“The show’s dexterous mixing of horror and heart is blissfully sincere.”
- Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
“...delivers a shot of nostalgia right to the viewer’s heart.”
- Lucy Mangan, The Guardian
“If you are... just looking for a good show to watch this is it!
- Jessica Feeney, Little Miss Horror Nerd’s Little Horror Blog
As you can see, despite being relatively new to the Netflix Originals family, Stranger Things is already getting green, goopy, glowing reviews from all corners of the web -- and everyone and their pet thessalhydra is clamouring for a second season to this 8-episode (or ‘chapter’) horror/mystery/sci-fi adventure. Me, you ask? I personally think this show may be the best thing to happen to horror television in a long while. If you’re a horror television screenwriter break out your Re-Animator jot pads now, because here’s why.
The first important and most easily-noted aspect to this show is the tone. While I feel some of today’s horror shows have style in spades but lack aim and substance (I’m looking at you, Hemlock Grove,) the Duffer Brothers - Stranger Things’ twin showrunners and creators Matt and Ross - have the ‘80s down so pat you’d never believe they were just learning to read when the 1990’s rolled around. This retro period-piece oozes nostalgic charm out of every crevice, from the neon ITC Benguiat title font ripped straight from a Choose Your Own Adventure cover to the Carpenter-esque soundtrack by eerie Texan synth band S U R V I V E. Hell, even Winona jumped back into a leading role for the first time in ages for this project. The point is: the 1980’s feel doesn’t just lend itself to this project -- it consumes every cranny of it, without ever feeling like it’s out of place or too much. How many horror shows can you think of that could take a page or two from the ‘Don’t Overdo It’ handbook? Nostalgia (or even a sort of manufactured faux-nostalgia, for the many viewers born post-Duran Duran era) is the most powerful weapon wielded here, and even the demogorgon is no match for its effective crit roll. Horror television today needs to find its strengths and lean into that curve.
Stranger Things Fan Art with GIF by Paul Tinker
Not only that -- this show is addictively engaging, perhaps solely due to the fact that it doesn’t pigeonhole itself as a horror. Think of the most successful spooky shows out there right now. Bates Motel would be nothing without its central fucked-up familial relationship, and American Horror Story without its anthological seasons would get real stale, real quick. If you’re working on eight-plus hours of new content, you need something other than cheap gross-out thrills to keep the audience coming back -- especially in Netflix content that can be consumed in a solitary Sunday afternoon with a bag of Cheetos and the ol’ chesterfield. With that in mind, Stranger Things shows the audience that the true key to making a horror show with a lasting impression may just be to not make a horror show at all. Instead, the Duffers set out to make a blended-and-pulsed show recipe of their own personal favourite sub-genres: two scoops of Stephen King’s coming-of-age boyhood stories combined with a half-cup of John Carpenter frights; a sprinkle of Spielberg and a dash of X-Files to taste. One has to wonder how the show would fare if the creative minds sat down and vetted ‘No, we’re delving too deep into feel-good territory in Scene 34. Toss in a dramatic orchestra hit!’ If every scene has to be scary or have an underlying feeling of dread, how do you dial it up to 011 when you hit the climax? This show succeeds (and hopefully proves to lesser shows that it is possible to succeed) by spreading their chips all across the table instead of trying to be the highest stack betting ‘scary.’
Thirdly -- and very crucially -- this show makes you care, a lesson every format of horror fiction should note the importance of. (Modern horror movies are particularly guilty of this, with only having ninety or so minutes to entertain.) Stephen King’s It wasn’t just a bestseller because shape-shifting demons are spooky -- that book flew off shelves because people wanted to read about their avatar getting cut by class bully Henry Bowers or beaned off in a rock fight. That’s right, folks -- you heard it here first: the secret weapon of horror should be your audience’s tears. If you can create a dramatic situation important enough to your viewer that they shed big crocodile salties out of worry or heartache, you’ve done your job right in any genre -- horror just tends to overlook this for quick ‘boo!’s. If someone hurts for a character that they relate with, you can make that same someone more effectively afraid that this character -- nay, their new friend -- that they’ve spend x hours with might be in trouble. No one wants to watch a friend die or get hurt, so making someone care about a character in the volatile genre of horror is the most deliciously cruel form of entertainment there is. Yes, I know not everyone wants a frosty cup of emotions with their media. Some aren’t even capable of drinking it and just want to see a couple of horny teens gets hacked to prosciutto in the woods, and that’s perfectly okay… but doesn’t it ever get old? I’m not saying that every work of horror needs to build itself toward a big tearjerker finale, but the more relatable and cared for a character is, the bigger the fear felt.
I truly and sincerely hope that this show becomes a model for struggling shows looking to get greenlit -- or if it’s not too late, existing horror shows stuck in a writer’s rut. Legend has it that the Duffers created this show as a big ol’ ‘fuck you’ to the It remake film producers who thought they were too green to do any justice to the material, and I think they met and far exceeded any and all expectations. Perhaps the biggest lesson we can all take away from this is this: instead of horror TV -- or any form of horror media, for that matter -- formulaically shooting straight for the jump-scare gut or the creep-out kneecaps, why not consider making things just a little bit Stranger?
Stranger Things by Arthur Franca
Eleven fan art by Vincent Illustrations
Stranger Things fan art by LaPendeja
Stranger Things by Daniel Nash