“Stranger Things” – On Slender Man and Storytelling

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“Science is neat,” says a kind teacher to his rapt students, “but I’m afraid it’s not very forgiving.

This is the premise that drives the 2016 Netflix original series, “Stranger Things.” It’s about taking everyday chills and urban legends, exploring all the possibilities associated with them, and following those possibilities to the bitter end.

What gives a niche series like this one, a 1980s sci-fi/horror with child protagonists, such mainstream appeal? What makes it perfect for binge-watching? Why are so many people, from news outlets like the New York Times to big-name social media personalities, talking about it?

There’s no formula for successful storytelling, but if there ever was one, “Stranger Things” found all the ingredients and put them together in just the right way.

It mixes genres and does all of them well: mystery, sci-fi, and horror represented equally and expertly.

st-ep1-willAt its heart, “Stranger Things” is a mystery: there’s a missing boy and people are looking for him. That basic plot-line is couched in all the fun trappings of sci-fi and horror. The mystery provides the tension and the driving motivation of most of the characters. The sci-fi provides the background, the logic behind the lore. The horror permeates the story and gives it its distinct aesthetic and tone.

The monster at the core of the story very much resembles the Slender Man: an unnaturally tall, long-limbed, pale creature that kidnaps children and sometimes appears in the background of photos. It comes out in the dark, when you’re st-ep1-dooralone. It haunts forests but can get you anywhere, even in your own home.

This is the most familiar kind of horror, with its origins in the scary stories children tell each other around campfires across the world. It’s the kind of “scary” that gets under your skin and pops into your mind when you’re rinsing shampoo out of your hair and your eyes are shut. But it’s not prohibitively scary, to the point where it will drive away people who don’t enjoy horror, and it doesn’t try to shock with excessive violence or gore.

Pacing for a series of this length – eight meager episodes – is perfect.

Not one episode or scene is irrelevant. The plot progresses in significant ways in each episode, and they don’t drag on unanswered questions longer than necessary for the sake of mystery. The narrative is focused. These writers aren’t afraid to show you what’s going on, knowing you’ll still be interested even if you’re not kept totally in the dark. The tension never slackens; there is no opportunity to get bored. This entire series is a masterclass in maintaining suspense throughout a long narrative.

Character development is on point.

st-ep1-d-and-lThis is arguably the story’s greatest strength. It’s hard to write children in a way that feels authentic but still allows them to be useful storytelling tools. The 12-year-old protagonists of “Stranger Things,” though, are as realistic as they are heroic (in their clumsy but well-meaning way). Their dialogue, how seriously they take Dungeons & Dragons, their simple and honest loyalty to each other – it all adds up to a convincing and affecting portrayal. El’s arrival and her developing friendship with the boys adds another layer of emotion, the “found family” element.

st-nancy1There are adults and teens involved in the main cast, too, and their characterization subverts many lazy tropes. Nancy, the studious, prudish teenage girl, is also fierce and independent, and she doesn’t have to change who she is to get the attention of a boy. Steve, the popular jerk, has another side to his personality and isn’t afraid to act on it. And Winona Ryder’s character, Joyce, is more than just a weeping mother who loses it after her son’s disappearance – she becomes a relentless detective and monster-hunting badass.

It’s not afraid to own its personality.

This show doesn’t try to be everything to everyone. It’s set in the 80s, paying homage to the quirks and aesthetic of that decade, and is influenced by some key filmmakers of the time, including John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. Then there’s the geeky Dungeons & Dragons references, which run through the entire series, and the retro sci-fi/horror soundtrack.

This, by the way? Owning your personality? It’s the same thing that makes people cool, too, as the narrative subtly reminds its audience. Maybe that’s the most important thing to take away from “Stranger Things.”

He’s trying to force you to like normal things. And you shouldn’t like things because people tell you you’re supposed to.


In case anyone else is feeling a gaping void after having devoured this show in about two days, I’ll leave you with some more reading material:

  1. Zimbio’s feature on some of the references and easter eggs that can be found throughout the series
  2. New York Times article on the show’s score & the musicians behind it
  3. Vulture’s take on the show and its approach to 80s horror

Note: all gifs that appear on this post are mine.

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