Them Creator and Stars on Making a Show Out of Real-Life Jumpscares

Creator Little Marvin asks what's scarier: a mysterious sound in the basement or a neighbor glaring at your house?

by | April 7, 2021 | Comments

The most disturbingly brilliant thing about Amazon Prime Video’s new anthology series Them might just be its perfect title.

The horror series premieres April 9 on the streaming service and aims to explore America’s history of discriminating against (and sometimes physically assaulting) people of marginalized backgrounds. The first season is set in 1950s Compton, California, when a Black family from North Carolina moves into the shiny, new — and very white — Los Angeles neighborhood. Just who, exactly, constitutes a them simply depends on which side of the driveway you stand.

Deborah Ayorinde and Ashley Thomas in Them

(Photo by Amazon Studios)

Deborah Ayorinde stars as Lucky Emory, a homemaker and mother going through her own loss who is uncomfortable with her husband Henry’s (Ashley Thomas) plans to move the family across the country. Ayorinde, a British-born person of Nigerian descent who moved to the U.S. as a child, told Rotten Tomatoes that she understood the title immediately.

“Here’s the thing: we live in a world where people are actually terrified of being them,” she said. “So what they do is they tend to highlight other people as them, for lack of a better phrase, so that people will not pay attention to their own ways to which they are different.”

Alison Pill in Them

(Photo by Amazon Studios)

The all-too familiar antagonist of the first season of Them is Alison Pill’s Betty Wendell, the blonde, white, and self-appointed queen bee of the block’s (not-so) welcoming committee. She rules the neighborhood bridge parties with well-manicured exactness and everyone knows that there’s no way the desserts she brings to the potluck came from Vons. Just try not to mention what Betty believes to be her one imperfection: that she and her husband Clarke (Liam McIntyre) cannot have children. Sending her minions after the Emorys when the new family moves to town secures Betty’s power.

But the title’s definition could also mean something … supernatural. Or spooky. Or suspenseful. And, sometimes in Them, it’s all of those things and then some. Soon the audience, and Lucky and her family, begin to wonder how much of eerie and unfortunate stuff is really happening and how much of it is the circumstances of their living situation. After all, we’re told from the very beginning that this is a story about a family who lives in a house for only 10 days.

“We always had a question in the writers’ room, which we would ask ourselves a lot, which was: ‘What scares us most: that sound in the basement that you can’t explain? Or that neighbor from down the street who has been staring at your house every single day?’” series creator Little Marvin said. “And in our collective experience, it’s usually always that neighbor … I find human beings to be deeply scary. I think rooting the terror in something deeply human was our very first impulse.

“I’m not particularly interested in just empty jumpscares for the sake of jumpscares,” said the series creator, who goes by “LM” on second reference. “I like things that feel emotionally rich, and then let the horror kind of come from there.”

He said the thesis for the anthology is “this idea that, since the dawn of this country … there’s always been them. There’s always been the folk who have been subjected to the sort of ire and suspicion and paranoia, and frankly, hatred and terror, of the dominant folk.”

Deborah Ayorinde, Melody Hurd, Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Ashley Thomas in Them

(Photo by Amazon Studios)

As a Black man, LM said it made sense to explore “the terror of being Black” for season 1. Focusing on the post-World War II economic boom of 1953 also fit because it was when home ownership became attainable for the middle class.

But, LM added, “as Black folks know, the dream of home ownership has been anything but. [So] I wanted to definitely go back and peel apart the floorboards and look at the roots of that particular nightmare.”

The look and sounds of the show are also unique in that they look period — but not the period you’d imagine. The music is anachronistic, in part, LM said because “no offense to musicians in 1953, but that was a deeply sh—y year for music.”

“We set out to make a show about the ’50s that felt like it was shot in the ’60s or ’70s. And by doing that, it allowed us to think about the way we framed, the way we shot and the way we styled. But, also, the soundscape and the music that we used,” LM said.

Telling a story that takes place only over a week and a half “creates an instant pressure cooker,” LM said. Not only does it keep the pace moving, but it also gave the writers “the time and the space to dig in on a day and to live with these characters as they’re maneuvering and navigating their lives every day.”

Ashley Thomas (center) in Them

(Photo by Amazon Studios)

This also created an intense experience for the actors. Stars Ayorinde and Thomas said they were only given four of the scripts at first, meaning that they didn’t know what was real or imaginary either. She said that LM would frequently talk to her on set, not just about how her character, Lucky, would be doing but how she was handling it all.

Thomas said he liked that his Henry was an upwardly mobile engineer and veteran, and that he was battling the very real issue of PTSD while also being “a character that was multi-layered and nuanced who loved his family unconditionally” who was “present emotionally and present physically.”

The hard part for him was unpacking his own privilege of living in modern society and “making sure that I played the restraint correctly.”

“I had to make sure that I stripped away my ego to play the character and service the character,” Thomas explained. “I can afford to react differently to something in 2021, 2022, 2023 than someone can in 1953 when it is literally the difference between life and death.”

Shahadi Wright Joseph in Them

(Photo by Amazon Studios)

These are all weighty topics, particularly given the current political climate. The show was accused of mining Black trauma after a trailer was released in March — especially since Lena Waithe, one of its executive producers, is also the creator of the Showtime drama The Chi. It also, inevitably, was compared to Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us, both because of the title and because they each feature actress Shahadi Wright Joseph as a strong-willed eldest child.

LM said that the word “them” was the first one that came to his mind when he was conceiving a name for the project — something that happened before he’d heard of Us. He also claims the casting was also coincidental; he was busy making a TV show and didn’t have time to concentrate on when the movie’s hiring was announced.

And while neither Thomas nor Ayorinde say they know if (or how) they’d be in a second season of the anthology, LM says the plan is for “the people and the time period and the place will be different every season.”

“As we move forward in our progression of the anthology, the hope is to take folks who have been historically marginalized or pushed to the sides of those frames and really center them in their own tales of American terror every year,” he said.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of them out there.

Them premieres on Friday, April 9 on Amazon Prime Video.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

Tag Cloud

Comedy Central Awards 1990s toronto Rocky Fantasy Syfy black A24 Trophy Talk crime drama GoT crime Marathons Schedule comic comiccon Walt Disney Pictures Valentine's Day boxing diversity Columbia Pictures Disney streaming service Elton John medical drama TBS Women's History Month Adult Swim olympics fresh NYCC book Film Festival Paramount Network Extras Disney Plus RT21 best Toys Peacock Best and Worst french National Geographic Chernobyl Pet Sematary transformers thriller Disney Disney+ Disney Plus casting Esquire BBC video zombie historical drama FOX free movies 72 Emmy Awards VICE justice league Warner Bros. high school vampires theme song halloween The Arrangement BET Awards christmas movies satire lord of the rings Mary poppins nature new york Red Carpet AMC Brie Larson Alien Grammys suspense TCA Winter 2020 Fall TV dramedy Watching Series fast and furious asian-american james bond werewolf monster movies twilight telelvision spanish language Turner Box Office The Walt Disney Company Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Shondaland Apple zero dark thirty Classic Film SXSW series Song of Ice and Fire Video Games directors Baby Yoda Superheroe Holiday talk show 93rd Oscars dc biography BBC America Lionsgate Character Guide Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt canceled TV shows Infographic San Diego Comic-Con versus Television Academy ghosts Thanksgiving a nightmare on elm street Spring TV Apple TV+ TCA 2017 24 frames period drama Universal Broadway sports FX Reality what to watch Pop TV supernatural X-Men Animation Teen ESPN Opinion Discovery Channel VH1 Emmy Nominations dogs halloween tv king arthur target 71st Emmy Awards Creative Arts Emmys screenings TCA Awards TCM technology Summer new star wars movies Freeform MCU Funimation festival Fox News animated facebook cults child's play politics obituary hollywood Sundance spy thriller joker witnail Sneak Peek Superheroes The Witch news screen actors guild discovery Quiz Lifetime serial killer Paramount The Purge godzilla 2019 social media Holidays worst television concert Mary Poppins Returns space GIFs OWN First Look New York Comic Con Wes Anderson Ellie Kemper DGA Lucasfilm BBC One Musicals Election SundanceTV 2015 documentaries children's TV Pixar mutant Star Wars universal monsters indiana jones popular 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards Showtime Netflix Christmas movies Epix critics cancelled television aliens 2018 2020 GLAAD Set visit Kids & Family OneApp Masterpiece 20th Century Fox toy story rotten Music Trivia unscripted 99% TV dceu Podcast Travel Channel cancelled TV shows Super Bowl PlayStation IFC Horror revenge finale TNT TV Land Mystery Spectrum Originals composers Year in Review Writers Guild of America Nominations canceled Ghostbusters El Rey VOD Cartoon Network Logo anime Certified Fresh hidden camera singing competition ABC stoner USA Network superman Mary Tyler Moore HBO comic books YouTube Premium blockbusters nfl Marvel Television trailers mission: impossible new zealand Paramount Plus Stephen King classics cops Oscars 90s jurassic park CW Seed DC Universe Tokyo Olympics Hallmark Legendary worst movies Comic Book Captain marvel rotten movies we love aapi sitcom festivals Comic-Con@Home 2021 Turner Classic Movies boxoffice heist movie The CW BAFTA Rock ViacomCBS tv talk slashers First Reviews Disney Channel TV One Star Trek Fox Searchlight harry potter franchise blaxploitation WarnerMedia FXX Tarantino ratings ABC Family international criterion scene in color Binge Guide political drama saw based on movie indie Hallmark Christmas movies Britbox Winners romantic comedy spinoff award winner Apple TV Plus elevated horror Amazon Studios psychological thriller President stand-up comedy Awards Tour kids razzies HBO Go Heroines History football A&E documentary CMT Marvel Studios all-time 007 italian MSNBC Amazon Prime Drama adenture Pop Anna Paquin CBS women PBS batman dragons 2021 APB reviews 21st Century Fox golden globe awards TCA Image Comics nbcuniversal E3 LGBT Martial Arts scary movies MTV Trailer true crime Mindy Kaling Pirates Marvel live action hispanic LGBTQ police drama SDCC dark Western Countdown australia rom-coms know your critic NBA ID The Academy DC streaming service die hard romance scorecard YouTube Red streaming movies Premiere Dates Pride Month Comics on TV WGN Hear Us Out deadpool game show laika docudrama ITV pirates of the caribbean Family HBO Max spanish Dark Horse Comics binge Sony Pictures video on demand Shudder Nat Geo docuseries Film king kong kaiju Rom-Com cars Vudu FX on Hulu emmy awards prank Sundance TV cats 4/20 BET Lifetime Christmas movies Rocketman game of thrones archives Tomatazos comics breaking bad name the review DirecTV natural history Action kong cartoon Crackle cancelled TV series spain hist basketball legend jamie lee curtis Interview sequel remakes CBS All Access Black History Month quibi crossover wonder woman crime thriller Winter TV Avengers YA The Walking Dead Spike japanese movie sequels venice Exclusive Video cooking blockbuster chucky Calendar Amazon south america Comedy japan parents travel Acorn TV Photos Sci-Fi CNN Pacific Islander Emmys Polls and Games NBC stop motion renewed TV shows richard e. Grant strong female leads TV renewals adventure RT History Country streaming war Crunchyroll Black Mirror Endgame book adaptation Reality Competition Cannes spider-man Musical Tumblr robots cinemax Academy Awards See It Skip It USA 2017 psycho Nickelodeon latino TIFF Cosplay TV movies independent Netflix 2016 disaster 45 TLC golden globes Christmas TruTV adaptation American Society of Cinematographers marvel cinematic universe Sundance Now miniseries science fiction Amazon Prime Video movies Starz YouTube Television Critics Association films DC Comics cancelled ABC Signature rt archives anthology Tubi teaser Ovation Arrowverse PaleyFest Bravo superhero mockumentary Food Network reboot IFC Films doctor who foreign E! Hulu sag awards zombies Biopics comedies green book Mudbound