Before Matt Duffer ever watched “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” a babysitter he had growing up in North Carolina told him the legend of the sweater-clad, dream-invading clawed ghoul Freddy Krueger. When he was 3 years old.
“Even now I’m like, ‘Wait, why was she telling me that?’ ” Duffer says, laughing.
No wonder he and his twin brother Ross hatched a show called “Stranger Things.” The horror-fueled 1980s Netflix nostalgia trip has been pitting its young heroes vs. all manner of ghastly creatures and weird circumstances the past three seasons. But for Season 4 (the first seven episodes are streaming now, and two more arrive July 1), “we really wanted to go scary and explore the types of villains that shook us the most when we were kids,” Matt Duffer says.
The result is Vecna, a formidable foe operating from the alternate-reality Upside Down who murders teens. Eyes are sucked into victims’ heads, bones are cracked and crushed, bodies are left resembling macabre human pretzels.
Vecna has been in the works for a while, as the youngsters of Hawkins, Indiana, have been facing enemies along the way such as the menacingly mawed Demogorgon and the humongous shadow monster, the Mind Flayer.
Ross Duffer remembers when, halfway through writing Season 1, Netflix asked the creators, “Hey, can you guys just explain this mythology to us?” They gave their streaming bosses a 25-page document laying everything out, including having the newest baddie be part of the end game leading toward a fifth and final season. “We’ve always known a version of where we’re going with Vecna, but we purposely left it a little blurry so that we can discover things along the way.”
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Vecna partly comes from the undead wizard of the same name in “Dungeons & Dragons” – the role-playing game factors into this season’s plot – but mainly from the legendary monsters who spawned the most fear within the Duffers as school-age youngsters.
There’s Freddy, naturally. “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” is a major reference this season, and the ’80s movie series’ star, Robert Englund, has an important supporting role as an incarcerated killer connected to Vecna. Matt Duffer says they also used Pinhead from Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” and Tim Curry’s Pennywise from the original “It” miniseries as influences: “I was already scared of clowns. My mom was in the bedroom for two weeks just until I fell asleep.”
What made those baddies so singularly eerie was “there’s something very tangible about them,” Duffer adds. Unlike the Demogorgon, who has a “Jaws”-like “Yeah, he eats you” vibe, “they’re intelligent, they’re sentient, they’re there.”
The Duffers wanted to bring that frightening aspect to the set physically, Vecna was created through eight hours’ worth of makeup and prosthetics – digital effects were only used to remove the actor’s nose (the guy underneath is a big reveal) and add moving vines. (For extra atmosphere, the filmmakers played the “Hellraiser” score whenever Vecna was around, Matt Duffer says. “Everybody was on edge. It was really fun.”)
“Stranger Things” star Sadie Sink reports that Vecna was “so scary” that it was easier to act afraid: “There’s less to imagine.” Her castmate Joe Keery also appreciates a villain who’s up close and personal: “Having that as opposed to just a tennis ball on the end of a stick is infinitely more helpful.”