Stranger Things’ Subtitles Team Discusses What’s in a Word


Screenshot: Netflix

Words are important, as are the wordsmiths who choose them wisely. Netflix’s Tudum featured a conversation with English Subtitles for the Deaf and hard of hearing author Jeff T. and English SDH quality checker Karli Webster to discuss their work on Stranger Things season four. Their captioning on the show served an indispensable function for the Deaf and hard of hearing, but their word choices have also found a new life online for their delightfully creative descriptions.

Jeff T explained, “The auditory component is so crucial to the effect of this season. [Series co-creators] the Duffers know exactly what they’re playing with. They know the genre they’re in, they know their historical antecedents, they know the history of horror movies and creature features. And in all those movies, sound design is so crucial. We wanted to try to accurately reflect that in our subtitles for the Deaf and hard of hearing because this is their primary avenue for access to those sensory inputs. There’s just something ‘classic monster movie horror’ about something slimy and wet. They gave us a lot of fun things to play with here.”

Just how much creative freedom do they have? Pretty much anything goes. Webster said. “We have complete free rein, as far as I’m aware. I don’t think that there was anything that we were told that we couldn’t add. As far as production being involved in telling us how far we can take it, that didn’t happen.” She shared some of her favorites, including “the ones that surround Eddie, like the ‘ferocious guitar riff’ and the ‘shreds guitar solo’ because it just gives him his moment, and I feel like he totally deserves it. But I’m a sucker for music, too. So most of the ones that describe music are the ones that I tend to love.”

Because of Stranger Things’ connection to Dungeons & Dragons, Jeff T, who knows a little something about the RPG game, got to fulfill a DnD fan’s destiny, “I’ve been playing D&D for about 20 years now,” he said. “I put a ton of Dungeons & Dragons Easter eggs into the subtitles. People really focused on ‘eldritch thrumming.’ Eldritch is that sort of arcane, unknowable, vaguely threatening, otherworldly presence… but it’s also the signature spell for a warlock in Dungeons & Dragons. It’s called eldritch blast. The lore of a warlock in Dungeons & Dragons is that they make the deal with an otherworldly power, whether it’s a demon or a powerful fairy lord. So I was like, ‘Oh, this is the perfect term for that sense of otherworldly power intruding into our world.’”

Image for article titled Stranger Things' Subtitles Team Discusses What's in a Word

Screenshot: Netflix

“And in the scene where Henry/Vecna/One (Jamie Campbell Bower) is creating the Mind Flayer, I used a tag, ‘dissonant gibbering.’ Dissonant whispers is a spell that bards can use to break apart somebody’s mind [in Dungeons & Dragons],” he said. “It’s that sense of madness creeping in at the edges of your awareness. And ‘gibbering’ is a reference to a monster called a gibbering mouther, which is a nightmarish blob of flesh and multiple mouths all wailing and gnashing their teeth. I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a good moment for a mind breaking in two.’”

It all comes down to genre as long as it serves its main purpose, explained Webster. “Obviously we’re trying to encompass the genre, the feel of the moment. But when we’re saying something that’s specific to the Deaf and hard of hearing audience, it’s never just for one part of that audience, because they don’t split subtitles just for people who [have been] Deaf since birth,” she explained. “There are people who’ve lost their hearing as their life has progressed or people with partial hearing loss. These subtitles have to be there for all of those levels of hearing loss. So we really tried to strike a balance between descriptors that will describe something well for someone who’s never heard or that will recall an emotion or a feeling for the hard of hearing audience that they did feel perhaps when they were able to hear music, as well as other sound effects.”

Stranger Things seasons 1-4 are now streaming on Netflix.

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