While traditional slasher movies often introduce clear-cut villains bent on destruction, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Netflix’s unconventional “Fear Street” trilogy.
Each movie serves as a puzzle piece to reveal the truth of the Shadyside curse as well as the history of the legendary witch Sarah Fier. “Fear Street: 1994,” “Fear Street: 1978,” and “Fear Street: 1666” — each directed by Leigh Janiak and starring Kiana Madeira and Olivia Scott Welch in the respective recurring roles of Deena and Sam — follow teens trying to break a generational curse, but the root causes are not as obvious as they may seem.
While a supernatural force turns regular people into killers, the stronger forces haunting the town are bigotry and misogyny.
When the story comes full circle — from a snapshot of queer teen love in 1994 to another in 1666 — one thing becomes clear: the scariest thing for the people of Shadyside, Ohio, is change. And the haunting tale goes beyond deciphering the town’s curse, dispelling the idea that being a queer woman is something to be villainized.
“The idea that we could tell a story over three different time periods provided this cool opportunity to show mistakes in the past and how those mistakes may be righted ultimately,” Janiak said in an interview last week. “That was one of the first things that appealed to me.”
A fan of classic slasher movies and the “Fear Street” trilogy’s namesake R.L. Stine young adult books, Janiak wanted to pay homage to genre touchstones such as “Scream,” “Friday the 13th,” “Halloween,” “It” and others.
But she also wanted to bring something new to the genre by “building this narrative around a community of characters that have been marginalized and been told that they are other or less than by the society that they live in,” Janiak said. “To be able to build it around two queer young women who are still figuring things out in ‘1994’ and ... drawn together in a way that maybe their ancestors were in ‘1666’ seemed very exciting.”
Producer Kori Adelson grew up reading Stine‘s books, and wanted to honor them while also adding something unique to the trilogy. She saw an opportunity for “a brand new world of horror” through Janiak’s idea to create a “quantum leap effect” and tell the stories across time.
Their joint vision wasn’t just about doing something different, it was about exploring the intersections between history and horror.
“The idea [was] telling a story that mirrored the story of America to us, in the sense that it’s about a community that has been sidelined,” Adelson said. “And then they realize that they’ve been told all their lives that they’re terrible and they’ve internalized that idea.”
Adelson said the films also champion the way marginalized people can tell their own stories — versus the ones that others, often incorrectly, tell for them.
Co-star Welch notes that Deena and Sam are described as both the “victims and villains” of the story, and yet they become the heroes that break the Shadyside curse and save the day. She embraced the many twists her character takes, as Sam becomes possessed near the end of “1994.”
“I feel like [her] journey mirrors where the story is at, and the development of solving this mystery and breaking this curse,” Welch said.
The trilogy becomes a journey of empowerment for its female characters — going from a fate sealed by the actions of men to taking ownership of their own power. As she fights to save Sam, Deena plays an especially notable role in changing the narrative and defying the limitations of a patriarchal society.
“Continuing to push narratives that are progressive and that are coming from a place of love and acceptance is so important,” Madeira said. “Audiences go to the movies to feel — and I feel like when people watch movies, their hearts are opened. I think that’s the best way to influence change in the right direction.”
Janiak, Adelson, Welch and Madeira are united in calling the “Fear Street” trilogy effortlessly feminist films. The arc of the series declares that whether situated in a puritanical society or facing down modern-day misogyny, when queer women take a stand, the stakes are always high and the fear of punishment lives on for generations.
“Obviously, the entire world of Shadyside is comprised of people that have felt like ‘others,’” Janiak said. “But for me, it was interesting to kind of think about the intersection of: ‘what does it mean when everyone else is telling me that I’m not good enough? And then how do I internalize that?’ That was one of the interesting things about building Sarah’s character with Kiana in ‘1666,’ it’s like she knows that she is different than what ‘the norm’ is.”
Horror films such as Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” and others often bring a certain level of queerness to them by exploring the narratives of characters that are “born differently.” But those “othered” characters are labeled as grotesque and inherent outcasts.
In the case of “Fear Street,” there is a literal and figurative witch hunt for queer girls — but, in a twist, there’s a happy ending.
“I think that it’s so important to see this relationship on screen because it is a queer relationship and that is so underrepresented, especially in the horror genre,” Madeira said. “To see these two women who love each other so deeply and follow their love for each other is refreshing and groundbreaking.”
After years of coming up short in the genre, “Fear Street” is one horror trilogy that refuses to end a queer romance in tragedy. Instead it’s a tale of triumph.
“I think the movies are very inherently feminist without trying to be in any way, and it’s because they’re just telling a genuinely authentic female story,” Adelson said. “I love the parallels of the strife of Sam ... finding herself with the parallels of the grandiose-ness of a curse. There is violence against women — in emotional ways and physical ways — paralleled in the story with these very horrific [horror genre] events.”