The Following Is All True
My primary takeaway from Stranger Things is how it lovingly embraces the tropes of 80’s movies while inverting them. That and how it didn’t need to say “based on a true story,” even though it was.
The victims of the evil monster aren’t those whose sin is of a sexual nature, but rather those who are marginalized and already victimized by society. Those who don’t go along with the crowd are frequently its target.
The boys’ game of Dungeons and Dragons is characterizing and certainly establishes the setting. The moral panic of the 80’s around DnD and its links to Satanism, recovered memories, and ritualized abuse are not an indictment of the hobby. Fairy tales, Arthurian legend, and Hollywood all prominently have placed the otherworldly in human consciousness. Stories of children being taken away from this world into a magical fairyland or stolen by monsters was an easier explanation to one’s children for high infant mortality and an overall less hospitable world. We are safer now than we’ve ever been, but people have a tendency to see monsters where there are only scary shapes.
No, the animus of the outraged was centered on those kids who didn’t play sports like you were supposed to (and as immature and undeveloped as those bullies who did). Rather than talking to their kids about their concerns (which most people did), they listened to their reverends, the television, talk radio, and the opinion pages. The establishment is always at the head of the witch hunts, its beliefs and world view always seeing what’s different as the Other and not wanting to have that view challenged.
Furthermore, despite us playing along with the boys, they cannot confront the evils that have been unleashed on their small town. These Goonies or Scoobies can’t fight the conspiracy. They can’t kill the monster. They have to run. Or bike away. They may open the curiosity doors, but the grownups have to go through them and face down the devils within. Make those deals that the children don’t understand because they have to be protected and saved. More often than not from one another.
Eleven serves as a good audience surrogate, introducing us to the other players and new places. New but familiar. We’ve seen all of this before, but in scenes from other stories that reverberate like they were recovered memories. But it’s different. Somehow it’s nostalgic but novel.
Nothing happens like it should. The brooding loner doesn’t steal the girl and is called out on his brooding (creepy), pretentious bullshit. The small town sheriff isn’t merely defined by his badge, nor does he just roll over for the powers that be. The messianic figure is not pure, but traumatized and won’t turn the other cheek. The monster is gone, the bodies buried, and everyone acts like things can go back to how they were. Like their innocence hasn’t been lost.
To merely label the serial as Kingsian or Spielbergian would be really selling short what the Duffer Brothers have accomplished here. The references and allusions are too voluminous would require multiple viewings to catalog (though some will try). There is not the deficiency of humor, horror, science fiction, or bildungsroman that should happen when one draws so much inspiration and refuses to be bound by genre for a single narrative. There is no camp that would lighten the darkness which all the characters must face, and lower the stakes as well. That horror is not solely the monster that’s creeping in the Upside Down. It’s what brought it here. It’s what created Eleven. It’s what destroyed Hopper and what’s destroying Joyce. What’s eating at Will.
And it’s what happened. What really happened.
Project MKUltra is no doubt the inspiration for Hawkins Laboratory, which brings the Demogorgon out of the Upside Down and has given Eleven her abilities. Project Stargate is also alluded to, when she is used to remotely view Russian agents. Both of these are real programs where the government experimented on American citizens illegally and apparently wasted millions as no results came about the brutal torture, gaslighting, and drugging of hundreds of individuals. The time period of the series establishes it after the end of MKUltra, but with another decade of Stargate left.
Of course, one could speculate that had the programs bore any fruit like they did in the series they would have continued. And had they actually accomplished something, you wouldn’t be hearing about them on the internet inspiring the next entry into the Golden Age of Television.