Lynn Zubernis earned a Ph.D. from Bryn Mawr College and is currently a clinical psychologist and professor at West Chester University. In addition to publishing traditional academic research, Dr. Zubernis is also a life-long fangirl and has published books examining popular culture. Her latest book is based on her love for the television show Supernatural and is titled Family Don’t End with Blood: Cast and Fans on How Supernatural Has Changed Lives. Wanting to learn more about her career and her recent book, I was able to interview Dr. Zubernis for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: You have made a significant part of your career examining popular culture. When you were growing up, who were some pop culture figures you felt inspired by?
Dr. Lynn Zubernis: I’ve always been fannish, so characters in popular media have always been an inspiration. The first show that really inspired me was Star Trek: TNG with its talent-crackling-off-the-screen actors and provocative themes of social change. Who knows, maybe Deanna Troi was an unconscious inspiration for my eventual choice of profession as a psychologist. The X-Files was a big influence during grad school – we all used to gather on Friday nights and watch it together and then debate conspiracy theories until far too late, but I think it was actually helpful in teaching us all how to stand up for ourselves and our ideas while remaining collegial.
Yanes: As a fellow academic, I am aware that many scholars are researching popular culture. Why do you think this field has grown so quickly?
Dr. Zubernis: The growth has actually been amazing – when I stumbled upon fan studies as a field, it was in its infancy. You could immerse yourself in the field and “catch up” with all the major writing in one wild and crazy summer and then go from there, which isn’t even close to possible anymore even with much more time. I think everyone has realized that popular culture and fandom are influential, which means they have become a lot more visible. Once “The Powers That Be” discovered that there was money to be made from understanding the things people were passionate about, fandom was no longer hidden and “pop culture” was no longer such a pejorative word. However, there was a gap in understanding it (and how to monetize and take advantage of it) and that spurred research.
I also think that researching the thing you’re passionate about is a lot more fun than researching something your university or your field tells you that you should be passionate about. I love psychology and have enjoyed that line of my research, but I have to admit I love Supernatural and fandom… differently? Combining vocation and avocation, in a sense, is attractive to many people.
Yanes: From a professional stand point, do you worry that this field is becoming too saturated with scholars? For instance, if a student said they wanted to pursue a career in academia studying popular culture, would you think that is a good idea?
Dr. Zubernis: I’d think they should be sure they have a solid idea of what the options are for making a living from studying popular culture. The traditional academic route is restricted because of the small number of programs. There are certainly alternatives to that traditional career path, but some of those might be financially challenging. I’ve been lucky, and I realize this, to be able to conduct research in fan studies while also holding a position as a psychologist and professor outside the field (though it’s certainly related).
Yanes: You recently published Family Don’t End with Blood: Cast and Fans on How Supernatural Has Changed Lives. What was the inspiration behind crafting a book about Supernatural?
Dr. Zubernis: Supernatural is inspiration enough! I’m joking but only partially. I’ve written five books on Supernatural, but Family Don’t End With Blood is special. After being in the fandom and researching Supernatural for over a decade, I had witnessed firsthand how many fans had their lives changed – or even saved – by the show and the fandom. I at first wanted to write a book to capture and share those stories, in the hope of inspiring other fans and also of putting it out there that popular culture does make a difference and is important.
I had gotten to know the Supernatural actors over the ten plus years I’d been writing about the show, and when I mentioned what I was writing, Jared Padalecki commented that he too had been changed by the show, and maybe even saved. I asked if he’d like to write a chapter and he said yes, and then I asked all the other actors – who also said yes, to my surprise! At that point, it became a different book, and one that was ultimately much more powerful. We all, actors and fans, wanted to get the message across that all of us have struggled with mental health challenges and figuring out who the hell we are as individuals, and we wanted to share our stories so that others would be validated in their own. Jared’s courageously written story of his bout with suicidal thoughts and moment-by-moment account of how he lived to “always keep fighting” has in turn saved the lives of countless readers. There are other chapters in the book that have been similarly impactful. I have another book in the works right now that picks up where that book lets off, focusing on Supernatural’s evolution and impact, and what its legacy will be when it ends next year.
Yanes: On this note, why do you think Supernatural has resonated so strongly with its fanbase?
Dr. Zubernis: There are multiple reasons. First, the story itself and the characters resonated with fans. Sam and Dean Winchester were outsiders, outcasts, survivors of unimaginable trauma and violence – and yet, no matter what, they always keep fighting. That was an inspiring message, the impetus for the SPNFamily’s mantra of “always keep fighting” that plays out in real life. Second, Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles. They weren’t afraid to be vulnerable, or to let their characters be vulnerable, and that meant that Sam and Dean’s relationship was compelling to watch (and made it very hard to look away). The addition of Misha Collins as Castiel in Season 4 brought a whole new influx of fans who related to Cas, who was quirky and odd and never seemed to fit in – but became a hero nevertheless.
Third, the show began at a time of critical change in how media was consumed and how fandom worked. In 2005, fandom was just taking to the internet, so Supernatural fandom formed communities online just as online communities themselves were becoming a way of belonging for many. The discovery of online communities was life changing for the mostly female fanbase – a “safe space” for being real in a world that discouraged that. And fourth, the company that puts on single show conventions here in the US (Creation Entertainment) took a chance on Supernatural very early on and realized the fandom had a passion that burned a lot brighter than most others. They brought the fans and the actors together for conventions which eventually were happening every other weekend, and that broke down the barriers and stereotypes between stars and fans. You can’t sustain stereotypes when you’re having face to face interactions with a group of people, so the reciprocity and the mutual respect between the two groups became a little greater than that stereotypical “parasocial relationship.” That helped fan the passion on the fan side and contributed to keeping the show on the air, which in turn contributed to more cons and a closer relationship.
Yanes: Additionally, do you remember the moment in which you knew you’d become a superfan of Supernatural?
Dr. Zubernis: I still cringe a bit at the word “superfan” because I think it still has negative connotations. I remember clearly the moment I realized I’d fallen head over heels for the show, because I was sitting in the living room watching it ostensibly in the background while I did some grading. I suddenly realized I’d become so engrossed in the show, I’d let the papers I was grading literally slide off my lap and onto the floor, and I suddenly announced “This is the best show in the history of ever!” My daughter looked at me with alarm – because I’d been “casually” watching it for over a year. But that moment, early in Season 2, when Dean Winchester broke down and tearfully opened up to his brother about how guilty he felt, made me see Supernatural as an entirely different show. One I wanted to watch over and over again.
Yanes: Touching upon your work teaching about psychology, what are some elements from Supernatural you think are perfect examples of psychological terms or concepts?
Dr. Zubernis: I think the most important elements that the show has dealt with well are its examination of both PTSD and post traumatic growth. Dean and Sam have different temperaments and different histories (thanks to Dean’s parenting of Sam after their mother died and their father disappeared into hunting) so they’ve responded differently to the various traumas they’ve endured. We’ve seen Dean attempt denial and repression post-hell with associated rage and alcohol use, and then eventually have it catch up to him, and the tearful heartbreaking confessions of guilt that brought before he came to terms with it. More recently, Jared Padalecki has done an incredible job of showing us Sam’s PTSD from his time in the cage tortured by Lucifer when Mark Pellegrino returned to play him. Jared didn’t always have a lot of dialogue to work with, but showed us in a thousand ways the residue of Sam’s trauma with hypervigilance, subtle flinches, struggling with eye contact, and much more. His performance rang so true that it hurt to watch, to be honest.
I’ve also used the show to teach graduate courses in grief and loss, because Chuck knows, the Winchesters have had more than their share. Once again, Sam and Dean deal with loss differently because of their different temperaments and life history, so it’s a great teaching tool to show the diversity of “normal” reactions and ways of grieving, and also how some of those can kick you in the butt.
Yanes: In the process of developing Family Don’t End with Blood were there any new facts or insights you came across that took you by surprise?
Dr. Zubernis: This may sound naïve, but I actually had no idea that the cast has been just as impacted by the show and the fandom as the fans have. I knew it had changed our lives, but I honestly didn’t realize how much it had changed theirs. The cast wrote in their chapters about the impact on their identity, how the fandom’s support helped them find themselves and be themselves and dare to do things they’d always been terrified to do. Rob Benedict took us moment by moment through the time he suffered a stroke at a convention and almost died, and through his painful recovery. I hadn’t known that Jared Padalecki came close to not being able to keep going during a European trip; his chapter is 32 pages of heartbreak and ultimately of hope. I cried when he sent me the first draft, and I don’t know anyone who’s read it who hasn’t done the same.
Yanes: When people finish reading Family Don’t End with Blood, what do you hope they take away from it?
Dr. Zubernis: What we all hope that people take away from reading FDEWB is that all of us – “famous” actors and fans and everyone – have challenges to get past. Anxiety, depression, self-doubt, addiction, suicidality. By not speaking about these, we let the stigma that surrounds them remain, and that prevents people from getting the help they need. Every single personal story shared in the book, my own included, is candid and genuine and was difficult to write. But every time someone tells me that the book kept them going during a very bad time, every single one of us knows that it was worth it. Every copy sold also benefits two charities, one of which is Attitudes in Reverse, an organization that also works to combat that stigma.
The other thing that has come from the book, which wasn’t as expected, is that it has helped parents and children and partners and colleagues and best friends to understand what being a fan is all about and to see it as something that can be healthy and positive and life-affirming. All of my books have had an element of shame-bashing when it comes to fandom and popular culture, and FDEWB continues that tradition.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to? Any other specific projects from Fangasm you are excited by?
Dr. Zubernis: Yes! I have a new book in development which started out as an exploration of the evolution of Supernatural, especially in terms of the diversity of its characters (to reflect more closely the diversity of its fandom). Like FDEWB, both actors and fans are writing chapters, often from a particular perspective of race, culture, gender, sexuality or ability. Now that Supernatural is going into its final season, the book has expanded to explore both the show’s evolution and its legacy. What it will leave behind is powerful and important, for the actors who have portrayed these characters and for the fans who have loved them.
Like Family Don’t End With Blood, the new book will be available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and is due to come out around the time the series ends next spring.