When I pitched this piece last month, I promised I’d draw from personal experience, focusing on that period in 2020 when I hit rock bottom. The problem is that, like most people, I don’t remember much from the long stretches of time we’ve come to call “quarantine.” I remember recurring events but not specific instances. I remember locking myself up in the bathroom for hours at a time, and drying my eyes moments before hopping on Zoom for remote editorial meetings with my then-colleagues. I remember feeling fatigued 24/7 even though I overslept and rarely left the house. I remember trying my best not to idealize the alluring prospect of death whenever a family member picked a fight with me or I picked a fight with them—and whenever I tried to think pragmatically about my future, only to wind up picturing myself rotting alone, an Eraserhead-like post-apocalyptic wasteland right outside my window. I remember how I felt and why I felt it: after spending the last two years away from home networking, cultivating friendships, and developing feelings for someone, going back to my parents during my senior year of college made me feel like my life was at a standstill. My future had been made all the more uncertain by the single most historic event I was old enough to remember—and I was fucking terrified.
I know that these experiences don’t make me unique. In fact, they were (and still remain) a reality for a lot of people. In the US, depression rates reportedly tripled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have only worsened since then. I don’t write about my clinical depression to self-aggrandize or to seek pity; part of me feels weary for having pitched something this personal in the first place. But 2020 and 2021 were two formative years in my life. I’m in a much better place now, thanks entirely to my immediate family, whose support no amount of clicks on a keyboard could ever convey. But with so much having changed this past year alone, it’s hard not to think retrospectively towards the time I became clinically depressed as a measure of how far I’ve come.
If there was one silver lining to the months I spent quarantining, it’s that I watched many films in an attempt to fill my gaps—a good portion of these being horror movies I’d spent years avoiding. Since then, I’ve written (briefly) about the inherent escapism of non-verisimilitudinous genres, and, more broadly, the allure of seeing our social ills coded into unusual imagery. Horror media often finds itself focusing on mental illness due, in part, to the genre’s proclivity for social allegory. In recent years, many such analogies have felt tactless and contrived—but at their best, depictions of grief and trauma in horror have the ability to make people feel seen. When your emotions are unpredictable, involuntary, and confusing, simply having them affirmed can feel therapeutic. This brings me to Stranger Things.
Like many others, my family and I binged the fourth season of the popular Netflix series when it came out last year. A period drama set in the 1980s, Stranger Things follows a mismatched group of adults and children who live in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana. They are brought together by the disappearance of a boy named Will and the arrival of Eleven, a young girl and the fugitive of a nearby laboratory that secretly uses children to conduct experiments into the supernatural. When these experiments lead to the opening of portals into another dimension dubbed the Upside Down, it’s up to the group to solve the mystery of Will’s disappearance and save their town from the realm’s invasive biology.
Stranger Things has always been rife with allegories and straightforward depictions of mental illness alike. After Will is rescued at the end of the first season, he starts to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) prompted by premonitions of the destruction of Hawkins. Eventually, it’s discovered that, although he was rescued from the Upside Down, he is still being haunted by a parasitic entity from the realm. These periodic, hallucinatory visits back to the Upside Down become a source of debilitating anxiety for Will, who starts to distance himself from his friends and relatives. Coupled with regular growing pains, this dissonance between him and the rest of his friend group becomes even more meaningful in the fourth season, which confirms what many fans already suspected—that Will is closeted and in love with his best friend, Mike, who in turn loves Eleven.
However, the most effective metaphor for me came elsewhere this past season, which also introduces audiences to Vecna, a psychic monster from the Upside Down and the mastermind behind many of the show’s previous threats. Formerly a misanthropic test subject from the Hawkins National Laboratory who got trapped in the Upside Down after massacring almost everyone in the facility, Vecna has taken control of this alternate dimension, and now possesses and kills residents of the town as a means to maximize his psychic strength. Because troubled youth are easy to exploit, he preys on teenagers under mental distress, torturing them by exalting their deepest fears and insecurities through disturbing hallucinations, in order to weaken their psychology and murder them from within.
Of all the feature-length installments that made up this past season, the fourth episode left the biggest impression on me. It focuses largely on Max, a teenage girl who, in the third season, witnesses the death of her stepbrother, Billy, while he’s protecting her from a monster that had invaded their town. At the start of the fourth season, Max is living in a trailer park with her newly divorced, alcoholic mother. Having developed PTSD and survivor’s guilt from the accident that killed Billy, she distances herself from her friends at school and anyone else who shares knowledge of the Upside Down. She does this because she associates their adventures with a horrible tragedy, but in doing so she also denies herself a network of support, which exacerbates her inner turmoil.
The “headphones equal isolation” trope is so ubiquitous at this point that it’s spun numerous parodies, making the image of Max walking down the long corridors of Hawkins High alone, accompanied only by a cassette player that blasts music into her eardrums, a familiar one. Maybe it’s because of my own tendency to self-isolate during my depressive episodes, or my already-established faith in the show’s ability to convincingly portray mood disorders, that the showrunners’ handling of Max’s storyline affected me from the get-go—clichés aside. As I write this, I try to think back to what it is that made the repeated “Running Up That Hill” needle drops so effective, as opposed to other instances of this emblematic image in lesser media. Rather than make artifacts stand in for meaning, Stranger Things has always been good at taking recognizable imagery—be it the universal connotation of a drawing taped above a hospital bed, or the classic Americana quality of bike pedals under dirty sneakers—to underline emotional urgency. It’s not just that Max is walking down an empty hallway blasting any old alt-rock song through her headphones. As the scene plays out in slow-motion, I’m reminded of how lethargic my depression made me—the slowing of time from morning to evening, and how I didn’t want to be awake. Then, there’s the choice of song: a cathartic synth-pop anthem that’s typical of its decade’s catchy dance beats, but that transmits an all-too-suffocating message about the desire to switch places with a lover to communicate feelings you can’t put into words. I’ve never been good at expressing myself—at least out loud. Memories of my inability to explain my frustrations to those around me inundate my mind. Guilt about the anger I experienced and put onto others floods my consciousness.
The hallway sequence is just one of many examples of the show’s strength in its visual metaphors. As the season continues, Max begins to experience mysterious headaches and hallucinations, which the group traces back to Vecna in the fourth episode. Accompanied by friends, she visits Billy at the cemetery when, suddenly, Vecna possesses her again, dragging her into a hallucinatory dimension called the Mind Lair where she is disarmed.
Far from the eerie but familiar structures of the Upside Down, the Mind Lair is a hellish landscape resembling an active apocalypse, characterized by raging thunder and a perpetual red mist. Vecna throws Max against a pillar and begins to suffocate her. Back in Hawkins, Max’s eyes turn gray and her unconscious body begins to twitch. Panicked, her friends scramble among a pile of cassette tapes in a last-ditch effort to awaken her consciousness with the sound of something familiar. Music can be therapeutic because it requires intricate perception, cognition, and motor control, which can help preserve or rehabilitate an injured brain, so they try that. One of them frantically clicks Hounds of Love into the cassette player and presses a button. Kate Bush’s voice booms through Max’s headphones and into her ears: If I only could / I’d make a deal with God / And I’d get him to swap our places…
Gasping for air, Max sees the fabric of the Mind Lair open ever so slightly in the distance. She hears the familiar voices of her friends.
“They can’t help you, Max,” Vecna growls, pushing her harder into the wall. “There’s a reason you hide from them. You belong here, with me.”
“You’re not really here,” she gasps.
“Oh, but I am, Max. I am,” he replies.
Her friends step back in horror as Max’s unconscious body begins to levitate.
It’s you and me, won’t be unhappy
And if I only could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places
Be runnin’ up that road
Be runnin’ up that hill
Be runnin’ up that buildin’
“Max!” her friends continue to shout from the hole in the fabric, so far out of reach. Their screams mix with the sounds of thunder, the whooshing winds, and crumbling matter from inside Vecna’s Lair, but before it’s able to drown out Bush’s singing, we hear another voice. It’s a piece of a conversation she’d had with her friend Lucas earlier that day.
“We’re right here. I’m right here,” he says. Suddenly, Max is hit with a montage of memories—photo booth sessions with Eleven, roller skating with Mike and Dustin, and her arms around Lucas’s shoulders at the school dance. She breaks loose from Vecna’s grip and runs towards the hole in the sky. Vecna doesn’t stop her but instead watches as she becomes smaller and smaller in the distance, powerless over her sudden burst of strength. Lightning and meteors begin to rain from the red sky, but they don’t deter her.
What gets me most about the scene is how trance-like Max’s nervous breakdown is depicted; she knows she’s stuck inside her mind, but she can’t escape until she’s saved by her loved ones. It’s very easy to get lost in the tangle of one’s thoughts. I never noticed the hours pass when I locked myself up in the bathroom so that no one could reach me, or when I fell asleep for large chunks of the day after telling myself I’d work from bed. It’s why my memories of this time feel so hazy. Often, I thought about my own short-term memory loss during these long, despondent stretches of isolation, and how that couldn’t possibly be beneficial in the long run, and I pictured myself at 80 years of age, my brain corroded to the point where there was nothing left to feel or remember but the existential dread I felt presently. What was the use of growing old in a future where that was a possibility? I know now that this type of thinking is known as “catastrophizing.” Looking back, it seems comical that I allowed my thoughts to run that far, especially as it wasn’t my first major episode—just the worst and potentially the most dangerous. But at the time, these fatalistic scenarios felt like a certainty rather than a possibility.
As fun as it can be to pick apart the lip service Stranger Things pays to other forms of media—Kate Bush records included—it’s even more fun, for me at least, to read between the lines and spot the show’s parallels to these past cultural touchstones, many of which set forth formulas that can be credited for its success.
The teenage melodrama is a classic subgenre, and one that remains timeless in its relevance. Developed during the 1950s as a result of America’s rapid modernization, the Hollywood melodrama reflected the malaise of middle-class suburbia, with the suburbs exacerbating social ills such as divorce, cheating, non-consensual marital sex, repressed queerness, and racism. As it often happens, young people were more responsive towards these issues, and so the teenage melodrama was born and solidified by screen icons like James Dean.
Stranger Things also owes a lot to the “kids on bikes” microgenre that became so ubiquitous during the ‘80s due in large part to Steven Spielberg—whose work is rightfully cited as a major inspiration for the show—and his production company, Amblin Entertainment. Amblin films owe much of their endurance to their universality. The adventuresome quality of films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future comes from the autonomy that fictional youth are often granted in these safe-seeming suburban settings, wherein leisurely bonds between friends lead to amusement and trouble. However, situating these films in contained suburbia also connotes suffocation and a longing for freedom, allowing the characters to feel compelling to young viewers generation after generation. Even Joe Dante’s farcical Gremlins gestures towards alienation and other issues that plague this aspirational lifestyle below the surface. You may recall the film’s brief but infamous exchange about suicide wherein the protagonist, Billy, expresses to his crush, Kate, that he “always thought everyone was happy during the holidays, no matter what.” She replies: “Most people are, but some aren’t. While everybody else opens up presents, they’re opening up their wrists.”
While Amblin is important to cite in any analysis of the inspirations behind Stranger Things, my favorite allusion from the show—and one of its most telling—remains the one to Wes Craven’s seminal A Nightmare on Elm Street. Part of the reason why Nightmare holds up so well is that, more so than Gremlins and Back to the Future, it follows the basic structure and story beats of the classic teenage melodrama. Disguised as a straightforward slasher, the film focuses on Nancy Thompson, a high schooler who, distraught over her parents’ divorce and her mother’s drinking problem, begins to experience terrible nightmares where she is stalked and harmed by a killer named Freddie Krueger. After Freddie makes his way into her friends’ dreams and murders them from within, Nancy must access her own subconscious and kill him before she becomes the next victim.
While Nightmare may not have the intricate character psychology of, say, Rebel Without a Cause, it does focus on many of the same themes, including rebellion, teenage angst, dysfunctional families, and the suppression of social ills. I wouldn’t be the first or last person to point out that the fourth season of Stranger Things takes a lot of thematic and aesthetic cues from Craven’s property. Even on the surface, the score, with its minor key chords, sounds a bit like Nightmare’s, and in a fun bit of stunt casting, Robert Englund—who played Freddie in Craven’s film—plays a supporting role in the latest season. (Nancy Wheeler, who’s been around since the first season, also shares a name and likeness with Nancy Thompson.) However, it’s in the show’s visual metaphors this past season that I and others couldn’t help but recall the horror classic. For starters, Vecna—like Freddie—seemingly only preys on adolescents, and does so by invading their consciousness. Although the Mind Lair from Stranger Things doesn’t look anything like the commonplace settings that make up the dream sequences in Nightmare, it serves to communicate the characters’ vulnerable states of mind and show the happenings that take place there to be out of their control.
Like Springwood, Hawkins is also haunted by secrets from its own past. Viewers know from the first season that a nearby laboratory is secretly conducting CIA-sanctioned experiments and abusing its human test subjects to develop mind control techniques. The experiments end up becoming an inter-dimensional threat, opening hidden gates to a haunted realm containing toxic biology as well as deadly, alien-like creatures that threaten unsuspecting residents of the community. In the third season, a new mall is used as a front to conceal the Soviet Union’s construction of an underground base meant to form a gateway to this alternate dimension, and this is facilitated by the town’s corrupt mayor. The fourth season reveals Vecna to have been a boy with natural telekinetic abilities, who—after killing his family, being taken in by the Hawkins National Lab, and getting trapped in the Upside Down—was transformed into a monster. Like the teenagers in Nightmare, the youth of Hawkins continuously pay the price for the wrongdoings of those in power. It’s up to a group of children and young adults to save the town and themselves from the consequences of the actions of others—a huge burden for an adolescent to carry in addition to growing pains and interpersonal relationship issues that already make this period of life so difficult.
While Stranger Things has always depicted the frustration of dealing with the baggage left behind by a previous generation, the fourth season is particularly exceptional in how it explores collective trauma. Vecna is able to grow so strong because he finds ample guilt and trauma to exploit in the youth of Hawkins. In addition to Max’s narrative, the season was so compelling to me because of the way the Hawkins storylines further explore the community, adding color to the world the beloved main characters inhabit.
Vecna’s first victim upon his return to Hawkins is Chrissy, a school cheerleader who is verbally abused by her mother to the point of developing an eating disorder. Although Chrissy, a new character, has no real connections to any of the show’s main ones, the audience empathizes with her during the first episode, which focuses on her befriending the school outcast before she is brutally killed. Fred, an acquaintance of Nancy’s and Vecna’s second victim, had secretly been suffering from survivor’s guilt due to his involvement in a car accident. Patrick, who was on Lucas’s basketball team, also had a dysfunctional relationship with his father, whose expectations he had trouble living up to before he was killed by Vecna. All three are minor characters who die not long after they are introduced, and who are characterized through brief interactions with the main cast. It’s only through the hallucinatory sequences that we get a glimpse into their troubles, but we feel their pain, even if it’s just briefly. As in real life, the main characters of Stranger Things learn that you never know what your neighbor’s going through—no matter how well they seem to mask it. Unlike other teenage melodramas, the show refuses to universalize the experiences of trauma and mental illness, showing how they happen to more people than the main characters know, with most of the victims suffering in silence.
From flashback sequences of a child massacre at the Hawkins National Lab to a B plot involving the Satanic panic, I could go on and on about how the fourth season of Stranger Things alludes to contemporary crises despite taking place almost 40 years ago. The witch hunt that occurs after Chrissy is found dead is particularly reminiscent of issues that have been exacerbated in the United States these past few years. Since 2020, the country has seen an increase in racially-motivated hate crimes against populations who were scapegoated for COVID’s spread to the US. It’s reminiscent of the fear-mongering and moral panic that right-wing conservatives have unleashed upon gender- and sexually-diverse individuals. The stubbornness with which the residents of Hawkins refuse to believe in a larger, potentially harmful threat—and instead point fingers and invoke religious self-righteousness—brings to mind our susceptibility to cruelty and our stubborn failure as a country to cooperate during times of crisis. In Stranger Things, those who suffer most are those who remain to pick up the broken pieces at the end of each season. It’s a heavy burden, knowing you’ve inherited a world to repair when you’re not quite whole yourself. But it must be done.