okay, so I’ve been thinking. s1 of stranger things is a concise, gritty storyline that uses four major and prominent external fears: the childhood terror of the monster under your bed through the Demogorgon invading the places you feel safe, the parental fear of losing your child, the nagging worry that your government is running horrible experiments, and the age old fear that no one with authority will believe anything you say. it’s incredibly effective and scary and the way that the story is told feels incredibly realistic.
s2 is a more spread out arc using more introverted fears, mainly focusing on the concept of the familiar and friendly becoming terrifying. it accomplishes this using themes of possession and isolation, and through the creeping upside down vines rotting hawkins from the inside out and Dart turning into a monster. It also has the ultimate goal of elicitng the fear of absolute helplessness to an undefeatable evil, that not even the government can help you with. it accomplishes an atmosphere of heightening terror, a slow realization that the world is ending and your own body and mind are betraying you and there’s nothing, nothing you or anyone else can do.
s3 is far different. it’s big and loud, and preys on the more large scale and frequently depicted fears: mind control paired with something like a zombie apocalypse, foreign operatives causing trouble right in your backyard, and an absolutely monstrous eldritch horror causing a level of mass destruction previously unseen in the show. the thing that really makes it a change is the feeling of genre overlap. each one is told in a different style: comedy for the russians, mystery for the zombie apocalypse/mind control, and unadulterated horror for the flesh monster.
ultimately, s3 yanks you around so there’s no steady atmospheric growth of fear, and the numerous situationally climactic scenes force the ultimate climax to manupilate your emotions with death and loss to have impact, rather than just being a culmination of building fear like previous seasons. on top of that, the monster is so visually terrifying that it makes everything else seem pedestrian. the emotional payoff and character development is fantastic, but fear isn’t used the same way as before, resulting in it like an entirely different show than the first two seasons.