How Stranger Things 2 explores ordinary and extraordinary suffering

Literal monsters have always been used as metaphors for internal ones. (Here be spoilers)

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One of the most quietly moving moments of Stranger Things 2 involves no danger, no conflict, and no dialogue. Eleven sits on a sofa, hugging a teddy bear tight to her chest. She’s watching a black and white film on a static-filled TV screen. “Who are you? I’m Maria,” a girl says. “Will you play with me?” It’s the 1931 Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s monster looks at Maria with the same blank expression Eleven has when she’s learning a new word. As Maria and the monster wonder off, hand in hand, Eleven looks as though she’s on the verge of tears. She’s just a child, but it’s clear that she feels caught between both characters: the monster and the girl.

It’s an internal conflict that rages for Will Byers, too, across the second season. Nicknamed “Zombie Boy” by his peers for his eerie return from the dead at the end of last season, consumed by paralysing flashbacks to the horrors of the Upside Down, and constantly interviewed by doctors, Will feels like a “freak”. His older brother’s insistence that “being a freak is the best” because “nobody normal ever accomplished anything meaningful in this world” feels trite in the face of Will’s overwhelming bursts of fear and shame. And that’s before he’s possessed by the evil Shadow Monster that yearns for the destruction of his friends and family.

Nancy, too, is struggling with the performance of happy, well-adjusted teenage girl when grief for her lost friend Barb and confusion about what happened to her constantly bubble just beneath the surface. These dark feelings spill over the same way they do for many teenagers: after a dozen drinks at a house party. “You're pretending like everything is okay,” she slurs to her boyfriend Steve. “Like, we’re in love and we’re partying. Yeah, let’s party, huh? Party. We’re partying.”

Whether it’s Joyce struggling to cope with the after effects of almost losing her son, or Hopper’s grief with the actual death of his daughter, it feels like every resident of Hawkins is coping with both ordinary and extraordinary suffering.

Literal monsters have always been used as metaphors for internal ones. Commentators have already delicately unpicked the ways in which Stranger Things 2 uses supernatural creatures to discuss trauma: Sophie Gilbert at the Atlantic writers persuasively of how in Stranger Things, as in the work of Stephen King, “childhood trauma is associated with supernatural capacities”. The “thoughtfulness” in exploring that trauma is, for Gilbert, “what most distinguishes Stranger Things from its source material.”

The first season of Stranger Things saw its characters attempt to communicate through a divide, reaching out to lost children that are both “right here” and impossible to reach, as Will and Barb disappeared into the Upside Down. As discussions of the show’s litany of references to nostalgic children’s Eighties movies dominated the Stranger Things conversation, it was hard not to see these plots as a knowing metaphor for adults trying to reach a distant yet accessible cultural past.

A year after the events of the previous series, Will, Eleven, and Nancy have escaped the Upside Down, but still feel its presence. Unable to return fully to their old lives, they enter a state of “compromise”, as Hopper puts it to Eleven one night in their home. With the men from Hawkins Lab still searching for her, Eleven isn’t allowed to go out on Halloween like a normal child, and is offered a film at home as a replacement. “We can sit around and get fat, and watch a scary movie together,” Hopper suggests. “How’s that for a compromise?” It’s a new word for Eleven. “Compromise?” she asks. “C-O-M-promise,” he spells. “It’s something that’s kinda in-between. It’s like halfway happy.”

Will, too, is caught in between two states – he might not be in the Upside Down any more, but his flashbacks are intense. (The characters argue over whether these are flashbacks to the past, or visions of a contemporary present – which also feels significant for a show that updates nostalgic material.) “You know how on a View Master, when it gets, like…” he attempts to explain to Mike, who finishes the thought: “Caught between two slides?” “Yeah,” Will replies. “Like one side’s our world, and the other… the other side’s the Upside Down.”

But if these are metaphors for a state of post-traumatic stress – when you are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects – then they are perhaps more, not less, straightforward to defeat. An indoor heater can separate Will from the Shadow Monster, Eleven can access her psychokinetic powers to close the Gate to the Upside Down. But it’s harder to draw a map to heal lingering emotional wounds.

Perhaps one of the sweetest things about Stranger Things is that its children know that. The biggest rule Will, Mike, Lucas, Dustin, Max and Eleven share is simple: don’t lie. “Friends don’t lie” is a mantra across both seasons of the show. Honest communication between human beings becomes sacred, because it’s the only way any of them will survive the chaos surrounding them. They won’t get through it alone.

Perhaps that’s why it’s so touching to see Eleven well up at Frankenstein, the four boys in matching Ghostbuster outfits, or Jonathan and Will bond over a mixtape. Books, movies, and eight hour-long TV shows on Netflix can’t vanquish your demons, but they can let you know that you’re not alone, that you’re not a freak, or a monster. And that’s sometimes half the battle.

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Now listen to Anna discussing Stranger Things 2 on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.