Exploring the Violence and Brutality in Stranger Things Season 4
This season of Netflix’s Stranger Things is more violent than ever. Learn why horror filmmakers ground fantastical concepts with brutality in the name of realism, and what that might mean for the rest of the series.
For those who have just finished season four of Stranger Things, or at least Volume 1, I think I can say we have a lot to unpack. It’s been interesting to see everyone’s favorite ’80s homage horror gang more or less grown up—even though in story age, they’re all just one year older. Our gang is up against another new upside-down villain, and the series is rife with direct and indirect nods to classic horror, sci-fi, and stoner comedies from the 80s.
However, one element of this year’s new season that many people seem to notice right off the bat is the increased level of brutality and violence. And, it’s leading many people to chime in online about whether this is a good thing.
Let’s dive into this newly added brutality and explore why the show has evolved this way, and whether or not audiences (and filmmakers themselves) should try to push their projects and visions in this direction.
The Stranger Things Kids Grow Up
Ostensibly taking place only one year since the end of season 3, the latest season of Stranger Things feels like a much more grown-up version of the same story. The kids look (and act) much older, the themes have grown darker, and yes, even the violence seems to have significantly increased.
Looking back, the first season of Stranger Things premiered in the summer of 2016, which means much of its fanbase has also grown over the past six years. For older audiences, this doesn’t mean much, but for the younger audience (say kids who were meant to reflect the age of the kids in the show), this is quite a shift in a demographic. A 14-year-old teenage boy is now a 20-year-old man.
So, what do all of these growing-up themes mean for the show’s violence and brutality? And how does it fit in with the rest of mainstream media and content regarding how we write, shoot, and edit film projects? Let’s take this exploration a bit further.
An Age of Hyper-Violence
As we’ve discussed in our genre theory breakdown, the action genre is actually tied closely with the horror genre, as they share many filmmaking elements like suspense and tension building. As Stranger Things has worked its way through its various ’80s references, it would make sense for the show to settle into more action tropes eventually.
However, the action in this latest season of Stranger Things isn’t just the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone style action of the ’80s. If anything, it’s closer to the hyper-violence of modern action similar to the likes of John Wick or Nobody.
These days it almost feels like we—as the audience—want to see the most realistic displays of violence in our films. Perhaps once the curtain was lifted in other shows and films, it feels inauthentic to just beat around the bush. So does it raise the stakes and give the audience what they want at the same time?
Does brutality equal realism?
Perhaps the biggest argument for those who want to see this increased brutality in their projects usually comes down to wanting more realism. The argument goes like this: We live in a violent and brutal world, so to create a realistic film or show, you need to recreate that level of brutality, or else audiences will think it’s fake.
I’m not saying that’s my argument, but it certainly appears that the filmmakers of Stranger Things are trying to “grow up” their show and make it more akin to the rest of mainstream filmmaking. (Even if the plots are still obviously unrealistic, as they deal with supernatural elements like monsters and upside-down worlds.)
Truth be told though, this approach can be helpful for filmmakers looking to find quick and direct ways to ground their projects, specifically when dealing with these more outlandish elements. If you want your supernatural horror thriller to feel more real despite its premise, you can always make it more brutal and violent. (But, be careful not to make it too antagonizing to your audience.)
A Focus on Trauma
Another crux to much of the violence and brutality of this new season of Stranger Things is the filmmakers’ focus on trauma. As with any great horror film (or perhaps film in general), so much of the narrative and character development is based on trauma—in this case, specifically from events within the show’s story from past seasons.
Vecna, the evil antagonist monster in season 4 of Stranger Things, literally preys on the trauma-filled memories of his victims. Obviously, this is a direct nod to Freddy Krueger from the ’80s horror classic A Nightmare on Elm Street. However, combined with the hyper-violence and added brutality of this new season, it creates an interesting juxtaposition that makes the stakes feel just that much higher and more terrifying.
The Filmmaking Discussion
Overall this added brutality and hyper-violence represents several interesting decisions on the part of the filmmakers (in this case, the Duffer Brothers) regarding the type of project they wanted to create. They could have kept things as they were and relied on many of the same classic show-but-don’t-tell techniques of the first seasons of Stranger Things.
However, as their characters and audience have grown up quite a bit, they chose to go a slightly different route and give their project more emotional heft. Based on early numbers and reviews, this decision appears to be the right one, as audiences and critics alike are responding quite positively to this change in style.
The question for aspiring filmmakers and one-day showrunners is what can we learn from this discussion. Do you want your projects to be hyper-violent and real? Or do you want your projects to feel more detached and idealized?
Undoubtedly, these decisions were deeply discussed as this new season developed and were done for good thematic reasons that made sense to the team. Yet, with news of a final Stranger Things season five on the way, we’ll have to regroup again and see just what direction the filmmakers choose to take the next chapter.
For more filmmaking insights and discussions, check out these additional articles below.