‘We can’t let him off the hook’: How Hulu’s new TV show examines online hate groups
This story contains spoilers from the first season of Hulu’s “Monsterland.”
A feral mermaid, an animated corpse and a shapeshifting serial killer are among the supernatural creatures that appear in “Monsterland,” but the real monsters in each episode are everyday people.
Based on Nathan Ballingrud’s collection of short stories “North American Lake Monsters,” Hulu’s eight-episode anthology series, streaming now, is an exploration of the experiences and situations that lead people to do monstrous things.
“I wanted to create a series that really examined what makes us human and Nathan’s book was just a perfect jumping-off place for that,” said creator and executive producer Mary Laws, whose previous credits include “Preacher,” “Succession” and co-writing “The Neon Demon.” “We live in a world that’s so polarized. It’s so black and white, and right and wrong. There’s not a lot of gray area and there’s not a lot of nuance.”
“I think that’s really dangerous,” she continued. “I think that’s when you start to lose your own sense of humanity and forgiveness for your neighbor. And I think that actually ends in disaster.”
As such, the most unsettling aspect of an episode is often not the actual monster or the horrific behavior of the human protagonist — it’s the emotions the show forces you to sit with through its ambiguity. While “Monsterland” in no way advocates forgiving these characters for their actions, it also seeks to understand the root causes of those actions.
Following characters that range from an unwed teenage mother to a negligent CEO, the series uses elements of horror to engage with topical themes. And in a week where the president of the United States was once again criticized for failing to condemn white supremacy and instead called on a far-right hate group to “stand by” during a nationally televised debate, “Monsterland’s” second episode is particularly timely.
Titled “Eugene, Oregon,” the episode follows a lonely teen named Nick (Charlie Tahan) who has dropped out of school to care for his ailing mother. His father abandoned them years ago. Rising medical costs and unpaid utility bills are among his everyday hardships, and his only outlet is online gaming.
When he notices a mysterious shadow creature in his room, Nick stumbles upon a fringe group of conspiracy theorists online who are convinced these shadows are waging a secret war against humanity. They also believe a presidential candidate is sending them secret messages endorsing their efforts to take down these shadow “terrorists.”
Nick’s beliefs are slowly influenced by his new friends until he eventually takes up arms in this supposed war in order to protect his and his mother’s lives.
This episode, Laws explained, grew out of her and her writers’ concerns about mass shootings and school shootings. Mass shooters have often been linked to hate-filled internet forums that encourage their extremist views.
“We were all very concerned with the sort of growing power of the internet and the way that it can infiltrate the lives of these really vulnerable young people, especially really vulnerable young men,” said Laws. But “we didn’t necessarily want to investigate a shooter and try to understand them. That’s not by any stretch the point of the episode.”
The episode is an update of Ballingrud’s short story “S.S.,” which also features a lonely teenager named Nick who is his mother’s caretaker. Instead of shadow creatures, the monster in his life is his mother’s depression, which has manifested as a form of self-cannibalism.
In the short story, Nick is recruited into a white nationalist group by the girl he is seeing.
“We wanted to tell [Nick’s] story but we felt like we needed to give it a more contemporary twist,” said Laws. “Because this whole series is about examining our current-day world, in order to make it current we really felt like it had to be about the perils of the internet.”
“Monsterland’s” update takes into account how conspiracy theories and far-right ideologies are increasingly spread online rather than in-person meetings. These extremist ideas are also becoming more mainstream through various internet forums, including Facebook groups, so the threat is as urgent as ever.
“Super Dark Times” director Kevin Phillips, who directed the episode, explained that what struck him the most during the earliest days of involvement with “Monsterland” was the sensitivity of Laws and her writers room.
“The empathy and the writing, from the onset, left an impression,” he said, and reiterated that empathy was key in his approach to the episode.
He immediately saw the care that would be necessary to handle Nick’s story, which he said both scared him and excited him creatively.
“I latched onto the drama, first and foremost,” said Phillips. “What I saw with Nick and his relationship to his mom, for me, was the emotional core of the story and everything else kind of just branched out from that.”
For Phillips, there was never a doubt that the shadows were harmless, and that the actual monstrosity of the episode was Nick’s indoctrination.
“Mary and her team, they were pretty insistent from from the get-go that the shadow itself is just a shadow,” said Phillips. “I can’t even recall the amount of conversations that went on for hours about how we should render this shadow — how it should look, how it should move, how it should be perceived from the camera’s perspective.”
Nick’s perception of the shadow affects how it is seen: The shadow only takes on what Nick projects onto it. But it’s easy to see that the shadow serves as a stand-in for those targeted by such hate groups for no other reason than their identity, including immigrants, people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“As Nick’s character becomes indoctrinated into this radicalized perspective, the shadow takes on a more menacing tone,” said Phillips. “I think that is a great metaphor for how this type of stuff works. The more one is radicalized into a certain type of thought, the more polarized their perspective becomes; the things that would otherwise be gentle or benign or harmless all of a sudden kind of skew in a different way for them.”
The show is able to explore these themes and Nick’s humanity because, ultimately, he doesn’t become an actual mass shooter. He’s just fighting shadows with modified flashlights.
And, as Laws explained, the episode is not about excusing Nick’s behavior. It’s about pointing out how the internet and these online groups are able to infiltrate his home and transform him — and underscoring just how dangerous that is.
“We kept saying ‘We can’t let him off the hook,’” said Laws. “And I don’t think we do.”
When: Any time, starting Friday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)
HorrorTV Series (2020)
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