Monsters are the stuff of nightmares and often brought to life as supernatural creatures with a taste for human flesh and suffering. They are the figures born out of human fear and an explanation for when things go wrong in the world. But fictional beasts aren’t typically to blame for our woes, as humans can be monsters, too. Hulu’s anthology series Monsterland ties together those two worlds to create a devastating yet beautiful series that works to paint a vast portrait of what it means to be a monster.
Monsterland is inspired by the short story collection North American Lake Monsters by horror author Nathan Ballingrud. He also wrote Wounds, which was adapted into a feature film in 2019. His stories are steeped in hopelessness and nihilism, often with vague or unhappy endings that reflect the tragedy of existence. He does not sugar coat life but instead amplifies its sadness as his very human characters interact with elements of the supernatural, which often become personifications of human emotions.
Despite the uneven quality of the television series, each story nails the tone and atmosphere of Ballingrud’s writing. Directors such as Babak Anvari (Wounds), Desiree Akhavan (The Miseducation of Cameron Post), and Nicolas Pesce (Piercing) present, harrowing tales about grief, guilt, suicide, and assault. They want to say something bold, to varying levels of success, about the state of the world, and they tread that fine line between reality and the supernatural. Monsters often take a backseat to the horrific human struggles facing these characters, from a wife reeling from accusations that her husband is a pedophile to a mother realizing she hates her child. What Monsterland — and Ballingrud — wants to show is that monsters can take even the most innocent-seeming forms.
The title of each episode is simply a location across the country, from Oregon to Louisiana to Newark. While much of Ballingrud’s work is focused on the Gulf Coast, the series’ creator and writer, Mary Laws, expands the scope to an entire nation plagued with misery and creatures lurking in the shadows. And in a time when it feels like there are more monsters than people, Monsterland feels overwhelmingly relevant.
Only three episodes of Monsterland — “Port Fourchon, LA,” “Plainfield, IL,” and “Newark, NJ” — are directly adapted from stories in North American Lake Monsters. Unsurprisingly, these are also the best episodes, not only due to their source material but also due to the care and creativity taken by their respective filmmakers to expand Ballingrud’s stories into more complex narratives that are subtly imbued with politics. Perhaps the best and most devastating episode is “Plainfield, IL,” which follows Kate and Shawn (Taylor Schilling and Roberta Colindrez), a lesbian couple struggling with the former’s bipolar disorder. It’s a heart-wrenching examination of the effects the disorder has both on the afflicted and those who love them, delicately using mental illness not as a monstrosity but as a vehicle for a new kind of monster: guilt.
The rest of the episodes, all visually impressive and ambitious, are often too on the nose to be enjoyed. There is a lack of subtlety that makes some stories feel preachy rather than entertaining or contemplative. In particular, “New York, NY” takes the possession trope to its most ridiculous as the corrupt CEO of an oil company is punished for a devastating spill in the Gulf. His punishment, which I won’t completely reveal, involves him spewing oil out of his mouth. Yes, the visual is fascinating, but it is just too obvious of a critique on greed, the death of the environment, and human complicity in that destruction. Where “Port Fourchon, LA,” “Plainfield, IL,” and “Newark, NJ” create personal tales that are able to address abortion, mental illness, and race, “New York, NY” feels vapid and more about spectacle than storytelling.
While each episode of Monsterland is meant to stand alone, the series also curiously tries to tie everything together into one world. While it is fascinating to create an actual “Monsterland,” a world populated by monsters in various forms, the execution unfortunately falters. It never fully commits to the idea that these episodes all take place in the same universe. One character, played by Kaitlyn Dever, appears three times throughout Monsterland, both in her own episode and as a side character elsewhere. But these cameos are inconsistent, with seemingly no purpose. While “Newark, NJ” seems to try and tie it all together, it is still an ultimately off-putting decision that creates unnecessary confusion.
No matter the quality of an episode’s story, Monsterland deserves praise across the board for its diverse range of voices and perspectives. A majority of the episodes were written by Laws or Emily Kaczmarek. Women and members of the queer community, such as Avakvan and Logan Kibens, are behind the camera. Five episodes star Black and Asian actors, including Mike Colter and Kelly Marie Tran. Two episodes feature queer stories. And every episode portrays a range of perspectives not only on monstrosity but on what it means to simply be alive. Existence is horrifying yet nuanced, and Monsterland captures that, in part, through the diversity of its cast and production crew.
While most shows that release all of their episodes at once are begging to be binge-watched, Monsterland is quite the opposite. Each story is heavy, upsetting, and unafraid to discuss the horrors that happen every day. This is a series that begs to be enjoyed slowly and wants to creep deep into your brain. Monsterland does not want to deliver momentary scares; it wants to deliver lasting existential panic. It often succeeds, and short of re-reading his stories, there is no better way to honor the works of Nathan Ballingrud.