Webster’s Dictionary defines art as “skill acquired by experience, study or observation.” For Kant, the art of genius is “a kind of representation that is purposive in itself, and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication.” A Hegelian understanding of art is based less on a work’s power to communicate and instead locates artistic merit in the ability to convey a deep metaphysical truth.
Let us now consider the art of the descriptive caption, as demonstrated by the series Stranger Things. Skill is clearly in evidence here: It’s not like they hired some poor sucker with a thesaurus and set them loose. That Kantian idea of sociable communication is also recognizable in the caption as artistic object; succinct verbal translation of the sound of tentacles squirming across a fantasy landscape is all about swift clarity of meaning. But that Hegelian obsession with deep metaphysical truth is compelling too. What more truthful statement about life’s eternal pain could there possibly be than [distant screaming, struggling]? The emotional resonance of [bully 1 scoffs cruelly] is undeniable!
But not all descriptive captions are made equal, and so it is our role as streaming-era philosopher kings to consider their many merits and shortcomings. Here, then, are the best descriptive captions of Stranger Things season four, ranked. “Ranked by what?” you might ask. Other thinkers have considered this question in terms of disgust, but not us. Our captions will be ranked by delightfulness.
Quotidian. Simplistic. Evocative but a workaday descriptor.
31. [water gurgling]
The association of gurgle with water is hardly groundbreaking. Still, it does differentiate from various other water sounds. And gurgle is a fun sound.
30. [suspenseful audio distortion]
Forced to abandon any specific sound association beyond distortion, the caption instead gestures toward emotional impact. But by naming the emotion, do you undermine it? Especially if that emotion is “suspense”? Much to think about.
29. [jarring musical stinger plays]
C’mon now, how much does the word stinger come up in everyday speech?
28. [ominous rumbling building]
Here we see the art of the gerund really come to the fore. Rumbling building has such a nice rolling sensation to it, but it’s also the kind of phrase you could never say aloud without falling victim to “rural juror” syndrome.
27. [emotional aria playing]
Emotional? What kind of emotion are we talking here? Is this one of those “I love him so much but he sucks so hard” arias, or is it more of a “he died and now I’m screwed” aria? Points for the adjective, but it’s sloppy.
26. [eldritch gurgling]
Showy; technically effective. No one likes a brownnoser.
25. [eerie, unsettling music playing]
A definite step up from the squishiness of emotional, but then it swerves into gilding-the-lily territory with that double adjective.
24. [grandiose opera music playing faintly]
This one’s a whole voyage. From grandiose to faintly in one phrase? Impressive.
23. [wet popping]
There are some words that are not conceptually related to sound but nevertheless convey an astounding amount of audio information. Wet. Remarkable.
22. [hokey muzak resumes]
I thought Muzak was a branded term that we’re not allowed to use out of copyright, but more power to you, caption-writer. Damn the man.
21. [food plopping wetly]
The image implied here is a little tropey, but you absolutely cannot fault the caption. The repetition of that L sound from plop into wetly is superb.
20. [creatures snarling, baying]
Baying! Good word!
Now how in the hell did this one make it into this show? The show’s typical gerund-heavy style calls for whooshing, but it’s also not even descriptive in the same way that eerie or jarring would be. It’s just whoosh! Like Superman showed up! I should cut it from the list entirely, but actually, I love it.
18. [horrific musical stinger plays]
Return of stinger, but this time with a hilarious and probably unintentional implication that whoever made this stinger really fucked it up.
17. [emotional instrumental cover of “Running Up That Hill” playing]
And if I only could / I’d make a deal with God / and I’d get him to swap our places so that I could have a turn writing the captions because it seems fun.
16. [bully 1 scoffs cruelly]
Could’ve tapped out after scoffs, but it’s that extra zhuzh with cruelly that sells it.
15. [distant screaming, struggling]
Nothing wrong with direct and concise.
14. [sinister organ music playing]
This one is probably too clichéd, but it’s the cliché that proves why clichés exist. You say “sinister organ music playing” and I know exactly what that means. Sometimes your first thought is the best choice.
13. [creatures biting wetly]
Lovely ambiguity going on here. Are the creatures wet? Is it the biting that’s wet? Are the creatures biting a wet thing?
12. [guitar strings sing]
11. [deep, determined breathing]
This has a pleasant solidity to it and notches nicely into that space between distinctive and familiar.
10. [intricate, macabre music playing]
Occasionally it’s immediately clear that the caption is far better than the sound could ever be.
9. [wet writhing]
Imagine if the writhing were dry! No, thank you.
8. [gate pulsates wetly]
Incontrovertible step up from [creatures biting wetly] marred only by the necessary inclusion of the word gate. Yes, fine, that’s what they’re called in the show, but you hate to leave more appealing options on the cutting-room floor, and [portal pulsates wetly] was right there.
7. [menacing industrial synth playing]
Fascinating choice to use industrial here. What does it communicate that synth does not? And look, this is a consideration of captions, not Stranger Things, but this language typically shows up in the context of a dark fantasy-world forest covered with tentacles. So where are we getting “industrial” from? But it’s hard to deny that it lends a sense of scale, and the alternatives are so fun to imagine. I, for one, welcome our agricultural synth overlords.
6. [swarm trilling]
YEAH THEY ARE.
5. [wet squelch]
The pinnacle of wetness.
4. [discomforting stinger]
In general, the use of stinger continues to frustrate in all contexts, but with the introduction of discomforting, we are catapulted into a new realm. Discomforting twists sensory awareness together with emotion. Basically the best possible caption for this feeling if you’re forced to rule out just typing [yikes].
3. [dissonant gibbering]
One person chanting: Mouths. Mouths. Mouths. Entire audience: Mouths. MOUTHS. MOUTHS!
2. [unearthly rustling]
[eldritch gurgling] wants what [unearthly rustling] has.
1. [tense music intensifies]
Perfection. Circular description entering into an ouroboros of meaning; the “ATM machine actually means automatic teller machine machine” of descriptive audio captions. Exists outside of time or context; an ideal and unimpeachable demonstration of caption genius.