In the seventeenth episode of the first season of Supernatural, the Winchesters head to Texas to investigate a haunted house that proves to be… well, not quite a haunted house. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Supernatural.
After the emotion-heavy “Shadow,” I appreciated that “Hell House” was so… weird. And different! I think one of my favorite things about episodic television that isn’t heavily serialized is when writers take a chance with their storytelling. I mean, look, I grew up on The X-Files, which has had some of the finest bizarre and humorous episodes in the history of television. “Humbug.” “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space.'” “Bad Blood.” “Arcadia.” I COULD GO ON FOR HOURS, I SWEAR. So it’s nice to see that Supernatural follows in that show’s footsteps in a way that analyzes urban legends that’s both fascinating and funny.
Up until the last two acts, this episode also has the distinction of being one of the most clever “mysteries” in terms of an antagonist, since nothing seems to make sense until Sam figures out that Mordecai is a Tulpa. For the most part, it’s a humorous look at Internet culture without it being condescending. (TAKE NOTE, AARON SORKIN, BECAUSE THIS HANDLES ONLINE INTERACTIONS WAY BETTER THAN YOU DID.) Well, it also addresses the absurdity of ghost hunters by contrasting them with REAL LIFE HUNTERS, which is about one of the funniest things this show has ever done. But how exactly did the Tulpa become real?
Supernatural is based in urban legends and in myths, and while some of these stories in season one are a bit shaky in the research department, I do like the idea of positing that these legends are true in some sense. So, we’ve got a show that explores what it means when Hook Man is real, when poltergeists are a thing, when demons can destroy your family, etc. But there’s never been any thought put into how these legends ever become… well, legends. How does a story get passed from one person to another? How does that story change over time? That’s an important question to ask because we’ve seen how misconceptions about spirits and demons are represented in the show, especially when the writers twist our expectations for certain tales.
In “Hell House,” Craig ends up being the originator of the legend, which I believe is the first time we’ve ever seen one of these things traced back to the person who started it. He and his cousin started it as a joke, and the joke passed from person-to-person until it gained a life of its own in a very literal sense. I found this to be a neat commentary on how this behavior gives stories life. (Which made me think of Neil Gaiman, who is a huge fan of this theme.) Craig and his cousin designed the tale of Mordechai Murdoch to hit every ghost hunter’s dream, from random people who like spooky things to people like Ed and Harry.
What’s interesting, then, is how Hell Hound’s Lair plays into Craig’s disastrous creation. I was reminded of one of my favorite jokes/lines in Buffy. In “Dead Man’s Party,” Giles comments on the Nigerian mask of Joyce’s by saying:
“‘Do you like my mask? Isn’t it pretty? It raises the dead!’ Americans.”
It’s not lost on me that in Craig’s attempt to mess with the people of Richardson, he inadvertently uses an actual symbol that means something to another culture. Well, he also uses the Blue Öyster Cult logo because this was never about authenticity. He didn’t care about that, and he also didn’t care to do a second of research about anything ever. And this not only manifests the Tulpa, but it’s mirrored in the way the community of Hell Hound’s Lair responds to the story that Ed and Harry posts. The rumors and misrepresentation fuel an ever-changing myth. I mean, the legend changes within a matter of hours, and these changes physically affect how Mordecai appears. How quickly does misinformation spread on Tumblr or Reddit? Minutes! MINUTES. People often and regularly believe what they want to believe in a story. And it’s not like that’s a new phenomenon, obviously, but what’s happens here is entirely dependent on the rapidity of online interaction. It’s a website that fuels the perception people have of Mordecai.
It’s also really satisfying to me that the writers give “Hell House” the ending that it gets because it feels so different from what we’ve seen before. After the failed confrontation with Mordecai, Dean reasons that the only thing they can do at this point is burn down the house that the Tulpa is haunting. If that’s part of Mordecai’s myth, it’s possible that his myth will change once people learn that the house is gone. They might believe that Mordecai is gone with it. However, it’s also possible that the Winchesters didn’t solve anything. What if the legend changes and Mordecai escapes? How can they control what an Internet community believes? And so “Hell House” is surprisingly left open-ended with no clear solution. It’s a neat ending to a very strange story.
Well, not just strange, but more humorous than past episodes, too! While the boys deal with Craig’s out-of-control prank, they have their own little war as well. I just love prank wars??? Y’all, I’ve already gotten so many on The West Wing, and now I find out that the Winchesters occasionally have their own back-and-forth battles, too? I think Sam wins this battle. The super glue on the beer bottle is damn clever. And I thought Dean had it in the bag after the itching powder bit!
I’m thankful for the light fare after the last episode, and I’m hoping that “Hell Hound” is a sign that the writers are willing to step out of their comfort zone and write more scripts that are different from the usual fare. Not that I’m complaining about the spooky episodes! I guess I have a thing for shows being able to show that they don’t take themselves too seriously.
The video commission for “Hell House” can be downloaded right here.
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