Stranger Things on Childhood, Fear and the Nature of Horror

The child protagonists of Stranger Things experience horrors they are only beginning to understand.

When I was a child I had a pet guinea pig who died. It lived in a cage in my room, and one evening as I lay in bed I thought it sounded quieter than usual. But I didn’t get up and check on it; instead I fell asleep, and by the next morning it was dead. Poor Sparky’s death was a guilt that hung over 7-year old me.

When I was a teenager I was sexually harassed by a boy I liked. It was the first time a member of the opposite sex had shown real physical interest in me, but instead of feeling happy I just felt confused, frustrated and wrong. That turned into a trauma I struggled to overcome.

In childhood, everything is amplified. Happiness is greater than at any other time in your life, and so is fear. Your emotions seem larger than yourself, than life, than everything. They consume the whole world. Every problem seems to be something that nobody has ever experienced before (you certainly haven’t), something that no adult or parent or teacher could ever understand.

This uniquely adolescent feeling is something Netflix series Stranger Things captures with a pitch-perfect melancholy.

As you grow older, your fears remain. But they transform into something no longer so novel. They become recognisable, tolerable, manageable. The death of a beloved pet becomes an inevitable coda to the process of life; the unwanted advances of a bully become a horrible, but unavoidable, part of living in human society. It’s a necessary part of growing into a well-adjusted adult. What once seemed totally irrational, and thus terrifying, becomes explainable. You come to accept your fears.

Except, of course, when you cannot.

Like all great horror stories, Stranger Things reflects those inexplicable and supernatural horrors that all of us instinctively look for in the shadows upon the very real horrors committed by very real people that we must deal with throughout our lives: child abuse, torture, murder.

Spoiler warning: From hereon this article contains huge spoilers, so don’t read any further unless you’ve done yourself the favour of watching all 8 episodes of Stranger Things first.

Dark reflections

There’s a story that claims Vladimir Nabokov, the renowned author, was inspired to write his infamous novel Lolita upon seeing the first ever drawing produced by an ape in captivity. This drawing, so the story goes, was nothing more than the bars of the creature’s cage.

The tale is most likely fabricated, or a half-truth at best. It was first told by Nabokov himself and the drawing has never been known to exist. Apes don’t draw anything so representational as bars (this is what they do create when given the right equipment), although they have taken photographs of their enclosures:

The first ever photograph taken by an ape (called Cookie).

But the point of the story — and its relation to Lolita — is that animals and humans alike can only imagine what they know. We can only create what we’re familiar with.

So it is with Eleven in Stranger Things. When she first enters the Upside Down, it is a dark reflection of her own life. It’s wet, like the sensory deprivation tank she has been placed in. All she knows of the world is danger and cold and loneliness, and so her Upside Down mirrors these emotions and experiences. She finds a monster in there that appears like a horrific reflection of all the fear and disgust she feels towards her captors. Before Eleven is asked to make contact with the monster Brenner even gives her a potted plant as a gift, which might serve as subconscious inspiration for the demogorgon’s tulip-like face.

Brenner gives Eleven a strange plant before asking her to make contact with the demogorgon.

I don’t necessarily think Eleven creates the monster. But what she finds in the Upside Down, both the place itself and the demogorgon within it, seems to be shaped to some degree by her own fears.

In fact, it’s as if the demogorgon and Eleven are aspects of one another. According to classic Dungeons & Dragons lore, a demogorgon is a monster with two heads that are in constant conflict with each other. The creature is actually “two beings fused into one”, in an eternal struggle to unite or separate this “splintered psyche”.

It’s a struggle that’s clearly embodied in Eleven’s relationship with the monster. As we learn more about one we learn more about the other, and we fear them both for their power. We compare the demogorgon, killing to feed and reproduce, with El, killing to survive and escape. Their fates are tied, from the moment Eleven brings the monster into the world to the moment she sacrifices herself to remove it. Both Eleven and the demogorgon are two sides of the same coin, whether they’re meant to be related in the canon of the show or their relationship is simply used as a narrative device.

Like Eleven and the monster, we see dark reflections throughout Stranger Things. There’s the gentle compassion of Joyce and the beguiling abuse of Brenner — the two forms of quasi-parental “love” that affect Eleven in very different ways. There’s Will’s fake dead body and his real one, alive and cold and terrified in the Upside Down. There are loving fathers (Hopper) and dreadful ones (Lonnie). We see happy childhoods and very, very unhappy ones.

And of course there’s the mirror world itself, the ultimate reflection in which things are not quite as they should be.

A different wolf

Alfred Hitchcock believed that the fears we face as children are no different to the ones we face as adults. As we age, those fears simply transform into different aspects of the same core terror.

In his words:

Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf.”

We see things through different eyes as children, although the fears we’re struggling with are just the same as those our parents struggle with. Our formative years are all about coming to terms with things we’ve never had to deal with before: other people and the horrors they can cause, as well as the horrors of the external world. Adults face exactly the same fears — they just have the benefit of experience.

I believe you can boil almost any fear down to two root types of horror, which I call external and internal.

  • External horror: Generated from forces outside of human influence. For example, diseases, earthquakes, monsters under the bed, etc.
  • Internal horror: Generated from the beliefs and behaviour of humans. For example, serial killers, child molesters, cannibals, etc.

The best horror stories blend these two kinds of fear and reflect them back on each other. Dracula is a merging of terrifying undead creatures and Victorian fears of passion and indecency; Dawn of the Dead, a combination of eerie reanimated corpses and concerns about modern consumerist society.

In Stranger Things the monster hunting goes on all while friendships are made, relationships are kindled, and families are torn apart. It’s not just to supply subplots; it’s because learning to handle the inexplicable horrors of the world cannot be separated from learning to handle other human beings. For children, these lessons (What do I do if someone likes me? How do I handle a bully? When my parents fight, how should I react?) can be just as terrifying as any monster. Intertwining these two elements of strange happenings and adolescent learning is a classic narrative device explored commonly in the horror and supernatural genre, in everything from Carrie to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Stranger Things takes things a step further and compares two sets of kids at different stages of childhood development. The four young boys (and Eleven) are learning the strengths and limits of their friendships, the first flutterings of romantic attraction, and just what adults are capable of. Meanwhile, the teenagers (Nancy, Jonathan, and eventually Steve) are coming to terms with their sexuality, their growing power over others, and the effects their choices have on the world.

Jonathan, Nancy and Steve face off against their fears.

The children are growing into the adults they will become and learning to deal with their fears. But even the adults in Stranger Things, for all their ability to handle social situations (just think of Hop evading the CIA and Joyce at the general store), lack experience of some circumstances. Specifically, the strange and supernatural horrors of the external world.

Is evil innate or learned?

Eleven is a product of horrific circumstances. She’s a result of the terrible harm that people can cause to others — the internal horror I identified above. Specifically, her birth and childhood mistreatment are linked to the real and appalling MKUltra mind control experiments run by the CIA in the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The core frights of Stranger Things — the demogorgon and the Upside Down — are inextricably linked to Eleven and the terrible things she’s forced to do. Whether or not you believe Eleven conjured this evil from within her own mind or simply unearthed it, the message is this: the horrors caused by other people can be just as scary, wrong and harmful as external horrors like monsters and alternate dimensions.

But does one inevitably come from the other? Is Stranger Things trying to say that external horror is bred from human horror, or that human horror is bred from external horror?

In other words: is evil a constant and unavoidable force in our world or is it something humans choose to inflict and spread upon themselves? Is it innate or learned?

The interesting thing is that both sides of this argument can be supported by different readings of the series. Let’s start at the beginning. Eleven creates or reveals the Upside Down and the demogorgon in her mind as a dark reflection of her terrible childhood experiences. This does indeed suggest that external horror stems from human evil.

But instinctively we have a sense that external horror is somehow older and deeper. And reinforcing this, in the final episode of Stranger Things we discover that Hopper’s daughter died from cancer. It’s an inescapable and external form of horror, all the worse because it happens to an innocent young child and regardless of the actions of humans.

In fact, the final climactic scenes of the final episode show the strongest entangling of external and internal horrors. As Joyce and Hop attempt to revive Will, Joyce’s supernatural loss of her son is mirrored in Hop’s loss of his daughter to an unstoppable disease. The way this section is edited, with the fates of the two children cut together, suggests that both forms of evil are so intertwined that there may never be a solution to the question of which begets which. Both Joyce and Hopper are impacted by external horrors they cannot control or even understand — but as we know, the Upside Down and the monster it contains have their roots in the human abuse Eleven suffers at the hands of the CIA.

Both types of evil are just as terrible as each other, and both must be come to terms with by everyone involved. It’s just a different wolf.

Joyce and Hopper rescue Will from the Upside Down.

Ultimately, as we live our lives from childhood to maturity we have to deal with two types of horror in this world: both internal and external. When faced with them, it hardly matters to us what kind of horrors they are or where they come from. The only meaningful difference between the two is that we have a choice over the amount of human evil in the world, and must take every opportunity to weaken that horror or stop it from occurring in the first place.

When I was a child, both the loss of my guinea pig and my sexual harassment were sources of great pain and learning for me. I didn’t care about why or how I was experiencing what I was, because to me it felt like the worst experience in the world. But in time I learned to overcome and accept my fears.

Horrible things exist in this world. And we all must learn to cope, in one way or another. This is the message of Stranger Things and the source of both its fear and its hope. And perhaps it’s all the answer we’ll ever have.

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