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How LaKeith Stanfield's “The Changeling” mines the horrors of parenthood

How LaKeith Stanfield's “The Changeling” mines the horrors of parenthood

Once upon a time, in the magical land of New York City, there lived a bright young man by the name of Apollo.

Raised by a doting and hardworking single mother but haunted by the absence of his father, Apollo, a voracious reader who would become an antiquarian bookseller, one day met and fell in love with a librarian named Emma — and soon became a father himself. A present and loving one, Apollo would find his life inexplicably changed when wife Emma mysteriously vanishes in the aftermath of a horrific act of violence following the birth of their son. He embarks on a perilous odyssey to find her in an alternate, mystic New York — and what he discovers on the other side is far beyond anything he's ever known, having before only existed in the fairytales he read as a child.

So goes the tale at the center of The Changeling, creator and showrunner Kelly Marcel's upcoming Apple TV+ horror fantasy based on Victor LaValle's 2017 novel of the same name. LaKeith Stanfield (also an executive producer) and Clark Backo star as Apollo and Emma in the series, a spellbinding parenthood fable (debuting Sept. 8) that brings ancient folklore and magic to modern day New York. As the title suggests, the series is rooted in European mythology about changelings, described as monstrous offsprings of fairies or elves left in place of human infants stolen by other fairies.

The Changeling
The Changeling

Apple TV+ LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo as Apollo and Emma on 'The Changeling'

Versions of the myth, which first arose during pre-industrial Europe, varied across the continent, but all told the tale of children abducted and replaced with ill-tempered offspring, whether for use of fairy stock, delivering them to the devil, or due to the fairies' admiration of the beauty of the human babies. Across all versions, changelings could easily pass off as their human counterparts — their true likeness only exposed by way of trickery or beatings. Whereas LaValle's source material served as a meditation on fatherhood, Marcel's adaptation does well to also explore motherhood and the challenges that often come with it.

"It was exciting to read something that had expanded and found whole new depths to Victor's work," series executive producer and director Jonathan van Tulleken, a fantasy horror enthusiast who found himself engrossed in LaValle's novel when it first debuted, tells EW of the adaptation over Zoom one late morning.

The Changeling
The Changeling

Apple TV+ Clark Backo as Emma on 'The Changeling'

"Often in changeling myths, people have a sense that [the baby] is off but don't know why," he says. "What's fascinating is these myths derive [from] real circumstances, insofar as I'm sure the myths have some history in postpartum depression, in perhaps mental illness." In the series, Emma, sleep deprived and adjusting to first-time motherhood, does not believe her child is her child. She's brushed off at every turn, including by her own husband. "We come full circle that we have someone who isn't believed, who thinks it is postpartum depression," van Tulleken says.

Along with LaValle's novel, the creative team referenced Nordic horror and mythology, as well as gothic children's fairytales and poems about changelings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, including William Butler Yeats' "The Stolen Child." Scandinavian artwork also helped bring the tale to screen, mostly that of Swedish painter and illustrator John Bauer, best known for his illustrations in the early editions of Among Gnomes and Trolls, an anthology of Swedish folklore and fairytales. In the years since, scholars have linked changeling folklore to a lack of understanding of disabilities and conditions in young children (such as autism) at a time when science wasn't as advanced.

The Changeling
The Changeling

Apple TV+ LaKeith Stanfield as Apollo on 'The Changeling'

Such haunting lore allowed the creative team, which features LaValle himself as series narrator, to mine parenthood in new ways. "We get to use the genre to explore those issues, as those origin changeling stories were probably trying to do," van Tulleken says. "They were probably also trying to explore things that people didn't understand in childbirth and in child rearing."

A father himself, van Tulleken was moved by the series' themes. "Victor and I take our kids to the same parks here," he says. "I live in Harlem, and Victor lives just a little bit north of me. It really spoke to me a lot about new parenthood, about expectations on fathers, expectations on mothers, the gender imbalance still in parenthood. There are really interesting [themes] in terms of motherhood and particularly Black parenthood."

"What starts off as a small love story," van Tulleken teases of Apollo and Emma's harrowing odyssey ahead, "blooms out into a huge mythic fairytale."

The Changeling premieres Sept. 8 on Apple TV+, with new episodes releasing every Friday.

Make sure to check out EW's Fall TV Preview cover story on Gen V — as well as all of our 2023 Fall TV Preview content, releasing through Sept. 21.

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