The horror of Hulu’s new anthology series Monsterland is human. Sharp-toothed mermaids swim in the oceans, demon-eyed horn players roam the French Quarter of New Orleans, shadows plot families’ destruction, a greasy pelican erupts from an oil company CEO’s body like the chestburster in Alien—but the real dread, and the real evil, usually comes from the regular people who cross these monsters’ paths. Some of them even know it. Toni, a teenaged waitress who abandons her troubled daughter outside a hamburger joint, leans over a bar and tells a man that she’s had an epiphany brought on by a new drug made from the blood of alien creatures who literally fell from the sky. “I’m a monster,” she says, with a broken sort of smugness. The man confesses that he’s a monster, too.
Monsterland is about decay—moral, physical, civilizational. It tells eight separate stories (though Toni and that pelican weave their way into a few of them), each set in a new American city. The show is an adaptation of Nathan Ballingrud’s short-story collection North American Lake Monsters, tweaked for the screen by showrunner Mary Laws, who we all should be paying attention to now. The episodes are named after their locations. They are not glamorous places but bleak, exhausted little somewheres full of casual cruelty done in the name of getting by. Even its vision of New York City feels like that. The protagonists of each episode are invariably at the low point of their lives when they are visited by the supernatural, which either pushes them over the edge or is the manifestation of their breakdown. Apart from the mermaid, they’re not your usual fantastic beasts. They’re grittier, more subtle, fitting so neatly into the tone and visual language of the show that sometimes it doesn’t feel like you’re watching something supernatural at all. It’s not clear what’s real and what’s hallucinatory, or what is grotesque and what is beautiful. Decay can be like that.
Most of the characters resist supernatural explanations at first. They write monsters off as serial killers, figments of children’s imagination, or tricks of the light. Others fall in headfirst, seduced. In Eugene, Oregon, a boy named Nick, who is failing to support himself and his ill, housebound mother, is resigned to his grim life, saying there are some people who get noticed and others who just don’t. After a shadowy figure appears in his home, he is pulled into an online community of Shadow Watchers, people who claim to have had their lives destroyed by these shadows because nobody’s luck could be so bad. Nick’s worldview changes. Now people are divided into those the shadows target and those they leave alone. It’s galvanizing, and it ruins him. There’s a kind of comfort in the presence of monsters. Without a supernatural scapegoat, he’s left with nowhere to lay blame.
Monsterland’s humans are all looking to shrug off blame. They have made horrible decisions for complicated, often sympathetic reasons. It’s so easy to imagine yourself as one of them that some of the ick rubs off onto the viewer and sticks like an oil spill. Which works, because sometimes the viewer is partly to blame. Monsterland is not exactly a social justice show—it offers no solutions, and its social critiques are often oblique—but it is a social issues show. Abortion access, the rage of isolated young white men, the predations of the 1 percent, pollution, sexual abuse in the post-#MeToo era, mismanaged mental illness and substance abuse, climate change, sexism, poverty, and racism undergird all of the onscreen pathos no matter where in the country the show takes you. This is America. Don’t catch you slippin’ now.
Monsterland isn’t a straightforward eat-the-rich horror movie where the wealthy are lizard people (or vampires) out to get everyone else. It works in metaphor, and by building intense, uncomfortable empathy with intense, uncomfortable characters. The decisions that make these people monstrous were made in desperation, and the causes of that desperation are far bigger than a single person. Refusing to empathize with them is refusing to acknowledge that you are trapped inside a similar system—or refusing to acknowledge your privilege.
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