10 Reasons Why Stranger Things is Successful Horror
I binge-watched all of Stranger Things this week--all seventeen fifty-minute episodes in seven days. And while I found I didn't like season two as much as the first one, I was very impressed with the show's beginning. As someone who has watched probably more than three hundred horror movies, I feel like I have a lot to say on all the little pieces that came together to make Stranger Things season one succeed. [Spoilers are revealed below.]
1. The Duffer brothers used the creeping horror of Jaws as a blueprint
If you can't tell, I'm a fan of the movie Jaws. Why? Because it's a monster movie with a great score that has impeccable pacing and utilizes creeping horror. What is creeping horror? Creeping horror is when you move from a wide lens inward, with the monster getting closer and closer until it is upon the protagonist. Having the movie start out with the monster implied or far away rather on top of the protagonist gives the movie room to raise the stakes. If you start out with the monster right in front of your protagonist, you have started at the scariest, tensest part, and everything after that will seem super vanilla. You need your story to move. For that, you need to start far away, with no monsters or perhaps with only implied monsters. Stranger Things does this. The Duffer Brothers even said that they used Jaws as a blueprint for their monster--the Demogorgon.
One of my least favorite horror movies, The Conjuring 2, does not do this. By the 30 minute mark of a two hour movie, only fifteen minutes after the "first hint" of the horror is supposed to come, they have the monster right in the protagonist's face. Do you know what the following hundred minutes felt like? Vanilla. Boring, torturous vanilla.
2. The monsters in Stranger Things have rules--and they play by them
When you want to kill a vampire, you gather stakes and garlic. When you want to kill a werewolf, you require silver bullets. Moths are warded off by cedar, and fruit flies can be caught using apple cider vinegar. When you're hunting an animal, no matter how big or small, there are rules. And in monster movies, rules make the movie function. When the audience sees that Frankenstein can be fought with fire, they know that the townspeople must set fires to fight it. When the audience sees that Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite, they know he must to everything in his power to stop it from falling into evil's hands.
In this way, mythology runs the plot of monster movies. The movie is like an equation whereby only the amassing of certain knowledge or "myth units" can fend off the monster, whether those are stakes, bullets, or the power of friendship. In Stranger Things season one, we see this done with blood--like a shark in open water, the Demogorgon can smell blood, and so the protagonists use fresh blood to draw the creature to them.
4. Great use of diegetic sound
This might seem like a really small thing, but I appreciate some creepy diegetic sound. Diegetic Sound is sound that has a visual source on screen--i.e. not the score by John Williams, but perhaps the sound of people trudging their boots over dry sticks, or horse hooves clopping over cobblestones.
Diegetic sound is not something that the average film-goer thinks about, but in horror it can be used to raise tension. For example, in _Black Swan_, when the ballerinas are cutting into the soles of their shoes, this sound is "turned up" when recorded as diegetic sound in post-filming. Someone whose job it is to make noises sits in a room and makes loud scraping noises, then this sound is incorporated over the image of the ballerinas cutting their shoes. The loudness of the noise--louder than it should be in a room full of ballerinas--is a stressor, and adds tension to the movie. It makes the audience uneasy by focusing on the knives cutting the shoes and sets them even more on edge because the sound has been amplified.
Stranger Things also does this--when Will falls off his bike right before he "goes missing," the bike wheel spins loudly, almost grinding. Lamps and other electric devices in Stranger Things also hum, vibrate, buzz, and roar, depending on how imminent the threat is. This is not on accident--the directors are using diegetic sound to put the viewers on edge--to let them know that all is not as cute and cozy as it seems.
Speaking of which...
5. Stranger Things is really fucking cozy
Stranger Things is basically the Scooby gang meets X-Files--this is how I would pitch it. The fact that it's "cozy horror" with nostalgia and friendship turned up to the 9s is refreshing and unique. Usually horror movies are grisly and gruesome (if they're monster movies/slashers) or brooding and misty (if they're hauntings/suspense). It is fun to have "the horror genre meets Turbokid in terms of 80s nostalgia." This allows for an experience that is just as much escapism from the horrible reality we actually live in as it is immersion in the cozy horror that Mike's party is living.
6. Great sound mixing
This might seem redundant when contrasted with the point above (#4), but there is a distinction: In this point, I want to discuss how even though diegetic sounds are being amplified to cause tension, this is done on a scale between 2 and 8 rather than 1 and 10, and I fucking appreciate it. How many times have I seen a horror movie and had a series of blenders, lawn mowers, food disposals, and wind-up toys scream in my face? The number is too great. It's called moderation, people. You have a scale and you move up and down it--you don't need to use 747 jet-engine level decibels to make your point. In this, Stranger Things succeeds. Their diegetic sound is amplified, but never annoying. It's only loud enough to make you occasionally think, "huh, a lamp doesn't usually make that much noise."
7. Visible protagonists
In this way, Stranger Things also moderates its play with light and shadow. Have you ever watched a movie and thought to yourself, "goddamn it, the screen is too dark--the glare is too bad and I can't make out anything that's going on"? This is a common problem in horror movies, because novice directors think "well the dark is scary, so let me HIDE MY CAST!" Spoilers: It is not actually a useful movie direction.
After seeing movies like The Possession of David O'Reilly, which devolve into an impenetrable near-black screen and screams of "Who's there? What are you?", I appreciated being able to keep an eye on what was actually going on.
I actually want to watch the show--who knew?
8. A dog that doesn't die
To be fair, I know that the cat dies in season two, but I'm talking about season one, here, and so my point stands. I appreciate that the dog bark-bark-barking at the Demogorgon wasn't ripped to pieces. He just gets to keep being a dog. Keep on woofin', mate!
9. A black kid that doesn't die
Now I'm not saying that Stranger Things was racially on-point, but I'm glad they didn't choose to murder their one black character. You would be Shocked and Appalled™ by how often this happens in horror movies. I once had a bet with a friend that I could guess who would die, in what order, just based on the phenotype of each person in a horror movie we were watching--and let me tell you, I was not wrong.
Throughout the season, Lucas is a practical, thoughtful character who does not get murdered, and I am placated by this. I should probably have higher standards...
10. It starts with a mystery--and then actually resolves it
Good stories are a series of questions that resolve themselves as new questions appear, that way the audience is always still asking the paramount question: What happens next?
The flow of resolution in Stranger Things was quite strong. Where is Will? Oh, he's in the upside down. Who is Eleven? Oh, she's a young girl with super powers. What took Barb? Oh, it's the Demogorgon. How are these linked? Oh, there's a lab inside town that is causing all these strange events. What can we do about it? Oh, Will can communicate through lights, and we can check on Barb through this weird portal, and the Demogorgon can be lured with blood.
Stranger Things has the continuous mystery of Lost without succumbing to the zany land of no solutions. It has the questing feel of a fairy tale or a tabletop game in which the characters rally their forces and they kill the monster under the banner of friendship. Along the way, they use walkie-talkies and make friendship pacts and bike through town without parental supervision. It's all genuinely enjoyable stuff. But you go along for the ride through the cozy stuff because the show has such a strong mystery through-line.
Stranger Things succeeds because it follows the trail of the successes that came before it. It has a great understanding of pacing, foreshadowing, and the horror genre at large. This kind of show, which plays so heavily off of entire genres, couldn't exist without the dozens of movies it plays homage to and subverts, but in doing so, it does them justice, and it blazes a trail toward even greater heights.