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Throughout the course of eight episodes, Hulu's latest horror anthology series, Monsterland, travels all across the United States, telling stories of everyday people encountering the strange and unknown in the form of monsters and folkloric creatures, including vampires, angels, mermaids, and demons.
Today's NYCC panel gathered Mary Laws (Preacher), the creator and showrunner of the series — which is based on North American Lake Monsters, a collection of short stories from author Nathan Ballingrud — along with cast members Jonathan Tucker (Westworld), Taylor Schilling (The Prodigy), Kelly Marie Tran (The Rise of Skywalker), and Mike Colter (Evil) — to discuss the humanity that often lies at the heart of horror, and finding the monstrous within other people.
"There were more classic creatures in Nathan's book, but oftentimes it was the protagonist who ended up being the most monstrous," said Laws about what she loved about the collection of short stories. "It was a really interesting examination of humanity, which is really why I wanted to adapt this book in the first place. I'm not as interested in horror that's just cheap thrills and jump scares."
She went on to add: "I think there's certainly a place in my heart for that. I love Texas Chainsaw Massacre so much ... But in terms of the stuff I want to make, I don't think that's enough. Horror is a fantastic genre to talk about real things. You can examine serious issues ... But there's an element of entertainment and genre that gives it a little bit of a lift, so you can ask those questions about the real world."
Amid some of the real issues discussed within the eight episodes were themes of mental health issues, grief, and how far you're willing to go to finally fit in a world that may not see you as the norm.
"I hadn't read anything that was this emotionally precise around the unravelling that happens internally and externally," said Schilling, whose episode, "Plainfield, IL," focused on a lesbian couple facing marital issues, while her character, Kate, is also dealing with mental health problems. "So what [Emily Kaczmarek, the episode's writer] did by externalizing Kate's experience through a monster ... I cried when I first read it."
Tran had a similar experience, wherein she connected to the emotional aspects of what her character went through. Her episode, "Iron River, MI," sees a young woman forced to deal with the disappearance of an old friend, and the way it returns to haunt her. "It really spoke to me, because growing up as a woman of color in a world that celebrated one type of body and one type of person, it was a really interesting thing to read."
But when it came to the monsters within the series, Colter felt that none of them could really compare with the worst monster of all: humankind itself.
"When you talk about monsters and the idea of monsters versus man and the human species, you become numb to the idea of suffering," explained Colter, whose episode, "Newark, NJ," tells the story of a married couple trying to cope with the disappearance of their daughter. "Especially now with social media. I watched something horrific the other day and things don't last very long."
He then continued, "To me, the monsters that I deal with on a regular basis, and remember, these are people, are usually people who have to make decisions in real life that affect other people. There are doctors and police officers like this. There are people who walk around who are completely dead inside. We're not that far from sociopaths, so I think the monster within the man is the most scary thing. That frightens me more than anything."
Tucker, who plays a more "monstrous" character than the others on the series, agreed. "We are gods and animals, and the dichotomy and the complexity of what we're able to do both in all of its beauty and all of its profound destruction and violence is a wonderful thing to balance."
Schilling also agreed, saying she saw the opportunity to play the darker aspects of her character as a creative vacation. "When the writing is beautiful and the storytelling is clear and there's enough vulnerability, we can all recognize that darkness inside all of us. We all know that it's there. There's something deeply cathartic whether or not you're well versed inside your own inner world."
Laws, who began developing the show after Trump was elected, hopes that watching Monsterland will help viewers find some nuance and empathy for others, especially in how they choose to interact with them.
"Like many people, I was really terrified. Looking around, there was a lot of polarization that was happening. I continue to be really scared by the lack of nuance in the world and the way we look at each other. There's good people and bad people, and that's about it sometimes," said Laws. "[So] I feel a great concern when we forget to look at each other as complex, complicated human beings with incredible pasts and trauma we have experienced with generational trauma that has been passed down to us. There are so many complicated things in any one moment."
For Laws, this comes back to Ballingrud's stories, and the types of characters she found within, such as those who work blue-collar jobs, and women who might be considered "immoral" by the rest of society.
"He examined people who wouldn't necessarily have been given that kind of nuanced examination or thought," said Laws. "I was really interested in bringing characters like that to the screen. Because only through that kind of fictionalized examination of darkness and humanity, and what makes people do what they do, can we really understand the people in our world and ourselves by proxy. That's what I hope people will take away when they see Monsterland."
Monsterland is currently available to stream on Hulu.
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