If you’re like me, you were transported to Hawkins, Indiana for part of your summer. It’s a dark, mysterious and beautiful place where many Stranger Things happen.
I kept seeing friends’ posts about the series and cajoled my wife to summon up courage and watch with me. Because, you know, if you’re a good spouse you watch shows together… We were instantly hooked. Several days and eight episodes later we were all about those demogorgons, Upside Downs, and, of course, chocolate pudding.
I so sincerely applaud the Duffer Brothers and team for creating a story so full of excitement, wonder, and heart. If you haven’t watched yet, please stop reading and do so now. It’s seriously entertaining. It will give you the chills and the feels all in one beautifully created package…
I’ve been thinking a lot about why the series works so well and what I can learn from it as a themed entertainment designer. Here’s where it’s shaking out for me.
Sequential Revelation of Story
Right from the first episode the production design, cinematography, and score work perfectly in sync to set a tone for this strange world, without explicitly stating what’s actually happening yet. Each episode progressively reveals further aspects of the world, teasing and rewarding us in perfect amounts right up through the final episode.
Themed environments benefit from a similar approach. You barely have to cross under that gate for Adventureland to sense what lies ahead. The distant bongos and jungle sounds envelope us, we feel heat from the undulating torches, and smell the wonderful Dole Whip. The atmosphere is established and we’re primed to experience the deeper story points of the theme within the attractions without spoiling the mystery of what lies beyond the queues.
The show respectfully borrows and leverages iconographic imagery to create emotional impact. The boys are often bathed in Steven Spielberg’s “firelight” effect, silhouetted by an eery glow that’s coming from God knows where. The props department basically raided the dream toy chest of any boy in the 1980s. The Star Wars references were thick. The title sequence’s use of Benguiat, the font that graced the covers of so many great horror and adventure books in the 1980’s.
All these icons create such a nostalgic feeling for my childhood age of wonder and adventure.
Good themed entertainment does the same thing, it borrows from archetypes to quickly communicate a story. As opposed to dealing in hours of content, we often have just mere moments in a themed attraction to transport guests into an experiential story. And often those moments are a string of iconic images strung together in just the right sequence to deliver an emotional impact.
Balancing Play with Fear
I think the reason why viewers are connecting with Stranger Things so profoundly is because it gives adults the rare chance to play as a child again. The darker elements of the show perfectly counterbalance young characters and the nostalgic elements. This creates a space in which we can relive childhood fantasies (setting out a dangerous quest in the woods, sneaking around adults, running from the bad guys) while simultaneously engaging with very adult fears and emotions of loss (of a child, of security, of innocence).
As famously stated by Disney designer John Hench, creating a space to play is at the core of themed design. We strive to create a framework it’s safe to do so by removing any fears of coming across as silly, while simultaneously creating opportunities to conquer fears.
So those are just my initial, off-the-cuff musings on how this show that I can’t keep thinking about relates to the work I do. I’d love to hear your thoughts, fellow themed entertainment designers.
And if you haven’t yet, please do yourself a favor and watch the show 🙂