Why Stranger Things Is Important

Even if you were not able to tune in for the SAG Awards 2017 ceremony, you likely haven't missed the hype flooding social media about this year's award winners.  Hidden Figures won for Outstanding Performance by a Cast.  Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won for their roles in the film Fences.  Actor Mahershala Ali won for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role for Moonlight.  But it is the win for Netflix's hit series Stranger Things for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series that is truly taking the media by storm.

Now, the cast of Stranger Things were not only the award winners to get a little political in their acceptance speeches, in the wake of Trump's recent "Muslim ban".  But if you haven't already watched David Harbour's speech, watch it now, and if you have - view it again just to watch the looks on the cast's faces as they traverse the full emotional range from confusion, to realization, to pride.  Harbour's speech is eloquent, it's poignant, and it is delivered in the true gusto of his character, Jim Hopper - with tremendous heart and ferocity.

Stranger Things took audiences by storm when it was first released on Netflix in 2016.  People were quick to celebrate this charming callback to American 80's sci-fi and horror, and it soon became a viral trend.

However, I would stretch to say that Stranger Things was not a groundbreaking show.  The performances the actors gave were phenomenal, and the story and pacing executed flawlessly, but as far as being revolutionary or innovative, the truth is that Stranger Things is nothing starkly new.  It is very simply a fantastic sci-fi show.

Stranger Things getting an award show win is what is groundbreaking.

There is a reason that "Oscar-bait" has become it's own genre, and that is because the films and TV series that are nominated and awarded for award ceremonies all typically fit the same mold.  Besides being released at an ideal time for nominations, they tend to conform to the same genres: period dramas, Holocaust films, "true story" adaptations, white guilt films, or any other film that plays on heart strings and allows for a wide range of powerful acting without taking any real risks.

This is important.  By creating this whole category for films that are "Oscar-worthy", a statement is created as towards what sort of stories "deserve" to be celebrated or honored.  This is a system that rewards creators for taking the road well-traveled.  It entirely excludes mainstream or "genre" media.

This system also tends to focus on narratives that are in the past.

Narratives that rehash old stories of hope and victory as if to remind us: look at us, we fought that fight.  We should be so proud.

No reason to fight it anymore.

The power of fiction - mainstream, genre fiction - is that it is never not relevant.  The symbolism and metaphors in Lord of the Rings, or Alien, will never grow old.  The accessibility of fiction is what makes it ageless.

Because we will never not be at war.  We will never not be terrorized or afraid.  We will never not be pressed with the decision to be courageous in the face of difficulty, horror, or oppression.

Fiction like Stranger Things lets people know, as David Harbour said, that we "fight monsters" on a daily basis, and we will always have the strength to do it.  It is so incredibly important, in the wake of everything happening in our country presently, to see actors and creators - the symbols of action and resistance that we all see in our day to day - standing up and speaking out against tyranny.

Narrative and fiction has the potential to create radical change.  The same power that Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games franchise represents.  Not to go toe to toe with villainy, but to stand as a symbol for others to rally around.  A fiction which conceals, at its heart, a message of truth.

When the character Evey Hammond from the film V for Vendetta asks V, our masked vigilante, why he is intent on blowing up parliament, he replies, "A building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it. Symbols are given power by people. Alone, a symbol is meaningless, but with enough people, blowing up a building can change the world."

In the light of the recent election, I know many may feel that our voices go unheard, and that in the face of the government, we have no power or choice.  But we do have a choice, and that is in what we give power to; the symbols, movements, and ideas that we support or demand.

Chose to give power to the narratives that symbolize radical change, fierce resistance, vehement horror, and unbending hope. Support the stories that reflect our struggle - that support the truth that monsters are real, and seek to build up in us the courage to fight back against them.

With enough people, believing in one unified ideal, a story can change the world.


Shai Cotten

Why Do We Love Horror?

When I was a kid, I used to be terrified of the dark.  I had chronic nightmares, and not only was I convinced that there was a monster living in my closet, but that my dolls moved when I wasn't looking, and that my house - along with most of the houses in my hometown - was inexplicably haunted.

Although my childhood was largely characterized by an overactive imagination and predominately defined by fear, I did not entirely shrink away from the macabre fantasies which plagued me.  Instead, in a way, I embraced them like a calling.  The shadows and demons of my childhood were my Narnia.  My Pan's Labyrinth.  Something to be overcome; an adventure to be had, no matter how paralyzing.

So when I was old enough to have finally gotten my hands on a horror movie with some friends, I didn't flinch away as a kid tormented by nightmares might.  I ran towards my fear.

I've been writing horror stories - or stories that delve into the macabre, at least - pretty much ever since I started writing.  I've been consuming horror films for years, and attempting to write or produce my own since I was a teenager.  When people ask me what sort of screenplays I write, I typically reply firstly with "horror".  I normally get one of two reactions: an ecstatic, "Oh, that's so cool!", or a definite affirmation that they could never stomach doing such work; they feel they cannot even stomach watching horror movies.

The misconception I typically pick up on in these scenarios is that since I am an avid horror movie fan, I don't watch these films through my fingers with my hands in front of my face, or with the sound cranked to the lowest volume.  In fact, I do.  Despite the fact that this is the genre I write in, like most moviegoers, I scream and cling on to friends when jump-scared.  I get grossed out by gore.  I yell at the screen and put the blankets over my head when the main characters do something ridiculously stupid, undoubtedly leading to their demise.

I have a feeling that most fans and creators of horror alike have the same relationship with the genre, though of course I could be wrong.  But if the people who are creating these stories are just as terrified of them as the people who actively avoid them, why are they creating them in the first place?

Writing in horror, in a way, could possibly be a form of self-assurance.  In classes on philosophy, I have learned of the concept of "the sublime", which deals with subjects that typically strike awe and often fear into the hearts of viewer.  When witnessed through a lens of "art" or "fiction", pieces applying this aspect, we are able to truly appreciate the awe, when we would typically be overwhelmed by a rightful terror.  You wouldn't stand before a tsunami or a hurricane, or some other natural disaster and pause to think about how incredible the event is.  You're concerned for your life.  Art lets us admire that which would typically be fled from.

This is the epitome of horror.  Of course, you wouldn't typically seek to find the awe or magnificence in the crimes of an ax murderer, or the demons and ghosts that lurk in old colonial houses, but somehow horror aficionados manage not just to make the circumstances of childhood and everyday nightmares view-worthy, they also make them entertaining.

By transforming nightmare into fiction, we create a way to engage with horror in way in which the feeling of our life being in jeopardy is minimized, if not eliminated.  If you are someone plagued by macabre fantasies, having that level of control over what happens in said fantasy gives you - as a creator or as a viewer - a significant sense of power.

Horror might not be for everyone, but I strongly believe that it has an appeal that is intrinsic to our human nature.  Engaging with what it is that we fear in a safe space makes us feel powerful.  That sense of power - of purpose - is what gives us a rush of catharsis, a feeling of release and triumph that is ultimately the goal of all good storytelling.

Shai Cotten