Full disclosure: I’ve only watched one episode of Stranger Things 4. But, further confession – that’s enough. I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue, because I don’t know if I can handle it. The show’s appeal used to be the way it walked the border of the supernatural without tipping over into cheap “shocks” and gore. Not anymore.
And I loved the first three series; I grew up in the 1980s, you see. I was quite literally raised on classics like The Goonies, Stand by Me, The Breakfast Club, Dark Crystal, The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story and Labyrinth, films that have become B-movie classics since, their plot lines and simple puppetry revered (and trucker caps copied) by those who weren’t even born when they first came out. My best friend and I watched Nightmare on Elm Street the first time around when we weren’t supposed to, because her mum was less strict (or perhaps less clued in to the impact of all that horror and gore on our young, impressionable minds) than mine was.
We’d have sleepovers peppered with terrifying clowns (IT) and boys wearing hockey masks (Friday the 13th) that gave me nightmares for weeks, and I was also raised on a diet of horror-by-osmosis: my parents read Stephen King and Dean Koontz on holiday, and my mum would delight in scaring herself with Hellraiser, settling down to watch it alone while my dad was away on business. I was never allowed to join her (and thank goodness).
Still, I read The Stand, Cujo and Carrie when I was barely in double digits and swallowed Christopher Pike and Point Horror books whole. Anyone who knows me knows of my undying love of vampires (though that’s The Lost Boys rather than Twilight, thank you very much). I’ve earned my horror credentials, get regularly teased for being “a goth” and I love a graveyard – even at night. You’d think I’d be fine when it came to being scared. But then I watched series four of Stranger Things.
As it opened (and spoiler alert: don’t read on if you don’t want to know what happens) I realised in the first five minutes that I was going to have a problem watching it – because I have two young children. Since I gave birth, I haven’t been able to handle kids being harmed or killed on screen; no matter that it’s fictional (and all too often it isn’t – as a journalist I find myself surrounded by stories of very real horror, much of the time).
I turned the TV series Mindhunter off midway through the first episode, and the procedural police drama Marcella, too, because they featured narratives that centred around kids being hurt and abused. I can’t handle hurting kids for entertainment, though I accept that’s something personal to me – so the opening scene of Stranger Things 4, featuring a bunch of telekinetic kids getting killed at a hospital? Nope.
However, like I said, I loved the last three seasons so wanted to persevere – but it just got worse and worse! I ended up sending screenshots of some of the most shocking deaths and blood spatter to a friend who’d told me her 10-year-old daughter was interested in watching it. There was no doubt in my mind that it was my duty to ward her off: “It’s HORRIFIC,” I wrote, “proper horror – a teenage girl getting her eyes plucked out, all her bones broken, her dad with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. I am scared and I’m nearly 41! They’ve given up the subtle supernatural in favour of all-out horror with this one!”
Because that’s the rub, isn’t it? Stranger Things has been great up until now because of its clear and (almost) twee love of being spooky, like Eerie Indiana orThe Twilight Zone or even Doctor Who. A “hide behind a cushion, giggle at the scary bits” experience. Yes, at the end of series three it veered into Freddy Krueger-style hammer horror (RIP Billy) – and Barb’s death was particularly shocking – but it felt different to series 4. Felt more… harmless, somehow. Still gory, still dark, but the “Upside Down” had a childish appeal (though I’d let no child of mine watch it). The last three seasons somehow feel a world away from watching a teenage cheerleader have the bones in her arms and legs savagely snapped – and her eyes sucked out of her head – by the monster Vecna. Call me a coward if you like. Perhaps my tolerance for horror has reduced as I’ve got older.
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Of course, the ratings are there for a reason – it’s not like Netflix is misselling the series to kids; it’s a 15 and rightly so.
But there’s just something about the peculiar darkness of the imagery of a bunch of slain children in a hospital ward that doesn’t sit right with me. As a mother, as a child of the 80s, as a (hitherto) horror fan.
At the end of the first episode I had to do what I last remember doing after watching Rec (a Spanish “found footage” horror film), Paranormal Activity and Get Out – turn all the lights on in the house to go to the bathroom. At one point, I wondered if I would even be able to bring myself to walk upstairs – it was dark up there! Who knew which monsters might be waiting?
In the end, though, I didn’t have a choice: my five-year-old was fast asleep in his bedroom. I couldn’t possibly let him wake up and wonder where I was in the middle of the night, only to admit that mummy was sleeping on the sofa with the cat and the lights on because she was scared of a TV programme. But she is – very. And at this point, she doesn’t even know if she’ll be able to watch episode two.