Now in its 14th season, Supernatural is certainly no stranger to horror. The long-running CW series has done everything from Bloody Mary and changelings to vampires and creepy clowns who befriend children in order to skin and eat their parents alive. There's probably not a monster you could think of that the show hasn't tackled over the course of its run. And yet, the show's most chilling and unsettling episode actually features not a single supernatural baddie.
In the fan-favorite Season 1 episode "The Benders," Sam (Jared Padalecki) is kidnapped and held captive by a hillbilly family living in a remote woodland area in Minnesota. The Benders are stereotypical hick cliches and the episode requires Dean (Jensen Ackles) and the deputy (Jessica Steen) he's working with to do dumb things in order to make the plot work, but none of that ultimately takes away from the horror themes of the episode.
Over the course of the hour, we discover that the time-honored tradition of the (potentially inbred) family, which includes a father, two sons and a young daughter, is abducting innocent men and women from the nearby town, feeding them so they keep up their energy, and then hunting them for sport. The family decorates their home with the bones of their victims and takes photos with their corpses in much the same way hunters pose with the deer they've killed, as if they're trophies to be celebrated. There's also a lengthy scene in which its implied the family patriarch is carving up the body of a recent kill with a saw, while a jar full of human teeth is featured in yet another scene, in case you weren't already creeped out by the human vs. human of it all.
When it comes to Supernatural and many other supernatural-based shows like it, we expect monsters and demons to be the culprit committing heinous acts of violence and murder. It's easy to accept and understand that these creatures are born from darkness, that they're evil beings driven by a thirst for carnage and without a conscience, but when faced with the harsh reality that our fellow humans are equally capable of terrible, morally reprehensible acts, it's much more difficult to process. And it's therefore difficult for the Winchesters, who've spent their lives in the family business, hunting whatever creatures go bump in the night, to understand too. As Dean says while searching the dilapidated house for keys to rescue Sam, "Demons I get, people are crazy."
Confronting the idea that humans are capable of evil and that our world is scary enough on its own without the added threat of the supernatural is what makes "The Benders" a memorable episode that is also hard to rewatch. As long as the antagonists of any given episode are of the supernatural variety, we're able to disconnect and suspend reality for a bit. We can watch Sam and Dean from a distance without ever worrying about whether or not what they're facing could actually happen to us. That distance is not possible in "The Benders," and knowing that the family at the center of the story is also based on the Bloody Benders, a real group of people (it's unclear if they were actually related or not) of serial killers suspected of murdering more than a dozen travelers in the late 1800s in Kansas, makes it that much worse.
The most horrifying moments of the episode are at the hands of the young daughter featured in the episode. Missy is a willing, sadistic accomplice to her family's sport, which goes against everything we expect in horror. Most of the time, young women are portrayed as victims, not the assailants. They're painted as innocent and sweet, and every time a character in the episode is approached by Missy, they mistakenly believe she either won't hurt them or that she's been kidnapped by the Bender family too. The reveal that she's actively participating in her families bloodlust — she attacks Dean and grins sadistically when the deputy investigating Sam's disappearance is attacked from behind — flips our preconceived notions about the place of young women within horror stories.
So no, the villains at the heart of "The Benders" aren't supernatural monsters. They don't have fangs. They're not ghosts or shapeshifters or pagan gods completing ritual sacrifices. They're not even demons trying to bring about the Apocalypse. They're just bloodthirsty people who take pleasure in hunting and murdering other humans for sport. And the enduring legacy of the episode — Ackles counts it as the episode that still creeps him out after all this time — makes it impossible to forget that Supernatural sometimes crosses over with our own world, and that might be the scariest thing about the show after all this time.
Supernatural airs Thursdays at 8/7c on The CW.
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