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In ‘Stranger Things 2,’ No One Is Safe from Trauma’s Haunting
This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2.
Leading up to its highly anticipated release last Friday, Stranger Things 2 faced a familiar challenge for surprise breakout hits: How would it recapture the magic of the original while offering something surprising and new the second time around?
The Netflix original show’s wildly popular first season managed to make Dungeons and Dragons and ’80s fashion endearing to all ages and generations—and its second season does not disappoint. It has all the warm nostalgia and nerdy kid innocence that made the first season so delightful. Instead of reinventing the wheel, though, Stranger Things 2 simply tells the next chapter of the story: a chapter that manages to balance being darker, deeper, and more hopeful than the first.
A year after the events covered by the first season, Hawkins, we discover, has experienced a superficial return to normal. The majority of the town has been shielded from knowledge about the gate that was opened into the “Upside Down,” and our beloved gang of geeks are more concerned with their scores at the arcade and their Ghostbusters Halloween costumes than fighting monsters from another dimension.
Except—maybe they’re not. Will may have returned to this dimension, but he experiences frequent “episodes” in which it seems like he’s back in the Upside Down, facing a new and bigger threat. Mike is still mourning the loss of Eleven (“El”), counting the days that he calls out to her on his radio and hears nothing but silence. Nancy’s guilt about Barb’s death and the lies she has to tell Barb’s parents is slowly eating away at her. And perhaps most hauntingly, Eleven struggles to discover more about her family and her powers, her efforts deeply complicated by her traumatic past.
This season’s second showdown with interdimensional monsters makes for gripping entertainment, and the plot is tighter and more well-constructed than its predecessor. But the real heart of Stranger Things 2 is its compelling portrayal of how trauma manifests itself in the relationships, identities, and bodies of the people who have experienced it. Most obviously is the way that Will’s experience in the Upside Down literally haunts him until it physically inhabits his body. He faces constant reminders of the terror he’s been through, until his mother’s boyfriend’s trite advice causes his residual connection with the other dimension to take over his body.
While Will’s experience of trauma plays out in dark, theatrical ways, Eleven’s story almost seems like the real-life explanation for Will’s metaphorical one. It’s not until the last episode that Eleven and the rest of the gang are reunited, and until that point, her story runs parallel to theirs. Eleven’s circumstances are certainly extraordinary—but dealing with childhood neglect and abuse are unfortunately not nearly as unusual. Watching her navigate the effects of her trauma leads us to the most gutturally heart-wrenching moments of the season. She and Hawkins police chief Hopper awkwardly (and violently) hash out their past hurts and losses as they learn to love and care for each other, and her dramatic rescue of the gang at the last minute comes as a result of her own difficult path towards healing.
This portrayal isn’t perfect. The already-controversial seventh episode, for instance, is dedicated entirely to Eleven’s journey to find her “sister” (another child subjected to Dr. Brenner’s testing and gifted with unique psychic powers). Young Millie Bobby Brown’s performance is stunning, but the episode loses all the smallness and familiarity that makes the show both haunting and heartfelt. Instead, Eleven’s short foray into vigilante justice in a big city feels fantastic and foreign. Ironically, it seems like a different world.
But the world of Hawkins is where so much of the magic lies—the town feels lovably bizarre in the same way every other place on earth does to its own inhabitants. Even for those of us who weren’t alive during the ’80s or have never lived in a small town, the world of Stranger Things feels comfortably familiar by way of a kind of manufactured nostalgia. I could almost believe that I was homesick for Hawkins.
Stranger Things 2’s best moments capitalize on this feeling to powerfully display the identity-shaping power of family and “home,” especially amid trauma. Eleven is repeatedly told where her “home” is: Hopper’s makeshift cabin fortress, her mother and aunt’s house, and the abandoned factory her “sister” is squatting in. Her decision to return to Hawkins, though, is motivated not by such messages, but by her love for her ragtag family and the sense of home they’ve created for her. Her “sister” warns her that her friends cannot save her, but Eleven retorts, “I can save them.” Her determination and strength are forged from the difficult work of healing and self-discovery, and she returns with a steely resolve to fight for what she declares is truly her home.
Although Eleven’s story takes a long time to intersect with the rest of the cast, it only sharpens the loneliness that her journey evokes. Her struggle to find her own family and home result in the most viscerally painful scenes of the series. Somehow, the strange balance of science fiction circumstances and the series’ ability to evoke small-town familiarity make her pain all that much easier to inhabit. Every time that she feels abandoned or misunderstood is so piercingly heartbreaking and tender that you easily forget that her trauma is altogether unrelatable.
Stranger Things 2 deals with every sequel’s struggle just like Will faces the dark storm haunting him: face-on. The season’s plot is thrilling, but the central drama is more about the effects of the first season than it may initially appear. As El’s “sister” tells her, untreated trauma only multiples, grows, and festers, like the tunnels of rot and decay slowly infecting the entire town. By the time the actual fighting begins, it’s clear that it’s really the same monster as before.
Nancy gives voice to the real problem when she drunkenly rants about how Steve is just pretending like everything is okay and when she confides in Jonathan about how no one is angry enough about how much things have changed. Almost every character says something along the lines of “I just want this to be over” at one point or another. But it won’t ever really be. The monster can be killed, the gate can be closed, but the lingering effects of the trauma will only fester like rotted pumpkins until they are exposed and dealt with.
This is one area in which the American church can find conviction. We are rarely a safe place to excavate the traumas of our lives and weed out the rot and decay underneath. Far too often, we’re the Wheelers (aloof and unaware of the pain around us), the doctors (quick to offer easy solutions to get the problem off our backs), or Steve (content to pretend like everything is over and finished.) We’re so often tempted to treat the effects of trauma as harmless or powerless, like Dustin’s coddling of a tiny “pollywog” that grows into the same monster that originally haunted the town. And as Will discovers, well-meaning advice about “facing our fears” can unintentionally exacerbate the effects in our lives.
Stranger Things 2 reminds us that perhaps our most dangerous impulse is the one that wants to pretend that our trauma, and the trauma of those around us, doesn’t exist. Almost every plot line in the second season is about the importance of perseverance in relationships to survive the effects of trauma. Hop and Eleven have to work through the way that trauma has rerouted their emotional responses to each other, Joyce learns how to trust and support the son whose disappearance almost destroyed her, and Will’s friends learn how to love and care for him as he’s continually rocked by the effects of the Upside Down.
Some of this season’s earnestness turns sticky-sweet (everyone ends up with the person we’re rooting for!), but the story manages to take deep dives into difficult territory without losing its heart. Maybe it’s the fact that the story is told through the perspective of a group of kids, maybe it’s the quaint setting, or maybe it’s just the stark honesty with which the topic is dealt. Or maybe it requires going to another dimension for us to take seriously the idea that trauma is bodily, real, and significant.
The stories that we tell about our families, our “home,” and the trauma in our lives deeply shape our identities. Stranger Things 2 tells an honest story about the deeply dangerous consequences of ignoring trauma, as well as the hopeful possibility of creating families and homes where the holy work of excavating it and working through healing can truly happen.
Kaitlyn Schiess is a freelance writer and blogger and is currently pursuing a Master of Theology from Dallas Theological Seminary. She writes regularly at Christ and Pop Culture and her blog, Letters from the Exile.