Stranger Things is an extremely effective TV show that combines horror and nostalgia to create something that feels both familiar and unique. Everyone on the internet has already all the references to horror movies from the 80s and how much the series owes to the legacy of Stephen King. As a lifelong fan of both (especially King), the show was bound to be in my wheelhouse. It is extremely well made and worth watching.
One fascinating aspect of the show is how it fits into the idea of Cultural Collapse (see last post). The show is set in the 80s but the sentiments haven’t changed that much until today. The show is about people experiencing a world that seems to be falling apart on all sides even before strange things start to happen. A lot of them are unhappy or even desperate, some are numb and almost all of them have accepted their misery as something normal because they couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Authorities play a central role in this world but they are constantly portrayed as either flawed or dangerous. One of the protagonists, Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), is barely capable to do his job because his misery over the loss of his family has made him totally numb. He is able to overcome this and become one of the heroes of the story but only by stepping outside the system and by ignoring all the rules his job requires him to follow. This shows how those systems that are supposed to provide security are inherently flawed.
The other government institutions we see are the real villains of the story. The US Department of Energy and its main scientist Dr. Brenner (a scary Matthew Modine) does experiments on children (more on that later) and kills anyone who finds out about it. And they release a monster on innocent victims and try to cover it up. They represent all the paranoia and conspiracy theories we feel about our institutions because we have learned not to trust them. That they are what is supposed to govern us, what makes us “civilized” only shows how much of a cultural collapse we’re experiencing.
The conflict between Steve (Joe Keery) and his gang and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) shows our “normal” class warfare in which anyone who seems weird or “not normal” becomes an outcast. Steve is an interesting case because he also is granted a sort of amnesty for having a change of heart and somehwat escaping his own cliché of a jock. The show makes it clear, though, that escaping those categories is hard, even if all they do is to separate us, leading to even more conflict.
Jonathan and Nancy (Natalia Dyer) become the unlikely allies in this world. Despite coming from different worlds (broken home vs. middle class family) they share a bond because they realize how broken everything around them is and how much everyone lives in pretense. This dialogue is telling:
Jonathan: “I guess [my father] and my father must have loved each other at some point. But I wasn’t around for that part.” […]
Nancy: “I don’t think my parents ever loved each other.”
Jonathan: “Must have married for some reason.”
Nancy: “My mom was young. My dad was older but he had a cushy job, money, came from a good family. So, they bought a nice house at the end of the cul-de-sac and started their nuclear family.”
Jonathan: “Screw that.”
Nancy: “Yeah, screw that.”
They are rejecting the pretense of their parents’ generation or at least they’re trying to because recognizing and expressing those feelings is hard enough. In a way, their fight with the monster shows their inner struggle as they fight with the demons their parents burdened them with. It is scary and tough and once they’re through with it, they feel safer regressing to their previous roles instead of facing more of these truths.
Family is also one of the main concepts of the show. The Wheeler family is the symbol for the family life that has a beautiful cover but not much love or emotions behind it. Everyone is more or less isolated and doing their own thing. The Byers family consists of Joyce (Winona Ryder) who does her best not to despair, Jonathan who can’t get over his own awkwardness and Lonnie (Ross Partridge), who rejects his family and only pretends to take care of it when he sees an advantage.
In Stranger Things, parents are never really helpful, understanding or not clueless. When Mike (Finn Wolfhard) is hiding Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) in his basement, he would never think of telling his parents or asking them for help. When his mother (Cara Buono) gives him the “You can tell me anything”-talk, it doesn’t seem like both really believe anything they’re saying to each other.
Eleven, the real hero of this story, has learned early on that she can’t trust adults in general. She has been abused for a long time, mainly by Brenner, whom she calls “Papa”. In some of the most heartbreaking scenes of the show we hear her screams to her (real?) father while he watches with cold, scientific curiosity as she faces more horrors than any adult could endure (those lab scenes with El were very reminiscent of Kilgrave’s experiences as a child in Jessica Jones).
It reinforces the idea that children in this culture are mostly abandoned and left on their own. They cannot count on their parents because they either care more about their own interests or are unable to deal with this culture themselves.
This might be the reason why the children-centric films of the 80s (Stand by Me, The Goonies, heck, even Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) are so beloved because they mirror the sad experiences of our culture’s children (which hasn’t changed until today, which is why those stories mean so much to all those former children-now adults today). And they tell a story in which those kids are able to overcome this misery and to be powerful in their own rights. El’s telekinetic powers are just an extension of a desire for control and power which every kid longs for. There is a reason why the X-Men (who are referenced here of course) are so popular and why they normally gain their powers during puberty.
And so this is another kid-centric story, maybe more than anything else the It for a new generation (maybe not quite as good as King’s book), another story where life doesn’t shape up to be what our culture promises us and where the big bad, otherworldly monster personifies the mysterious misery we are all feeling. A gruesome monster seems more likely to us than our culture but the more it collapses, the more terrifying the monster becomes.