Warning: Spoilers ahead! Also occasional references to medieval literature. You have been warned.
After the madness that was the last chapter, I took a few days off last week, and I finally managed to catch up with a show that people on all my social media feeds have been obsessed with: Stranger Things. And it was just as good as everyone made it sound. The soundtrack is absolutely amazing and the imagery is fantastic. I’m not a big fan of Stephen King, but the small town horror, the claustrophobia of the setting, worked really well for me. And, while I never got into role-playing, I loved all the nerdy references. I’m sadly a few years too young to get the nostalgia that some people have described, but I still think it’s an awesome show.
Because, more than anything, this is a show about monsters, and – as you should know by now – I love monsters. I can’t watch a lot of horror films because I’m a big softy who gets nightmares (I mean, think about it: there’s a monstrous Other dimension RIGHT HERE!), but if I rationalise monsters, if I find an academic way of thinking about them, if I analyse them and turn them into articles, blog posts or my thesis, they lose some of their threatening, haunting nature. They become accessible for me. So here is my way of accessing the monsters of Stranger Things.
First of all, I would argue that there is more than one monster in this show. The Demogorgon is obvious, of course. It’s even called a monster by some of the characters, so its monstrosity should be clear. But what about some of the humans? And what about the Upside Down itself?
In a way, this is a story about lost children, and about losing children. We see three parents who all lose a child, and they all lose it to a monster, or monstrous force. Hopper’s daughter dies of cancer, and while cancer is unseen, unseeable for ordinary humans, it is as destructive and disruptive as any corporeal monstrous creature. Right now I’m listening to a song sung by an artist who died of cancer a few months ago, at the age of 39. Losing a child to it is even more cruel. While, much like the sea that Egill rages against in his Sonatorrek, cancer cannot be grasped, cannot be fought with physical weapons, and cannot be taken vengeance on, it nevertheless disrupts families, takes those we love like a monster at night. And like the monster, we cannot conceive of its terror, of its threat, until it’s too late, until the monster has already ripped through the fabric of our lives. Most of my own family, including my mother, died of it.
But to return to corporeal monsters, and to the children they take from their parents. There is of course Eleven, born Jane, the daughter of one of the secret government organisation’s test subjects. She is taken from her mother right after birth, and there is no record of her existence. The man whom she comes to call “Papa” is the monster who rips her from her mother, the monster who disrupts her family, and who turns her herself into… Well, I will return to that below. But Dr Brenner can certainly be argued to be monstrous in the way he acts and interacts with people, in the demands he makes on them, and especially on Eleven herself. It is significant that he is also a father figure for her, making her call him “Papa”, which could be read in a psychoanalytic way of one chose to do so. Brenner is of course also a representative of the monstrous organisation itself: an organisation that violates not just human bodies through its experiments – and through their consequences, which have to be cleared up and hidden –, but also the boundaries of dimensions. The organisation, as a physical entity, thus becomes a liminal space, the building it owns the gate into another world. It also embodies the monstrosity of a government that directly impacts, even invades, people’s lives: listening to their conversation, entering their homes, killing them.
And then, finally, there’s the Demogorgon. All body and mouth, with a rapacious hunger, it is a classical monster that bites, tears, eats. It bleeds, revealing its intense corporeality. But, as Cohen put it, the monster’s “threat is its propensity to shift”, and the Demogorgon can shift between dimensions. It takes a long time until we finally see it, but – just as the monstrous revenants of the Icelandic sagas, whom we only see when a hero is there to fight them – this “camera shyness” makes it even more threatening. We catch glimpses of slime, of organic matter, of a web and a living body that swallows, but its extension, the monster itself, is invisible at first. It could be anything. It could be anywhere. It could be right here. And because of this shifting but ultimately stable corporeality, the Demogorgon abducts to eat. Much like Grendel, it has an appetite that cannot be satiated. Even more than Grendel, its entire head is replaced by one giant mouth, a mouth that does not give – it does not speak – but only takes. It is attracted to blood, to leaking bodies, and its opened mouth looks like the petals of a monstrous flower. I’m not going to take this idea further, but there is something that suggests itself here: after all, Nancy loses her virginity (and turns into a massive bad-ass when fighting the monster), so I wonder if these themes can be connected. But I don’t want to go crazy with the psychoanalysis, so I’m going to stop here.
The humans who come in contact with these monsters are changed, showing again the contagiousness of monstrosity. Hopper’s marriage fails because of his daughter’s death, and he turns to alcohol – another monster. Dr Brenner shapes and changes Eleven, giving her both a chance to learn how to control her powers, as well as turning her into a weapon for his war, the war in which his government is caught up. Eleven then encounters the Demogorgon in the world Brenner makes her enter, and both she herself and the world she belongs to are forever altered by this encounter, as it enables the monster to cross into our dimension. Through this encounter, they seem to be linked, and she – in her own potential monstrosity, as a weapon – turns into the monster hunter that finds and eventually kills the Demogorgon. Monster and hunter are closely connected, they are often doubles, and the hunter is always close to becoming a monster themselves. El, in her final appearance, embodies this closeness, this doubling and monstrosity, and because of it, she herself disintegrates when she destroys the Demogorgon. Finally, Will seems to have been physically infected by his encounter with the monster, and it will be interesting to see what happens to him: will he turn into another monster, or will he be able to cross into the Upside Down at will, as he seems to do in the final scene? Here’s hoping for season 2!
Speaking of the Upside Down itself: what is going on there? It is of course a parallel dimension of some kind, and one whose boundary with our own is permeable enough to allow communication. If one thing happens in one world, like the burning of the Demogorgon, it also happens in the other, or at least leaves a trace – the stain is visible there as well. I kind of see this dimension as a subversion of our own world. Much like the niðsele of Grendel’s Mother, or the outlaw colony of Hörðr that gives a home to those who don’t belong, the Upside Down is a world that looks much like ours, but isn’t. Not only is its atmosphere toxic to normal humans, it is also characterised by the intense decay visible in all its features. Nothing there lives. The forest is dead and covered in shadows, Hopper and Joyce do not meet another living being, the houses are crumbling. Strange tatters are floating in the air. But it still has the same roads, the same houses, the same structures. The Upside Down is so haunting because it’s so familiar: at first glance, it looks normal, like the house you live in, like the streets you walk every day. But then, the unfamiliarity hits you. This is not your world. You do not belong here. This world is monstrous, it grows tentacles and extends into your own – even into your body if you’re truly unlucky. The Upside Down is the Uncanny made flesh, made town, taking the shape of an entire dimension: your Other home is not heimlich but unheimlich, it is monstrous. It might kill you. It’s certainly trying.
Ultimately, the question must be asked what these monsters embody, what cultural fears and anxieties they can be used to explore. Much like the monsters of the Sagas of Icelanders, they must be seen both against the context in which they appear – 1983, the Cold War, emerging technologies, the aftermath of Project MKUltra etc – and against the context that created them – the present day. Within the 1983 setting, especially the Cold War background is significant because it gives a rationale for El’s existence, and therefore for the way in which the Demogorgon found its way into our dimension. But ultimately, the present context is more important to explore, since this is the time that gave rise to this particular monster. Monstrous scientists like Brenner are timeless, transhistorical – a figure we all know since Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll. His connection to the government is interesting, especially at times of the NSA and other scandals that revealed how many of us across the world are actually subject to surveillance.
But the Demogorgon, with its insatiable hunger, its pure corporeality that takes and never gives back, could be read as a monster of capitalism and consumerism: we all take from this world more than we could ever give back, and we are encouraged to always want more, take more – to tear the world apart for our desires like the Demogorgon tears through dimensions in its search for food. 8th August, only a week ago, marked Earth Overshoot Day, the day from which on we take more from this one planet that we have than it can renew – the day from which on we would need another Planet Earth to fulfil our desires. The Demogorgon is therefore a very real monster in times of climate change and environmental destruction, a monster that demands that we listen to its warning. It is a creature that has crossed the boundaries between ordinary human consumption and monstrous consumerism, holding a mirror to us and our behaviour. The dimension it comes from is one of decay and death, and it warns that our own world might turn into this dimension if we are not careful. It is a monster whose warning we should take seriously at a time of climate-change denying politicians across the world.
So, now that I got this out of my system, I seriously need to go back to my thesis. No more pop culture until I’ve submitted!