"Woods are double bad for girls — just like everyplace else," a River Iron former resident explains during the wedding rehearsal dinner in Episode 7 of Monsterland. Home to the infamous Lumberjack serial killer, the Michigan setting paves a true-crime style narrative alongside a familiar story of jealousy, privilege, and the perils of wish fulfillment.
Hulu's new horror anthology series from creator Mary Laws takes a modern approach to beasts, with echoes of fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. The scenarios are familiar, drawing on myths and legends in a contemporary setting. Based on Nathan Ballingrud's short story collection North American Lake Monsters, some of the episodes are not directly adapted from Balligrud's mediation on humanity. Instead, the Kelly Marie Tran-led "River Iron, Michigan" is written by Emily Kaczmarek and directed by Desiree Akhavan, which takes a similar approach to the humans-as-monsters scenario with a point-of-view that is implicitly female.
Spoilers for Monsterland Episode 7 ahead.
Men exist on the periphery of the story as the unseen serial killer, the cops investigating Elena's (Sarah Catherine Hook) disappearance, and Lauren's (Tran) soon-to-be husband Pete. The latter was dating Elena before she went missing, which leads to some questions about Lauren's involvement in her friend's unexplained vanishing act. In the decade that has passed since this tragic event, Lauren has become a surrogate daughter to Elena's mother, causing some to suggest there is something sinister afoot. Is wish fulfillment the real monster here?
For an episode that centers men in the opening scene, women are very much the heart of this story. Hanging out in Lauren's bedroom, the sexually experienced Elena gives Lauren blowjob tips before her boyfriend Pete pops over for a quickie — all while Lauren has to sit in her own closet to give the young couple some privacy. A guy is the one who brings up the town's violent history and the sinister-sounding White Woods, but they are nowhere to be found within this particular haunted area.
"No one ever goes into the White Woods expecting anything good to happen. Especially a girl," Lauren parrots her mother's warning. This heavy dose of victim-blaming begins with Lauren telling her new bestie that her mom thinks the girls who went into the woods only have themselves to blame for their misfortune. Forest areas have long provided the foundation of cautionary tales, from Hansel and Gretel to Little Red Riding Hood. Bedtime stories are rife with dangerous forest settings, which ensures our impressionable young minds are aware that if you venture to this location, something very bad will happen to you. The contemporary version of a witch or blood-thirsty wolf is the serial killer waiting to claim his prize. Instead of a magical creature, River Iron has the notorious Lumberjack who only targeted the prettiest (white) girls.
Rather than movie starlets or celebrities in a magazine, Elena models her Rita Hayworth curls on the Lumberjack's victims and not the Old Hollywood icon, first asking her friend, "Would the Lumberjack want me?" She backs up her troubling question with a doozy of an explainer, "Because they're hot. He had good taste." Even in the world of infamous serial killer victims, there are certain impossible beauty standards to live up to.
The true-crime obsession percolates beneath the surface, providing an outlet for adolescent fearlessness and pushing boundaries. On the one hand, reckless behavior is part of the youthful feeling of immortality. Nothing can touch you when you are young — except when you become the cautionary tale. Notoriety comes in many different forms and in this town, the White Woods is full of enticing legends including the beautiful dead girls who will never get old or fade into obscurity. They are forever immortalized, frozen in time in their smiling yearbook photos.
There is also the self-preservation aspect; Lauren reads "Horror in the White Woods" as a form of protection, whereas Elena doesn't have an actual death wish but a twisted desire to be wanted while rebelling against her overprotective mother. "My mom called it the no-no zone," Elena remarks on the fabled White Woods, doubling as a euphemism for her body. Sex in horror often leads to death, which is what both Elena and Lauren's mothers are suggesting will happen if their daughters venture into the White Woods. Sure, Elena's is more open about her slut-shaming, but the "no-no zone" is a cutesy way of presenting the so-called benefits of virginity. She is, of course, unaware that her daughter is hooking up in the safe confines of Lauren's bedroom.
The trip into dangerous territory is to engage in other illicit behavior after Pete has gifted the pair with a pre-rolled joint. The episode portrays three different versions of what Lauren did the night Elena disappeared, which paints Lauren as varying degrees of innocent and guilty. The first depicts Lauren as standing up to her frenemy for dismissing her feelings in the same way her mother does. In this version, she refuses to go to the woods because nothing good will happen. However, she also doesn't disclose Elena's solo jaunt to the police when her friend fails to come home. Her guilt is rooted in inaction, but others think she is haunted by something far greater than this.
At Lauren and Pete's wedding, the White Woods' bloody history is shared with the plus ones and friends from out of town. "There's only one thing worth knowing about Iron River. Stay out of the White Woods," giddily warns one dude. He is met by eye rolls from the women at the table as he describes the infamous Lumberjack slayings. The news of a recently discovered body has a sobering impact, as this story isn't one they read about in books but features someone they went to school with.
It has been a decade since Elena disappeared and Lauren is accused of "doing full Elena cosplay." She is marrying Elena's teen boyfriend and she even calls the presumed dead girl's mother "mom." This is enough to send Abigail (Alice Kremelberg) into a murder theory tailspin. "Girl, you have to stop with the true-crime podcasts. It is legit getting out of control," her fellow bridesmaid tells her, but she refuses to drop her case. True crime provided the foundation of their youth and it is still a source in adulthood. In Abigail's version of events, Lauren succumbed to peer pressure, got freaked out and she accidentally killed her — FOMO can have a truly chilling resolution. A handy nearby ax provided the method to dispose of the body.
In a bid to discover the truth, Abigail reveals the surprise special guest is Lauren's actual mom — who she is now estranged from — and the wedding descends into truth-telling chaos. Faye (Joy Osmanski) remembers her daughter sneaking out, but Lauren still maintains her innocence claiming Elena played a trick on her before disappearing. All she could find was her scarf and nothing else of note in the White Wood. Abigail claims this is "horror movie Mad Libs" and insists she killed her friend. A slap ruins her perfectly applied lip color and she fleas into the fabled haunted forest in response to her constructed world collapsing. Her Rita Hayworth curls lose their bounce and her mother's comments about how she is wearing a dead girl like a dress that doesn't fit her ring inside her head.
Up to this point, it has been very much grounded in reality, and the monster at the heart of this story is envy. When Kelly Marie Tran mentioned what drew her to this part, she told IndieWire, "When you grow up in a world where you're seeing one image over and over, and this is the image that's heralded... It's something that was ingrained in me at a young age. It's something that I'm still fighting." Lauren doesn't long for death, but even the serial killers that get mythologized have a certain type and the media worships at the altar of the young, pretty white dead girl. Race informs who is remembered and which stories are forgotten in the pantheon of true crime stories.
During the show's recent NYCC panel, Tran also discussed how feelings of insecurity and adolescent awkwardness also played a huge part in this character's choices. Lauren is seen as the misfit by everyone except Elena — even her mother loathes her — but that relationship is predicated on the benefit of using Lauren's room as a hook-up spot. Elena can bounce through life getting everything she wants because of what she looks like, but in her desire to look like a serial killer victim as an outrageous act, she gets her wish and gives Elena the life she always wanted.
Making a bargain is a big part of fairy tales that incorporate horror undertones. When Lauren flees the venue and heads for the woods — in a dress that belonged to Elena's mother — this haunting happily ever image is punctuated by the location that is only known for spilled. Here she encounters an old crone straight out of the Brothers Grimm who looks remarkably like the mother she has just fled (also played by Joy Osmanski).
"I don't deserve him or this dress. I don't deserve that life. It's not even mine," she confesses before claiming she did kill her friend. This admission of guilt isn't because she chopped her head off Lumberjack style, but the envy that led to Lauren's death. She wanted what her friend had and instead of telling the truth about where she went that night, her silence delivered her the life she always wanted. The old hag excuses her behavior because "this world has been cruel to you." Some people are given everything, while others are dealt a poor hand.
Representing those who were brought to these woods and forgotten — unlike the Lumberjack victims — this folklore figure offers her a bargain when it is revealed Elena has been alive the whole time. She will free her friend if she stays in her place, a trade she turns down. The episode ends with Lauren exiting this woodland shack with a determined look on her face. It is an ambiguous conclusion that doesn't confirm whether the body in the woods was Lauren or what Elena's future holds, but it suggests she will not sacrifice the life she has built over the last decade.
The shift in tone at the end into an overt fairy tale scenario means the episode is a little overstuffed with ideas by its conclusion. Regardless, Kelly Marie Tran's performance as the friend desperate for popularity, clear skin, and movie star ringlets coupled with the woman haunted by her actions as a teen is striking. Using a serial killer scenario juxtaposed against the folklore imagery ensures this is a recognizable contemporary horror story that explores one of humanity's greatest foes. Envy is a powerful force that can make monsters out of us all.