Spoilers present for Stranger Things Season 1, 2 & 3
There are many words to describe Netflix’s hit show starring Winona Ryder and that group of misfit kids, with lots of ground being covered in terms of genre. You’ll laugh, cry and gasp at many aspects of Stranger Things, yet every element of this sci-fi mystery has a deep-rooted horror aspect, which fluctuates in intensity within the show’s three seasons.
Depending on what you find scary, you might recognise some parts of Stranger Things as horrifying at all, yet the show frequently correlates with many horror tropes that have existed for years. Exploring the creepy crevasses of this TV flick will involve identifying the types of terror present, as well as how they’re executed in the context of the plot.
The first season of Stranger Things doesn’t shy away from its horror roots, with ominous child abduction and an iconic snarling monster. The plot does sidetrack things with its heavy supernatural tones, with characters like Eleven providing something of an E.T. trope, which in turn is tied in with humour. Yet, there’s always a consistent tone of real danger, with no character being safe from the clutches of the Demogorgon. A great example of this is with Barbara Holland, a character who was set up to be a quirky favourite, only to be dragged into the abyss of the upside-down and brutally murdered. Barb doesn’t just simply vanish in the show, as it makes sure we get to see her cold, corpse, covered in horrifying slugs crawling out her mouth.
There are 2 factors at work here when it comes to horror of Barb’s death, the first being the fact we have no idea how she died. All we know is that she was consumed by the Demogorgon, her body left lifeless and covered in something viscous. The second is, of course, the strong tones of post-death gore, mixed with some body horror. By taking Barb from a lovable character to a grotesque corpse with god knows what slivering on her. Public reaction to this horrifying death was something of a pop culture phenomenon, with a mix of people denying that she was dead, along with fans using the hashtag #justiceforbarb. Whether viewers found this to be horrifying or not, the execution of terror in this plotline was impactful.
The Demogorgon itself is also a great use of classic monster horror tropes, as giving viewers something objective to fear is always an effective way to incite fear. Most classic horror films have some sort of ghoul with unique characteristics; from sci-fi-like Alien and Predator, killers like Freddie and Jason and even ominous creatures like The Thing. The Demogorgon is almost a hybrid of all of the above, killing characters mercilessly, yet not giving too much away in terms of what it is. We know it’s not human, even if its dangly humanoid form does provoke feelings of the uncanny valley. All we know is that it’s disturbing, dangerous and whoever lays eyes on it has just lowered their chances of survival.
Speaking of the unknown, the Demogorgon’s Upside-down home is something of an unsettling premise, with everything that’s in the real world existing also in the upside-down. It’s almost like the type of thing you’d experience in a nightmare, opening your eyes to familiar sites, only to find that your home, street and town are covered in darkness and crawling with danger. The upside-down also provokes the horrors of being lost, similar to films like Dead End. It’s that very essence of something supernatural creating a sense of danger while trying to navigate somewhere that in theory should be safe that creates a disturbing environment that would usually be reserved for bad dreams.
While Season 2 of Stranger Things took its foot off the gas with the horror vibes, with things leaning more towards the sci-fi aspect of the show, Season 3 upped its game, especially when it comes to visual horror. With the introduction of the series’ main protagonist, the Mindflayer, came a whole new dynamic of body horror, possession and slasher-Esque danger. This all kicks off with the character Billy and his unsettling transition into being the Mindflayers main host.
The idea of something posing as familiar characters is something that has been covered in a lot of horror flicks. The Thing is probably most notable for this, with many elements of the body horror involved being similar. The way that the ‘Thing’ blends in with a group of people are similar to the Mindflayers infiltration of Hawkins, with infected characters trying their best to go unnoticed.
Billy tends to lean more towards the psychotic killer trope while infected, with his victims being mainly abductee’s, who of which he then goes on to offer up to the Mindflayer. This gets specifically disturbing when he abducts his colleague Heather, which involves subjecting her to an ice bath in preparation for the Mindflayer hijacking her body. This is something we see through the telepathic eyes of Eleven, who uses her powers to spy on Billy. This means we’re not quite sure what else Billy subjected Heather to during her abduction, adding an extra layer of trauma to the whole scenario.
Other citizens of Hawkins, such as journalists from the local paper are also eventually infected by the Mindflayer, making for an episode of pure entrapment based, psychotic killer horror. The character Nancy Wheeler, who is prominent within this series, also works at the same firm as the afflicted, which makes her a prime target due to her itch to investigate strange goings-on within Hawkins.
Nancy’s investigations revolve mostly around an old lady who has also been infected, which leads her to witness the body horror of being a host. While in the hospital, the woman’s body begins to bloat, her veins swelling with black gunk. The antagonists’ title of ‘Mindflayer’ is misleading in this regards, as the host’s body also goes through a transformative state, one of which leads the host to a sorry end.
As a result of her discovery. Nancy and her boyfriend are tracked down by the misogynistic men that they work for at the local paper, who have transitioned from being plain old sexist pigs, to also being pawns of the Mindflayer. Strangely, it’s almost as if even though their minds have been corrupted, their personality still seems to resonate through, making their new psychotic tendencies blend in with their original asshole aesthetic. This makes the chase scenes between the two journalists and Nancy specifically intense, comparable to the likes of Jack from The Shining.
We once again get to see the art of body horror return once Nancy gets the better of them, as the Mindflayer dissolves their bodies into a mix of bones, cartilage and black gunk, which then fuses to create some sort of monster. This is very reminiscent of the likes of The Fly, wielding that same gruesome flesh disfigurement, distancing itself with normal human anatomy. Once again, this also draws into the fear of the unknown, as so much of what’s going on is unexplained.
A lot of what happens in season 3 feels almost Lovecraftian, with its unspeakable eldritch monsters and corruption of minds. If the series has shown us anything so far, it’s that events up till now are just the tip of the iceberg. Who knows if the Mindflayer is the biggest threat from the upsidedown, he could be just part of a collection of horrors that reside in a strange parallel universe. The characters that we know and love may have survived up till now, but there’s nothing to say that they won’t come to their fatal end. This is what will maintain a classic theme of horror as the Stranger Things plot progresses, with so many harrowing possibilities to come.
While we can’t say for certain what’s in store for our misfit band of kids from Hawkins, the show will hopefully maintain its great use of horror that has been built up so far. Sure, Stranger Things will never be predominantly horror, but it’s an important part of the formula that makes this tale so popular.