Vampires, aliens and witches are the stuff of nightmares, but Hulu’s new Monsterland series portrays these feared creatures as the enablers and victims of selfish, conflicted humans.
This engaging eight-part series, which debuts on the streaming service Oct. 2, explores the blurred lines between monsters and humans. In fact, it’s not really the monsters themselves that are the true threat in many of these creepy stories, but the people they encounter.
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The anthology series of standalone tales is based on Nathan Ballingrud’s 2013 short story collection North American Lake Monsters and adapted for TV by Mary Laws (The Neon Demon).
Each installment tells its own individual story named after the place it’s set, though some characters have cameos in other episodes to show they’re all in the same timeline. While every episode includes an unusual creature from a myth or urban legend, it’s the underlying themes of family, betrayal, love, envy, greed and guilt that drive home the horror.
The first episode, Port Fourchon, Louisiana, features actor Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart) expertly playing a down and out waitress and single mom who must care for her disturbingly rage-filled daughter. Dever’s performance as a young parent who feels trapped in her dead-end job and overwhelmed by adult responsibilities makes her character’s story seem all too real.
The waitress and mom ends up crossing paths with a mysterious man. You might be worried about this man’s intentions, but it’s the mom who finds herself facing a decision that would horrify most parents. This first episode suggests the idea that bad decisions can lead to disastrous consequences. Every choice we make has the potential to turn us into monsters.
The theme of bad moms continues with an episode called New Orleans, Louisiana. A socialite played by Nicole Beharie (Sleepy Hollow) puts so much importance on appearing to be the perfect wife and mother that she ends up neglecting her young son when he needs her most.
Monsterland also grapples with the theme of guilt. In the episode New York, New York, a wealthy yet unhealthy oil company CEO suffers for looking the other way during an environmental catastrophe and must battle his own ugly inner demon as punishment.
It’s hard to feel empathy toward a greedy millionaire who’s concerned only with his own needs, but another episode, called Newark, New Jersey, features a couple consumed by guilt over the loss of their only child. The gut-wrenching story mainly focuses on the tormented dad, portrayed by Mike Colter (Luke Cage).
Though the extremely entertaining Monsterland is definitely worth a watch, the hour-long episodes feel too short for viewers to really get to know or care about the characters. I found myself wanting to understand why these people kept making bad decisions and why they refused salvation.
The stories in Monsterland are often more like morality tales disguised as penny dreadfuls, rather than obvious horror stories. The monsters here aren’t particularly scary as a whole, though they can be somewhat disturbing in their appearance.
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The mermaid in the Palacios, Texas episode acts more like a cunning predator than a Disney-fied singing princess. And the zombie in Plainfield, Illinois is disgusting for sure, but not really the stuff of nightmares.
The tale that struck the biggest nerve with me was the episode called Iron River, Michigan. It follows the story of an unpopular teen girl, played by Kelly Marie Tran (The Last Jedi), who’ll do anything to live someone else’s life, even if it’s the life of her missing best friend. While this episode has a real monster that lurks in the woods, the story isn’t really about why or how her friend disappears.
The real horror in this parable highlights what happens when we let envy eat up our future. As an outsider teen myself growing up, I can relate to this character probably more than I care to admit. It’s extra excruciating to feel like a nobody while living in the shadows of a charismatic friend who seems to have it all.
This episode is particularly good at proving that the choice between doing the right thing or continuing to live a lie isn’t always as easy as one might think.
Monsterland isn’t the kind of series with the typical werewolves, aliens, boogeymen, demons and other creatures of the night that horror fans expect. But the series is worth watching as a reminder that the evil creature we should fear most is the darkness within ourselves.