'Stranger Things' and the Rage, Loneliness and Upside Down Horror of Child Sexual Abuse

a year ago

It's easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of Netflix's new series Stranger Things. The eight episodes in Season 1 are a glorious, helmet-free banana-seated ride down winding lanes featuring Winona Ryder and a cast of charming kids straight out of The Goonies' playbook. Watching it feels like being immersed into an isolation tank bath of Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg callback. But much like being E.T. crammed into that closet surrounded by stuffed animals, it's adorable and campy on the outside, but terrifying, creepy and somewhat suffocating with layers of realities in the middle. The actors are fantastic, it's smart fun, and altogether a fantastic offering for summer binging (and re-binging.) 

Publishers and wiki-types have been busy chroniciling the '80s and '90s references in plots, characters, settings and style. It's a blast! It's easy to note how Eleven, Stranger Thing's central character, is an amalgam of the female expression of telekinesis found in Carrie and Firestarter and the loneliness of E.T.

Image: Netflix

The links to governmental experiments with LSD and mind control (Firestarter) and post-traumatic rage (Carrie) are vividly re-made through the quiet, powerful acting of Millie Bobby Brown . Eleven creates both destruction and salvation with one head jerk here and one bloody nose drip there, and I defy you to not cheer when she provides for herself by lifting Eggos from the store leaving a crushed Mouthbreather in her wake.

Eleven's powers are being cultivated as a telekinetic political weapon, and the catalyst of the monster's arrival into the town of Hawkins is a rip in realities created by pushing Eleven too hard into a dangerous alternate realm. That's what's happening on the surface of the narrative. But we can't fully understand Eleven without acknowledging that her terror, and the monster set free upon Hawkins, are symbols of a specific kind of torture and betrayal.

For all of the meta archeology,  Eleven as a childhood sexual abuse victim is not being explored. 

I think this is because Vulture was first on the scene to define the show, and their monster list of callbacks and recaps didn't explore the theme or even list  David Lynch, even though we see his influence and callbacks to Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive are woven throughout almost as often as we see the Big Stephens. This is a glaring omission and an important one, because both of those works focus on slowly revealing the long-lasting devastation of childhood sexual abuse and incest.  

Image: Netflix

Lynch is everywhere in Stranger Things. The concept of Bad Electricity is classic Lynch, for example, who is enamored with the idea that humans are electromagnetic in construct. When we first see Eleven's powers, she's in a diner, and she fries an irksome fan with her mind while housing some fries. You can't get more Twin Peaks than all of that.

The fan, especially, is an important and enduring Lynch symbol, and specifically in Twin Peaks, the whirr of the creepy ceiling fan was used to note the appearance of BOB, who functioned both as a supernatural monster and as a metaphor for the incest and child sexual abuse perpetrated on Laura Palmer by her father. 

There's so much more. Sheriff Hopper, meet Agent Cooper. Missing any given callback is beyond understandable. There's almost too much paper and string on the collage of Stranger Things.  And it's very probable that like Lynch, The Duffer Brothers have buried this part of the narrative by design, so that it appears as a discovery beneath a sunnier exterior, just as real family abuse often does.

Image: Netflix

Assuming that sexual abuse was a part of Eleven's torture is congruent with many of the narrative's clues. The MKULTRA project, identified by name in Sheriff Hopper's microfiche hunt, is associated with using sexual abuse to break and control subjects. Eleven's interactions with "Papa" are laden with coercive, coded language, intentionally leading viewers to make sexual abuse connections beneath the surface of the experiments we are shown. Eleven, vulnerable in a thin hospital gown, is told to "go deeper" and to ignore the men watching her perform. She is told the monster wants her, to go farther, "not to turn away from it." This language is intentionally loaded.

Image: Netflix

One hundred degrees less cryptic is the way sexual organ images are associated with the monster. The gate, which was ripped by Eleven's fear, is entirely vaginal in shape and horrifically covered in viscous matter. People literally get to The Upside Down by entering   through that orifice.  The destruction of Barb in the pool (which became a massive vaginal image) was meant to help us link sex with the monster's predation. The monster itself is crouched and at lap height when she walks over to touch it, and we're not quite sure what horrible thing is is loudly doing.  It looks like a man, or rather Pan from Pan's Labyrinth but again has a petal/orifice shaped head. All of these images and narrative clues point to a subtext of child sexual abuse as the prompt for Eleven's break.

The theme of child sexual abuse fits well within the 80s train of Stranger Things. While it's more fun to remember Eggos and E.T., that decade was a time of rapid understanding and concern about the issue and about how to help survivors heal (the emblematic Courage to Heal was published in 1988), but also a time of incediary headlines and questionable psychological interview practices, such as those connected to the daycare abuse panic. Behind the over-compensation was real understanding of what incest and abuse does to children's brains and memories, and how to help them.

The concept of The Upside Down, then, is wholly evocative of this era's attention to child sexual abuse. Abused children learn the dark side of caretakers who pass as good in the light of day, and are forced to focus is on the lower and inside parts of bodies way before they have the ability to know what is biologically happening. Pain, confusion and betrayal can lead to complex dissociative coping techniques that turn reality upside down. The Upside Down, with all of its dark, slimy imagery and lonely, desolate feel subverting the good facade of safe places is quite perfect. As in real life, it's also perfectly evocative of the inevitability that try as you might, you can't sequester trauma or pain to a neat room in your mind. It will, in some way, break out.

Image: Netflix

As with Twin Peaks, we don't know the rules of the Stranger Things universe or the future of the show, so we don't know how literally to take these symbols. Maybe this is just a deep subtext to the narrative and won't be explored in any more detail, and we'll only know Eleven as traumatized in general.

Maybe it does trace out through the story, and, in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me fashion, we'll learn more about the abuses that led to Eleven's power and knowledge of The Upside Down. We may learn the monster is something that can be fought as part of her healing, or we may learn, as she wonders, that her anger, pain, guilt and shame transmuted into becoming a monster  in The Upside Down. Maybe that was the only way she could escape Papa. She did disappear when she battled the monster head-on.

Image: Netflix

And/or, we may get a new focus on Will. He was Upside Down for about a week, and then a horrific, massive monster tentacle pulled out of his mouth and throat. What clearer image of abuse could we see? In the aftermath, he's clearly not well. What trauma and what narrative-level monster is he incubating now?

If season one is Eleven's story of attempting to save herself, one of the most tragic elements to me was when Mike inadvertently broke her heart. Crucially, in the climax, after Eleven's body is once again used for others, Mike promises her a home, and Eleven shows a glimpse of light, is almost comforted. She'll have a family, she'll have safety. Promise? No, Mike says. She'll have their mother, but while she's wearing his sister's dress he explains she won't be a sister, that he wants Eleven to meet his desire for a girlfriend. How could he possibly understand that more boundaries and a boyfriend is the opposite of what she needs? That's when she says goodbye.

Image: Netflix

The boys' inability to see the depth of her trauma because of their age is an important part of the story. They go on to gleefully describe her powers in comic book terms to Will. They are still so innocent, whereas Eleven and Will know too much.

Seeing this depth to Eleven's story told through subtext made the story richer and more meaningful to me, and I want to see where it goes. Symbols are just that, though, and one of the keen successes of Stranger Things is that is seems to work on many levels at once —whether enjoying meta references or just watching some intriguing, almost campy, very creepy, deeply charming television about kids, moms and Sheriffs fighting Big Government. I want to see Eleven healing herself with her talismanic Eggos and her wicked cool powers, though. I hope to see every last Mouthbreather brought down in her righteous wrath. 

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