Comment on the Times: Netflix’s Fear Street Trilogy

by Bryan & Heather

While it has never been entirely absent, history- and race-conscious horror films seem to have been making a comeback in recent years, especially following the wildly positive reception for Jordan Peele’s Get Out. In the summer of 2021, Netflix added another example of this subgenre with its Fear Street anthology. Consisting of three films released over three weeks and each taking place in a separate time period, the Fear Street trilogy pleased us both with a fun, campy storytelling that nevertheless delivered a surprising depth of social commentary.

Fear Street opens in 1994 with the plight of the town of Shadyside, an ailing community that is, in this fictional universe, the serial killer capital of the world. Every generation, it seems, spawns some sort of heinous mass murderer, often from the least likely members of the community. Unsurprisingly, Shadyside residents can never seem to catch a break, yet at the same time no one seems able to leave. Its sister city, Sunnyvale, is the polar opposite, however: filled with affluent white suburbs and a complete absence of any violent crime beyond living memory. Inspired by the YA novels of famed Goosebumps author R. L. Stine, Fear Street maintains that more mature yet still campy style as its central characters attempt to uncover their town’s secrets, which seem to all lead back to a seventeenth-century accused witch named Sarah Fear. Their quest ultimately leads to the discovery of two more stories, told through the second and third films, which flash back first to 1974 and then to 1666.

Even without its second two installments, Fear Street might qualify for inclusion on a history blog as just one of many recent horror stories set in the 1990s (more on that in a future post), a decade that feels like it shouldn’t be considered “history” to many of us born in it yet did occur 20–30 years ago. Its decision to ground its story in a seventeenth-century witch trial only cements its historical content, and to our surprise, that content is very good. The material culture for the second two installments is generally accurate, though ironically the mid-nineties fashion is a mix of more properly ’80s and later ’90s wear. Most notable, however, is Fear Street’s treatment of the various historical themes wrapped up in its central curse. While the films never explicitly confirm where Shadyside and Sunnyvale are located, Fear Street 1666 makes it clear that the towns hail from the Puritan settler tradition, and the potent mix of fear and misogyny that gives rise to scapegoating a young, non-conformist woman for the peoples’ troubles is straight from the pages of historical witch trials of the period. 

Ultimately, though, despite the persecution of its admirably representative cast of characters (Not one, but two lesbian couples!) and the sexist overtones of the central curse, it is not patriarchy per se but white male entitlement that is Fear Street’s main villain, as the original malevolent spell is cast by a Puritan man who thinks he deserves the world and cannot stand to see his neighbors prosper while he languishes. This source of evil, combined with the subsequent history of the two towns, lends itself to certain contemporary comparisons with the history of racial prejudice and imperialism in our country: The active choices of one group to exploit another have given the former group disproportionate prosperity, while the latter is trapped in a downward spiraling cycle of instability and tragedy. The trilogy’s modern villain even elevates what might have been a mild comment on police competency to a sharper statement on the complicity, even centrality, of law enforcement in these cycles of oppression.

What begins as a fun romp through a more modern, more spicy Goosebumps, then, becomes a fascinating exercise in subverting tropes of horror storytelling while delivering a subtle commentary on the times in which we live. Bryan isn’t even that much of a horror fan, yet we both would wholeheartedly recommend these three films for any in search of a fun, spooky time this Halloween season. Just don’t expect a happy ending for everyone.

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