I've noted in the past that I do not condone or participate in "binge-watching", as not only do I often lack the free time to do so anyway, I think it keeps you from really digesting what you're watching. Ever speed-read a book and have trouble remembering details only a few days later? It's the same deal, far as I'm concerned, but many don't see it that way (I'm not knocking them, for the record - watch stuff however you want!) which sadly leaves me far behind on most buzz-worthy shows on Netflix and its "all episodes released" rivals. This unfortunately leads to me not even finishing many of them; there's no way to "keep up" the way I can/do with a traditionally airing show (I'm never behind on the likes of Better Call Saul or Game of Thrones), and with all the content out there these days these shows tend to get pushed further down the pile in favor of things I don't feel like I already saw thanks to social media osmosis.
All of that is a long winded way of explaining that I only finished the first season of Stranger Things three days ago. I watched the first episode around the time of its premiere back in 2016, and like most Netflix shows, it seemed "fine" but didn't fully grab me enough to drop everything and finish it. I watched the next two episodes over the next few months, usually near the end of the day when I just sought to put something on that I wanted to watch but wouldn't be mad if I happened to doze off, and that is of course exactly what happened. I didn't dislike the show, but by the end of the third episode I still didn't get why people were so obsessed with it - it was fine, but no more exciting than anything else out there. But I also didn't get why I myself wasn't all that endeared to it, as it was exactly in my wheelhouse: Monsters! Stephen King homages! Winona Ryder!
Luckily, I have a job, a family, and an ever growing pile of shows (and movies, and books, and games) to hold my interest, so the cultural blind spot didn't really weigh too heavily on my mind... until last week, when I got a chance to peek behind the scenes of the Stranger Things maze that will undoubtedly be the main draw of this year's Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios (the maze will be at both US locations *and* Universal Singapore, a rarity. Sorry, Japan!). My (barely) passing familiarity with the show allowed me to at least know what creative director John Murdy - who has been designing the HHN mazes for as long as the title existed - was referring to when he mentioned things like "Demogorgon" and showed us Joyce's wall of Christmas lights, but as we progressed through the maze's pathway, I found myself more and more at a loss to recognize anything. In fact, I can almost guarantee I was the only one in our group that thought "Dammit, SPOILER" at a particular dummy corpse near the end, which I'll be good and refrain from explaining for my fellow slowpokes and those types who consider things in haunted houses to be "spoilers" (yes, these people are real, and I've encountered them in person, not just online).
But I assume most of you have at least seen the show, so I can tell you that the maze's path more or less walks you through the first season, starting in the woods when Will disappeared (his discarded bike is one of the first things you'll come across), taking you through the Byers' home, into the "Upside Down", to Hawkins Lab, and finally into school where the last episodes mainly took place. None of the performers were in there yet, obviously, as it was still under construction, but Murdy explained most of what we'd be seeing when it opens up this weekend. Sure, it kind of spoiled the surprise and magic, like seeing a superhero movie with all the greenscreen still visible, but on the flipside, it will make me appreciate those elements all the more when I walk through as a punter instead of a journalist. One thing in particular stood out in that regard - upon entering the Upside Down area, Murdy pointed out some lights that were attached to thin but sturdy wires. Murdy explained that they were "fiber optic light wrapped in cotton; they're very bright and the cotton diffuses the light. Someone had the unenviable job of wrapping every one of these lights in cotton, and there are hundreds of them, which will be blown by little fans so everything's bobbing around." When it's all lit up and working, it will resemble that dusty "snow" stuff that floats around the characters as they make their way through the Upside Down, and I wouldn't have thought much of how the effect was pulled off (it was just CGI on the show, obviously not something that can be recreated live), but now I'll marvel at how it looks - and giggle again at the idea of some poor sod wrapping these tiny little lights one by one.
But it was something else Murdy said that inspired me to go home and finally finish watching the show:
"I found out about it through Twitter, through our fans telling me. They're never shy about telling me what to watch, but for this show I noticed a ton of them, telling me I should watch it, and it should be a maze. When I finally got around to watching it I watched it like every other fan; the minute I finished watching the pilot I started binge watching. Then I watched the way I watch, which is the worst way to watch something; it's painfully slow - I start it over again and it takes 8 hours to go through an episode, because I stop every few seconds, making notes, 'There's a sound effect at this time', noting all the details I want to capture. But the more I've watched the show - and I've watched it a ton - each time you watch it's just as good as the first time you watched it. It's just great writing, great acting, great direction. Everything is really well done, and they nailed the tone. Growing up as high school kid in the '80s... everything is spot on to what I remembered."
This wasn't a bit of promotional fluff; he's not the publicist and he didn't need to sell us on the show itself, only his maze. But just by the look on his face I could tell he genuinely meant these things, and given how much pressure he feels to deliver seven or eight quality mazes every year and soak in their source material to start plotting them out, I'm guessing he doesn't get to rewatch a lot of things. And this was a few days after David Harbour gave an interview where he said that the third season would take inspiration from Fletch, so I was already getting that "I should give it another chance" feeling. Murdy just hammered it home - if he can still enjoy it after living and breathing it for who knows how long in order to plan out an attraction of this size (and it IS big - this is the first time they've ever used an actual soundstage, giving them more height than previously afforded as well as more floor space), I can certainly watch it once.
Turns out, if I had just watched the fourth episode, "The Body", a year or so ago (around when I watched the third one), I probably would have kept going and maybe even watched the second season by now, because that particular installment is where it really started to click for me. If you're not an expert on the show, that's the episode where Joyce (Ryder) has to identify Will's body and refuses to admit that it's him - which turns out to be a good call since, as Chief Hopper (Harbour) later discovers it's a dummy, finally shredding his last bit of doubt that something sinister is happening. It's also when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) starts to realize that Will's brother Jonathan maybe isn't crazy and her friend Barb may have in fact been taken by a monster. In other words, the skeptics start siding with our heroes, and our ensemble really starts coming together, giving the show more momentum than the first few episodes managed, while also adding dimensions to the characters and making them more appealing to me. I watched the next four over the next three days, which is kind of huge for me as I rarely watch two episodes of anything in one day, let alone a show that as of a week before I had written off as overrated nostalgia porn.
Ironically, most of the direct '80s references came in the back half of the season, which was a good call because if they were piled up in the early episodes I would have been even less inclined to stick with it. In one episode they even point out the similarities to Stephen King stories, and Dustin keeps making references to Lando Calrissian - this is the sort of thing that turns me off, constantly reminding me of things I presumably enjoy but without taking into account I might enjoy them MORE and start wishing I was just experiencing those instead, but by this point I was invested enough in the story to let them slide. Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the occasional pop culture reference, but I'm increasingly concerned with our nostalgia-driven culture, wondering what new stuff will be around for my son to experience - I don't want the things he likes to be derived (or flat out revived) from things I liked when I was his age! I want to be confused by it! A good-sized chunk of my early hesitance for the show was due to nostalgia-lovers drooling all over it, giving me a skewed impression of what the show was - I was kind of expecting a Ready Player One-esque monstrosity. No, it's not the most original story in the world, and watching post-It (with one of the same actors, Finn Wolfhard, to boot) I was occasionally getting double the deja-vu, but it's not Family Guy either. The direct references are largely believable* and honest, and the characters are well-rounded and - once the show gets going - more interesting than I originally pegged. I legit beamed at Steve's "Did you give it to him?" in the season finale, endeared that this would-be asshole jock actually had a decent guy in him somewhere.
Back to the '80s aesthetic, one fun thing about the maze is that because the show is so grounded in that particular era, it was a challenge for Murdy and his team to recreate it for their attraction, unlike other more contemporary (or just "all purpose"/generic) periods like Trick r Treat and Walking Dead. They really put a lot of thought into it, especially for the Byers home portion of the walk-through since, as Murdy noted, they were not a particularly well-off family and thus a lot of their stuff was more '70s than '80s. Will's ugly-ass Bicentennial wallpaper has been matched, they found a hideous orange couch for the porch, and then in the school all of the textbooks and such are similarly dated - a less on-the-ball prop team would just pile it up with stuff from 1983, but that's not correct, as the show took place then but their textbooks and home decor would reflect the late '70s. Murdy also noted something that's been an ongoing challenge as the years go on: finding working CRT televisions when necessary, as they obviously are here, as well as in the Halloween 4 (Murdy says he will, as always, have a Silver Shamrock ad running in it) and Poltergeist mazes.
It's a bummer not every fan will get to see the maze in action, as they knew they had to get it right to satisfy the show's rabid fans and from what I've seen, they have. Outside of the odd exception like Walking Dead (which is actually a year-long attraction at Universal Hollywood, reworked slightly for Horror Nights) they traditionally do movies instead of TV shows (like Halloween 4, which is what I was hoping to get a tour of - alas there wasn't time, but I did confirm that Bucky will be represented!), so obviously they have more material to work from and have done a fine job of implementing all of the highlights from the first season, leaving the others up for future incarnations. But Murdy and his team have clearly gone the extra mile - our tour more or less ended in a classroom where I noted a Rube Goldberg science project mounted on the wall, and it was noted as being a direct copy from the one in the show. Having not seen that episode yet, I assumed it was some memorable plot point, like maybe Mike and El would bond over making it or something, but no - it's just set dressing we see on screen for maybe five seconds as the characters run by when being chased by the Demogorgon. It's a shame you'll probably be getting chased/scared by the monster and/or assholes from Hawkins as you make your way through, reducing the time you can spend admiring the detail they put into every nook and cranny for the interior locations. As for me, I can't wait to go back and see it with everything intact - especially now that it'll all make sense to me.
Universal Horror Nights opens this weekend at its Hollywood and Orlando locations, and runs most nights until the first weekend in November. Hours/prices vary by night so check their respective sites first before planning your evening!
*No 12 year old had a Thing poster hanging up in 1983!