Season 1 of Supernatural set up the basic foundations for what the show is known for today: the chemistry between the Winchester brothers, as well as its scare factor. The earlier seasons of the long-running show focused more on monster-of-the-week plotlines rather than an arching storyline such as the brothers trying to close the Gates of Hell or fighting off Leviathans.
S1E15 “The Benders” introduced a very real form of monster: human. Considering this was early on in the show’s run, this was a risqué move. A show about monsters, adding humans to their cast of horrors? Upon first glance, it doesn’t seem fitting. The episode plays out in such a way that it makes sense, complementing the season and the show. Since then, there have been various other episodes in which humans are the villains. However, “The Benders” was the very first example of that, and it used various means to do so.
People are mysteriously disappearing in a small and rundown Minnesota town, and have been for quite some time. The cases leave no evidence, no leads and no traces. Naturally, Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) decide to check it out. Before they can dive too deeply into the case, Sam himself is taken. We are then given two different perspectives throughout most of the episode. From Dean partnering up with law enforcement to search for Sam (an unheard of move on his part, given Dean’s animosity and distrust towards them) to Sam attempting to figure out who his kidnappers are and trying to save the life of another prisoner, as well as his own.
Dean manages to track Sam down, but it’s not without a hefty fight from the severely messed-up family that considers hunting humans “fun.” Human nature is portrayed in its darkest hour as Dean races against time to save Sam, and in the process uncovers the reason why the county experiences so many missing persons cases: it’s because they’ve been hunted and subsequently murdered.
Sam and Dean have to make their way back to town on foot in the episode’s conclusion, but at least they’re relatively unscathed. Not to mention they gave the officer assisting Dean closure, as she lost her brother to the crazed family. At the end of the day, if nothing else, they are comforted with the knowledge that they have permanently ended any more disappearances because of said family’s ways.
“The Benders” took a special liberty by introducing the groundbreaking concept of humans being the monsters early on in the show’s run. The trailblazing shift presented a stark contrast to the Winchesters’ “usual playmates.” In a world plagued by the supernatural, the Winchesters least expect their enemies to be human.
In one of the opening scenes, a witness to the latest disappearance describes a sound they heard as a “whining growl.” This turns out to be recurring audio symbol. The Jaws theme lets you know when the monster is coming, just like the “whining growl” clues you in to the presence of these monsters that call themselves human. Later, Dean and the local Deputy, whilst conducting their search for Sam, listen to a van exhibiting that same noise as it is driven by a man looking like he came straight out of Duck Dynasty. That van is then what leads them to Sam.
The episode’s plotline lays down the harrowing groundwork for a realistic thriller, while the aesthetics serve to amplify it theatrically. Fans of the show notice the differences in the show’s “look” prior to Season 3. That’s because it was filmed with film rather than digitally. It was particularly suiting given the show’s content. Film made the show look raw and rougher cut. Additionally, the first two seasons are considerably darker, given the background, the clothes the actors wear, and even the vehicles driven. “The Benders” supports these observations.
The mise en scène supports the overall creep factor the episode has to offer. The dark and gloomy Minnesota setting, for instance. Between nighttime and the days of overcast clouds and rain, it leaves little room for any kind of light, natural or otherwise. The buildings all seem to blend together, dilapidated and unkempt. Much like the home in which “The Benders” reside, it is rundown and shady. Not to mention the isolation factor; it has no paved road or signs of civilization. It certainly echoes similarities to the isolation of Friday the 13th, and does nothing to make being out in nature look good, or safe.
The inside of the house doesn’t look much better, and it’s magnified by the terrifying aspect of the fact that this family keeps trophies of their kills in plain sight. A family of serial killers. It’s no wonder they never have any house guests—that is, unless they intend to make those guests their next meal. Cannibalism is never shown, but it’s clear this is the source of much of the family’s food.
It’s clear this kind of lifestyle hasn’t done the family any favors. The little girl makes the twins in The Shining look normal. She’s bedraggled, clearly needs a bath, and has an attitude that needs some serious adjustment. Her family have yellowed, cracked or missing teeth, and old, worn clothing. The house is eerily antiquated, as though lost in a space of time that it can never get out of. Like life just stopped, and death took over.
The kidnappings themselves are abnormal. They appear supernatural, for one. Victims are spontaneously pulled beneath cars, disappearing for good. It happens for the episode’s first victim, and it’s implied for Sam’s kidnapping. Since the killers are human, it shouldn’t be possible. Perhaps that’s the point. Though they’re human, they’re not supposed to seem that way. Hence, they’re more monster than human.
It also seems this family of killers have read The Most Dangerous Game far too many times. It’s how they make their kills: they kidnap and then eventually release their victim under the false pretense that they are free. The thing is, that supposed freedom ends in brutal murder.
Speaking of which, wilderness vs. civilization can be applied to this factor. Whereas the Winchesters and the Deputy are far more hygienic, the benders of humanity are a significant contrast as their appearances are definitely haggard. The Winchesters and the Deputy know the rules of civilization and abide by them (well, the Winchesters may go outside the lines but it’s usually for the right reasons), while the benders have no regards or morals. The wilderness is exemplified by the benders, but also by the actual wilderness in which civilization fights hard to survive in. Wilderness and civilization are two very different things—when faced with one or the other, it’s hard to be equipped when faced with the unknown.
Jensen Ackles cited “The Benders” as one of the scariest episodes of Supernatural because it could really happen. He has a good point; there are crazies out in the world that we don’t want to believe exist. Much like the family in the benders, however, they lurk in the darkness and eventually come out of the woodwork.
Dean comments in the episode, “Demons I get. People are crazy.” Demons have an agenda, and people are far more unpredictable, doing what they do for a multitude of reasons—or no reason at all. There isn’t much sense when it comes to humans. Still, if demons are so easy to understand, what does that mean for humanity?
On the sunnier side of things, this episode also deeply outlines how far Dean will go for Sam—one of many such examples. To partner with law enforcement to save Sam? Dean was terrified and desperate for answers. It just goes to show that he’ll push aside his own reservations for Sam’s sake in a split second, every time. Even if it places him in jeopardy when the Deputy catches him impersonating an officer.
All that said, “The Benders” is a standout episode because it shifts the villain from monster to human for the first time. From its looks to its storyline, it all comes together to create a spooky and horrifying episode that will keep you up at night.