Terror for teen heroes as Stranger Things returns

Growing pains: “We’re not kids anymore,” says Mike (Finn Wolfhard) in the latest trailer.

Is horror the best way to explore adolescence? After a two-year wait, Stranger Things 3 is here. It is the latest of many shows to probe teenage anxiety through darkness, death and monsters.

Hawkins is a town where everyone knows your business and your name. Kids ride around on bikes in gangs, or hang out at the arcade. Their dysfunctional parents bicker at home.

But this small, Midwestern town harbours a dark secret.

It contains a portal to an alternative reality called the Upside Down: an evil twin to our world that is haunted by the monstrous Demogorgon.

Stranger Things 3 is finally back. And, while the past two series have been set over gloomy Halloweens — this time, it’s the start of the long summer for Hawkins’s teens.

Will the 4 July fireworks be enough to keep darkness at bay? Not likely. Expect evil scientists, gruesome monsters and maybe even a few zombies.

But it isn’t the horror and sci-fi thrills of Stranger Things that have Netflix audiences hooked. The show’s fans most often rave about its mix of 80s’ pop-culture references and a ragtag cast of teenage characters, whose attempts to navigate high-school politics, blossoming romances and difficult parents are interspersed with supernatural terror.

Out of the hundreds of films referenced in the series, Stephen Spielberg’s E.T. stands out. The frantic bike rides and sprawling forests of Hawkins are straight out of the 1982 classic.

Spielberg is renowned for using the supernatural as a metaphor for inner turmoil. The E.T. director has said that the hero Elliot’s need for his extraterrestrial friend came from Spielberg’s own loneliness after his parents’ divorce.

Like Elliot’s mother, Joyce Buyers (the matriarch in Stranger Things) is a single mother, frantically trying to make ends meet. It is her son Will who, isolated and anxious after his parents divorce, has a strange connection to the Upside Down, manifested in terrifying visions. Here, Will’s racing adolescent mind is mirrored in a dark, parallel world.

For journalist Jordan Crucchiola, the connection between horror and adolescence is obvious.

He writes in Vulture magazine: “The process of bodies changing and hearts breaking and love blossoming and skin mutating and family pressures mounting is a biological script practically written to terrify.”

Teenage nightmares?

Is horror the best way to explore young adulthood? Stranger Things is following a well-trodden path. From the horrors of puberty and teenage cruelty in Stephen King’s Carrie, to the fear of young female independence in The Exorcist, horror gives free reign to the intense anger, confusion and fear of adolescence. It is a place where our deepest fears and anxieties are laid bare.

But is adolescence really so extreme and bleak? We love the young characters in Stranger Things for their sense of adventure and heart-warming banter. The teenage years can be trying, but they are more about friendship, imagination and nostalgia than horror.

You Decide

  1. Why do people like to be scared by horror?
  2. Why do so many horror and sci-fi films base their stories on young people?

Activities

  1. What is the purpose of horror films? What themes do they share? Summarise your ideas into at least three key points.
  2. Write a plot summary for a horror or sci-fi story featuring three teenage characters, set in your neighbourhood. Give it a title and pitch it to the class as an idea for a new TV series.

Some People Say...

“I think of horror movies as the disturbed dreams of a society.”

Wes Craven, US film director (1939-2015). Famed for A Nightmare on Elm Street

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Stranger Things 3 is out on Netflix, starring Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown and Finn Wolfhard. This season has eight episodes. The Duffer Brothers (who created the series) say that it is likely to end after its fourth season. Stranger Things has received 31 Emmy Award nominations over its three-season run.
What do we not know?
What will happen in Stranger Things 3. The media has been restricted from reporting almost anything about the new series to avoid spoilers. In the past two seasons, the main adversary has been the Demogorgon, but some fans are speculating that the young gang will face a different threat this time around.

Word Watch

Midwestern
It is set in the US state of Indiana. Typically, other states in the American Midwest are North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Ohio.
Demogorgon
A humanoid monster that preys on the residents of Hawkins. The boys call it a Demogorgon because they think it resembles a creature from their game of Dungeons and Dragons, a fantasy boardgame.
Ragtag
A disorganised group, made up of different characters.
Classic
In Stranger Things 2, Eleven wears a sheet over her head so she can go out on Halloween. The alien ET does the same in the Spielberg film.
Matriarch
A woman who is head of a family or society.

Subjects