Supernatural, despite its horror roots, isn't a show considered to be scary. Especially in the context of television's current love affair with the genre: The CW series just can't measure up to the leering creepiness of The Haunting of Hill House or the tightly coiled suspense of The Walking Dead. But, in its earlier days, Supernatural did turn out some suitably chilling tales. Season 1's "Bloody Mary," the series' grimmest ghost story, is usually the first episode that comes to mind in such discussions, but in terms of pure ghoulish, nastiness, "The Benders," also from Season 1, has yet to be topped. (And probably never will considering the show has long since veered into general fantasy/sci-fi territory.)
The episode begins with a young boy hearing a strange noise from outside his bedroom window that he later describes to Sam and Dean -- posing as state police -- as an animalistic growl. He claims he saw a man disappear, satisfying the brothers' suspicion that something abnormal is to blame. Then, outside of a local bar, the unthinkable happens for Dean: Sam goes missing, snatched from the parking lot without a trace.
Panicked about the fate of his baby brother who their father entrusted his safety to, Dean enlists the help of Deputy Kathleen Hudak, who soon susses out that his state police credentials belong to someone else but agrees to keep helping him on the strength of Dean's sincere desperation.
Meanwhile, Sam comes to in a cell that looks like something out of a Hostel film: all blood-smeared metal and dirt-caked stone. He discovers the missing man in the cell next to him, meaning that with half the case solved, the only thing left do is figure out what kind of creature is behind all of this. This is when the episode's big twist walks in -- two hooded figures bringing food for their prisoners. Two strangely human figures.
They are human, Sam realizes, a realization that brings him little relief, bcause, as Dean points out when he busts in on his rescue mission: "Demons I get. People are just crazy." Monsters have patterns and rules, humans are unpredictable -- unpredictable enough to get bored of hunting wild animals and move on to a more challenging prey: other humans, which is what the Bender family that capture Sam and, later, both Deputy Hudak and Dean, plan on using them for.
The episode, as is Supernatural tradition, draws on both classic horror tropes and urban legends. The trope here is the "psycho redneck" one popularized by films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance, while the Benders take their name from an actual family who murdered and robbed guests to their hotel in the 1870s.
As for the hunting part, that comes from Richard Connell's classic 1924 short story, The Most Dangerous Game, in which a man finds himself on a mysterious island where he becomes the unwitting prey of its wealthy owner. Structurally and thematically, Connell's influence is what makes "The Benders" one of Superntural's most disturbing episodes.
Tip-toeing around the Benders' home, Dean comes across Pa Bender sawing up a carcass in the kitchen sink. Human jaws dangle from the ceiling like wind chimes. Teeth and other smaller body parts fill jars on the table. Photos on the walls show the brothers posing triumphantly with their slain trophies. A gramophone plays a jaunty piano number, as if trying to score the unsettling scene with an undertone of normalcy.
Dean's exploration comes to an end when he's confronted by 13-year old Missy Bender and assumes, given her age, that she too is a victim. He tells her to keep quiet. She stabs him in the leg instead. It's blissful domesticity turned into a nightmare.
Bound and beaten, Pa Bender, Missy and her two older brothers set about interrogating Dean to make sure no other intruders are headed their way, and this is when we're able to understand what the show wants the Benders to represent beyond humankind's inability to ignore its basic, primal urges. The Benders are a twisted reflection of the Winchesters, from the absent mother, to the dictatorial patriarch whose duty it is to ensure the family's hunting "tradition" carries on, to his two loyal, plaid-wearing sons.
Since the death of Mary Winchester, John, Sam and Dean haven't a lived a life too dissimilar -- hunting dangerous creatures; existing on the fringes of society and maintaining an intense co-dependency. And, as Dean all-too readily demonstrates when Pa Bender tells his sons to shoot Sam in his cage, it wouldn't take much to push the parallel further: "You hurt my brother and I'll kill you all!"
This observation is probably lost on the brothers, though, as most of the lasting psychological damage is redirected, tragically, onto Kathleen, the sympathetic Sheriff's Deputy who Dean emotionally blackmailed into helping him. As the tables inevitably turn on the Benders, they get the challenge they wanted out of their prisoners, and with a gun pointed at Pa Bender, Kathleen demands to know why he does what he does. The old man simply laughs toothlessly up at her from the floor: "Because it's fun!"
She later, unconvincingly, tells Sam and Dean that she shot the man for trying to escape, knowing that the lie is much easier to tell herself than the awful truth -- that, like the hunted-turned-hunter character in Connell's story, her actions were fuelled by savagery rather than necessity.