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

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