Midway through the first season of Stranger Things — the hit Netflix series, set in 1983, which returns for its second season today — the Goonies-like group of boys at the center of the show urge a preadolescent girl, an abused government test subject, to use her psychic abilities to locate their missing and presumed-dead friend, Will Byers. As the girl, Eleven, concentrates on the shortwave radio that amplifies her powers, the boys repeat their request for her “to find Will,” as though they were conjuring a spell in one of their Dungeons and Dragons campaigns.
The show’s creators, brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, intercut this scene with images of the nefarious Dr Martin Brenner — whom Eleven calls “papa” — as he encourages her to find a different person, presumably a Soviet spy. Through her clandestine, cross-temporal work, Eleven accidentally opens the gate to the Upside Down, releasing the humanoid-orchid beast that devours Barb, captures Will, and threatens the whole of space and time whenever it crosses from its Hawkins to the one Will and his friends call their own.
The scenes mirror each other narratively and visually: in the present, the tile walls of the school where the boys have hidden Eleven echo the walls of the lab where she grew up, buried deep within the town’s power plant. And in both moments, she finds herself compelled to use her abilities to gain the affection of those around her. When she locates the spy in the past, she earns her “papa’s” adoration; if she finds Will for Mike and his friends, she’ll cement her place in their group of misfits. Love, or at least belonging, is directly tied to her success at work.
By highlighting the similarities between her old life and new one, Stranger Things shows us a young girl whose life has been torn apart by her unique skill as a laborer. Her plight becomes the plight of the entire town of Hawkins, and every town like it. This, it turns out, is the show’s central message: rather than a nostalgic return to the 1980s, Stranger Things presents a bleak future in which uneven economic precarity has become total.
The town of Hawkins, Indiana, might have been ripped from the pages of Raymond Carver’s short-story collection Cathedral, published in 1983, the same year Stranger Things takes place. Like those of Carver’s sparse stories, the trailers and weathered houses of Hawkins are populated with working-class families hardened by years of living through a decade of economic restructuring, stagflation, two oil crises, and finally, the Carter-engineered Volcker Shock, which was the final nail in the coffin of the American (and really, global) working class.
The science-fiction elements of Stanger Things only heighten the menace of this lived-in precarity. The Upside Down — the parallel world the monster calls home — is Hawkins in another “dark” and “empty” dimension, like the Vale of Shadows in Dungeons and Dragons: “[A] dark reflection, or echo, of our world. It is a place of decay and death, a plane out of phase. … It is right next to you, and you don’t even see it.”
This echo allegorizes the working-class desolation of Reagan’s America, a country that has grown “out of phase” with itself, where the real threat to towns like Hawkins is ever-present yet unseen. Worse still, its monsters come from the very institutions that support the town: the quarry that employs Hawkins’s workers, the energy plant that keeps the lights on (or flickering), and the school where, in the Upside Down, the monster makes its nest.
It matters here that Stranger Things takes place on the eve of Reagan’s re-election. By then, the American economy had already made its pact with Wall Street and there seemed no turning back from the neoliberal agenda that continues to drive economic policy. Whatever new wealth was generated would not find its way to towns like Hawkins; there will be no morning in America for its residents or for the 99 percent of Americans for whom the benefits of trickle-down economics would remain a phantom.
The Upside Down, then, is less a negative image of Hawkins than a mirror, not only of 1983, but of 2016. The series provides its audience with a history of the present, an origin story for our own age of austerity. In this sense, we all live in Hawkins now.
The Upside Down
When Eleven inadvertently opens the gate between Hawkinses, she finds herself caught between two worlds, only it isn’t between a group of awkward boys and a menacing government doctor. Rather, she’s caught between her own present — bleak enough — and the Upside Down — bleaker still. In this way, her suffering points past her present to a future world where underemployment would become the norm and inequality would continue to deepen. Bleakest yet, the Upside Down — the double to and underbelly of Reagan’s America — is no more easily undone than Reaganomics.
The conceit of Stranger Things aligns with the “many-worlds” theory, which holds that every single action creates infinite and infinitely reproducing parallel universes. When the boys ask their science teacher, Mr Clarke, about this theory, he assumes they are imagining a more utopian dimension in which tragedy never happens and Will Byers never disappears — a dimension that must exist. Instead, they want to figure out how to access what they know is a lurking dystopia: the dimension where Will is trapped and dying, stalked by a monster the boys name the Demogorgon. Clarke explains that if there were a door to the Upside Down, “we’d know” because it would “disrupt gravity, magnetic fields, our environment” — effects the boys have already encountered in the woods around the power plant. “Heck,” Mr Clarke warns, “it might even swallow us up whole.”
This theory of parallel dimensions suggests that even if the breach between two worlds does not destroy the town, closing the gate between worlds won’t stop the proliferation of infinite and infinitely worse worlds that might swallow us all. So, even if Eleven successfully closes the gate, she cannot prevent the forces that created a world out of sync with itself from continuing. In all possible futures, the Upside Down, or something like it, exists as an ever-present and unseen threat.
Back to the Future
The lack of narrative closure, then, suggests a kind of persistent and unresolvable threat. And what the devoured children of Stranger Things make particularly acute is not just that people are themselves consumed under neoliberalism, but that they are devoured as indifferently and inevitably as a broken arcade game will eat your quarters. That structure will not be, indeed cannot be, resolved; the devastation — which is to say capitalism — will not end.
From this perspective, Stranger Things’s clothing, soundtrack, and winking film references amount to more than mere nostalgia peddling. While the clear references to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Poltergeist evoke the power of the Spielbergian filmmaking, they also carry forward those films’ themes: the threat of state violence and middle-class precarity, respectively.
Perhaps most significantly, the show’s clearest touchstone, Goonies (for which Spielberg wrote the story), begins with the destructive capacity of capital: the Goonies jump into action when the bank forecloses on Mr Walsh’s home and Mikey learns he’ll have to move to Detroit at the city’s most desperate moment. The Fratellis aren’t the only bad guys the Goonies have to defeat: the banks are equally inclined to steal.
Put another way, returning to the films of the early 1980s serves as a stark reminder that movies from that era were obsessed with class antagonism and the threat of displacement (if not outright annihilation) at the hands of forces that the boys of Stranger Things cannot even see, much less grasp.
Telling that same story in 2017, then, paints an especially bleak picture of our past and our future. In effect, Stranger Things is about the persistent violence of capital and, in refusing to resolve its own monstrous threat, it suggests that this violence is ongoing and infinitely reproducible. Indeed, in the thirty-four years since the show’s present, the flickering lights of towns like Hawkins have continued to burn out. The threat is constant and, if anything, intensifying.
The world of Stranger Things is neither a forgotten past in need of remembering or recuperating, nor does it simply represent the pervasive precarity of neoliberal capitalism. Rather, its world is one in which the dark echo of the economic restructuring so foundational to Reagan’s America has become total, where all possible spaces and futures — even parallel dimensions — are permeated by the Demogorgon of capital. In other words, the world of Stranger Things is the one we already live in.
What horrors will season two hold?