by Christina Lay
It’s Not About the Monster
Beware of the stories you read or tell; subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world. -Ben Okri, poet and novelist (b. 15 Mar 1959)
I just finished writing an entirely different post about the TV Show Stranger Things. Then, after walking away from the computer, it occurred to me that I hadn’t said a single thing about the flashy bits. You know, the monster, the cool other dimension, the ick and awe factor, the “strange things”.
Spoiler Alert – If you haven’t watched Season One yet, you might not want to read this
If you don’t know, Stranger Things is an Amazon original series that I would put in the genre of “Cozy Horror”. It is cozy because our favorite characters tend not to die, and good triumphs over evil, eventually. However, people do die, either at the hands of a rogue government entity or at the ick-dripping talons of the monster.
However, it doesn’t really matter how they die or who/what is chasing our heroes around. The source of The Horror could just as well be an infestation of pissed-off dragons, or powerful magic gone awry, or a swarm of giant ants, or an out of control disease. Personally I prefer monsters. What is important in a show like this is the characters, and how they react to The Horror.
In the first post I wrote, I discussed how we as writers might make up for the fact that we don’t have a three-dimensional Winona Ryder who will leap out of the page and bring our brilliant prose to life for the reader. I’m full of admiration for Winona’s skill and her excellent job of bringing Joyce Byers, the distraught mother in Stranger Things, to life. She is a lot of what makes this show so compelling. So as writers stuck with mere words, we can focus on character development, adding layers and depth to our characters by giving them everything from quirks, gestures, odd habits and facial tics to long and murky histories, skewed motivations, poor coping skills and a smorgasbord of emotions that may or may not control their actions. Winona and the true-to-trope hard drinking sheriff with a murky history, skewed motivations and poor coping skills get most of the action, character-development wise. The true-to-trope gang of nerdy and plucky kids are all great, as is “The Chosen One” with the powerful magic gone awry. A couple side characters like the Princess and The Loner/Outsider have some good moments, and even the good-looking Jock/Jerk gets a shot at redemption. They’re all interesting in their way, adding to the fun by roping us in with their charm.
But it’s Winona as the mom and David Harbour as Chief Hopper who really get to face The Horror, which is what this show, and most stories like it, are all about. In facing The Horror, a character is either destroyed or they prevail. There are so many ways either can happen. One, they can get their head ripped off. That is the ultimate failure. But they can also fail to face their fear, they might run away, they might turn their backs on their friends, they might join the enemy, they might deny the existence of the Horror until it shows up and rips their head off. They might choose to destroy themselves, with alcohol or a supremely reckless act, all the while denying those repressed emotions that are controlling them. The sheriff is drinking and denying in order not to face the emotional truth of having lost a child. The mother, on the other hand, steamrollers her many flaws and actually utilizes them in a supreme effort to save her child. Sometimes, it is an asset to be slightly crazy.
To prevail, one must survive the season (or the novel). Beyond that, the hero must grow, realize her own strengths, identify what is most important, listen to her instincts and intuitions, trust in her allies if they exist, overcome all those cleverly developed character flaws, and defeat the monster. At least for now.
Some viewers might disagree, but I believe this is the key to a successful show, not the cleverness or wow factor of The Horror. Don’t get me wrong, I think the monster in Stranger Things is cool. The Upside Down is a creepy and clever concept that they do well. But it would all put me to sleep if it weren’t for the people who are dealing with, reacting to, dying in the face of, and kicking the ass of The Horror. If those people are one-dimensional, shallow, too true-to-trope to swallow, or just flat out dull, no amount of pyrotechnic evil wizardry is going to keep me tuning in.
This brings us to the question of why we do this to ourselves. Why do we like to watch clever, likable, heroic characters be tortured and tested in this way? I think the answer is pretty simple, and it’s why we tell stories at all. We all have a Horror in our life, maybe several. Maybe they’re small horrors, but the world is full of big horrors and it takes very little imagination to conceive of The Horror being visited upon ourselves. A cozy horror TV show like Stranger Things allows to process some of that pent up fear, and it lets us watch “ordinary” characters take the bull by the horns and defeat The Horror. Yes, it is cathartic, and it is just scary enough to let off some of scream steam and, possibly, allow us embrace the happy for now ending and the hope that good not only can but will triumph over evil.
Now Non-cozy Horror, where everyone dies? I don’t know what’s up with that. Liz?