One of the longest-running CW shows, Supernatural tells the story of Sam and Dean Winchester, two brothers who lost their mother in a horrific demon attack when they were both young children. The two dedicate their lives to hunting demons, vampires, and other monsters that threaten humans. Although the older brother, Dean, has always been committed to the life of a hunter, Sam is reluctant to join him. However, when Sam’s girlfriend Jessica dies, killed by the same demon that killed the boys’ mother, he joins his older brother’s mission to find the demon responsible. The Winchesters travel across the country in their father’s Impala filled with blades, salt rifles, holy water, ritual books, and other arsenal.
Similarly, Wynonna Earp, the great-granddaughter of the famous gunslinger, Wyatt Earp, becomes a reluctant demon hunter as well. When she returns to her hometown, Purgatory, Wynonna finds the town filled with Revenants (i.e., the undead), most of which her great-grandfather himself had gunned down. She then joins Deputy Marshal Xavier Dolls of the Black Badge Division to learn about the Revenants and prevent them from terrorizing her city.
Both Supernatural and Wynonna Earp are entertaining, full of action and suspense. However, these TV shows can also be helpful in teaching the viewers about how to face their own internal monsters. As a clinical psychologist, I have come to realize that many people have a hard time understanding their own emotional experiences. Oftentimes, people might struggle with labeling their emotions, understanding why certain events affect them the way they do, and managing difficult situations. In addition, many people have been taught to hide their emotions, and are shamed for crying, or for experiencing perfectly natural feelings, such as anxiety or sadness. As a result, many people subsequently shame themselves for being depressed, anxious, or lonely, often believing that if they opened up to someone else, they would be rejected and misunderstood. In other words, people might be hardest on themselves when they are in fact in the greatest need for compassion, support, and understanding.
When people struggle with accepting their emotions, they might engage in avoidance behaviors, trying to run away from or suppressing these feelings, sometimes using substances or distractions. Although in the short-term these strategies can be helpful in providing a temporary relief, they tend not to be effective for too long. In fact, emotional avoidance often leads to increased emotional suffering in the long-term. For example, when he returns from being tortured in Hell, Dean Winchester begins drinking heavily, dives into work, and refuses to talk about his experiences. However, these avoidance tactics do not allow him to process his traumatic experience, which results in him struggling with his symptoms until he finally shares them with his brother. Like the Winchesters, Wynonna Earp's past haunted her for years, leading her to being placed in a psychiatric facility, as well as a juvenile detention center.
Interestingly, as difficult as it may be for many people to open up about their emotions, they might be able to better understand and process them when relating to someone else with a similar experience. This type of connection, which can be formed with a real person or even with a fictional TV character, is often referred to as a parasocial relationship (PSR). PSRs can serve as a social surrogate, in a way, sometimes taking place of a social support group or even a surrogate family for the viewers. It is perhaps for this reason that many Supernatural and Wynonna Earp fans (known as "Earpers") report that the characters on these shows have essentially become their family.
In fact, when people feel rejected or socially disconnected, they may turn to their favorite TV shows for comfort. Research studies show that connecting with favorite/meaningful TV shows, but not neutral TV shows, can lead to improved mood, reduced feelings of rejection and loneliness, and a stronger sense of connection with others. This suggests that in times of need, we may turn to TV shows and characters — not to escape, but to connect. In fact, many fans say that connecting with the stories and the characters of these shows made them feel less alone and allowed them to get through periods of depression, anxiety, and social isolation, as well as taught them how to cope with trauma, and even allowed them to make new friends within the same fandom.
As a psychologist, these findings make sense to me. Many of my clients report that their favorite TV shows helped them find a sense of hope and belonging, and allowed them to “keep going” when they considered ending their lives. For example, undergoing physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, reoccurring experiences of receiving criticism and rejection from social groups can lead to overactivation of the stress system and under-activation of the self-soothing system. Panic attacks, depression, loneliness, overwhelming anxiety, and excruciating trauma — all these can feel as if people are continuously being attacked by demons in real life but without Wynonna’s gun or the Winchesters’ arsenal. However, when people have an ally, someone who has been through a similar experience, someone who can show them that monsters can be beaten, that person can then be more likely to find a reason to always keep fighting.
As humans, we are wired for connection. Hence, experiencing loneliness and social disconnection can be emotionally excruciating. For most, emotional pain can be as painful, if not more painful than physical pain or torture. In fact, both emotional and physical pains are processed in similar regions of the brain, creating similarly painful experiences. However, when we find a social connection with another person, or even a fictional character, our bodies release oxytocin, a bonding hormone, which reduces physical and emotional distress and creates a feeling of connection, almost like a healing balm. This is potentially why we might feel connected to fictional characters — they may be fictional but they speak the truth. Specifically, TV shows portray the very things that people may be dealing with on the inside but sometimes have no one else with whom to process it.
For example, one of my clients, “Sarah” (name changed to protect the client’s confidentiality), developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing sexual assault. She reported that other than myself, no one else knew about her traumatic experience because at the time she did not feel safe disclosing it to anyone. However, as a big fan of Supernatural, she felt an instant connection to Sam and Dean because of their traumatic experiences. In seeing the brothers experience symptoms of trauma allowed her to recognize her own symptoms as well. “Sarah” especially connected with Dean. When she watched the episode in which he recalls his experience of being tortured in hell, “Sarah” stated that she has been feeling as if she were being tortured too even since the assault took place. “The worst part of it,” she said, “is that just like Dean, I went through it alone, without anyone by my side.” In working with “Sarah” on recovering from PTSD and becoming “the hunter of her trauma” we were able to identify some key components, to help her recover from this traumatic experience. These components included strong support groups and finding a sense of purpose. In connecting with other Supernatural fans, “Sarah” was able to expand her social support system, becoming a part of the SPN family. She has also become an advocate for other survivors of sexual assault, helping them to find a voice, as well as healing after a traumatic event (story shared with permission).
Like “Sarah,” the main protagonists of Supernatural and Wynonna Earp have developed a sense of purpose after experiencing a traumatic loss. This type of meaning after a traumatic experience, which can provide such a positive change in one’s life, is called posttraumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth can allow people to learn from their traumatic experiences and give their life meaning, as well as improve connections with meaningful people and activities. By connecting with our favorite TV characters, perhaps we can be reminded that just like our favorite demon hunters, we too can face our own demons, and just like the Earps and the Winchesters, we don’t have to face them alone.