The reason for the monster-haunted Stranger Things’ appeal to 21st century audience is ironically tied to how the show reveals what is so dangerous about much of pop culture. The first season being set in 1983, the show is pasted together almost as a pastiche or scrapbook of 80s (and even 90s) pop culture. For older generations, Stranger Things is a nostalgic trip to a simpler time of big hair, arcade video games, and a more stable home life. For younger people, the show is a time capsule to a period where no one had cell phone, movies had to be rented at the video store, and American community life in small towns was buttressed by a tradition of sacrifice, patriotism, and Christian faith.
Set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things follows the widely popular (and deeply manipulative) formula of horror and sci-fi perfected by the short stories and novels of Stephen King as well as television shows like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks and Chris Carter’s The X-Files, the king of late 1990s sci-fi television. Stranger Things tells the story of a group of nerdy kids, Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, Mike Wheeler, and Will Byers, who begin the show playing Dungeons and Dragons in the Wheeler’s basement. While riding his bike home (in homage to Steven Spielberg’s famous nerd-pedalled bicycle scenes in his 1985 Goonies), Will Byers is chased and eventually kidnapped by some sort of monster. We later learn that this monster, who is called the Demogorgon, a creature from another dimension that was contacted by Eleven, a young girl with telepathic powers. As the show progresses we learn that Will has been taken to an alternate shadow universe called the Upside Down, which seems to be a haunted and spookier parallel version of the “real world.” The rest of the first season follows a predictable small town sci-fi horror plot of a monster picking off outliers in the community, teenagers losing their innocence, government conspiracies, dysfunctional families from which good kids escape into fantasy worlds, and a final showdown between the kids, the government conspirators, and the monster.
Like many 80s popcorn flicks that appeared, on the surface, to be merely crafted to sell tickets, the Netflix series is loaded with occult and even satanic elements that have an ancient pedigree. The ambling, humanoid Demogorgon or demiurge (as it is called in philosophy) is a key figure in the Greek philosophy of Platonism and the tradition of Neoplatonic magic formed by Plato’s later followers who used the term “daemon” for a demiurge as well. While clearly the Demogorgon is demonic in origin, it has, in Stranger Things, a precedent in the heresy that served as the most dangerous rival of early Christianity and which has repeatedly returned to harass Christendom for the past two thousand years: Gnosticism.
Demiurges showed up in the Gnostic heresy as being like angels or gods, and in some strands of Gnosticism, the God of the Old Testament appears as an evil demiurge who created matter as well as a system of rules and religious laws that were foisted upon human kind. The evil demiurge is contrasted with a feminine principle called Sophia who brings knowledge and freedom and light to the universe.
In her conflict with the Demogorgon in Stranger Things, Eleven acts as a Sophia force bringing light and redemption to the boys whom she later meets in the rain after escaping Hawkins National Laboratory where she was being forced to endure experiments designed to unlock her telepathic powers. As Dustin, Lucas, and Mike, learn more about Eleven and her psychic abilities, they discern that she can travel to the Upside Down to find Will. In the final episode, Eleven lies in deliberate cruciform while searching for Will in a crude sensory deprivation tank made by the boys from a swimming pool and saltwater. Eleven thus acts as a Christ figure who travels to the underworld of the Upside Down to rescue Will. In the same episode, there is further a gnostic image of the Sophia-Christ of freedom pitted against the authoritarian Christ represented by the Demogorgon. In order to kill the Demogorgon, Eleven uses her psychic powers to press the Demogorgon against a chalkboard in the science classroom of Mr. Clarke, Lucas, Dustin, Mike, and Will’s favorite science teacher, crushing the Demogorgon’s heart in the process. This scene is clearly a sacrilegious crucifixion of the old Christ and the old authoritarian Christianity by the new free spirited religion represented by Eleven.
This attack on authority and “the establishment” is one of the greatest ironies of Stranger Things, which appeals to the nostalgic desire for a more peaceful time in American history, which ironically was shepherded and made possible by the strength and sacrifices of the patriarchal Christian establishment.
Every relationship and family in the TV show is somehow fractured, and the father figures are conspicuously absent either literally through divorce, or the dad is somehow “checked out.” The nucleus of the depiction of what feminists would call the patriarchy is Dr. Martin Brenner, the scientist in charge of Eleven at Hawkins Laboratory whom she calls “papa.” Linked with the Demogoron as a symbol of authority and male aggression, Dr. Brenner cruelly utilizes the lives of authors for the greater good of America in the West’s fight against communism in the cold war. Dr. Brenner is a clear symbol of tradition, patriotism, authority, and masculine strength--everything the culture of death wants to destroy.
Dr. Brenner is linked to and contrasted with the other male authority figures in Stranger Things who are either clueless, cruel, or “cool,” allowing the children to do whatever they want. The father of Mike and his sister Nancy, Mr. Wheeler, is weak and naively patriotic; he chastises his children for their bad language and is completely out of touch with the lives of the people in his family. In the last episode, Mr. Wheeler is literally asleep in the last episode when Steve Harrington, her boyfriend who stole her virginity, is cradling her on the nearby couch. Again the formula plays with both our nostalgia for a time when fathers made some attempt to protect the purity of their children, while at the same time celebrating the weakness of the father while simultaneously mocking it.
Will’s father, Lonnie, is a deadbeat who clearly does not care about his sons and who has younger girlfriends--one of whom tells him that she might trade him in for a younger man when she notes how cute his other son, Jonathan, is. At one point Lonnie tells Jonathan to take down his impure Evil Dead poster because it is inappropriate. In this scene we see both the hypocrisy of Lonnie as well as the longing for a time when there was some attempt, however futile, for parents to expect modesty in their children. We further see the hollowness and futility of being a single dad who spends more time on his car than his sons both criticized and applauded.
The divorced, sloppy chief of police Jim Hopper as well is a “cool” father-figure whose alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, and opioid addiction make him pitiful as well as alluring. He acts as a sort of surrogate father for the boys in the town; like Eleven as a cool, liberal Christ figure, Hopper is a cool father who provides moments of stability and strength while being laid back enough to let the young people do whatever they want.
Perhaps the most sympathetic and stable character is Hawkin’s Middle School’s science teacher, Mr. Clarke. Himself a sci-fi nerd and Dungeons and Dragons aficionado, Mr. Clarke is linked with Eleven as a new priest of the new religion of scientism and the occult. He indulges the boys with only slight therapeutic reprimands, and, like a 1980s version of Google, provides them with scientific information when they attempt to find Will in the Upside Down. As opposed to Dr. Brenner and even Hopper, he is very effeminate, and there is a profound shock that we later learn that he has a girlfriend with whom he is watching sci-fi horror film The Thing. It is also telling that the Demogorgon is “crucified” in Mr. Clarke’s science classroom. The message is that the new science and the new humanistic religion of Mr. Clarke and Eleven will get rid of the nasty old superstitious Christianity once and for all.
Like much of horror released in the later half of the 20th century, the Church is powerless and neutered to stop the Demogorgon, which must defeated by scientific detective work and Gnostic girl power. This is perhaps the central irony of all revolutionary and deconstructive movements like the culture of death. Christianity, “the patriarchy” or the “heteronormative” establishment are depicted as an impervious all-powerful institutions that are oppressing a network of helpless and innocent victims. At the same time, the “man” or the Church is a decrepit and enfeebled institution on its last legs about to be toppled by a misfit gang of oppressed feminists, “trans-persons,” and other revolutionaries. This narrative of “we shall overcome” that is, we are always about to overthrow the patriarchy, is essential to the self-pitying revolutionary movement and Stranger Things exploits this narrative while, at the same time, ironically appealing to the desire for Millennials and Post Millennials for a more stable time before the West had been almost completely destroyed.
While feeding this nostalgia, Stranger Things provides a hint at how American families have been ravished and how culture of death has invaded the minds and hearts of people the world over. Many critics have also pointed out the show depicts “life without the internet.” However, what is further interesting is that communication from between the Upside Down and the real world is effected through electronic devices such as lights and radios, that is, paranormal activity works through electronic communication--kind of like how the internet works.
The Upside Down is literally a world where things are darker and shadier. It is the world of internet pornography, of Facebook live-stream suicides and mass murders, of every poisonous anti-Christian ideology on the internet. In Stranger Things, Will “texts” his mom from the Upside Down and communicates with her via lights. We thus have a hint at how the upside down world of pop culture has destroyed the Western family. The minds and hearts of Westerns have been colonized by music, movies, books, and occult games like Dungeons and Dragons, which have (at least figuratively) opened up another world into which demonic entities have entered.
Joyce Byers, brilliantly played by Winona Ryder, represents perhaps the ground zero of the effects of the culture of death on life of small town America (as well as now much of the West) in the latter half of the 20th century. A single mom, Joyce is ironically both one of the most powerful as well as most vulnerable characters in Stranger Things. For much of the first season, Joyce is in a hysterical state. However, it is not simply the disappearance and then apparent death of her son that drives her hysteria. Joyce is haunted by the bitter loneliness and impotence of being the primary “single mom” of a broken family in a small town. She is exploited by her boss at the department store at which she works, who only reluctantly lets her buy a new phone and other goods on credit. Chief Hopper, whom she is rumored to have dated, serves as a surrogate husband who always maintains a careful distance that allows her freedom but also keeps her perpetually alone. When Will is finally returned in the later episodes, Joyce develops some stability but always remains deeply wounded and insecure--in the last episode she worries that the Christmas dinner she has prepared is not good enough for her sons.
Another profound symbol of this destruction of American innocence is found in the scene in which the girl Barb is taken by the Demogorgon at a pool party. While lingering on the diving board at a pool, Barbara, Nancy’s best friend, is stolen by the Demogorgon as Nancy is literally losing her innocence at the hands of Steve Harrington. This parallel is extremely interesting as the Duffer Brothers (and the shows other writers) are clearly demonstrating a parallel between the ferocious Demogorgon who preys on the flesh of living things and the aggressive sexual revolution that was coasting through the 80s robbing the innocence of the sons and daughters of flower children. Again, it is not as though the show’s writers are condemning the sexual revolution; rather, they are grossly celebrating the bitter sweetness of lost innocence.
Sadly, Stranger Things does not pass muster for quality Christian, pro-family, pro-life entertainment. While most of characters are “shockingly” modestly dressed, there are several scenes of impurity. What is more, there is deliberatively and childishly provocative use of the name of Our Lord through the show by both adults and children. However, the work does reveal the corrosiveness at the heart of contemporary pop culture and its satanic anti-life roots. But perhaps, most importantly, Stranger Things reveals the woundedness of the Western family, which even compared to the 1980s has further disintegrated as the Upside Down world of Hollywood pop culture has invaded and now largely dominates the broken homes of so many families in the West.
Nonetheless, there is hope as the triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the culture of life will someday set our world right side up.