Roads Blues," was said to have sold his soul to the devil for his incredible ability with music.
In another episode that mixes two urban legends and stories, "Crossroad Blues" sees both black dogs and the urban legends of Robert Johnson, and a major part of Supernatural's mythos, where demons have begun to collect on their bargains with a couple of people who've sold their souls for their incredible rises to success. The brothers learn of Johnson's legend and track down the case in the modern day, coming across the demon responsible.
In 1587, the colony on Roanoke Island was the first English attempt at settlement in the New World. One of its citizens, John White, left, and returned three years later to find that the entire colony had been abandoned, with only the word Croatoan carved into a tree on the site, a clue as to where they had gone (an island by the same name), as instructed. However, he was unable to track his fellow colonists down, and their final destination is unknown to this day. The settlement became known as the Lost Colony.
Sam and Dean find themselves in River Grove after Sam sees a vision of Dean killing someone. While on their way, they find two men overcome with rage attempting to kill a woman, who's also infected. Taking refuge in a local clinic, they hold out while they try to figure out what's going on. A demonic virus has been let loose in the community. They also find the name Croatoan carved in a tree, and believe that the same fate that befell the colony has arrived there. After several hours, the virus abruptly vanishes, although its existence spelled out some troubling portents.
Inns were popular places back in the day, particularly the ones of New England, with its long history in the country. Go to any number of locations around New England and you'll likely find a story here or there about a guest murdered or otherwise deceased, with their spiritual remains still around somewhere.
In the episode "Playthings," Dean and Sam travel to Connecticut, where two mysterious deaths have been reported at an inn about to be demolished. The spirit of a girl who died years ago inhabited the house, killing those who hoped to sell it. She was tied closely to the family's history, and with a little digging they find that the owner's grandmother had been working to repress the spirit for years: It was her younger sister, wanting keep things the same as they'd always been, hurt and angry over being shunned.
Across the United States, there are hundreds of stories of ghosts alongside highways: hitchhikers, victims and so forth, along a number of different roads.
In one of the best episodes of the series, a women is fleeing from a ghost after getting into a car accident, running into Sam and Dean while doing so. While the woman believes that she's running from a murderous ghost that the brothers are after, it turns out that it's not only the man that they're after, but her as well: She's been haunting the area for years, without realizing it.
A number of films have been rumored to be haunted over the years: Three Men and a Baby, Poltergeist (where seven people died who were involved with the filming) and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, among others, generally involving people who might have perished during the filming or in the areas where the movies were filmed.
In the episode "Hollywood Babylon," the two brothers are on vacation in California, where they come across a horror film that's rumored to be haunted. The rumor turns out to be a bit of creative viral marketing (thanks to Dean's encyclopedic knowledge of bad films), but another death keeps them on the case. They blend in with the movie's crew, working to find out what's going on, and they discover that the film's script holds a summoning spell, bringing a real live demon on the set. They destroy the spirit, and at the same time help to make the film a bit more accurate.