11 Horror Movie Tropes Stranger Things Handles Better
It is very nice to see opposite sex characters interact without immediately being sexualized.
We all know Stranger Things is a great show that has us asking more questions than finding answers. After season two, the storm of questions grew even more. Luckily, Netflix recently confirmed season three and the Duffer brothers are writing to end the series at season four. As such, our questions will eventually be answered, we’re halfway there.
Such curiosity and intrigue are what has us hooked, but there are many more reasons why Stranger Things has captured our hearts. Looking back on the show (while we impatiently wait for season three), it’s interesting to compare the differences between Stranger Things and most horror movies. There are a series of clichés and tropes that most horror movies follow in a very specific way.
For example, if the story is centered around children, they are the only ones that experience the horror, often helpless against it, and the adults never listen to them. Stranger Things deviates greatly from such tropes, often using the deviation to dive into character development and story depth. As such, I have compiled a list of 11 Horror Movie Tropes Stranger Things does better.
Alright, one of my favorite horror movies as a kid was Halloween; easily one of the greatest in the genre. The music alone is enough to set anyone on edge. At the end of each movie, Michael Myers is conquered in some way and at least one person is left alive. Usually, Laurie Strode, if we’re perfectly honest.
Despite the great build-up, the well-placed jump scares, the music, there is one thing that never happens to the surviving characters. We never see Strode truly deal with what she witnessed and did to survive Myers – sure we see her in an asylum at the beginning of one movie, but nothing ever comes of it. We never see flashbacks, panic attacks, survivor’s guilt, nothing. Strode went through a series of horrible events that would grant her respect from the most seasoned veteran, yet none of the movies show that.
Stranger Things, in contrast, does. None of the characters come out of the Upside-down with the same stone determination as Strode. Nancy, for example, can hardly bear to be alone in the shower after her first encounter. Every time she closes her eyes, the Upside-down is right there. It haunts her, even with the knowledge that she is more or less safe. Stranger Things allows her to be scared and react to horrible events in a way a real teenager would.
Or Joyce, after Will tells her to run with the lights in season one. Despite having seen the demogorgon come out of her own wall, she still goes back and braves it. She can’t sleep in the room, but she stays there. Joyce is clearly living in a constant shuddering, trembling fear, but she draws courage and strength to find and save her son.
That’s not even to include Eleven or Will in the entirety of season two, who’s PTSD is part of the plot.
Stranger Things takes the time (and good writing) to make us care for the well-being of each character. Rather than presenting us with a set of shallow teenagers or paper cutouts of what Stephan King thinks children are like, Stranger Things contains a cast of imperfect yet extremely relatable human beings.
The boys, for example, act as boys would and play the ever-relatable game of DnD. We’re all nerd here after all. Even if you never played the game as a kid, you can see your own adult campaigns in the boys’ interactions.
On the adult side of things, Joyce’s loss of a child is an experience all adults and parents can understand. Our instinct to protect and care for children is at work here. Most adults can see themselves in Joyce’s shoes, going at any length necessary to get her son back – no matter how crazy.
Another relatable character is Nancy, a teenager that just wants to try out life and do so honestly. Even after her fight with Barbara, Nancy stays true to her friend and searches high and low until she can’t anymore. After that, Nancy is a force of nature when it comes to Hawkins Lab and the Upside-down, she’s mourning her friend, her own guilt over what happened, and at the same time, exacting what revenge she can.
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Nancy, like so many Stranger Things characters, is allowed to make the right decision. This makes the entire show all the more believable despite the “magic” of Eleven and the Upside-down. Unlike the rampant selfishness promoted in most horror movies, Stranger Things shows good people being good. No one is left behind, no one is left for dead, no one is sacrificed for the greater good. Well, save for the various soldier deaths in both seasons, but they don’t really count as characters.
Nonetheless, in any other horror movie, Nancy would suddenly become the selfish cheerleader that forgot Barb even existed. Nancy certainly wouldn’t have sacrificed her new relationship with a boy to go after Barb the way she did in the show.
Hopper is another great example. Horror movies would stick him in the selfish box the moment he drank whiskey before going to work in the morning. Outside of Stranger Things, Hopper would never believe Joyce or remotely give her the time of day until he saw the demogorgon himself.
This selfish box, I might add, was actually addressed during the first Hawkins Lab interrogation scene in season one. Instead of stepping into that selfish box, Hopper pulls a fast one and outsmarts Dr. Brenner, to a certain extent. Needless to say, every character in Stranger Things has the remarkable ability to make the right decision.
Monster are usually what makes horror movies horrifying: Michael Myers (the masked psychopath with a machete), Pennywise (the clown with sharp teeth), or stalking monster #34 that drips on everything.
Sure, the demogorgon drips too, and certainly strikes a terrifying figure, but it is nothing more than a MacGuffin. The demogorgon (and the Upside-down by extension) drives the narrative without actually being there, appearing only when the climax deems it necessary.
The demogorgon is behind every conversation and every action the characters take; it is not something to simply react to with screams of fear and a lot of running. The demogorgon does not drive the plot of running and ever more powerful weapons. This is a horror allowed to horrify without relying on action or gore. I would almost akin the demogorgon to Hannibal, rather than Myers or IT; a monster more scare when it’s not on screen, than when it is.
Granted, world building is somewhat of a requirement for a show set in a past that a large part of their audience doesn’t remember. Still, Stranger Things sets down rules and regulations for its fictional world of Hawkins.
Most horror movies don’t really bother with world building, much less establishing a town and the area around it. Such shallow worlds are ruled as “modern day” and never explained further. Stranger Things goes the extra mile with Hawkins. Not only is the town set in a very specific time period, it’s a town small enough that everyone has known everyone at least since high school. It shows in almost every interaction, no matter how new the characters are to the audience.
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Though Stranger Things is very much a tribute to Stephan King novels, the show does not allow the adults to be stupid. In a given King novel that stars children, you’ll notice the trope that only the children see and understand the horror. The adults do not listen to the point of stupidity and their own death.
In Stranger Things, an adult is the first to believe that something more is going on. Joyce is absolutely adamant that Will is out there, a determination that leaks into the kids. Hopper also turns out to be a surprisingly smart and clever detective, connecting what others might have seen as especially disconnected facts. Even Nancy’s parents, in all their ignorance, do try to listen to their children in their own way. They are not stupid so much as very determined to be normal.
Everyone knows that moment in a horror movie where you are screaming at the characters to do anything but what they are; grab a shot gun, a wrench, get the key in the door and stop fumbling your keys for the next five minutes. With one exception, most characters in Stranger Things are allowed to be smart when running away from the horror.
In the very first episode, Will Byers does try to call for help, does grab a shot gun, and does exactly what we would do in his situation. Later on, Jonathan and Nancy put together a very good plan for luring and killing the demogorgon, something we would absolutely try to do.
The show even allows the trap to work to a certain degree. Any other horror movie would have it fail spectacularly with a series of gore-filled slap stick thrown in; Nancy would have stepped on the bear trap and there would have been a full ten minutes of getting her out while the demogorgon inched closer. No, everyone in Stranger Things is allowed to be smart and be far more active in their roles as victims.
Children in most horror movies are disposable and completely helpless when they are not becoming the horror themselves. Their use is often restricted to amplifying the horror by dying in a grotesque way. In contrast, Stranger Things allows children autonomy. They can put together comprehensive plans (even bringing snacks along), and execute them without failing just because they are children.
Nancy and Jonathan’s trap applies here too, along with any plan the main boys come up with. I especially admired the quick thinking it took to hide from the helicopter; even I would have forgotten to hide the bikes, so points to the those very clever kids.
The trope of opposite sex pairs that are never able to be in the same room without being attracted to each other is not limited to horror movies, all media suffers this. As such, I was pleasantly surprised to find that come Jonathan and Nancy’s team-up, neither ended up dating or having sex.
Even after the very strong hint to Nancy that Jon likes her, she still wanted him in her bed when she felt too scared to sleep alone. Their relationship builds much more slowly, even if it is clear that they like each other, they are very slow to act on it. It’s a pleasant surprise, especially with young adult characters. Both of them took a lot of time, years in fact, to acknowledge any feelings they had towards each other. Never mind that Nancy and Jonathon having sex was long after their “shared trauma” as it were.
Another example is Joyce and Hopper, a romance that isn’t even hinted at until season two. Even then, it is very one-sided. Joyce is very much into Bob and how normal he makes her feel. Any other horror movie would never have introduced Bob and had Hopper and Joyce at least engaged by the end of the first season. As such, it is very nice to see opposite sex characters interact without immediately being sexualized.
There is still enough mystery surrounding the demogorgon, like it’s level of intelligence and reproduction process, that keeps the characters of Stranger Things on edge. Heck, besides Eleven, we have no idea how to kill these things. Guns have just made us feel better rather than do any damage.
Despite the creature being a large mystery, it is still, as Dr. Brenner stated, a predator. That the demogorgon is guaranteed to arrive if someone started bleeding makes it a great deal more predictable and understandable than say, Myers or Pennywise. A known horror that is still scary is quite unique and rare in the horror genre. Usually the thing is purposely unpredictable so that again, the characters are only required to react.
Though it has yet to be seen if everyone dies by the time season four rolls around, the lack of mass death in Stranger Things for at least the first two seasons is quite remarkable. Other than the soldiers Eleven and Dr. Brenner kill, Barbara is the only one to die in season one.
Only one death is very remarkable for a horror show. Instead of mass killings, Stranger Things allows the mystery of the demogorgon and the Upside-down to speak for itself. The horror is less in the actual monster, and more in the situation and world the Duffer brothers have built for their characters.