My name is Julia Burke, and I have a scary movie problem. I think. I’ve never actually seen one all the way through.
In 2005 I made it through about thirty minutes of House of Wax, which seemed too goofy to be actually scary and featured Dean from Gilmore Girls, before leaving the theater early to spend the rest of the week awake all night with the lights on and refusing to look out windows or into mirrors. I thought The Ghost and Mr. Chicken was unnecessarily spooky.
“But this is psychological horror! It’s not gory!” Yeah, cool story, bro, but I don’t think you get it: I can’t watch The Twilight Zone or most Alfred Hitchcock. I only watched Hannibal because I’m obsessed with his kitchen and I like to imagine his wine pairings.
What’s wrong with me? I have a vivid imagination, a predisposition to elaborate horror-themed nightmares, and an extremely anxious mind—I once reacted to a jump scene by leaping out of my seat in a theater and throwing a full cappuccino into my date’s lap. At a Wes Anderson movie.
So when everyone told me Stranger Things was “more thriller than scary” I was like
Then I watched the first episode. I spent the entire time clinging to my partner in a room full of people and a dog. When I used the bathroom later I accidentally turned on the fan instead of the light and jumped about a foot in the air. I refused to be alone in any room all night. And then I watched another. And then I was hooked, and as scary as it was—and it is, so don’t be fooled by all the people saying it’s not, fellow scaredy cats—I could. not. stop.
I’ve missed out on a significant amount of geek culture due to my weak stomach for horror. Imagine a nerd deprived of the sci-fi themes of Close Encounters and Poltergeist (both major inspirations for Stranger Things)! I’ve been looking for ways to overcome my extreme distaste for anything scary, and after binging Stranger Things in two days, I have to wonder: what makes a piece of media good enough to overcome my wimp status? Can I level up enough complementary skills to neutralize it?
Here’s what kept me watching Stranger Things.
[Mild spoilers ahead; if you haven’t watched the show yet because you’re afraid of getting scared, please note that I’ve included the kind of warnings I like to read in hopes that they’ll help others get prepared and feel okay about watching. I stayed away from major plot points and instead referenced individual scary moments.]
An irresistible crew of nerds.
Thanks to a childhood informed by The Goonies, Now and Then, Richie Rich, and The Sandlot, I trust groups of adorable children more than adults in movies. There’s definitely the tension over something bad happening to one of the kids (a justified fear in Stranger Things), but I tend to trust that their awesome friends will get them out of trouble as long as there is a dog (“Wait, is something going to happen to the dog?!”), a slingshot or other junior-high-level weapon, and a tabletop game involved.
She is the unquestionable harbinger of terror, sure, but she’s also a survivor. When I see Winona I know the just-dangling-over-the-edge nervous tension that follows her like Pigpen’s dirt cloud is about to help her get shit done.
Stranger Things had me at Eleven. Millie Bobby Brown’s haunting performance as the gifted, abused child with powers of telepathy had me glued to the TV rooting for her, and when it’s revealed that she can more than handle herself against guards, guns, and schoolyard bullies, she became the secret weapon—and compelling character—that made me confident things were going to work out one way or another. Mistreatment of children is one of my top fears in scary or dramatic media, but while we do see flashbacks to Eleven’s previous life as some kind of lab rat, we see just as much of her saving herself and others. Plus, to paraphrase Dustin, her superpowers are kind of awesome. Watching the sweet, innocent scenes as Eleven encounters elements of normal childhood for perhaps the first time with the knowledge that she can literally kill someone with a tilt of her head was exactly the kind of tension balance between the relatable and the supernatural that great sci-fi does well.
When it is determined that Nancy will hold the gun.
There’s nothing more compelling to me than a seemingly troped-out character developing complexity. Barb, who knows all, tells Nancy she’s more than just arm candy for Steve (aka Jean-Ralphio), and we get to see that when Nancy’s angry switch flips on. I had every confidence in Nancy’s ability to save herself and her friends after she literally crawled into a giant energy monster vagina looking for her friend—and somehow made it out alive.
Sexy David Harbour, who I’ll admit to confusing with Six Feet Under’s Peter Krause at one point, is the quintessential troubled small-town sheriff whose mind is just dark enough to believe the unbelievable and trust those who need it most. He keeps Joyce (Winona Ryder) from falling into total despair, and in doing so kept me hopeful that everything would be okay somehow. Plus I like the way he punches and shoots his way into things Han Solo-style, in direct contrast to Eleven’s much more elegant but equally satisfying way of handling things.
What are the common themes? A couple characters that are reliably both competent and good-hearted, to hold on to and trust. Badass women doing badass things. Nerds being heroes. And above all, something that runs throughout: Incredible storytelling. Am I ready to expand my horizons with more psychological thrillers and sci-fi classics, lured by the promise of masterful creativity? Absolutely—just hold me while I watch.
Featured images: Stranger Things (Netflix)