Spoiler Warning: I will be going on about certain plot points in Stranger Things. If you haven't finished the first season yet, the Backspace button is right there. (Unless you're on Chrome, in which case that will be Alt + ← from now on.)
It is established in the very first episode of Stranger Things that Eleven is not your everyday, mysterious girl with a great haircut. As the series progresses, the audience delves into her history with a series of flashbacks of her time at the facility— manipulating sound waves and crushing neck bones and Coke cans alike through sheer force of will. The mystery culminates when Chief Hopper and Joyce Byers unearth the laboratory's possible link to the top-secret CIA mind control program: MKUltra.
At this point, you might have asked yourself, "Where have I heard that term before?" Apart from being just another item on the list of secret government projects, you might have read about it in a book or heard a conspiracist mention it on some show. Either way, MKUltra has made its way from some file cabinet we were never meant to see, to the hands of someone wearing a hat made of tin foil, to the silver screen (or the television screen, and in most cases, the laptop screen). Like Area 51 and Majestic 12.
The use of an all-seeing, all-knowing government that keeps the capital-P People's hands out of the capital-T Truth cookie jar has been around as long as government has existed. 1984 and They Live are some recent examples. But what is it about these conspiracies that take hold of public imagination? How do writers take something like an innocuous, Bavarian, anti-monarchist society and turn it into entertainment? And what makes it so effective in the horror genre?
I'll try to answer that with these three movies.
What Really Happened With ____________?
The very image of government warehouses, folders of redacted documents, and men in dark suits warning, "You don't know what you're messing with," is fuel for the active imagination. Without concrete evidence, writers fill in the blanks themselves. Their films give us reason to believe that the raving crackpot in the corner may be onto something. They ask, "How much do I really know?" and they toy with the old adage that ignorance is bliss. And even if we take in this experience through fiction, we are momentarily given answers to questions we may never fully see actual closure to.
Devil's Pass is a found footage film you might have scrolled by looking for something to watch on Netflix. The movie frames the Dyatlov Pass Incident as part of a cover-up by the Russian military, and it portrays the common man as the ultimate pawn. Devil's Pass may not be on an Oscar lineup anytime soon, but it covers themes everyone is familiar with — the search for truth; being kept in the dark; being the powerless ant unable to do anything beneath the immense, faceless heel; man delving into things he was not meant to know.
The movie follows five college students filming a documentary, and if that sounds familiar, welcome to a world post-The Blair Witch Project. Along the way, hospital administration, the local populace, and emotional baggage try to bar their way. Ultimately, the audience learns that aliens were behind it all along. No wait, it was the government. No wait, it was a time travel thing. (All of the above.)
If you like the sound of this, but you like your horror with a touch of Lovecraft and the good ol' American-grown MKUltra Project, it would serve you well to check out Banshee Chapter as well.
The Truth Is Out There
For every unknown, there will be someone who wants to bring it to light. Scientists do this for a living. For more obscure pursuits, consider how many years people have been trying to prove the existence of Bigfoot, aliens, and the Loch Ness monster. Shudder at the fact that there may be people out there who are serious when they say we never landed on the moon, or that the earth is flat (or hollow), or claim to know the real truth to anything at all. It is the definition of a rabbit hole, and some movies take this idea and run with it. They make reality fuzzy, and tear away the line between sanity and insanity.
Obsession and paranoia are the name of the game in Bug. In fact, Michael Shannon's character can give Mulder a run and a half for his money. Peter is a drifter who claims to be a discharged soldier on the run from the US government. He is exactly what Ashley Judd's Agnes needs to go over the edge, because her ex-husband and all the drug parties have really just kept her on the fence. The power of belief is a theme stretched to its limits here, and the downward spiral of the characters' minds really start to shine once Peter "finds" the bugs that were implanted in his teeth.
The High(brow) Route
I think what drew me to horror movies in the first place was how, at their best, they were never only about zombies, or vampires, or werewolves: They had applicability. They could be about consumerism, sex, and puberty. Science fiction may do it better, but there's a place for social commentary in horror, too. Even if, yes, sometimes the monster is just a monster (and there's nothing wrong with that), it's not a far-fetched idea that you'd be able to take away some kind of meaning.
South Korea's The Host (also known as 괴물, or "monster," in its native tongue) is technically a monster movie — and its horror elements amount to a handful of jump scares — the events of the movie are still incited by an overarching force (this time we're the foreign power, America) and this offering is just that good. It's movie as a form of protest, made in response to the presence of the American military in the capital, Seoul. It also satirizes the bureaucracy of its own government and carries reminders of the nation's troubled history. And it does all this through a slimy, swimming Godzilla.
The Host follows the lives of the Park family after the discovery of the monster forces the city into a state of emergency. They are a diverse bloodline, made up of a snack-bar owner, a professional archer, and an alcoholic college graduate. These are the dreams D&D groups are made of. The monster kidnaps the snack-bar owner's daughter, and the movie traces the family's attempt to bring her home. It's a surprisingly touching work, and it takes focus away from the secret underground complexes and into the realm of our living room. If we were the victim in Devil's Pass, then we are the unlikely hero in The Host.
If you're already itching for more Stranger Things, check out the hard work that went into creating those mind-boggling VFX in the video below:
Movies aren't the only medium that plays with government conspiracy. Books, shows, and video games love them, too. What are your favorites?
P.S. By the way, if changing the world is on your agenda, the Illuminati is still taking members.