Amidst all the sunny, sweaty, summery blockbusters and Hollywood movies, Netflix released the cool, autumnal Stranger Things. Much has been written on its nostalgic 80s themes and its countless references to Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter. Intertextuality plays a huge part in this spooky sci-fi series, and it is worth analyzing, but there is so much more to it than that.
Emily Nussbaum at The New Yorker writes that what sets this show apart is its haunting, melancholy feeling, and its respect for both childhood and adult grief. Characters openly suffer through the confusion and heartbreak of loss when Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) goes missing, and is then thought to be dead. A heaviness pervades the series – Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) cries in agony, barely sleeps, and frantically moves through her house trying to communicate with her missing son. Will’s closest friends – Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) – face terrifying feelings, people, and monsters as they search for their lost companion.
Grief is confusing and messy, and does not really make a lot of sense. Stranger Things brings to mind Twin Peaks – a strange little town loses a bright young person, and everyone attempts to deal with the mysteries surrounding these losses. Much like Twin Peaks, Stranger Things posits that maybe some things are just too horrible to occur in the known, natural world. The supernatural is the only way to explain the brutal murder of a young girl, or the sudden disappearance of a responsible and sweet young boy. Both of these television series attempt to provide us with some comfort by showing us that horrible things such as these can only be explained by something that defies all laws of nature. Will is abducted by a huge, frightening alien-like monster, who takes him into the “Upside-Down”: it is like our world, but it is grey, empty, and terrifying. That is the kind of place where mothers lose their children.
It also deals with the long-lasting affects of trauma. Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) was kidnapped and kept in a strange government testing lab run by Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine – cold as ICE). After she escapes and starts spending time with Will’s buddies, she suffers all kinds of post-traumatic stress symptoms. Certain sounds, words, and images trigger memories of the horrible things she was subjected to at Hawkins Laboratory. She was tested on, submerged underwater, and left to deal with the monster from the Upside-Down. She had to venture there alone, and she is left with emotional and mental scars. Eleven does not speak very much, as a result of her previous isolation. The chief of Hawkins police, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) also suffers from trauma, although very different from Eleven’s. He lost his daughter to childhood cancer when she was just a little girl. His search for Will, and Joyce’s grief, frequently trigger traumatic memories for him, that cause him to stop in his tracks. He is almost blown over by the size and force of his grief. This makes him even more determined to help Joyce find her son. Trauma is processed differently by everyone, and Stranger Things gives us both the perspective of an isolated young girl, and a broken-hearted adult man.
Stephen King often writes about the wisdom and maturity of children, and their abilities to deal with and confront things that are big and terrifying. While watching Stranger Things I was frequently reminded of Stephen King’s masterful novel, It. The children of Stranger Things demonstrate bravery, loyalty, and a deep understanding of friendship as they search for Will and attempt to unravel the mysteries of the Upside-Down, and the troubled Eleven. Children see things that adults cannot, and it does not take much for them to believe in telekinetic powers (which Eleven demonstrates), monsters, or aliens. These children are incredibly resourceful, using their skills and knowledge from playing Dungeons & Dragons to create weapons and various contraptions that will help them find Will. Even Will and Mike’s older siblings, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) and Nancy (Natalia Dyer), come up with their own plan to defeat the monster from the Upside-Down.
When a grown woman such as Joyce Byers expresses her beliefs in the supernatural, she is dismissed as being crazy as a result of her loss. It is okay for children to believe in supernatural, sci-fi creatures, but when an adult believes the same things, she is told to go home from work and “get some sleep”. Joyce is incredibly honest with herself about her situation and her feelings. She knows her son has gone missing, and her agony is visible in her face and demeanor. She is not in denial that he is gone, but she absolutely refuses to give up on him. She trusts her feelings, and her instincts constantly tell her that Will is still alive. She finds a way to speak to him through the light fixtures in her home, and as a result, purchases a ton of old-fashioned Christmas lights to connect her to her boy. To paraphrase Beetlejuice, the living do not usually see such strange and unusual things – but Joyce herself is strange and unusual. Even when her son’s body is found in a lake, she refuses to believe he is dead, although this event heightens her grief and makes people believe her even less.
The series has been criticized for being overly sappy and nostalgic (this is similar to frequent criticisms of Steven Spielberg). But this is a show about loss, and about the power of family and love (maybe I myself am overly sappy and nostalgic). When you lose someone or something, whether it be a family member, a relationship, or your childhood itself, all your memories become bittersweet. Nostalgia pulls at your heart and makes it hurt, but also makes it feel warm. Joyce and Jonathan both remember Will’s love for the Clash song “Should I Stay or Should I Go” – it also helps Will pass the time and stay grounded while he is trapped in the Upside-Down. This song connects the three family members to each other, and reminds them that there are people out there that love them unconditionally. The set design gives one the feeling of the past – even if you didn’t grow up in the 1980s, it makes you feel that twinge of times past. There are old-style light fixtures, telephones, clothing, wallpaper, and furniture – designs that we would never see nowadays, save for at our grandparent’s houses. The images make you feel that bittersweet warmth of something you can never have again.
At the heart of Stranger Things is the idea that we will do anything to protect our loved ones. Even when it seems all hope is lost, Joyce and Will’s best friends refuse to stop putting all of their energy into trying to get him back to safety. Perhaps this seems overly sentimental or cheesy, and maybe it is – but that does not necessarily need to be a bad thing. At some point everyone discovers that the world is a dark and scary place sometimes – for some people it happens earlier than for others. The Duffer Brothers have given us a beautifully shot, bittersweet series about sticking together with the ones you love even when things seem really scary. Thinking about all of the bad things in the world can get really exhausting, and sometimes it is important to warm your heart and feel sentimental. It also helps that Winona Ryder is in every episode.