It began as a whisper, but now Stranger Things is a pop culture roar. The once inauspicious Netflix series found a huge audience, creating a diverse fanbase that is rabid for more. Like them, I’m glad I watched the first season. But after the finale, I never would’ve guessed that the show would take off like it has. That first season is fine, really. That’s some damning praise, I know. But the first eight episodes of Stranger Things work much better as a gateway to sci-fi and horror classics than they do as original television.
Over a month after its release, an idea still nags at me: Stranger Things is the kind of show audiences can enjoy while looking at their phones half the time. Viewers don’t have to engage fully because the show throws hardly any curveballs. But Matt and Ross Duffer‘s love letter to the classics has a lot going for it. It’s well cast, slickly produced, and offers the audience plenty of opportunities to fall in love with its characters. But what it fails to provide in depth, it offers in well-executed homage.
Stranger Things bows at the altars of Alien, The Thing, Silent Hill, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and other titans of horror. But it embraces the tone found in pre-teen horror classics like Poltergeist and The Gate. This allows the show to do horror homage in a way that appeases horror fans and the casual horror-curious. Films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both frequently referenced in the show, aren’t horror. They do, however, have genuinely frightening moments and sequences. Stranger Things embraces this model, telling a human story punctuated by scenes of genuine fright. By riding a fine tonal line, the show’s horror feels faithful to its gnarly R-rated roots but is also easily digestible.
This mastery of lighter tone may not please horror diehards. It does, however, make Stranger Things accessible to a wide range of potential fans. It’s a great show for preteens — a primer on the horror movies they hear so much about but are perhaps unable or reluctant to watch. And because the show draws heavily upon the pantheon of 80’s preteen-led favorites (E.T., It, Stand by Me, The Goonies) it will feel instantly familiar to many. Young viewers will likely feel at home. Many have already absorbed the imagery through pop cultural osmosis (Super 8 helped with that).
Stranger Things also achieves its broad accessibility because it’s a TV show. And horror is, without question, clearly more palatable to the masses when it’s not in a movie. TV is the format for casual horror. Now don’t get me wrong — shows like The X-Files, Hannibal, Twin Peaks, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story don’t approach their horror casually. Even Buffy and Supernatural knew how and when to be truly scary. For these shows (and many more), horror is a primary color on their palette. You could describe some of these shows as full-time horror (Hannibal and AHS, for instance), while others are genre-fluid, part-time horror.
But unlike scary movies, horror on television attracts fans that wouldn’t be caught dead with a ticket to this weekend’s Don’t Breathe. If NBC’s Hannibal had been done only as a movie, Fannibals wouldn’t be a thing. The same would be true of other violent, non-horror show. If Game of Thrones had gone to theaters instead of HBO, so many people who enjoy it now would’ve let it pass by.
Why? Maybe TV is just easier to watch. Maybe people perceive scary movies as more unpleasant than scary television. That sounds odd, especially seeing that many cable shows have very few restrictions on violence and gore, but I feel there’s some truth to this. I suspect the primary reason horror television attracts such a wide range of fans is that movies just don’t offer the kind of deep character building or long-form storytelling that TV can. Fans can take their time with characters on TV shows, developing relationships that can only come with more time spent.
Netflix’s Stranger Things doesn’t feel like full-time horror. But the language of horror always lurks at the edges of the frame. The Duffer Brothers clearly had horror on the brain during the show’s conception. But their approach to the material yielded impressive results. The ever-popular 80’s nostalgia puts viewers in familiar comfort zones. And while not all of the show’s throwback elements come across as authentic or organic, it’s not a tone-deaf pastiche.
And because Netflix and the Duffer Brothers’s approach was so straight, it often feels like they’re covering the hits. They play those hits pretty well, and that’s commendable. But by refusing to throw viewers into the deep end, fans aren’t yet getting those originals, deep cuts, or B-sides. But a greatest hits album, for the right fan, is the perfect gateway to a deeper appreciation for an artist and their influences. In the case of Stranger Things, season one’s easy-watching nature grabbed fans. Now, they’re ready for things to get weirder. They’re ready for the show to further define an identity of its own. And if it can act as a young fan’s gateway to Alien, The Thing, Altered States, The X-Files, or the works of Stephen King, then it’s doing something right.