Netflix’s Stranger Things Serves Up Thrills and Chills in Season Two
Identical twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, the creators of the smash Netflix sci-fi horror series Stranger Things, grew up in North Carolina on a steady diet of pop culture—especially the stuff that was supposed to be off-limits.
Like scary movies.
“My babysitter in preschool told me the story of Freddy Krueger,” says Matt. “I was 4 years old! From then on, I just knew I had to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street. When we were young, we knew we weren’t supposed to be watching horror movies. That made the appeal of them so strong.
“It’s like forbidden fruit. You just want to taste it. I remember wandering into the horror section of the video store and just staring at the covers of these movies, feeling desperate to know what it was.”
“We fell in love,” says Ross.
The Duffers, now 33, have funneled much of their adolescent fascination with horror into their hit TV series. The spooky Stranger Things—which is less A Nightmare on Elm Street and more It—will stream all nine episodes of its second season on Netflix beginning October 27. (You can catch up on season one anytime on Netflix.) The first season was set in 1983—a year before the Duffers were born—and centered around a group of kids, the search for their vanished friend and the appearance of a psychokinetic girl. There was a monster, interdimensional paranormal forces and twisted laboratory experiments.
Part of the fun of the first season was meeting the young cast. Noah Schnapp, 13, plays Will Byers, whose disappearance spurred his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard, 14), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, 16) and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo, 15) into action. They aligned with a mysterious girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown, 13) and confronted an alternative dimension, a dark, cold, forbidding place called the “Upside Down.”
Winona Ryder (Will’s mom), Matthew Modine (a research scientist) and David Harbour (their small town’s chief of police) received raves for their performances as the adults alongside the young actors. The entire cast won Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series at this year’s Screen Actors Guild Awards.
In season two, the ensemble is joined by Paul Reiser and Sean Astin. Sadie Sink, 15 (who played Annie on Broadway and appeared as one of the siblings in the movie The Glass Castle), will come aboard as Max, a tomboy, and Dacre Montgomery, 22 (from the movie Power Rangers), will portray her older stepbrother.
Shades of Spielberg
Sharp-eyed fans have enjoyed finding nods in the show to many of the Duffers’ movie idols and influences—Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Stephen King’s It, bits of DNA from The Goonies and Stand by Me, even shades of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The tone of the show, often pitch-black but laced with wicked humor, echoes director Wes Craven’s Scream, while the retro look of the show (and the music) recalls John Carpenter’s Halloween or The Thing.
“We had this idea of a kid getting pulled into a different dimension,” Matt says.
“There were a lot of real-life experiments going on at the tail-end of the ’70s and early ’80s. We thought if we set the show in that era, it would allow us to pay homage to those movies.”
Stranger Things is also a throwback to movies like Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which were something of a rite of passage for braver kids—never going too far over the edge, but still offering plenty of thrills and chills.
“That’s what we really wanted,” says Ross. “Some of our most memorable experiences were those films. Those movies really affected us as kids, and not in a bad way. We really loved how dark they would get.”
And the Duffers—like many folks—have always loved to be scared.
“Fear is one of the strongest emotions,” says Matt. “It’s an incredible adrenaline rush.” Movies and TV shows, he says, are especially safe ways to experience fright without any serious consequences. “Part of your brain knows, ‘This is completely fine and safe.’ But when you’re in it, you get lost in it, completely immersed in it.”
The show’s young cast members agree—sort of.
“People love the thrill of something dangerous if they know they’re safe,” says Schnapp.
McLaughlin disagrees, at least about movies. “I don’t watch scary movies,” he says. “I don’t like putting that in my head.”
“I love The Conjuring,” says Matarazzo. “I love Insidious. Those movies don’t scare me, though. What scares me are movies like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, where the human mind takes over in its most evil form and causes tragedy that could happen any day.”
“I think it’s all about the moment you get scared,” says Sink. “Then you laugh about it. It’s fun!”
Why do we laugh after we get scared, anyway?
“It’s a release of tension,” says Ross. “It’s a realization that you got terrified of make-believe; your brain is trying to tell you that. I think it’s a defense mechanism, a mask: You make fun of the thing that scared you. It’s a shield.”
The fact that the show’s young cast are the central players in the thick of all sorts of horrific goings-on is somewhat unique. The Duffers make sure the kid actors are treated as professionals even during the darker, creepier and scarier elements of the episodes they’re shooting, and they’re determined to make the kids authentic on the screen. “When I was little and watching movies like The Goonies and Stand by Me, I felt like I was watching myself on the screen. It never felt like adults writing kids; it felt like kids writing kids,” Ross says.“That’s our goal. We want it to feel like a bunch of 12-year-olds sat down at the keyboard, and we just organized it.”
The show is unusual in that the young cast is on set almost all of the time, Matt says. “We spend a lot of time with these kids. If I’m around them for 20 minutes, I forget I’m 33,” he says. “I think they think we’re kids too, which is great. Sometimes you have to remind them that it’s a serious job we’re doing, but for the most part I treat them like everybody else. I think reconnecting me to what it was like to be that age has done nothing but improve the show.”
This new season, promises Brown, will be “exceptional.”
Will Byers, who was trapped in the Upside Down through most of the first season, will take center stage. “We’re really excited for people to see what this kid [Schnapp] can do. He blew us away the way Millie [Eleven] did in season one,” says Ross.
And season two will get darker. “We want to push that line, and for these kids to feel like they’re really in danger,” Ross says. “We wanted to treat this like a movie sequel, and up the ante in the way that our favorite movie sequels did so well.”
“Last year, we were more like normal kids. But now that these things have happened, we’re a little different,” Wolfhard, who also starred in the recent remake of It, hints. “We’re always sort of on edge.”
And so are we—counting the days until Stranger Things can scare us all over again.