The Magnetism of the Exiled Soul to Stranger Things

The most succinct way to describe Stranger Things is to say that it’s Steven Spielberg […]

CJ Green / 7.25.16

The most succinct way to describe Stranger Things is to say that it’s Steven Spielberg meets Stephen King — meets Netflix. At eight episodes, it’s very watchable in one week, or one night, depending on how willing you are to sacrifice your REMs. (Be warned: You’ll find it hard to finish one episode and resist at least watching the incredible opening credits for the next.)

Stranger Things tells the story of Joyce Byers who, like the woman searching for lost coins, or the shepherd for his lost sheep (Lk. 15), frantically searches for her missing son, Will; meanwhile Will’s motley group of twelve-year-old friends, who have also been searching for him, stumble across something strange in the woods — an alien-esque girl called Eleven.

The show has garnered enough hype to suggest that 1) it’s good, and 2) it’s resonating on some significant level with the human heart. That level is unashamedly reached by — almost exclusively — nostalgia (the first episode alone features both “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane and “Africa” by Toto). The plot relies heavily on references to classic sci-fi and horror stories of the past and has been affectionately termed “nostalgia bait.” Despite a few plot slip-ups (not necessarily holes but certainly places where style took precedent over substance — you won’t even care), anyone who has either lived through the 80s or wished that they had will likely enjoy the experience of it.


One of the most impressive things about Stranger Things is the cast of kid actors — though I’m certainly no critic, Millie Bobby Brown, who plays Eleven, is especially convincing. Despite its young cast, though, Stranger Things seems to be having — strangely — a greater affect on its adult viewers than its kids.

This is because, as much as Stranger Things is about the search for a missing child, it is also about the search for a missing childhood. Viewers are using the show to get in touch with the glory days; and nostalgia, in reaching for the past, is most effective when the future (or the present) seems most daunting. In a world so loud with the fear of self-driving cars and injury via PokémonGo, we have never longed more for a time when children were free to be more than just a cellphone call away. We long for the risk of it but also for the hope of it — that even in this “simpler” past life of cassette tapes and rabbit ears, Will may yet be found.

Of the many themes in the show, the “grown-up ache” (as Vanity Fair calls it) is the predominant one. Each episode is a “boat against the current,” beating its way into the past, beginning with background synth and the immediately likeable appearance of Winona Ryder as Joyce; her presence itself makes you want to re-watch oldies like Heathers and Edward Scissorhands. Her character, the harried mother, is hellbent on finding her son; but this theme of the “grown-up ache” isn’t relegated to Joyce as she chain-smokes her grief away and talks in frantic whispers to lightbulbs. Viewers will feel their own ache for childhood, watching the kids exchange first kisses and climbing trees with walkie talkies.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things pulls grown-up viewers into a search for a past self, or a “true self” that we have lost track of. In the show, there is a very clear communication gap between kids and parents — the former always one step ahead of the latter. Even as one of the central questions of the show is about the existence of other dimensions, it seems as though the grown-ups and kids are so disconnected that they are already living in existing separate dimensions. One particular mother repeatedly says to her kids, “You can trust me. You can talk to me.” But the kids don’t believe her, and she regularly fails to listen anyway. Maybe it’s because we feel that the world misunderstands us, but in these moments we align ourselves with the kids first and foremost. Our deepest beliefs hold that our exterior selves — our bodies — have betrayed us somewhere in time and that our real selves, inside, are the wide-eyed adventurers of yore and not the computer-gazing zombies of present.

While certainly studies have shown the redemptive effects of nostalgia, Svetlana Boym’s observations in The Future of Nostalgia remain accurate:

Modern nostalgia is a mourning for the impossibility of mythical return, for the loss of an enchanted world with clear borders and values; it could be a secular expression of a spiritual longing, a nostalgia for an absolute, a home that is both physical and spiritual, the edenic unity of time and space before entry into history. The nostalgic is looking for a spiritual addressee.

We long for a “spiritual addressee,” something external which promises a home. Stranger Things promises nothing if not home — home culturally (you can’t deny what a rich period the 80s was) and emotionally.

PZ’s Podcast addressed this same longing last week:

The universality of the human being is that he or she has an enormous gravitation to the “green green grass of home.” This was a song by Tom Jones, about a man who is about to be executed, and he’s day-dreaming with tremendous longing about mama and papa and his girl and the green green grass of home, under which he will be lying in the foreseeable future.

Keeping in mind that Tom Jones’ nostalgic narrator is about to be executed, we might transfer that data to the incredible impact of Stranger Things’s rampant play on nostalgia — it works in part because of the predominant feeling of near-death in current culture. Perhaps this is the effect of — and certainly most evidenced by — the current election season. No matter where we stand, we all feel exiled.

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in his explanation of the “myth of the exiled soul,” explains that we predominantly believe that the soul and the body are incompatible and separate, that “the soul is not from here; it comes from elsewhere; it is divine. In its present body, it leads an occult existence, the existence of an exiled being that longs for its liberation.” The problem of this is less in the philosophy of dualism and more that its roots are grounded in a theology of glory — this line of emotion suggests that we don’t really belong to this crowd of technology-dependent Netflix-binging millennials but that we belong among the outdoorsy monster-hunting carefree kids of days bygone. We like to think we have veered off of “glory road” as Gerhard Forde writes, and one day we’ll get back on track. Stranger Things lures us in with the promise of a return to glory — and, while that points to something amiss in human nature, I’m not complaining. The show is great.

I will say, before I finish, that Stranger Things’ success isn’t purely rooted in its nostalgia factor — nostalgia as a device will often fall flat in media, as viewers will usually be perceptive enough to know they’re being lured into something disingenuous. Stranger Things is so wonderful, on the other hand, because it’s easily digestible, fun, and because, most importantly, it breaks into a world of “stranger things.” We’re climbing into stick-castles and tree stumps and finding ourselves in places we didn’t know existed. Neil Genzlinger at The New York Times explained, “Exploiting nostalgia properly isn’t really about invoking the memory of a specific decade. It’s about finding that timeless moment when everything seemed tantalizingly, scarily new.” If nostalgia is a rerun of haunting memories, Stranger Things takes that and runs further. This show isn’t just ghosts; it’s an old life, completely revived. Not just revisited but made totally new —unsettlingly new.

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Also, Winona Ryder is God.

If you’re looking for a sermon illustration, look no further than Joyce’s marvelous and crazed devotion to finding her son, Will.

Additionally (mild spoilers here), in a critical scene in Episode 7, Joyce recruits Eleven to find Will. The plan is for Eleven to telekinetically enter the netherworld — the Upside Down — to find the lost son. Though Eleven will enter the netherworld alone, Joyce promises, “I am going to be there with you the whole time. And if it ever gets too scary — in that place — you just let me know.”

Eleven goes in. She’s walking in a vast black space, a very literal valley (“vale”) of the shadow of death. There, she encounters a particular dead body (and a startlingly dissatisfying point of plot resolution; see below), and, frightened, she begins to scream. Winona can be heard responding as a whispery voice reverberating in the dark, “It’s okay. I got you. Don’t be afraid. It’s okay. I am right here.”


I Can’t Not Address One Spoiler

This has affected the emotional state of my real life.

What I don’t think the creators, the Duffer Brothers, expected was the extreme attachment their viewers would develop for Barb. Barb was the second kid to go missing (her disappearance was scarringly soundtracked by “Hazy Shade of Winter” — “Time, time, time…see what’s become oooof meeee…”). Since she had been featured in two episodes before her disappearance, we knew more about Barb than we did Will, who was the primary object of The Search — so when she went missing (and when we saw her frantically trying to escape the Upside Down) — she became the hook that kept many of us watching. We wanted to see when she would be found, and how devoted her friend Nancy would be to her case. When she was found dead in Episode 7, it was almost too hard to believe.

Like so many others, I was certain that Barb would be somehow resurrected by Episode 8. No such luck. (Even if they decided to resurrect her in Season 2, in response to fan outrage, the damage is already done. The 8-episode series did not feature a Barb-dedicated search party, or a funeral; her own mom seemed relatively unaffected. She was, though many of us viewers failed to realize it at the time, dead before she died.)

This unexpected — and completely unfair — death is in part what makes the show “scarily new.” It takes the tropes and puts them at risk — Barb (who has been hailed as a Total Queen and owes her look, irrefutably, to Steph from The Goonies) perfectly exemplifies the archetypical ‘loyal sidekick’. She is the moralistic best friend who finds herself inside the main character’s inner ring but who looks strange standing there. Like a stiff guardrail, she’s loyal but not cool — and it’s precisely because Barb embodies this archetype so perfectly that she must die.

Because of the demand of the unexpected in the face of the familiar, all the archetypes must in some way live and then die. For example, “the bad boyfriend,” Steve, is metaphorically “killed off” in exchange for a morally questionable Steve who tries to redeem himself and actually becomes quite likable towards the end; “the chubby kid,” Dustin, is killed off in exchange for a more complex character who becomes the glue that keeps his disintegrating friend group together — he is also wicked smart. What rises from the grave something new and unexpected.

Queen though Barb was, she could not escape the judgment — there was no new life. There wasn’t even a full death, because, as I said before, it’s unclear if/when she will even have a funeral. Barb’s grim fate, as outrageous as it is, remains critical to the show’s themes, because it proves that the idealization of the past is deceptive.

So much of Stranger Things is about resurrecting the past, shedding fresh light on a time period in which so many of us long to live (millennials love our thick glasses and LPs), but our frustration with Barb’s death proves that one of the deepest longings of the human heart (I mean, this is deep) is not just to return to the past but to change it and control it too — but the past can’t be changed or controlled. It can only be forgiven.

Without that forgiveness, we can only hope for a distraction, a crazy plot point to help us forget the injustice of Barb’s fate, and maybe, in the back of our heads, for the exploration of another dimension beyond the Upside Down, maybe in Season 2, one where Barb isn’t dead but fully alive and well.