S. Joseph Scott
Special for News Talk Florida
According to Netflix, more than 40 million global viewers binged on series three of its original production “Stranger Things” in just one weekend in July. For those yet to be sucked in, if the 1982 hits “Poltergeist” and “ET” had a baby, it is “Stranger Things.” Set in the early 80’s Boomers will find themselves repeatedly saying, “I know that guy”; “I wore that sweater”; “I had that mullet.” But, the message goes deeper than mere cultural touchstones, it touches the core of our being.
“Stranger Things” is a combination Sci-fi, supernatural, nostalgic, coming of age, suspense phenomenon that touches viewers of all ages and in a variety of ways. What makes it work is an alternative universe that taps into commonplace themes: friendship, heroism, justice, grief, family dysfunction, insecurity, love and even the nature of reality. “Stranger Things,” though set in a strange world where monsters terrify and demons possess, is in fact about things that are not strange at all to human experience. There are three that drive and captivate us because we identify with them at a deep, primal level.
First, there is scientism and the supernatural. I use the word scient-ism advisedly. Science is good, scientism is restricting. You see, we live a bifurcated existence. We live as if life “under the sun” is void of the supernatural. There are various ways to describe this modern perspective. Some assert that our world is a “closed system” of natural forces and laws. One contemporary writer described calls it as the “buffered” self. There is a buffer between us and the supernatural. Our world is a “disenchanted” one, separated from other worldly influences. “Stranger Things” mounts the protest. The fictional town of Hawkins is a place where the walls between the natural and the supernatural are porous.
Scientific themes saturate the show. The endearing middle school squad of Dustin, Mike, Lucas and Max are nerdy science fair champions. They are members of the Audio Visual club whose advisor Mr. Clark, the science teacher, is their mentor and friend. Clark answers every inquiry with a “closed world,” naturalistic explanation. Dustin spends his summer at science camp. And the supernatural forces being unleashed in Hawkins originate from a science lab where a secret experiment gone bad on a little girl named Eleven opens a portal to the Upside Down, a kind of parallel supernatural world beneath an unsuspecting small town. El, short for Eleven, is the unwitting mediator between the two worlds. She possesses a host of supernatural powers, setting up the second compelling theme that drives the narrative: good vs evil.
An epic cosmic battle rages below the surface of daily life in Hawkins. The portal open to the Upside Down unleashes a deluge of horror on a sleepy rural town, a common convention in fantasy stories that never fails to captivate; i.e. Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. In this case, the Upside Down is inhabited by supernatural creatures and forces that once free, ravish the citizens of Hawkins. Under the reign of The Monster, known as the Mind Flayer, an army of blood thirsty, flesh eating minions called Demodogs devour human prey. The Upside Down is a world of death, murder, and literally life-sucking out of your face evil.
And this is precisely why the series works; it mirrors the world of our own experience. Even we who live in a “buffered” world instinctively know that there is more to it than what the eye can see or the lab can analyze. There is a supernatural world. We know it. We seek ways to avoid or deny it. Observe, measure, weigh, explain away. But, we all bump up against beauty that moves us, or evil that horrifies. A naturalistic view of science flattens the world but it cannot eliminate the human instinct for the supernatural. Thus, “Stranger Things” taps into that which is not strange at all.
And just as we cannot shake off the reality of the supernatural, neither can we avoid the presence of evil. We see it. We are victims of it. We recoil from it. And we are its agents. We have a moral compass and we often choose to wander from its course. When wandering off course turns to being lost in a dark wood at night, we long for some explanation, some excuse outside ourselves. In season three, a character named Billy, the new “host” of the Mind Flayer, is confronted with horrible crimes he has committed, but he cries out, “he made me do it…it’s not my fault. I tried to stop him.” He, and we long for some explanation that might quiet the conscience. But, we know at times our actions are morally wrong and we are forced to grapple with the question of their origin. Does evil reside in our nature or are there supernatural influences at work in and around us? Or is it some mysterious combination of both?
But, there is thankfully a third theme embedded in “Stranger Things”: redemption. El employs her supernatural powers to battle the forces of evil, but she does so at great cost to herself. In season two Bob Newby literally sacrifices his own life to the Demodogs as he seeks to protect those he loves. Redemption is when one gives his/her life in exchange for the protection and freedom of another. These are universal themes to which the human heart responds. Made in the image of God yet contaminated by evil, we long for redemption. Those familiar with the Christian tradition will recognize all of these themes, for they are written indelibly on the script of human history under the creator-redeemer God. Good and evil are real. But, there is hope for redemption.
S. Joseph Scott has a Ph.D. in theology and has served in leadership positions in both higher education and religious institutions. He has published in both academic and popular journals and has a special interest in the intersection of faith and culture.