If you’re someone who planned to watch Stranger Things Season 4 – someone who felt able to face it – you’ve probably gotten there by now. Soon after the release of the last two episodes on 1 July this year, the season clocked over a billion hours viewed worldwide. That’s an impressive amount of time and emotion invested in the life and times – and supernatural traumas – of a group of nerdy teens in 1980s Hawkins, Indiana.
I wasn’t sure, at first, if I could do it. I watched (and loved) the first three seasons, but I’m not great with horror and this season looked like it was going to up the ante on that front.
Eventually, my curiosity (or FOMO as everyone was talking about it) got the better of me. The first episode gave me nightmares, so after that I took precautions: watching in short chunks, only during the daytime, usually while doing something else. Extreme measures? Probably. But it was worth it, for me at least.
The thing I found most fascinating about Stranger Things 4 – the thing I’ve been thinking about ever since putting myself through the ordeal/thrill of watching it – is its treatment of trauma.
For those who haven’t seen it but don’t mind the spoilers, the season’s main plotline centres on the gruesome, mysterious murders of a number of Hawkins teenagers by a malevolent being from the “Upside Down”, a dark shadow world to this one, whose boundaries have been breached in previous seasons. This killer – dubbed “Vecna” by our protagonists, after a Dungeons & Dragons villain – apparently selects as his victims the deeply traumatised.
Naturally, after the events of the last few seasons (along with the all-too-common wounds of adolescence), there’s no shortage of trauma in this town. Vecna’s prey share something else as well: a profound shame attached to what they’ve suffered and/or done. They feel responsible for what’s happened, and their shame isolates them from anyone who might be able to help.
Something positively evil is at work.
It’s a searing and distressingly accurate picture of how trauma can play out. Psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, notes how much recent and emerging fields of research – neuroscience, developmental psychopathology, interpersonal neurobiology – have contributed to our understanding of the workings of trauma and the possibility of healing from it.
But when we reach for a way of representing the experience of being traumatised, the supernaturalism of Stranger Things provides an imaginative shorthand that overleaps what the science can convey. The makers of the series are drawing on an instinct we have that there’s something spiritually very dark – something malevolent, something demonic even – about what’s going on with the self-loathing and hopelessness these characters feel. Something feeding on that shame, stoking it.
It’s as though the story is saying: that’s what it feels like to be dealing with this kind of trauma. It feels like something positively evil is at work. (A similar thing has been noted over the years about David Lynch’s classic series Twin Peaks: that it takes the language and imagery of demonic possession to do justice to how truly evil sexual abuse is.)
Stranger Things 4 is fiction, of course; it’s not making any claims about spiritual reality. But it’s fictionalising something that Christians (whether or not they think much about it) believe is real: the existence of spiritual powers and principalities, invisible but active in the world, seeking to deform and destroy God’s good work in his creation.
One thing to notice about the use of the demonic to figure human trauma is that it tends (as in Stranger Things) to be asymmetrical: the supernatural evil has no “good” supernatural counterpart. The counterpart to the “Upside Down” is the human world, the world of friendship and family, arcades and high school cafeterias, human good and human evil. There’s no God or gods in Stranger Things; the closest thing is Eleven, with her supernatural powers, deployed to help her friends. But she is stubbornly human (so is Vecna, as it turns out; but that really is a spoiler).
The thing everyone knows about season 4 of Stranger Things is that it catapulted Kate Bush’s 1985 song ‘Running Up That Hill’ up the charts (in the process netting her more than $2 million in streaming royalties). It’s this song that allows Max – one of the series’ main characters, and Vecna’s would-be third victim – to escape him and his attempted deformation of her soul in a key scene in episode 4.
Bush’s song smuggles in the divine.
Interestingly, Bush originally wanted to call the song ‘A Deal with God’, but she went with the alternative title after being advised that religious countries (among which she lists Italy – and Australia) would refuse to play it. In an interview at the time, she said the song was about the idea of a man and a woman being able to swap places in order to better understand one another:
“And really the only way I could think it could be done was either … I thought, a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, “well, no, why not a deal with God!” You know, because in a way it’s so much more powerful, the whole idea of asking God to make a deal with you.”
If Stranger Things counters the spiritual evil of Vecna and the sufferings of his victims with the power of human friendship – its joys and sacrifices, its capacity for overcoming isolation with connection – Bush’s song smuggles in the divine, and our need for it.
My colleague Barney Zwartz writes that music is “humanity’s best and most accessible blessing, the quickest and most reliable route to the transcendent”. It’s music that bypasses Max’s rational mind and allows her to see beyond her own anguish (and Vecna’s attacks) to where her friends are calling her name, calling her back to the path of life, of healing.
Supernatural evil, as a narrative device, helps us express what’s so awful about some of life’s darkest experiences. But it’s the transcendent good – in short, God – that can help us to see what’s so powerful, so good, about everything in life that’s good.
Natasha Moore is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.