When Stranger Things It debuted back in 2016, it felt like one of those “lightning in a bottle” moments. From writer-director siblings Matt and Ross Duffer, it exploded onto the scene, contributing to a resurgence of “nerd-chic” and ’80s nostalgia, and introducing terms like “Upside Down” and “Demogorgon” into the zeitgeist.
There’s no question that part of the success of the show was the time in which it premiered. 2016 was a year of unsettling upheaval in American politics and culture, and Stranger Things put language to life. I can’t count the number of times that year I said to friends, “I feel like I’m living in the Upside Down.”
Putting language—or perhaps I should say form or story—to life is a particular strength of Stranger Things. In fact, it’s the whole conceit of the show and why I think the show works and continues to draw viewers, although what might otherwise be a narrow target audience of geeks and horror fans who love the 1980s.
Stranger Things is a show about killing monsters, and when you can personify (or… monsterfy) the deadly abstractions in life, then you can show the ways in which those abstractions are deadly. You don’t have to love the ’80s to resonate with Stranger Things; you just have to love the idea that the invisible and intangible things that haunt us can be fought and defeated. Abstractions like depression, fear, anxiety, trauma, rage, loneliness—mental health crises that separate us from our family and friends and peers—can take actual form in a TV show as a monster. The invisible becomes visible, and fantasy helps to put form into the darkness that so often crouches at our door.
Season 4 of Stranger Things continues this storytelling technique and perhaps gives us the best example so far, peaking in episode 4 of Volume 1 (the season is broken into Volumes 1 and 2). This volume opens with characters who are struggling with the fallout and trauma of events that happened at the end of season 3 (when Billy was killed by the Mind Flayer and Eleven lost her powers—and lost Jim). Its a monster named Vecna whom nobody knows anything about until the bodies start piling up, introduce broken and twisted. According to witnesses, Vicna’s victims die in a sort of dream state; they complain of headaches and anxiety and eventually terrifying visions, and then they become comatose until their bodies are broken.
All of Vecna’s victims suffer from trauma of some sort, and as the episodes count down, it becomes apparent that Vecna targets young people who are already struggling to view themselves as worthy of life. Visually, he’s the most personified monster we’ve had yet on the show—the most humanoid—but in many ways he’s the most repulsive. He has a human body and shape and face, but he has no skin. He’s a monstrous us, with all our most grotesque inner parts showing. In the Upside Down, Vecna is basically a person turned inside out.
Why does he look like this? Because he’s a monster who wants young people to face the ugliest parts of themselves and conclude that they deserve to die—that they should not fight to live.
How do you fight a monster when the monster lives inside you? Vecna thrives on despair and on separating his victims from life-giving community. His attacks begin in the mind until he hijacks the body; break the mind, break the body, make them like himself. Vecna says, “You’re not worthy of life” to the child struggling with trauma. With mental health crises. With depression. And his killings take a personal turn in episode 4 with the revelation that he’s targeting Max.
“Mad Max” (Sadie Sink), like all Vecna’s other victims so far, has traumatized in her life—ghosts that haunt her, questions nipping at her heels. She wonders if she is to blame for the abuse her stepfather heaped on her and her stepbrother, Billy. She never had a good relationship with her stepbrother, but she feels guilty for his death. Is she the reason Billy died? Is she the reason her stepfather left and her mother is so miserable? Vicna says yes; he says, “The monster is you, and you deserve to die.”
By the time Vecna comes after Max, the intrepid group of teens has figured out enough to know that they are After a monster, and how he operates, but they have no idea how to stop him or save Max. In episode 4, they surround Max in a vain attempt to keep her safe and race against the clock to find answers. Max, resigned to her impending death, drags her friends all over Hawkins, writing and leaving goodbye letters. When Vecna comes for Max, she’s at Billy’s grave, and her friends cannot get her to stay with them in life.
Yet as Vecna pulls Max into the Upside Down, she begins to resist, and her resistance turns into a fight for her to remember why she should live and not die—why her life is important and she is worthy. This time, fighting a monster is not about getting a superhero to do it for them (as we’ve often seen in Stranger Things, when Eleven steps in to save the day!); This time fighting the monster is about just staying alive. It’s about running. Running away from death, toward the light, toward life. Max isn’t able to break away from Vecna on her own, though. She needs her friends—the friends she has pushed away during her mental health crisis. So often, the lie told to us by trauma and depression is “you’re alone,” but we are not designed by God to live or be alone. Max is not alone, and she needs her friends to recall her to life as much as she needs to remember that she has a life worth living.
While Max resists Vecna in the Upside Down, her friends realize that they might be able to help break Vecna’s hold over her by playing her favorite song. Once Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” is playing in her headphones, Max is able to start running. She runs for her life, out of Vecna’s lair in the Upside Down, back to her friends who are calling and calling and calling for her. And when they catch her, she says, “I’m still here.” Those are beautiful words, filled with hope and promise of life. Max is alive; she’s denied the Upside Down, inside-out liar his death curse.
Stranger Things has always been about recalling people to life—about fighting for your life and others’ lives. Joyce Byers recalled her son, Will, to life in season 1 and again in season 2. All the kids fought for the life of Hawkins and to prevent the Upside Down from taking over the world in season 3. This helps explain why—even though I’m not a fan of horror, and I’m slightly too young for most of the ’80’s callbacks, and I’ve never played Dungeons & Dragons—I have always resonated with the big themes of this show. Good art calls to life, no matter when it was made or what it’s about.
And like many people reading this, I too have struggled with mental health crises. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, trauma… such things are deadly in real life, far too often. In this season, Stranger Things demonstrates once again how stories and fantasy can help us battle our inner demons—can remind us that the darkness that lives inside is like a monster that wants to consume us, and that even though the choice to go on living can sometimes feel like a sprint against all odds, we don’t do it alone. Episode 4 of season 4 is a call to defy death and despair; it’s a call to remain, to fall into the arms of those who love us and say, “I’m still here.”
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