Stranger Sounds: How Netflix's 'Stranger Things' uses sound to tell its story
When Netflix dropped the first season of the newest addition to their 'Originals'-catalogue, people immediately started to fall in love with it. It has since been hailed as a modern take on mystery-driven narratives such as Twin Peaks (1990-1991) with the look and feeling of beloved childhood-classics like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) , The Goonies (1985) or Stand By Me (1986).
Stranger Things is set around a small town in Indiana, where a boy goes missing one night. In a community where nothing bad ever happens, this incident stirs up a lot of trouble. Both family and friends, as well as the local police try to find out what happened to the boy and soon discover that supernatural forces are threatening the lives of every citizen in town.
Much like in Super 8 (2011), most of the story is told through the eyes of a group of kids: Mike, Lucas and Dustin. The three boys are investigating the whereabouts of their missing friend Will. With help of the mysterious girl Eleven they find a way to communicate with him and soon realize they have to defend themselves against malevolent forces that have been set free in their town.
While the series receives a lot of praise for its 80's nostalgia, pop-cultural references, strong performances and its synth-soundtrack - one integral part is often left out: its sound. Quite a bit of the series' dense atmosphere is created or essentially supported by it, though.
Sound-storytelling in Stranger Things
My first example of how sound is used to tell Stranger Things is the feeling of the Upside Down. It is mainly created through a cool visual tone supported by gooey sounds. In conjunction with a wide reverberation they create the eerieness that composes the otherworldly surrounding.
The sensory deprivation tank sequences display a high level of focusing the narrative through sound, when Eleven makes her way through a stylized and minimalistic meta level. Her steps through the shallow water are emphasized with splatters and soft trickle. Together with a very reduced atmoshphere in the background the sound directs the attention of the audience towards the actions of Eleven and positions her in the abstract room she finds herself in. At the same time the sounds emphasize the abstractness of the environment.
And finally one of the most recognizable sound-heavy instances in Stranger Things is the sound design of the monster. In order to not give away too much of the monster through the course of the eight episodes, visual coverage of it is initially rather rare and vague. Its strong and intimidating presence in the series comes through sounds that accompany the physical proximity of the monster. Whenever it is near one of the characters, lights start to flicker and eventually stop working altogether. This is accompanied by high-pitch sounds that are made up of a lot of different kinds of clicks, clatters, shaking, switches and scratches. Mixed in lower end frequencies add to the idea of electronic interferences caused by the monster's presence.
These sounds are highly stylized, exaggerated and over the top. They draw attention to themselves and pose the question what might cause these sounds. Sometimes a slight delay or asynchronicity between the image and the sound adds to the idea of supernatural forces being at work.
The sound of the monster itself is made up of a lot of growling, screams and screeches as vocalization and cracks to emphasize the limbs of the monster. One of the most recognizable features of the monster are seal cries and squeaks that are the foremost element of the monster's unique sound. In combination with the other elements, the vibrant, high-pitch seal-sounds create a threatening, primeval dimension to situations where the monster is lurking nearby the protagonists and preys upon its victims.
Sound of the Strange
There is a lot of detail in Stranger Things' sound design that helps to tell the story, draw you into the narrative and create a true audiovisual experience.
See and listen for yourself - the first 8 minutes of Stranger Things are free to watch on Youtube: