How Stranger Things uses complex characters to explore mental illness
From blood-thirsty monsters to a group of teenagers trying to save their town, the Duffer Brothers will surprise you with their complicated world of the “Upside Down.”
Spoiler alert: This article discusses scenes from Stranger Things.
If you didn’t spend this past summer binge-watching Netflix’s Stranger Things, the monstrous hive-mind clearly hasn’t ensnared you in the tentacled vines of the “Upside Down.” To put things simply, you are unaware of the kind of horror that’s been germinating under the surface.
While Stranger Things has introduced creatures like the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer—inspired by the tabletop fantasy game Dungeons & Dragon’s—the series has unveiled its scariest monster yet, a human embodiment of psychological trauma known as Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower).
With nostalgic 80s pop culture becoming a Duffer Brothers’ trademark, season four’s references have matured—with character storylines that parallel horror classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and Carrie. The predatory and human-like characteristics of the new villain, Vecna, are reminiscent of 80s villains such as Freddy Kreuger and “the boogeyman” Mike Myers.
Despite more fantastical circumstances explored in previous episodes, the fourth season’s plot takes an unexpected turn. Through progressively darker scenes, viewers are submerged in a psychological universe, journeying with each character through their individual mental health struggles. The cinematography brilliantly captures actions and dialogues based on survival, abuse, and trauma.
By exploring symptoms of traumatic memories, domestic abuse, and survivors’ guilt, this season sheds light on conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Unfortunately, some characters find themselves vulnerable to Vecna—a psychological predator who feeds on individual weaknesses. Vecna draws the teenaged characters into his darkness by promising them refuge from their suffering.
One disorder omnipresent this season is “smiling depression”—a type of depression that hides behind a veneer of perfection and a shining smile. Viewers can identify this in many characters, such as Chrissy (Grace Van Dien)—Vecna’s first victim—who on the surface seems well-adjusted and popular. As Chrissy hides behind her struggles with an eating disorder and trauma from an abusive mother, she finds it difficult to feel connected to others—even when she is in a crowd.
While society’s understanding and acceptance of mental illness is improving—akin to Vecna’s hidden but apparent presence—stigma still exists, causing many people to hide issues like depression.
Understanding that Vecna is of human origin is the cornerstone of the show’s plot. When a curtain is pulled to reveal psychological influences, we eventually discover his true identity. We get a glimpse into Vecna’s childhood—a life filled with clear signs that foreshadow his future psychopathy. Stranger Things shows us how childhood trauma can translate into a life of suffering and mistakes.
While tragedy and loss are common themes in the show, many examples emphasize that even those with the darkest wounds can find family, friendship, loyalty, and love. The relationships that the show portrays pull on the heartstrings of fans worldwide. Stranger Things online fan-groups have become communities of like-minded misfits that are ready to recognize your SOS.
As a member of these fan-groups, I feel like I am part of an empathetic family. I feel supported when fighting my own battles—something that I never thought I’d experience through my interest in the show. For those that have not watched Stranger Things, I encourage you to venture into the “Upside Down”—it may become your rescue mission.