Hulu’s new anthology horror series “Monsterland” isn’t about the things that go bump in the night. It’s about the things that go bump within us, what makes us tick, what makes us monsters. It’s a vision of horror that showrunner Mary Laws was drawn to — in spite of her attempts to move outside the genre. Laws burst onto the scene in 2016, writing the script for the Nicolas Winding Refn feature “The Neon Demon.”
“The Neon Demon” set up Laws as a horror director, but she didn’t want to thermatically repeat herself. “I wasn’t really interested in anything that was like the slasher, blood and guts kind of horror,” she told IndieWire. Laws wanted to investigate character, and that’s when she discovered Nathan Ballingrud’s book “North American Lake Monsters: Stories.” Found within Ballingrud’s book were elements that spoke not just to Laws but nearly everyone associated with the production, especially where it concerns women and minorities.
“I want to see stories about complicated young women who aren’t always good all the time,” Laws said. For the showrunner, horror is fantastic medium to examine women’s issues. “As a woman I, of course, experience a lot of the joys of life … but living as a woman can be absolutely horrifying,” she said. Bringing up a recent widely circulated tweet about what women would do if men weren’t around, Laws was surprised that many of the responses weren’t grandiose — maybe wearing a special skirt or just walking alone at night. “Every response was ‘I would basically live without fear’,” she said.
With horror an opportunity to examine women, “Monsterland” simultaneously uses the series to look at the messiness of people. Case in point, Kaitlyn Dever’s role as Toni in the pilot episode; when talking about the character Dever explained she always remained sympathetic to her, even when some of the decisions Toni makes seem anathema to a woman. What’s more, because Toni is a mother, there was an opportunity for the series to look at the myths of women who do raise children. “I always thought mothers just love their kids immediately,” Dever said. “For Toni, especially, there’s so much love there but also so much hate and resentment …Luck has just not been on her side.”
“Monsterland,” for nearly all the cast and crew, was an opportunity to plumb the depths of the genre from a feminine horror perspective. Both writer Emily Kaczmarek and star Taylor Schilling found the genre to lend itself particularly well to the female experience. “The uncertainty is sacred,” Schilling said. “And the ability to make room for that feels inherently feminine.” From there it became a possibility to look at other areas of human existence. In the episode “Plainfield, IL,” written by Kaczmarek, it was an opportunity to adapt a story from Ballingrud’s book, focused on a heterosexual couple, and transform it into a heartbreaking queer love story about the challenges of mental illness.
It’s a story that Kaczmarek was heavily overwhelmed by upon reading it. “I felt very connected. It hit me in a personal way,” she said. Since Kaczmarek and Laws both identify as queer, the episode was a great opportunity to create characters they identified with — while not making it a big deal. On top of that, they were able to layer the horror onto the characters, using identifiable examples of monstrosity to focus on a series topic. “A lot of codependency exists around the notion of losing oneself inside of another,” Schilling said, who stars in the episode. “I love to see that story explored of people being suffocated by love.”
Outside of love and relationships the series is also exploring the nature of race within the series. Director Desiree Akhavan helms the episode “Iron River, MI” starring Kelly Marie Tran as a young woman whose life changes when her best friend disappears. “It was really important to me when I first read the script that we had our lead be a different ethnicity than the rest of the cast,” Akhavan said. Being a child of immigrants herself, Akhavan said she understood the alienation and othering that Lauren experiences. With Kaczmarek and Laws, she had deliberate conversations about the role race would play and altered the script to accurately reflect that, and with “Star Wars'” Kelly Marie Tran in the lead it opened the door to truly explore.
For Tran, playing the character of Lauren in “Monsterland” after playing Rose Tico was “so much fun.” “When you grow up in a world where you’re seeing one image over and over, and this is the image that’s heralded … It’s something that was ingrained in me at a young age,” Tran said. “It’s something that I’m still fighting.” The actress had numerous conversations with Akhavan about her character’s motivations, especially where it regarded race and privilege.
Tran said for women especially there’s a heavy amount of socialization and grooming that often pits women against each other. “I have a lot of female friends [and] we were just talking about this the other day. That as a woman you are constantly code-switching and figuring out ‘How do I act in this situation,” she said. There are numerous things Tran said she’s had to deconstruct that are explored within the episode; at the same time, she understands her privilege, yet still finds herself changing when a power dynamic shifts. “It’s taking me time to deconstruct those feelings and emotions as a woman because I’ve been so socialized,” she said. “Monsterland,” she said, does a great job of blending fairy tale and horror to open up discussions of these topics and lay them out in a way that’s accessible.
“Monsterland” is streaming now on Hulu.