There’s a psychological phenomenon that happens when we have an experience that shakes our world so much that our brains encode it as a “flashbulb memory”. It’s an old term, and some of you have probably never seen a camera with a flashbulb, but back in the day it used to go off and illuminate a scene you were capturing with a photo, freezing it in time forever. That sort of memory is so important, and often so upsetting, that it too is frozen in time forever in our brains. The sights, the sounds, the emotions of that moment. It doesn’t fade like other memories, or lose the emotional intensity that was there when it was encoded. Instead, it remains as clear and vivid as if it happened yesterday – we remember the clothes we were wearing when we heard the news, or exactly what we were doing or thinking, or who we were talking to. We remember our initial shock and then the moment when our emotions kicked in.
Usually we think of flashbulb memories as things like the moment you found out about a world-changing event like 9/11 or you got the news that a loved one passed. That’s the level of importance. And yet, I think I may have had one on Friday afternoon – the moment I found out that Supernatural would finally end a year from now. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not making the ending of a television show equivalent to those horrific circumstances, but that’s not how our brains work. When something is important, it’s important. Especially emotionally important. Our brains don’t judge. And for many people, that little television show that lasted for 15 seasons is personally and emotionally important.
I’ve seen quite a few posts essentially saying “what the hell is wrong with these people that they’re grieving a TV show, get a life!” There are lots of posts from fans whose family and non-fannish friends are dismissive of their sadness and critical of them for grieving a television show. Sometimes these people mean well, but let’s face it, they really don’t understand. Luckily, there’s a lot of support in the fandom community, in all its various forms. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that Supernatural is so important in the first place. Yes, fans are incredibly sad to be losing Sam and Dean and Castiel, the fictional characters who mean so much to us. But it’s more than that. Supernatural created a family over these past fourteen years. It’s where many fans found their best friends, their support systems, the people who finally “got” them. It’s where they felt like they belonged, maybe for the first time. That is powerful. Life changing sort of powerful.
When I was putting together Family Don’t End With Blood, it was originally going to be a book written by just the fans. We would all share our stories of how Supernatural and its characters and actors and fan community had changed – and literally saved – our lives. So there are thirteen chapters in that book written by fans that describe how important the show has been, from helping a fan get “sober for Sam” to battling cancer, from leaving a cult to having the courage to change who you are and go after who you want to be. Testaments to the way their lives changed when they became involved in changing others’, through Random Acts or GISHWHES, volunteering for a charity or even starting one. Over the years, I’ve heard thousands more. It’s not the only show or film or book that has changed lives, but thanks to its unprecedented fourteen years on the air and hundreds of conventions, Supernatural has had a greater impact than most.
That Family Don’t End With Blood turned out to be a book written by the Supernatural actors as well as the fans is an indication of just how unique and powerful the phenomenon is. Because it’s not just us who were changed by the show. It’s not just us, in fact, who have had our lives saved by the show and the fandom. It’s the actors who bring the show to life too. And unlike many who work in a judgmental industry that demands perfection, these actors felt close enough to their fans to want to share that – in an actual book that they wrote themselves. That’s extraordinary. Jared, Jensen, Misha and so many other Supernatural actors opened up and wrote about how their lives have changed – finding the courage to pursue things they’d always wanted, finding the validation to become who they really are, surviving a life-threatening stroke, and even finding the support to get up and “always keep fighting” when one of them was at the point of wanting to stop. I don’t know another television show whose actors have been that real with their fans, or another show that has changed its cast’s lives in such a powerful way.
But as I often say when talking about the book, these are not your ordinary actors. It says something so important about Jared, Jensen and Misha that when the decision was made to end the show after next season, they told their long-time crew the news first, the people who are like family to them and whose livelihoods depend on this show. Then they took to social media themselves, recording a video for the fandom explaining that the fifteenth season would be the last. Although all three were clearly struggling with their own emotions, they wanted their fans to hear it from them. It’s the same reason they wrote Family Don’t End With Blood in their own words, because this is too important to telegraph through someone else. I respect the hell out of them for making that video.
The impact of this show doesn’t stop there, however, with the fans and the cast. Over the past few days, actors who have been on the show once or twice or have not been on it at all have weighed in on social media with messages of respect and support, thanking Supernatural for being the exemplary thing that it is and inspiring everyone in the industry. The BC film industry itself weighed in, with gratitude for what the show has done for that industry and Vancouver, including huge financial benefits and providing a talented and hard-working crew with a job they could count on for fifteen years – and one they could love. Journalists from many of the publications that cover fan-favorite shows also shared their own stories of how Supernatural has impacted them; for many, the show was responsible for them entering the field, and for some, it was a personal support over the years just like it has been for many fans.
It’s been four days of shock and grief for the Supernatural fandom as we all start to cope with the impending loss in our own ways. Fandom, ever brilliant and creative, immediately began expressing our intense emotions with art and photos and graphics and heartfelt posts.
Who made a deal, that the show Kripke originally planned to end after Season 5 will go exactly ten seasons longer?
Fans looked back at recent episodes, and wondered if the words were prescient.
“Humans burn bright, but for a very brief time. And eventually they’re gone, even the very best ones, and we have to carry on.” – Castiel, 14×14, Ouroboros
There were clips of Rob Benedict as Chuck, singing that soulful version of “Fare The Well” that now takes on new meaning.
There were gifs and screencaps of that pivotal scene where Sam finds out that Dean made a deal to save his life, and that he’ll go to hell for it – that scene that made so many of us realize just how different and special this show was. The first time I saw it posted on Friday, it hit me like a gut punch.
Fans reached out to other fans, offering a safe place to talk, a shoulder to cry on, whatever support might help. Within the fan community, there was instant understanding that this was an important loss that people were facing, and that it wasn’t something to be dismissed or ridiculed.
Then, as fans began the inevitable process of grief adaptation, they began to look back with gratitude on what Supernatural has given each of us and to celebrate the remarkable accomplishment that this little show has been. The hashtag #SPNGaveMe immediately sprang up on Twitter, and fans started sharing all those life-changing things that Supernatural brought to their lives. Some fans said that they had pulled out their copy of Family Don’t End With Blood to re-read the words of the actors and the fans that memorialize for all time just how special this show and its fandom have been. All over social media, fans reached out to other fans with support and comfort and empathy. I saw many posts from fans of other shows who had never even seen an episode of Supernatural, but as fellow fans, they understood the depth of this loss and reached out with sympathy. As always, fandom took care of each other.
I did my own looking back, my own assessment of what #SPNGaveMe and why this Show is so special to me. I’ve written six books about the show that trace my own journey with Supernatural and how the show and the characters have inspired me and changed me, but I don’t think I’ll ever have enough words to truly describe how profoundly this little television show has changed my life. I found my voice – and myself – through this Show and this fandom. I found courage I’d never had – to speak up, to be real, to change jobs, to call myself a writer and get published. I found friends who have challenged me and supported me, and who I’ve traveled the world with and had the most amazing, life-changing adventures. I’ve had to open my eyes to my own blindnesses and biases and start to make progress in putting them aside. I’ve learned that I can be criticized and not fall apart, and sometimes even learn from that criticism! I’ve gone from being the painfully shy girl who once failed geography class because I literally never spoke the entire time to giving panels at San Diego Comic Con and all over the country – and actually enjoying it! I’ve gone from someone who was too anxious to travel on my own to someone who has navigated airports and train stations and bus stations all over the world – because seeing my fellow Supernatural fans and this cast was just that worth it. The mantra of the Winchester brothers and the Show to “always keep fighting” has been my mantra too, and it has made all the difference.
I am, quite literally, a different person than I was in 2005 when this little Show began.
And that makes the announcement of its ending very important indeed.
So where was I when this flashbulb moment happened?
I was sitting at the Project Fancare table at Lexington Comic Con, surrounded by copies of Family Don’t End With Blood and fellow fans. Project Fancare is a nonprofit which gives fans a forum to talk openly about how television and film and books and all sorts of fandoms have helped them get through tough times, and why that’s a good thing. I had just finished talking to a woman who stopped to tell me what the book and the show had meant to her, which I will never get tired of hearing.
As the woman walked away, my friend Kim leaned over and said softly in my ear, “You need to take a break. Take your phone and go to the bathroom and watch the video that Jensen just posted.” That’s all she said, but instantly I knew. I knew from the genuine emotion in her voice, and the concern for me that I could hear there. I knew because there’s a part of me that has been waiting for this and anticipating it and knew it was coming sooner rather than later. I knew because my stomach instantly fell and my brain kicked into survival mode, blocking all my emotions and making me feel oddly calm even though intellectually I knew I wasn’t. I can vividly see the table in front of me, the books spread out there, and the woman walking away. She was wearing one of the first Represent ‘Always Keep Fighting’ tee shirts and she had red red hair and a bag with the protection symbol on it. I can see it like it’s a photo frozen in time like a flashbulb, and I can hear Kim’s voice and her words like she just finished talking, even though it’s four days later.
I stood in the alcove by the bathroom in the giant convention center and pulled out my phone and found the video – and as soon as I saw their faces, there was no doubt in my mind. Jared, Jensen and Misha are extraordinary in how open they have been with their fans, that’s why they wrote FDEWB after all. I could see all the emotion they were struggling to contain in their faces before I ever hit play to listen to the message. And I am forever grateful that I got to hear it from them.
Within minutes, my phone blew up with people wanting to know if I was okay or wanting to express their own shock and sadness. My fandom friends texted and tweeted and posted and called. My family members, who do understand now that this is important to me, reached out too, checking on how I was doing even if they don’t truly understand why the loss is so deep. I reached out to some of the cast too, who were as emotional as I was feeling. I did a panel with Ruth Connell the next day, so I was able to share with her in person, for which I felt lucky. Even in the midst of grief, there was a sense of “we’re all in this together” that was comforting, even if we might have wished we weren’t in this particular something right now.
It’s four days later as I write this. We are all trying to find the coping strategies that work for us now. Make sure you do so without shame – not everyone will understand how people can grieve for a television show or for fictional characters who don’t exist or for friends you’ve never met in person, but that grief is real because the loss is real. There’s research in one of my books about how we get the same emotional satisfaction from spending an evening with our favorite fictional characters as we do having dinner with family or close friends. Fictional characters play a role in inspiring us and fictional stories are a way of making sense of (and possibly rewriting) our own life stories. Friendship can transcend the physical and online communities can be amazing sources of support. All of that is real, and all of that is healthy. If you’re struggling with a way to cope with fear of losing those things, do what every single person who wrote a chapter in Family Don’t End With Blood advises – tell someone, talk about it, and get some help. There are resources at the end of this article, and don’t be afraid to use them.
It’s also helpful to remind ourselves of the important thing that Supernatural’s very own “dad” posted after the news broke. Eric Kripke, who created this show and these characters, was the empathic father figure on Friday who reached out to tell us all that what he’s most proud of is the family created by his show – and that family is not going anywhere.
#SPNFamily please remember: shows end. But family is forever. That never changes & that’s what you’ve created here. All my love & thanks to the cast & crew & most of all you, the family. #spn @cw_spn@jarpad @JensenAckles @mishacollins @andrewdabb @serathegamble @ben_edlund
Things will change, but not everything. We may not gather together to dissect the latest episode or argue amongst ourselves about which way canon “should” go, but we will have fifteen seasons of rich and nuanced and fascinating adventures to keep watching and keep talking about. As with all fandoms, a lot of what my SPNFamily friends and I talk about on a daily basis doesn’t even have anything to do with Supernatural – we talk family stresses, job challenges, kid questions, politics, that awesome thing we found at Target – whatever! They are the people I can reach out to for support, no matter what the problem.
Fandom friends become forever friends, and the friendship is all the richer for that amazing show that brought us together. Ten years from now a bunch of us will say hey, let’s all watch the Pilot, or The French Mistake, or All Hell Breaks Loose, or the Finale. And no matter where we are in life and who we’ve gone on to become, we’ll all pause and be reminded of all the ways that Supernatural changed our lives. Maybe we’ll get a little teary and reach for the tissues, and maybe we’ll share some hugs as we dab at our eyes, either virtual or in person. Because we’ll always have this in common, and we’ll always “get it”. Nobody can ever take that away.
For now, I’m gonna cherish every single moment I get to spend with the Winchesters and Cas and company for the next year, stock up on tissues, and remember to be very very grateful for this Show and all it’s brought me.
To Write Love On Her Arms: twloha.com
Random Acts Crisis Network: randomacts.org/crisis-support-network/
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Attitudes in Reverse: AttitudesInReverse.org
And remember, Family don’t end with blood.