Stranger Things 4, For Better or Worse, is Blockbuster Horror TV
We are living in an era of unprecedented horror dominance in mainstream pop culture.
I’ve been a die-hard horror fan for more than a decade now, and when I started out, interest in horror movies outside Platinum Dunes remakes was just beginning to stir – stuff like Paranormal Activity and Insidious had earned impressive cultural cache – but horror was still a bit of a niche in the movie world. Long story short, The Conjuring series helped lay the groundwork for blockbuster horror cinema, and movies like Get Out and Hereditary a few years later cemented the genre’s place in both critical and commercial success.
And horror TV has been having a harder time keeping up. Maybe not in terms of critical appreciation – the early seasons of American Horror Story and Hannibal earned a pretty complimentary critical fanbase – and there were certainly shows that had their cult followings (by which I mean, watch Channel Zero), but most were too adult in their themes and execution to ever really gather in a broad audience the way their movie counterparts did. Horror was present in bigger series, but most behemoth, zeitgeist-y shows would use horror as, at best, a flavouring to their other genre exploration (Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, off the top of my head), with The Walking Dead perhaps being the most horror-centric show to gain real mainstream success (and even then, the zombie premise was often used as a backdrop for other genre conventions). An out-and-out horror show with broad commercial appeal – real event television with an undeniable horror bent – has been a long time coming.
And, watching this most recent season of Stranger Things, I think we’ve finally got it. Which is certainly not to say that the previous seasons of Netflix’ near-unbelievably popular series haven’t been major pop cultural forces each and every time they’ve dropped, but that Stranger Things Four really fits into the blockbuster mould, and serves a triumphant securing of the genre in mainstream television.
When I talk blockbuster entertainment, I don’t just mean “extremely popular”, though that certainly is a part of it – there’s no denying the sheer cultural impact of Stranger Things. Launching Kate Bush to number one, cluttering up all your social media feeds, creating as close to water-cooler discussion as there can be in a world of such televisual diversity and accessibility, as well as appealing to a broad age range of audiences – Stranger Things is a phenomenon, inescapably part of this summer’s pop culture conversation, whether you like it or not.
But beyond just the popularity, there’s a specific formula blockbuster media follows, and ST4 ticks off nearly every box. You’ve got a well-established world, a broad cast of characters, big, sweeping emotion that doesn’t necessarily delve too far into the details but rather focuses on the broader strokes, and a sense of scale that consistently seeks to outdo itself. It’s spectacle built on a groundwork of small-scale.
And I think that approach, which the show seems to have closed in on in this season, is one that has both its positives and negatives. Personally, I’m a big fan of the broad emotional moments the show focuses in on this season – Max’s escape from Vecna in the Running Up That Hill sequence isn’t a subtle bit of metaphor or imagery, but it’s presented with sincerity and a bombastic feel that lends it a sense of true event television. The grandness of it, the scale, and the consistent commitment to landing moment after moment of giant narrative beats, it makes watching this season feel genuinely exciting. Sometimes, it’s fun to go into the minutiae and analyze what that one shadow cast on a wall in the background of a certain shot meant, and sometimes, I want it all spelled out for me so I can be swept along in the moment.
But, aside from that, Stranger Things is a show that’s started out as a small-scale, small-town story, and some of that is lost in this season. Mike’s speech to El in the final episode, for example, falls pretty flat for me, because it serves to centralize this romantic relationship over the once-vital importance of Mike’s relationship with Will (in his season 4 speech, Mike outright says he didn’t really feel like his life begun till he met El – even though his relationships with the rest of the original leading cast is shown as fundamental to his character in the first season); moments like this, as the show reaches for enormity, overshadow some of the smaller beats it once focused on, and that really feels like a shame.
The enormity of Stranger Things 4, both culturally and in the show itself, cements it as TV’s most successful modern horror hit. Horror is filling up pop culture right now, but I’m not sure we’ve ever seen a show reach the heights of blockbuster horror TV before like this season of Stranger Things did. And that comes with some truly brilliant upsides – as well as some let-downs, too. But honestly, as long as all things horror are getting the love they deserve, I’m willing to sit back and enjoy the ride.
If you enjoyed this post and want to see more stuff like it, please consider checking out my other pop culture analysis projects – Jericho, Lost, Sex and the City, Doctor Who, and Carrie are good places to start! Please also have a look at my fiction work, such as my short story collection, Misandry. And you can always support me on Patreon for access to exclusive blog posts!
(header image via Empire Online)