In the past week I have been approached several times about the Netflix series „Stranger Things“. In fact, the recently released fourth season gave the streaming service record views and wide attention in the arts pages. Such a phenomenon as the current hype about „Stranger Things“ shows that a fictional work obviously not only offers good entertainment, but also reflects the topicality of our time. Something that appeals to us beyond the narrated story is hidden behind the pictures, which were produced with great effort. In addition, the episodes published so far still leave a number of questions unanswered, about which one can speculate excellently. I think Stranger Things is essentially a reflection on the issues of evil, hell and redemption. In essence, it is about religious themes, even if the series is extremely economical with explicit religious allusions. So I don’t want to write a film review here, but rather pursue the underlying themes based on the series, which I myself also watched with great interest. In essence, I am convinced that we are encountering an irreligious myth here that can be connected to today.
Outline of the plot of „Stranger Things“
Summarizing the plot of the now 32 published episodes is not possible here. For those who do not know the series, only a few basic constellations should be highlighted here.
„Stranger Things“ develops a story around a group of children and later teenagers in a small town in America. The action takes place in the 1980s. In the laboratory of a government agency on the outskirts of the city, research is being carried out on an unusual project. The researchers have succeeded in opening the gate to another dimension, the so-called „Upside Down“. This dimension forms something like a gloomy reflection of reality. The city and its surroundings are therefore present twice, once as a normal „lifeworld“ and once as a dark, empty, reversed metaphysical space. Now, at the beginning of the series, there is a glitch. A sinister being from the „Upside Down“, a human-like monster whose head is just a mouth, escapes into the real world. As a result, several entrances to the hidden dimension open up, so that the worlds become permeable to one another. From the group of four boys who meet to play „fantasy role-playing games,“ Will, one of the members, disappears. As it turns out later, he got to the other side, to the „Upside Down“ and is being held captive there.
The four seasons of the show are built similarly. Various monsters emerge from the dark dimension, posing a deadly threat to the children, their families and the city. The children themselves get to know the dark counter-reality. Together with some adult protagonists, you try to decipher the mysteries surrounding the „Upside Down“, fight the monsters and close the entrances to the other dimension. They are dependent on the help of a girl who is called „Eleven“ after a tattoo on her arm. As time shows, the girl escaped from an experimental laboratory. There, in the 1970s, a cunning and brilliant scientist began to gather children with special mental abilities and to train them in their paranormal abilities (clairvoyance, levitation, superpowers). Eleven is the only one who can use her mental powers to counter the monsters, which are largely immune to conventional weapons.
The show works as a mixture of the „Three Question Marks“ (a German teen’s book-series) , where young people, thanks to their instincts and their intelligence, track down mysterious phenomena and classic horror films from the 70s and 80s, which are also widely quoted. The structure of the story is reminiscent of Stephen King’s „It“ where the children of a small town are also threatened by evil emerging from the underground in various forms. Mixed with a lot of humor and music, it becomes an entertaining and exciting story that conjures up childhood memories and, in addition to the horror elements, of course also deals with the questions and problems of growing up. But that’s not the main theme of the show.
At the heart of the plot is the motif of the two worlds. With the „Upside Down“ the thoughtless researchers open access to the otherwise hidden underworld, a threatening version of the actual world. This is a very old motif. In the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of John, the city of Babylon appears in the 17th chapter as a symbol for mankind corrupted by sin, a gloomy contrast to the city of God Jerusalem (Rev. 21), which is later depicted. In fact, the residents of the small town in the series are by no means shown in an idyll. The wickedness of the world, strife, intrigue, corruption, drugs, and abuse of power reflect on a small scale what the political world looks like on a large scale, exemplified in the research laboratory for which Americans and Soviets compete for the most powerful weapons and for a head start in knowledge fight the opponent. The imprudent malice of the bitter political and social struggle conjures up the underworld. In the biblical account, the monstrous being of the end-time dragon with the seven heads rises out of the underworld, a monster that is subsequently fought, cast back into the underworld by the angels and tied up. Access to the underworld must be closed with a heavy lid (Rev 20:3).
Also the idea that the „Upside Down“ reflects the real world is not new. The motif of the reflection comes from the representation of hell and heaven from Dante’s „Divine Comedy“. Still, Stranger Things doesn’t just deal with the biblical idea of “hell“, even if the creatures that emerge from it, as well as the computer-generated other-dimensional setting with red-hot skies, streaking lightning and demonic creatures (season 4) quite reminiscent of depictions of hell. But the “upside down” is more.
I was reminded of paintings by the German painter Neo Rauch in „Stranger Things“. In his work, seemingly everyday human scenes are often broken through like ghosts. The scene opens into a fantasy space. Monsters, mostly in the form of animals, enter the scene from underground, from above, from the walls. In my opinion, Rauch paints nightmares here, representing a mixture of the real world and the imagined world, a gloomy world full of fears and abysses. In this sense, the „Upside Down“ can be interpreted psychologically. It is also the subconscious, the place of dreams, of inner abysses. Hell is within you. It is probably no wonder that the group of protagonists is presented as a group of mentally handicapped, stigmatized and marginalized people. This is where the series fully intervenes in today’s discourse on individual development, identity and discrimination. The first victim of „Upside Down“ is the dreamy and introverted Will, who lives with his brother and his mother, who is always acting on the verge of nervous breakdowns, in a shabby shack on the outskirts of town. The family has been abandoned by the father, a real good-for-nothing, and is struggling for its material existence. With the other protagonists, too, the audience is shown what is to be expected: the policeman who got off track after the death of his daughter and the divorce from his wife, the depressive girl Max who was harassed by her sadistic brother, the lesbian teenager, the fallen heartthrob, the Children of the only black family in town, the physically challenged nerd, the slightly underdeveloped class outsider – the fighters against the underworld are a squad of the disabled and injured. They fight symbolically with the monsters of their own disadvantage, they fight with depression and trauma. It’s probably no wonder that the monsters essentially consist of large mouths. The message is simple: don’t let your abysses eat you up. Don’t dive into the darkness of your fears, but live. Find a way to defeat the hostile underworld that keeps opening up. Those captured in the underworld are held and drained by it. The underworld becomes more and more powerful with the number of its victims. The liberation from the underworld then follows logically through the positive forces of friendship, courage and good memories, while the bad memories unleash destructive forces.
A redeemer figure?
This principle is particularly evident in “Eleven”, the girl with miraculous powers. It oscillates between „good“ and „evil“. Of all the main characters, she has experienced the most severe traumatization, was separated from her mother as a baby and treated as a test subject in the laboratory, a kind of sanatorium. The trick is that she has learned to channel her anger. The more she manages to transform inner anger, sadness, fear and hurt into energy, the stronger her powers against the monsters become. The underworld is being fought with its own weapons, so to speak. Consequently, the superpowers also dwindle when „Eleven“ finds her first real friends in the group of boys over the course of the series, ultimately her first love and a new family. „Eleven“ is contrary to the first assumption not a savior figure who uses good against evil, no angel who fights demons, but rather a kind of therapist who has learned to take action against her abysses.
At the end of the last season, however, this principle is again called into question by a religious allusion. This is where Eleven’s escape from the lab is told. In addition to Eleven, there are other children there, all of whom have numbers. Number 1 is a now almost adult young man who had also awakened his miraculous powers through a severe trauma and used them to destroy his family. He has a plan to break free from the lab’s captivity and uses his superpowers to kill all the other children except Eleven. When he wants to persuade her to flee, a duel ensues. Eleven defeats Number 1 and pushes him into the Upside Down. Then the young man is shown falling into the other dimension in an endless fall, turning into an evil demon who appears as the children’s antagonist in the fourth season. The series traces the fall of the angels, the old Jewish legend in which Lucifer as an angel rebels against God and is thrown out of heaven for it. In his will to rise above God he loses everything and becomes only the antitype, the shadow of an angel. In the Jewish sect of Qumran, the world was conceived as an interstice in the struggle between Michael, the prince of light, and Belial, the prince of darkness. A similar construction seems to be found in „Stranger Things“.
However, the parallel to Qumran again does not work. „Eleven“ isn’t just a „Prince of Light“. The sanatorium laboratory is not heaven and the head of the laboratory is not God. The images do not skimp on allusions. The walls of the main room in the sanatorium are painted with rainbows. Obviously one is in a distorted version of the heavenly realms. Even the children in their long nightgowns can remind of a little angel. The head of the facility presents himself as a father figure and creates an emotional dependency on the children. You have to obey his rules to be treated well. In this distorted form, the „Father“ (God) is also a demon. Life, as shown by the example of Elfie, can only succeed if the child can detach itself from this figure and from the environment of the false sky of a guinea pig childhood. Self-empowerment is the way to salvation conceived in „Stranger Things“. Only the biblically spoken self-chosen expulsion from the „false paradise of the divine commandments“ can produce the good. The real family is found outside. Of course, this also contains a lot of psychology on the human side and of course alludes to the theory of „parricide“. Here we come to a core statement of the series: God in the sense of a good God does not exist. Basically there is only the evil of the world and counter-world. Only the good that comes from man himself can help against its devastating omnipresence. Good is a kind of therapeutically treated evil.
Heaven is empty
So heaven is empty. Earth is at its best on Stranger Things when it’s sealed off from the underworld (and probably the overworld, too). So you could interpret the series at its core as an atheistic myth. It doesn’t seem surprising to me that such an ideology, albeit a hidden one, catches on. The success of the series is probably also due to its subliminal message. However, this is also problematic from a purely human point of view. The series itself hints at that. She develops an extremely negative world view. Basically everything becomes a conspiracy. Evil, the abyss lurks around every corner, evil intentions, evil deeds, the evil machinations of the powerful. The heroes are then the weak and marginalized, the nerds who can decode the conspiracy and at least save their little world. The universal good is left out. There is no longer room for the salvation of the whole world or of all people.