Saturday, December 4, 2021

‘Supernatural’ One Year Later: How the Show’s Legacy Continues To Carry On

Authors: Jules, Kenedi

One year ago today, the Winchester brothers said goodbye for the last time after 15 seasons of saving people and hunting things — the family business. Supernatural had long been a rarity in the world of fandom, the “little show that could” that somehow carried on through a writer’s strike, ratings highs and lows, and in the end, a global pandemic to become one of the most beloved genre shows of all time. Even today, new viewers are finding the series through its instant availability on Netflix and its emerging popularity on apps like TikTok. This begs an interesting question: how can anyone begin to discuss the legacy of a series that, for all intents and purposes, appears to be doing anything but going gently into that good night of dead fandoms and TNT reruns? 

On this first anniversary of the show’s conclusion, we would like to try to celebrate Supernatural as the one in a million series it is. Supernatural isn’t just a unique show because of what ended up on screen or trended on Twitter. What makes Supernatural special, and has from the start, is its fans. For 15 years, the SPN Family raised millions for charity and changed the modern landscape of fandom. You cannot have a serious conversation about nerd culture in this decade and not include Supernatural, and that is down to the thousands of dedicated people who have launched charity campaigns, packed convention halls, created fanworks, and in general shown up for Supernatural and its stars for years. 

Doing Good: The SPN Family Business

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One of the defining characteristics of the SPN Family is its propensity towards doing good. Over the years, the word charity has become synonymous with the fandom; the amount of money that this group of fans has collectively raised is astounding. While there’s no official count, the number is definitively in the millions. However, the impact of this drive cannot be limited to looking at financial gain. The works of this fandom have enabled a multitude of worthy causes to be supported in a myriad of different ways, all by creating a culture of caring. Over the years, mobilizing the force of people’s love for this show for the good of others has become ingrained into the intrinsic fabric of the fandom’s culture, something that has been demonstrated time and time again.

The fans aren’t the only ones who have repeatedly displayed this ability to mobilize for good. Many of the actors of Supernatural have led a variety of philanthropic campaigns targeted at tackling a large array of issues, supporting organizations like the American Heart Association, Animal Allies, True Colors United, American Stroke Association, Equal Hope, and many more. Their 2018 Bad Idea Tour mobilized crowds to support cast members as they ran the Seattle Marathon, ultimately raising $240,000 for a variety of causes including fighting childhood hunger.

One of the most well-known efforts spearheaded by one of the actors of the show is Jared Padalecki’s Always Keep Fighting Campaign. Padalecki has long been open about his struggles with depression and anxiety, using his platform to bring awareness to the issue that has long been stigmatized in the media industry.

Since the launch of Always Keep Fighting in 2015, the actor has worked to help support a multitude of organizations dedicated to educating the public about mental health struggles and supporting people affected by them, including To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), Attitudes in Reverse, The Pack Fund (a joint fund set up by Padalecki and Jensen Ackles supporting various causes and promoting mental health awareness), and more. Throughout the years, Padalecki has partnered with organizations such as Represent and Stands for a myriad of shirt campaigns, with the proceeds going towards organizations like the ones mentioned above. Always Keep Fighting has been a beacon to many fans struggling with mental health and is one of the reasons this fandom has become such champions for the cause. The lasting legacy of this campaign continues to prove this every day.

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Another well-known mental health campaign created by Ackles and Collins was the #SPNFamily Crisis Support Network — established in partnership with Random Acts, TWLOHA, and IMAlive. This project resulted in the creation of an online support network aimed at helping fans cope with mental health issues. Features of the service included training for fans willing to be crisis responder volunteers, immediate access to support lifelines for people in crisis, and local resources for people needing additional assistance. The campaign project was kicked off by Ackles and Collins launching their “You Are Not Alone” T-shirt campaign raising funds for the network, well known partly as a result of their comedic videos promoting the campaign. The endeavor was immensely successful, with Collins reporting within the first four days that 10,000 shirts had been sold and 1,500 fans had volunteered to become crisis responders.

Random Acts

When talking about the Supernatural cast in conjunction with charity, there’s one other prominent endeavor that cannot be ignored: Random Acts. Founded in 2010 by Misha Collins after an earthquake in Haiti caused extensive damage, Random Acts has grown into a charity dedicated to inspiring acts of kindness around the globe, dedicated to proving that “you too can conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time,” no matter how big or small. 

Aside from Collins, other actors from the show like Genevieve Padalecki and Danneel Ackles have been involved in the nonprofit’s quest for good, most notably Rachel Miner, the organization’s Executive Director. Additionally, many of the organization’s staff members (who dedicate their time on a 100% volunteer basis) are members of the fandom whose passions have led them to serve their greater global community. Random Acts has successfully initiated many projects large and small aimed at improving the lives of people all over the world — like the construction of a free school in Nicaragua. Moreover, the organization frequently helps sponsor countless small-scale projects in people’s local communities.

These actor-led efforts (among many others that we would love to explore if we had the space) display how the Supernatural fandom’s culture of caring is a phenomenon that extends from the top down, as many of the cast members have continuously worked to use their platforms to make a difference in the world in both tangible and emotionally palpable ways. 

One of the most pertinent examples of how the Supernatural fandom regularly channels its collective power for the good of others is GISH. For those who are unfamiliar, GISH (formerly known as GISHWHES) stands for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt (the World Has Ever Seen). This annual, world record-breaking affair is a week-long, jam-packed event that mobilizes the forces of weird for good. Created by Misha Collins, GISH features a plethora of wacky activities that allow you to unleash your creativity through ridiculously zany (yet fun) challenges (such as running around a real-life particle accelerator dressed as The Flash, or making Christmas trees float), all while making a positive impact on the global community.

Quite a few unique factors combined to result in the creation of this strange yearly (sometimes more than yearly with the relatively new introduction of mini hunts) event. The idea primarily grew out of an experience Collins had in college: the University of Chicago’s annual scavenger hunt. However, it wasn’t until 2010, when publicists at The CW were pushing for Supernatural to leap to the front of polls for the People’s Choice Awards, that Collins found a unique way to engage the show’s audience. Collins sent out scavenger hunt prompts to fans in hopes of encouraging engagement (which he found enjoyable), and shortly after in 2011, GISH was officially born.

Since then, GISH has only grown — in participant numbers and scale. Each year, the lists get wackier and wackier, and tens of thousands of fans continue to prove their might as thousands and thousands of dollars are raised for a multitude of purposes — from rescuing refugees in Cambodia and Laos to donating millions of meals to fight food insecurity.

And yet despite all of these wonderful ventures, perhaps the greatest examples of how the SPN Family has managed to come together again and again over the years is displayed through the amazing efforts that the fandom has perpetuated amongst themselves without direction from the cast or crew. From kidney donations to fundraisers for fellow fans going through extreme hardships, this community has always answered the call to mobilize for a good cause when needed. Some of the most recent and notable campaigns to come into fruition were ones spawned right after the show’s conclusion honoring the characters’ legacies. One of the most notable of these was The Castiel Project

Supporting The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to providing support to LGBTQIA+ youth, this campaign was aimed at honoring the angel’s journey throughout the course of the show, which culminated in his character’s swan song: revealing his love for Dean Winchester and coming out as queer. This campaign has raised over $70,000 since its debut. Similar campaigns were launched in Dean and Sam Winchester’s honor, supporting mental health awareness and providing emergency assistance for college youth, respectively. These are only three examples in a sea of many, but it only goes to show how strong of a propensity the members of this fandom possess for working to make the world a better place — one cause at a time.

Family Don’t End in Blood

Of course, the fandom as it exists today wouldn’t be so willing to throw itself into those charitable endeavors if it wasn’t for the show itself. One aspect of Supernatural that’s always set it apart is the way it uses meta storytelling to have a dialogue with fans. The intelligent writing trusted that audiences would be able to follow what was going on and enjoy it. And enjoy it they did, though Supernatural still had a small audience compared to its network brethren in those early years. Episodes like “Fan Fiction” explicitly acknowledged fans’ role in keeping the show alive. Fan passion for the show is the reason the Wayward Sisters pilot even existed. Castiel’s canon confirmation of queerness was the result of a decade of LGBTQIA+ fans and a later generation of writers (who started as fans of the show themselves) recognizing its importance and fighting for it. 

The CW

Fandoms frequently shrink after series finales regardless of the size of its original audience, but the Supernatural fandom is just as active now as it was when the show was airing. Conventions featuring actors from the series still sell out regularly, and Supernatural is still topping Netflix streaming charts. This is a result of many factors, from new fans joining by bingeing the full series, to former fans returning to the show for its final episodes and being reminded of why they loved it in the first place. But the biggest credit for the Supernatural fandom enduring must be given to fans. With their art, stories, and drive to discuss the nuances of the show, they are ensuring that the show lives on and will be appreciated for decades to come. 

Supernatural has rightfully attained icon status within the genre community, reaching the Doctor Who level of ubiquity that allows other shows to reference it with the assumption that its audience will understand the reference. It’s dissected by scholars regularly, both for its unique fandom and for its storytelling. Supernatural has long been underrated by critics, shoved into the “genre show” box that until recently was seen as lesser (ironically, Supernatural creator Eric Kripke’s newest show The Boys has been a large part of breaking that boundary). 

Cate Cameron/The CW

But those who watch Supernatural know that in terms of emotional impact on the audience, Supernatural far outshines any mainstream series. Audiences are sucked in by the characters in a way that’s rarely seen, identifying with characters on such a deep level that it impacts their lives outside the fandom. As the Winchesters grew up, so did we. As they began to reckon with the darker parts of themselves, we did too. Fictional stories have an impact on real life — we’ve known this for a long time — but the bond fans have with the characters of Supernatural is different. 

We felt their triumphs and defeats weekly for 15 years. We know them in a way that’s unique, even for genre television. In some cases, we know them better than we know people in our “real” lives. The longer you stay within the Supernatural world, the more Sam, Dean, Castiel, and the others begin to feel like old friends rather than fictional characters or actors saying lines. 

It’s this devotion and deep understanding that transcends opinions on individual arcs or episodes. After all, there isn’t a show out there that’s so perfect that every storyline is beloved (especially not one that has lasted this long). But fans stuck by the show through it all because they saw themselves in the characters. As the end approached, fans weren’t just watching the last moments in the story of Dean, Sam, and Castiel — they were losing dear friends. No matter how the show chose to wrap up, it was going to hurt. It’s why it was so difficult to say goodbye. 

So what is the ultimate legacy of Supernatural, after all this time? We would argue that it is love: love between fans, between communities impacted by the SPN Family’s generosity, between the characters of Supernatural and the viewers. Love is messy and complicated. It’s not pure, and it doesn’t always come naturally. But it endures despite challenges and tests, and it is intensely personal for each person who experiences it. Supernatural has been a safe haven for its fans for years, a world they could return to when they needed refuge from the monsters lurking in the dark in real life. It will remain a place of comfort and hope for many people, and that legacy is the greatest one there can be for a work of fiction, beyond awards or “best of” lists. 

Supernatural has left a tangible impact on the lives of so many — both inside and outside the fandom. Whether you loved, hated, or felt nothing in particular about the show’s finale, the passion viewers have for Supernatural should not be altered by one of 327 total hours we spent with the Winchesters. From constantly dealing in the currency of kindness through charitable works and more to the irreplaceable atmosphere and bond between fans and actors alike, there will never be another television show that offers an experience like this one. So here we are, one year later, choosing to celebrate the camaraderie, the community, and the enormous amount of good that this “little show that could” brought into the world — something that shows no sign of petering out anytime soon. As the fans know, as long as there are people out there creating, reminiscing, and championing for good, the SPN Family will carry on.

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Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.

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