Stranger Things: Working with the Bones of Horror

Note: for anyone reading this from Tumblr, some of this is possibly going to be familiar – I’m more or less compiling previous commentary on Stranger Things over here and applying to the new season. And will split into probably three parts for my own sanity as much as yours.

So one of the things I’m interested in are the recipes that make a story work. Why do some fairytale adaptations feel more “real” than others? What makes an ending satisfying, and when is a seemingly-unsatisfying ending right for your story? Why do we enjoy scary stories so much, and what makes a good one?

Stranger Things, of course, draws on a wealth of pop culture and horror tropes (sometimes seeming more of a mashup than an original), which makes it really easy to take apart and explore through different lenses. Here I want to look at how the show follows the “rules” of horror to build cohesiveness and depth. A good horror story is more than a string of scary images, after all; it, like any other good story, begins a conversation about ourselves.

So. My three “rules” of horror (that are entirely up for debate, but we have to start somewhere:

1. Horror sanctions behavior
2. Horror reflects and distorts the anxieties of the real
3. Horror breaks and reforms the status quo

1. Horror Sanctions Behavior

To have a plot, you generally must have also have a problem. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Unrest in distant lands, creatures lurking in the night, a fight with friends. A bad decision is made, someone or something behaves in a way that challenges normal conduct. Something happens that should not happen, breaking the rules of that particular context.

In horror, which often builds into a theme of self-growth (seriously, have you noticed that if you’re not dead by the end, you’re often a Better Person?), it’s often the people who go through the horrifying events that transgress, but other times the error that ignites the story occurred in the past and created a threat that other people must address. In either case, the plot precipitates from this broken rule, allowing more and more frightening and inexplicable things to intrude into normal life, making visible the consequences of the perpetrators’ actions. My favorite example is the haunted house trope where a fighting couple finds their home becoming strange in response to their estrangement. Scary stories reinforce the norms that are already ingrained in the audience by conjuring up grotesquely exaggerated consequences – they remind us to be afraid of the dark. 

Which brings us to Stranger Things. In the first and second seasons (which are much more tightly thematically linked than the third season), we see both past and present bad behavior driving the plot. Sometimes there are simple causes-and-effects: when Nancy sneaks out to a party with Barb, despite this being the exact sort of thing their parents would disapprove of, Barb ends up disappearing. Dustin lies to his friends about his “discovery,” unintentionally helping another little monster to grow up (though admittedly this does pay off when said monster’s sweet tooth-derived loyalty saves the day later on). In other cases, characters must work to correct larger world problems that appeared long before the story began: the experiments that led to the opening of a gate to another world and release of the monsters happened in the past, but the fallout must still be addressed.

The third season is a little different thematically than the first two, but still puts heavy consequences on bad behavior. Billy exhibits a never-ending string of bad behavior, but it’s not until he’s out at night to meet Mrs. Wheeler, who he’s almost charmed into an affair that he is sidetracked and taken in by the Mind Flayer, becoming a literal monster in reflection of his usual predatory behavior. And it’s not usually the case that corrupt mayors allow Russian scientists to construct gates to alternate dimensions beneath your small town, but you have to admit the exaggerated consequences prove a point about authority figures that don’t look after the people they are supposed to protect.

Over all we see again and again that actions have consequences, and horror thrives where rules break down, allowing the genre to explore what scares us because…

2. Horror Reflects and Distorts the Anxieties of the Real

Everybody makes mistakes, so why do these transgressions scare us so much in horror? I believe it’s because horror amplifies each situation so that a small event becomes representative of a much larger societal concern. Horror latches onto the unspoken and unacknowledged anxieties about ourselves, our families, the world at large, etc, and asks what might happen if those concerns were made real. The best horror, I think, works like a mirror, where the anxiety and boundary-crossing is reflected in a monstrous consequence that matches what we most fear.

There are so, so many examples to point out in Stranger Things, but a common thread through all three seasons is uncertainty about science and scientific authority. In stark contrast to the close-knit small town, the laboratory is isolated behind gates and guards. Nobody knows exactly what they’re doing in there, but it can’t be good if they’re not part of the community. And the science itself is extremely boundary-crossing – literally in the creation of the gate to the Upside-Down, and figuratively in the experiments on people and apparent disregard for the lives of their subjects. Ties to the government only reinforce the untrustworthiness, especially as throughout the series we see the authorities fail again and again to reassure and protect the citizens of Hawkins. It would have been realistic to tell a story about a government agency failing to protect people from pollution (I mean, look at the story Nancy and Jonathan end up using to unveil the “truth” about the lab – toxic chemical spills are frightening enough and far more believable), but having actual inter-dimensional monsters rampaging around the town blows these quite reasonable anxieties out of proportion to asks what might happen if our most unimaginable fears became reality. As the world expands in the third season, this same thread extends to Cold War anxieties and fear not only of what our own scientists are doing, but what others, out there, who might have even less of our interest in mind, might be doing.

On a smaller scale, the characters of Stranger Things are constantly wrestling with the constraints of a fairly conservative small town where gender and societal roles are clearly demarcated and deviance not without consequence. Many of the terrible events end up feeding off of the background fear of change and breakdown of the expected codes of conduct. When Nancy tries harder than she probably should to become one of the cool kids (and physically loses a friend in a bit of horrific symmetry), she becomes more archetypal – the Rebellious Teenager, the Girl Who Just Wants to Fit In. We’ve all seen/experienced stories like this, so here individual actions become shorthand for more common experiences and concerns. Again we see social concerns – the fear of change again, intergenerational disagreements, and tension over the replacement of small local life with the flashy-but-unfamiliar generic commercialization by the new mall – in season three, where the mall that is the site of so much contention is where enemies both human and superhuman intrude, and new fads and fashions sweep the town with the same force as the Mind Flayer’s spread.

Perhaps characters and situations become more two-dimensional as a result of this extension of individual situations to broader impact, but that’s the cost of storytelling. Ultimately whatever story is being told, once the fear has been confronted…

3. Horror Breaks and Reforms the Status Quo

All together, horror stories effect catharsis. The horrific appears in the cracks of everyday life and the seams must be closed before the story can end. Anxieties must be dealt with and put back to sleep. 

No matter what Will goes through, he always ends up back at home with his family. Eleven always confronts her monster and closes the gate (more on this next time). There’s still school and work to do and family obligations to meet. Hawkins is still a (mostly) quiet little town.

All stories need a resolution, but getting to this point in horror requires confrontation of the monstrous. After all the monstrous always targets our weak spots. Only by directly facing fears can the world be rebuilt. Again, will write more about this next time when exploring how trauma is addressed in the story, but Eleven must again and again face the creatures that she released as a consequence of what has been done to her, and only can succeed by learning to use her anger and fear. Joyce in particular is a force of nature, turning her terror over losing her youngest child into the energy and creativity needed to solve any problem in her path.

But despite the sameness at the end, there is always change. Eleven becomes increasingly powerful through the series as she grows older and more aware of what has been done to her. Nancy and Steve show quite a bit of character development – as Nancy grows into herself, she becomes a truth-teller for the world at large (going so far as unveiling government conspiracy to get some kind of resolution after her friend’s death and pursuing a story she knows to be significant despite her boss’s disapproval), and Steve becomes the considerate and brave friend that everyone needs when fighting supernatural monsters and accidentally spying on a secret laboratory hidden beneath the local mall.

Horror destroys the ability to hide our fears and failures. It forces us to confront these interior darknesses, made physical, until wrong is made right and our worlds are transformed.*

*but not forever. remember, the monster always returns

Names, True and Otherwise

I’ve been thinking a lot about names. Which shouldn’t be too surprising given that I’m either doing science, which is rife with complicated names and nomenclature, or writing stories where names are just part of the process of building a world.

I think the thing that got me started on this tangent was discovering this app, Seek, that tries to identify plants and animals from your pictures. It’s something I’ve kind of wanted to exist for years, and while it’s not perfect, it does a pretty good job, especially with plants with flowers and things that hold still long enough to get a good picture. As a person who mostly knows a molecular world, it’s been fun to learn the names of things around me I didn’t know about – names like Farewell-to-Spring, Love-in-a-mist, Redclaws, and Heart’s Ease. Red Hot Poker and Pride of Madeira and Hound’s Tongue. Brass Buttons and Blue-eyed Grass.

The names are wonderful. They provide insight into the nature of a thing, what it looks like, what it’s good for, where it came from. But beyond the fanciful descriptions and hints at stories behind the names lies more than simply strings of words. I’m now hooked on identifying random plants in my neighborhood because they make me stop and make sense of seemingly small things around me. They ground me in place. A name suggests a thing’s significance and thus knowing a name gives access into an overlooked world full of importance outside of one’s self and species. A good name is like a signpost in the mental map of the world, saying here is a thing that matters, here is thing to remember.

And you know, everything really matters, and humans name absolutely everything, given the chance.

It really all reminds me, while scrolling through the list of flowers, algae, fish, and fungi I have observed through this app, of how prevalent the idea of true names is in fantasy. The idea generally shows up in the magic system of a story world, where a character must know the true name of a thing in order to have power over it. I can think of half a dozen examples of this trope without working at it, but my favorite is of course in the Earthsea series by Ursula K Le Guin (favorite series by favorite author), where there is great emphasis on restraint and balance in how you use the knowledge and power you gain.

What interests me then, is that there’s this whole understanding of the power of names and yet, despite this, we have serious societal amnesia when it comes to knowing something about the world around us, especially the natural world. Plant blindness. We don’t know the names of the organisms that co-inhabit our cities let alone those that live wild and unseen. I don’t mean to say this in a kids-these-days kind of way, or imply that it’s a failing of individuals exactly. The world is changing, and fast-paced life with high demands on time and limited opportunity to interact with nature doesn’t exactly facilitate environmental education. And there’s so much information to process, that of course we get overloaded and processing plants of all things on top of it all is a bit too much. Add into this an unequal access to green spaces, and it feels like something vital is cut off from a wide swath of the population.

I want to say there’s something about nature and imagination and having variety and other living things that is good for a person, and it’s not that one can’t be imaginative and healthy and full of a sense of place where nature as generally understood is not, but it feels like there is something inherently displacing about urban spaces when they lack space for life, green or otherwise. I love my biology/geology education for giving me a sense of place – it’s difficult to feel lost or ungrounded or adrift when you can look around and see the long geologic history of the earth beneath your feet and identify the organisms that are living their lives around you. But this tapestry of interaction is only appreciable when you can see it – I may be enjoy a coastal meadow, a tidepool, a deep forest, but what does this knowledge mean to somebody who lacks access to even manicured and fairly sterile city park? What good is an app to identify wildlife if the only habitat available to them in your neighborhood is one of concrete and glass?

A name can reveal a history of injustices and misunderstandings. In that way the real world will never work out as neatly as it does in stories (there are no True Names), but it does reveal hidden narratives that can be brought to light and reexamined. There’s that difference between the scientific name and the common name – the scientific name has purpose in the cataloguing of things, but it doesn’t capture everything, and doesn’t always pay homage to the names that came before. Neither do common names. What we see is, like much of history, a story written by those in power, with all too often the names given to plants and animals by the people native to a land overwritten by those of the people who drove them out. I think of endangered languages, so many names and so many stories lost, so much of humanity.

It’s all thorny territory. I look again through my list of plants, and see so many that are invasive. What does it mean that my vegetal landmarks, contributors to landscapes I love to live in and admire, have strangled a landscape I never had the chance to see? My baseline for this place is already one of destruction. How can we rebuild an environment when we don’t really understand it’s history? When the names and the knowledge has been lost?

I don’t know how to fix things, but I do believe that it’s here, in the names and narratives, in the language we use, that the roots lie. Understanding the stories we tell about places, why a thing is called by X name instead of Y, who came before us and how they spoke of the place, is a powerful thing.