Monsterland Serves Up Bleak Fairy Tales for Our Dystopian Reality

Monsterland Serves Up Bleak Fairy Tales for Our Dystopian Reality
Image: Hulu

As advertised, each episode in Hulu’s new horror anthology Monsterland contains a supernatural creature. But Monsterland’s real interest lies with its human characters: lonely, desperate, anguished people who perceive the monster they encounter as yet another spot of trouble in their unhappy lives.

If you’re seeking spiritual uplift, quirky humour, redemption arcs, or those “lesson learned” twist endings that often accompany Twilight Zone-type tales, Monsterland may not be the series for you. The show, adapted from Nathan Ballingrud’s Shirley Jackson Award-winning story collection North American Lake Monsters, is incredibly bleak. Some episodes are more despairing than others, but all of them are awash in darkness, in both a literal (the show is heavy on night scenes) and existential sense.

Though it can feel overloaded with dread, Monsterland — created and executive produced by Mary Laws (Succession, Preacher, The Neon Demon), who also wrote four out of the eight episodes — isn’t entirely punishing. The show’s artistic choices do a lot to inject energy and creativity into all that gloom. Each instalment runs around 50 minutes, which in the show’s capable hands is ample time to set the scene (each episode is titled after the city and state where it takes place) and roll out a detailed story. In every tale, there’s a central character brought to life with tremendous force — the acting is outstanding throughout.

Though each episode is self-contained, watching Monsterland in order is recommended, if only because the young waitress we meet in “Port Fourchon, LA” (played by Booksmart’s Kaitlyn Dever with an intense Cajun accent) pops up a few more times down the line. We won’t be spoiling specific plotlines in this review, and the show’s official loglines are intentionally flat and vague: “A down-and-out waitress questions her choices.” But it doesn’t give anything away to say that all of Monsterland’s main characters end up questioning their choices, especially when they start to realise there’s no correct option that’ll steer them toward a better life.

In “Eugene, OR,” an angry teen (Gotham’s Charlie Tahan) who’s already grappling with tremendous hardships is fired from his fast-food job, then must endure his boss’ cruel summation of his situation: “You’re not a special kind of fucked. You’re just regular old fucked.” But the truth is, fucked is fucked, no matter how mundane or sensational it appears from the outside. Throughout the season, Monsterland’s stories dig into topics like serial murder, sexual abuse, poverty, missing children, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, violence-inciting internet chat groups, environmental disasters, abandonment, lying, infidelity, greed, gross abuses of power — all-too-human horrors that are distilled into deeply personal stories, some more successfully than others.

The standout Monsterland episode takes on a topic as intimate as it is insidious: jealousy. “Iron River, MI” stars Kelly Marie Tran (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Lauren, a young woman who envies her best frenemy with such ferocity that she dedicates a decade to “becoming” her — copying her hair, romancing her boyfriend, cozying up to her mother — after the girl mysteriously disappears. (The circumstances of that disappearance play out in conflicting flashbacks.) “Iron River” lets the monster component of its story enter organically, as the girls page through a true crime book about a legendary killer dubbed “the Lumberjack” said to lurk in the nearby woods. But as Lauren comes to find, the truth about what’s out there is far more alarming than any real-world unsolved mystery.

Monsterland’s other monsters, some of which allow excellent gore effects to gush forth, are just as unexpected; the “Palacios, TX” episode, in which an ailing fisherman meets a mermaid, is maybe the most on-the-nose (though the mermaid, played by Good OmensAdria Arjona, hardly resembles your typical fairy-tale specimen). And again, we won’t be spoiling any specifics here. But just when you start to feel like Monsterland is going to bum you out more than is really necessary, especially in 2020, along comes “Newark, NJ,” which finally offers catharsis for both its characters and the viewer.

If you’ve suspected that the real monsters of this show have been the humans all along, you’d be right; at one point in that last episode, a character takes stock of her life and literally admits “I’m a monster,” just to make things absolutely clear. That aside, “Newark, NJ” — starring Luke Cage himself Mike Colter and soon-to-be Falcon and the Winter Soldier star Adepero Oduye — brings its haunted protagonists on an emotional journey that allows them to find closure that’s both hard-earned and bittersweet. Its resolution also brings new, hopeful context to something a morally ambiguous character utters back in Monsterland’s first episode: “Sometimes you have to live with what you’ve done in order to live.”

All eight Monsterland episodes hit Hulu on October 2. No word on where the show will end up in Australia, but you can still use a VPN service to access the streaming platform.