Is it possible for a show to be simultaneously well written and difficult to watch? Monsterland, Hulu’s latest horror anthology premiering October 2, 2020, proves that it’s possible to elicit discomfort and enjoyment at the same time, even though doing so might push some viewers away. What really works about this series is the way it forces viewers to confront how and why they judge each episode from their own personal perspective, sometimes even identifying with the monsters that are showcased rather than with their fellow humans.
The depths of despair to which many of the Monsterland episodes take their main characters is what can make them painful to endure, but that pain is necessary context for the featured monsters that appear in each installment. In fact, the supernatural elements of the stories are often merely catalysts to get at the true horror of life on this messed up planet of ours. Almost every principal character is tortured by misfortune on a personal level, and the monsters accentuate, alleviate, or take advantage of the terrible situations their victims find themselves in.
“Eugene, Oregon,” for example, follows a teenager named Nick who has dropped out of school to support his invalid mother, and the bad luck he experiences is blamed on a monster that others encourage him to vanquish. But everything about his personal woes and the online community that reinforces his world view calls into question whether the creature that haunts him is even real rather than an aspect of his own personality. Monsterland seems to bank on having viewers who identify with Nick and who wish they had a dragon to slay to make their lives better.
The other episodes also carry the names of small towns with seedy sides or cities with their own dark histories, but not very story puts the onus of humanity’s troubles on the monster. In “Port Fourchon, Louisiana,” the young waitress featured in the Monsterland trailer visits with someone who offers her a supernatural means of escape from her impoverished, unfulfilled life. As long as the audience is prepared to experience the difficulties of her past and her daily existence with an emotionally troubled daughter, the story will have its own disturbing appeal.
If jump scares and gore are your thing, look elsewhere. Monsterland takes the worst aspects of humanity, including what corporate greed has done to the environment in “Palacios, Texas,” and exposes those evils to burn like open sores both for the audience and the characters that inhabit the story. And even when the monstrous beauty of a siren-like mermaid is celebrated as a coping mechanism, we are reminded that nature is unforgiving and indifferent to such human weaknesses.
Those who enjoy the darker stories of The Twilight Zone’s earlier era will have plenty of praise for Monsterland, but they shouldn’t expect to be entertained in a traditional sense, even as that term applies to the horror genre. This show is pure tragedy even when redemption is in play. If you want to wallow in a magically altered vision that openly acknowledges that life sucks, Monsterland offers clever tales with stellar performances that make the journey worth taking.