When Netflix’s Stranger Things premiered way back in a more innocent era on July 15, 2016, viewers were immediately obsessed with all of the visual throwbacks to the 1980s-set sci-fi drama. They also buzzed heavily about the appropriately synth-heavy score, created by the composing duo of Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Flash forward to Season 3, and the series introduce even more 1980s tropes, including evil Russians and the infamous (and much beloved) Starcourt Mall.
The third season dramatically increased its size and scope, so Dixon and Stein’s score needed to similarly reflect a massively larger scale. One of the biggest challenges in Season 3 was to compose the music soundscape for the star of Season 3: Starcourt Mall.
“They presented the mall to us as a character in the show. It was pretty much the focus of the season,” Dixon explained. “We ended up making a theme for the mall as opposed to a theme for a character.”
Naturally, it’s a bit odd to create a theme for a massive building lacking the complexities of a central character. The mall theme (appropriately titled “Starcourt”) reflects its impact on the kids of Stranger Things. Here, they have a place to be free, to express themselves, and to start the growth process into young adulthood. The “Starcourt” theme reinforces the place of the mall in their lives as a source of fun, something they’ve sorely lacked in previous seasons.
In direct opposition of the happier Starcourt Mall sounds, the villains of Stranger Things Season 3 feature intense and often terrifying music. A thematic melody from past seasons (“Upside Down”) returns to the third season in the form of “Rats,” the soundtrack to, yes, exploding rats. The directing duo of the Duffer Brothers worked with Dixon and Stein on the designs for Season 3, and they mutually agreed that it was time to return to “Upside Down” as the season reintroduces supernatural entities as a major force. It’s a thrilling piece of music, filled with eerie synth sounds that sound like… slurping?
“It’s called a Slurpee,” Dixon laughs.
“Yeah, I’d love to say we had a sample of myself drinking a Slurpee,” Stein admits, “but it’s just a synthesizer. It’s a pretty unique, larger format modular synth.”
If you’re uncomfortable with the theme, then that’s completely the point. They’re intended to, along with the visuals, recall the body morphing horror of the films of David Cronenberg and other 80s-era films. These sounds as created by Dixon and Stein merge with their melody to create a terrifyingly memorable villain theme. Or, as I like to say, music to explode rats by.
Another major villain of Season 3 is the possessed Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) whose presence over the season becomes increasingly menacing and dangerous as he becomes increasingly possessed. Dixon and Stein dealt with this transformation using different music zones. First, Billy’s attempts to beat the possession required its own musical representation. Distorted, bizarre sounds were required to reflect his internal struggle. These sounds put the audience directly into his struggle – you’re meant to be as uneasy and off-kilter as he is.
Given his failure to fight the possession, additional cues were required to reflect Billy being actively evil and Billy’s state as a possessed zombie. Many more broadly cinematic scenes leaned into traditional 1980s-horror inspired music. Stein mentions The Lost Boys, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Parents as influences. Those films bring to mind church bells, choral arrangements, and scraping metal cues of other 1980s horror classics.
“The scenes where he’s building an army includes a lot of significant music,” Dixon mentions. “There’s this one cue that’s repeated a lot. It’s used for Billy, when Billy’s helping build the monster, so it’s also used for the monster. It’s just a calm but eerie sort of thing when he’s dragging people into the basement to present them to the beast.”
Finally, Season 3 introduced the Russians as a major antagonist for our teenage heroes. Dixon and Stein leveraged a specific key that they don’t usually incorporate into the Stranger Things soundtrack that sounds very eastern European. Note choices and choral arrangements further influenced the Russian sound. The intent was to heighten their overall threat and evil presence.
Plus, they were able to create music for one Russian in particular, Grigori, who adopts the unstoppable Terminator persona in Season 3. To create the themes for these characters, Dixon and Stein pulled from the hardstyle genre of music.
“It’s big in Russia and the Ukraine,” Dixon explains. “It’s really intense techno that came out of the period.”
Looking forward to Season 4, the production itself is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic without a firm restart date. Dixon and Stein have read the scripts and know all the secrets, but they’re not giving any away, unfortunately. However, they have started to create some preliminary scores based on scenes shot for and around the revealed teaser trailer.
“We can imagine what we want to write or what it feels like,” Stein mentions. “When the trailer came out and we saw picture, actual feeling of the prison camp, then we wrote some stuff based on the visuals of that trailer. You get a lot from seeing the tone and shots. It’s very influential for us.”
Stranger Things Seasons 1-3 are now streaming on Netflix. Season 4’s release date is currently TBD.