*SPOILER ALERT* This blog discusses themes in Netflix’s show Stranger Things.
The third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things brings us back to the town of Hawkins and the threat posed by the upside-down and the malevolent creatures from this realm. The show’s integration of the upside-down and its inhabitants as central antagonists follows a long and rich tradition relating to the concept of the underworld, found in mythologies around the world and across human history. While the underworld has considerable variance across cultures and traditions, there are consistent and fundamental similarities. It is a mysterious and dangerous place, a place of darkness but also depth. In addition, it is the realm of the dead - of those who have crossed that unknowable threshold. At its most essential, the underworld exists as the other side of the coin, the negative to the positive, that necessary and terrifying “other” to life. The collective fascination with the underworld is evident in the vast iterations of it depicted across time and geography. But what exactly about the underworld, and its innumerable portrayals like the upside-down, capture our attention and imagination, as it did our ancestors?
The group of friends in Stranger Things embody the very qualities the upside-down lacks and threatens to extinguish: love, creativity, compassion, humor, innocence, and curiosity. This juxtaposition holds some of the appeal and power of the upside-down/underworld; it is the esoteric other, the “is not” to life’s “is”. The observer of Stranger Things can more fully understand the character of the kids as individuals and as a group in how they confront the threat posed by the upside-down and its creatures; how they each meet this something that is so utterly their opposite. Along these lines, in order to most fully understand our own selves and our own character, we must look at and confront the parts of ourselves that exists as our opposites. This might be thoughts, behaviors, attitudes, or habits that are incompatible with the way we see ourselves or the ways we strive to be.
The show’s heroine, Eleven, is a powerful character who exhibits traits similar to the Greek god Hermes. Hermes is the trickster messenger god who “was graceful and swift of motion…He was Zeus’ Messenger, who ‘flies as fleet as thought to do his bidding’” (Hamilton, p. 33-34). As a communicator and messenger, Hermes acted as an emissary and thus was also a god of boundaries and liminal spaces, able to move in both the world of gods and humans. Even more, Hermes traversed the underworld and was “the solemn guide of the dead, the Divine Herald who led the souls down to their last home” (Hamilton, p. 34). Eleven fulfills a similar role as she crosses the boundary into the upside-down, acquires information, and helps the group of friends in their quest to defeat the Mind Flayer and other threats posed by the upside-down. She is both leader and guide who helps maneuver within the realm of underworld.
Another example of a guide who aids in navigating the underworld is the ancient Roman poet Virgil who assists Dante in his journey in the epic poem The Divine Comedy. Donald Kalsched (2013) explores Dante’s Inferno, which is the first part of The Divine Comedy, and demonstrates how this voyage into the underworld corresponds to an inner journey many individuals make in healing from traumatic experiences. Kalsched describes how “Dante and Virgil descend into Dante’s own personal version of Hell to confront the dark Lord of Dissociation otherwise known in Latin as ‘Dis’. Having found the courage to remember his dissociated pain, Dante finally finds his way out of his depression and into a more creative and conscious form of suffering that leads to indwelling, and ultimately to the renewal of his life” (p. 20).
Part of what makes Stranger Things’ upside-down and the general motif of the underworld so compelling is that these metaphoric realms resemble our own pain and trauma. We are drawn to these stories, in part, because of an inner resonance, particularly with the characters who venture into these fearful landscapes and confront the creatures of this dimension. In facing our own versions of the upside-down/underworld, and exploring the experiences, memories, and emotions that reside in these scary places, genuine healing and growth can happen. Sometimes there is no choice but to enter the underworld and turn toward the very things that are scary. Life may, in fact, begin to feel as though it is the underworld itself. A seemingly inescapable depression may set in or an overwhelming anxiety might take hold. For some, disruptive symptoms of PTSD such as constant tension, flashbacks, or nightmares may effect daily life. These experiences and symptoms, as terrible as they are, can function as a catalyst that reveal something significant amiss within the mind-body-psyche network. From here, the journey that brings one through the underworld or upside-down, and ultimately out of it, can begin. _____________________
Hamilton, E. (1942). Mythology. New York, NY: Back Bay Books.
Kalsched, D. (2013). Trauma and the Soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human
development and its interruption. East Sussex: Routledge.