I’m not a horror fan.
That’s not to say that I think horror is bad, or that I’m a timid person. I just… don’t get excited by horror. On occasion, however, there are those few moments of terrifying suspense that give me the thrill that your average horror movie attempts to give.
And there are even a few horror stories I enjoy.
In this world, there are two basic types of horror stories. There is the kind that you see most often in theatres, nowadays: the kind that wants to scare you in the present. It’s the kind that uses the jumpscare, the soundtrack, the violence, whatever it takes. You need to be scared, and it’s the movie’s job to get it done in about one hundred minutes. The number one goal of this type of horror is to scare you long enough to get a bad dream out of you the next night, and a hurried dash to turn the light on in your room the next morning.
There’s little chance that you’ll see this movie more than twice. Why? Because after the second time, you know when all the jumpscares are coming. You know when this character’s about to get dragged offscreen, that weird CG monster is going to burst out of the closet, when that axe-murderer is going to throw an axe at the camera.
It’s not scary anymore, because the emotion was created by action; action you can know see coming way before it happens.
Then there is the kind of horror that wants to scare you for the future. There are few jumpscares (or at least… fewer, because film somehow manages to never quite escape them), and far more story. It’s the kind of horror that is less about the physical and more about the emotional. Some call it “psychological” horror”. It creates a deep connection between you and the characters through emotion, and then creates a situation where you’re scared. It creates fear without necessarily throwing monsters and rapists out of the closet. And when there are monsters, it’s the concept of them that settles a deep fear in your stomach, not their appearance. This is the kind of horror that never leaves you; the kind that you can watch again and again and still walk around the next day and the day after and the day after with an unsettled stomach and a twitchy gaze.
It’s hard to write that kind of horror. Especially when your story isn’t even a true horror, but instead a mash-up of several genres at once.
But when you can?
You’ve done something right.
So today, I’d like to look at three aspects of a “TV” series that’s done it right: I give you, Stranger Things.
A Quick Summary
Before I jump into the three things about this series that make it so great, I wanted to give you a copy/paste job of Wikipedia’s plot summary:
“On November 6, 1983 in the suburban town of Hawkins, Indiana, 12-year-old Will Byers vanishes mysteriously. Will's mother, Joyce, becomes frantic and tries to find Will while Police Chief Jim Hopper begins investigating, and so do Will's friends: Dustin, Mike, and Lucas. The very next day, a psychokinetic girl knowing Will's whereabouts is found by the boys. As they uncover the truth, a sinister government agency tries to cover it up, while a more insidious force lurks just below the surface.”
We good here? Good.
Good Thing #1: Emotion in Character
I tend to dislike child actors. Nothing against them, but a lot of child actors have trouble pulling off true emotion and portraying their role and executing their dialogue with true form and reality. I feel for them, in some ways, because my experience in theatre has taught me how hard that job is.
When I first heard about Stranger Things (which is a Netflix series, so you know where to find it), I was a little doubtful. I mean, five of the characters you’re introduced to as “main characters” in the first two episodes are children. Like… young children. And there’s a few teens scattered here and there, too.
Then I started watching and realized…. I was wrong. I’d judged to soon: scratch strike one. These kids knew how to act. In fact, by halfway through the first episode, I’d forgotten these kids were kids, that they were actors. They were real human beings in a real situation with real emotion and true motivation.
Goodness gracious I was sucked in.
This series creates the horror its aiming for through emotion. There are very, very few jumpscares in the whole eight-episode series. Instead, it connects you to the characters and then shows them to you as their yanked through emotions by their circumstances, it shows you a situation you could end up in yourself, shows the characters losing.
Sure, there are the “supernatural” or “science fiction” elements that are scary, but it’s still the concepts that are underlying that are truly scary. If I wanted a scary sci-fi monster, I’d go watch a Weeping Angels episode of Doctor Who.
One of the immediate connections you get is with the mother, Joyce. She goes through such human emotions at the loss of her son that you feel instant empathy. Then her emotions start going a little crazy, a little extreme.
You were already so emotionally invested in her that… maybe you start feeling those, too.
And that’s horrifying.
By the time the show actually gets around to having scary monsters, you’re already scared and you’re already terrified.
Good Thing #2: No Plodding Here
One of the weaknesses of a series of episodes is the length. A movie has an hour and a half or so to give you, the audience, an entire plot. Stranger Things has roughly 360 minutes (for you non-math people, that’s four times as long).
A lot of series like this run out of plot too soon. They don’t have enough happenings to draw it out long enough. The pacing feels either rushed or sluggish, leaving you with dead-space either way. You have too much time, not enough material.
Not so with Stranger Things. It’s a slower-paced story that you might expect from a story that get “horror” stuck in its list of genres, and it’s even slower-paced when considering the other bits of genre: “sci-fi” “supernatural”.
But it feels right all the same. When you consider what it does with characters, you don’t mind a slower pace. There is no dead-space because all the space is filled with people you’ve invested emotion in. Even when the plot slows down, you’re willing to slow down with it. And that’s a powerful tool in storytelling. It gives you time to show the plot unfolding in a tense and agonizing fashion.
Good Thing #3: The Aesthetic
I love concepts; I live for concepts. They make me happy. Give me a story idea that centers around a concept, and I will love you. Whether the concept is a character, a plot, or a setting, it has the potential to create a beautiful and strong story.
My favorite concepts, however, are the real ones. The tough concepts, the dark concepts, the concepts that I can wrestle with long after I finish the story. It’s why I like The Raven Boys Cycle. It’s a series I wouldn’t normally like, because after concepts plot is high on the list. Raven Boys has a slow plot, one that can disappear for an entire chapter, sometimes. So why do I like it?
Because it’s full of deep concepts, character dynamics and wonderful prose that work together to create such concepts.
Stranger Things is a concept series. It creates an atmosphere that you don’t want to leave. “Aesthetic” is the wrong word, but it’s also the best word. It’s the easiest way to describe the gritty feel of the show, of the realistic darkness and the realistic light. Of the contrasting colors and the deep reality that permeates the whole thing. The excellence of the technical details (soundtrack is A+ and the cinematography is fantastic and the acting is my goodness where did they find these people) lets the story envelope you and show you a world where the sun shines through smoke-grimed windows and casts flicking light on raw emotion and raw conflict and raw theme.
Is Stranger Things perfect?
No. It does have its moments where it’s too slow even for a slow-paced series. It has its moments of “why is this scene here” and “I don’t care about this”.
But it knows how to tell a story, and tell it well.
I, meanwhile, have found a “horror” story that I will watch again and again.