There are many universal languages in the world.
There are numbers, food, music, art, but probably one of the least known and most potent of these languages is fright. The unsettling, creepy aspects of horror are universal, whether it’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or an internet meme like Momo.
Nobody understands this more than Netflix, a company with a global viewership and the content to match. With shows like Ares, Dark, and Kingdom forging a new path for international horror, one series has arrived the perfect time. This Taiwanese horror drama, streaming now on a weekly schedule, combines the history and academics of The Queen’s Gambit, the ghosts of The Haunting of Bly Manor, and the old-fashioned scares of its source material, a 2019 horror video game.
Detention is a Taiwanese Netflix original series based on the Red Candle video game of the same name. It's entirely in Chinese, but don’t get turned off by the culture barrier. Detention producer I-Ling Lin tells Inverse the series is purposefully crafted to appeal to Netflix’s international audience.
“We chose an outsider to come into the story without a lot of background knowledge so the audience and viewers follow this character and see how the story develops in front of us,” I-Ling says. “It’s a more accessible way to understand the series.”
Detention follows transfer student Yunxiang Liu as she attends Greenwood High School in the 1990s. This differs a lot from the point-and-click horror game source material, which was entirely set in the 1960s on a dark, stormy night in abandoned Greenwood High.
This shift in adaptation was all too deliberate, but the stories are more parallel than you may think. In the series, Yunxiang encounters the ghost of Ruixin Fang, a former student and literary genius who killed herself in the 1960s.
The main challenge in adapting the game was finding a way to create the same effect of gradual discovery. “In the video game, the player plays as a character without knowing their background,” I-Ling says. “The series actually split this character into two people. Yunxiang is actually playing the player’s part. She’s helping the other character to find the memories.”
While Yunxiang may exist in the 1990s, a time that’s not too difficult to remember, Ruixin’s past in the 1960s is a lot more distant — and a lot more politically fraught. American viewers may have difficulty watching the series without a passing knowledge of the time period it covers, known as the White Terror. While the show establishes it was an extremely conservative period in history, the truth is even darker.
Detention: A Grim History lesson
The White Terror was a 38-year-long period of martial law within Taiwan, a time when many people were arrested for being so-called “bandit spies” for communist China. It was a time of intense censorship and control, exhibited in Detention through constant bag searches for contraband books.
According to the show’s producers, doing a little homework is encouraged.
“We try to make it easier for people without any background information as to the context” producer Shih-Ken Lin tells Inverse. “There are some aspects, like White Terror period, or the folk belief system in Taiwan, that if people Google it beforehand, it will be even more easier for them to understand and to get into the story.”
The folk belief system is the source of many of Detention’s best frights. Yunxiang’s friend Wen-Liang comes from a family who runs the local temple, and in one of the first few episodes, conducts an exorcism at the school. The spirits of the past never seem to leave, whether it’s human souls, political beliefs, shared trauma, or students in crisis.
“In 1995, we see a very hostile situation between Taiwan and China.”
The folktales provided as much source material as the video game. “In folktales in Taiwan the belief is that if you commit suicide the scenario happens again and again, so we put the repetition aspect into the series,” Shih-ken says. “You see certain scenarios come back again and again.”
The cyclical nature found in folktales is exemplified in Detention's parallel storytelling. Yunxiang and Ruixin are intrinsically linked, and their stories follow the same tragic path, just 30 years apart. The 1960s were obviously a tense period in Taiwan due to martial law, and though the White Terror ended in 1987, the 1990s were just as pivotal.
“In 1995, we see a very hostile situation between Taiwan and China,” Shih-ken says, referring to the Taiwan Strait Crisis, when tensions between the two nations rose due to missile tests.
The show itself is part of a cycle too. It begins in the 1960s, slowly revealed to a character in the 1990s, and then revealed again to us, the viewers, in 2020. 30 years, the length of a generation. While the culture changes, the underlying morals, and goals remain the same, especially in the world of Detention.
What makes Detention different
While this series would make for an engrossing binge-watch, you’ll have to be a bit more patient. Unlike most shows on Netflix, due to a deal with the Taiwanese production company, Detention is being released two episodes at a time every Saturday.
Most Netflix showrunners would consider this a curse, but the minds behind Detention see it as an advantage. “With this model, as we're seeing now, there’s an update each week, so people are in suspension as to what happens,” Shih-ken said. While Netflix may have globalized the horror series, the horror cliffhanger is something that can’t be replicated in a binge-watch.
This horror series may not be targeted towards American audiences (or even marketed much outside Eastern markets), but it’s for precisely that reason Detention remains so gripping. Because the setting is so foreign to most English-speaking viewers, it entices the audience to learn more and invest in the storytelling. As you pick up more clues about the history and ambiance of the plot, the frights get even scarier. Plus, you get a history lesson grounded in a captivating tale of folklore, superstition, and paranoia.
With the last 2 episodes premiering soon, embark on a journey to Greenwood High School, a place so out of time and place, it’ll feel more like The Twilight Zone than a teen drama, but with the occasional jumpscare to keep you on your toes.
Detention is now streaming on Netflix.