WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Stranger Things, Season 3, streaming now on Netflix.
As much as Stranger Things has its Lovecraftian influences, it's mainly stayed on the sci-fi side of things, sticking to Stephen King-esque stories from the '80s such as Eleven's Firestarter-like behavior. Of course, we did get some horror tones with the Demogorgon in Season 1 and the Mind Flayer in Season 2 when it possessed Will Byers, Exorcist-style.
However, in the third season, the sci-fi essence of the franchise takes a backseat as the Duffer Brothers cut loose with monsters from the very first episode, painting the grimmest picture yet in the backwater town of Hawkins, Indiana.
It kicks off with Billy getting possessed by the Mind Flayer, seeing visions of his darker self and then acting as a kidnapper. This has an Invasion of the Body Snatchers feel to it with the people who Billy corrupts -- aka the Flayed -- coming off like Pod People, secretly planted around Hawkins to kill help Eleven. This approach really does well to separate the show from its past, and make the horror essence feel like it's no longer a topping, but the entire cake itself. After all, evolution is an important thing which helps ensure the creative team isn't churning out predictable '80s tropes and callbacks we might get fed up of.
The biggest horror slant comes when the Flayed begin showing their true colors, or should we say, their insides. It starts with the Hawkins Post reporters, Tom and Bruce, who melt down to goop in the hospital and attack Nancy. In their human form, they're a mix of Michael Myers from Halloween II and obviously, as they break down doors, you can see nods to The Shining.
But when their gooey forms combine to form the Meat Monster, there are shades of The Thing meets The Blob, in what is the series' scariest sequence to date. This adds such a sinister air to the show, especially as the design of this new creature tops the already-impressive Demogorgon.
We even see nods to Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead as the Flayed start assimilating to form the larger Meat Monster for the finale, not to mention when the teens hole up in Hopper's cabin in the back half of the season, the Duffers are clearly channeling their love for Night of the Living Dead. Some cuts are more subtle, though, such as Dustin and the "Scoops Troop" discovering the green ooze beneath Starcourt Mall in the Russian lab, similar to Prince of Darkness, but all in all, you get a greater degree of suspense and tension as the horror levels build up.
At this point, it's not even about paying homage to those old movies, the show genuinely feels like it's embarking on horror territory of its own and simply updating its story with the same horror tropes these movies used. Are they generic? Maybe, but Stranger Things has a way of making this approach seem fresh as we haven't seen it put to good use in such a long time. Again, relying on these methods and less on jump scares works really well because direct horror, especially with kids as the core cast, resonates on a whole new spine-tingling level.
And as the season winds down, you can see the Meat Monster stalking the heroes in the shadows like Jaws and Billy in the parking lot of the mall, flashing his lights and revving his engine a la Christine as if to show his car is just as demonic as his Mind Flayer-possessed self. In other words, it's not just about in-your-face action, but cerebral horror as well.
We should have known the season would have gone like this from the moment we see rats exploding, old people eating fertilizer, Billy drinking bleach and oh, yeah, Billy subduing victims and telling them to "be quiet" so his dark overlord's tentacles can penetrate and mind-control them.
These were the red flags that signaled this wasn't the Stranger Things of old. Lighthearted, campy and fun, sure (just see that Neverending Story twist in the finale); but ultimately, Season 3 is a macabre dance that would leave even the bravest of fans needing to put the lights on to grab a drink of water at night. The final battle alone with Billy and the Meat Monster is proof of this and it's also concrete evidence Stranger Things might have taken a walk on the dark side it won't be coming back from.
Created by the Duffer Brothers, Stranger Things stars Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Noah Schnapp, Natalia Dyer, Charlie Heaton, Joe Keery, Priah Ferguson, Cary Elwes, Jake Busey and Maya Thurman-Hawke.