My husband, Ben, and I recently finished watching Season 1 of Netflix’s retro miniseries, Stranger Things. Since I’m not a huge fan of sci-fi or supernatural fantasy, I reluctantly agreed to stick through all ten episodes, if only to convince myself that I could truly be open-minded about such fantastical stories. In the end, however, both of us were sorely disappointed and briefly discussed the reasons. That’s why I was surprised to see some Catholics favorably review the show while they dissected and looked for theological themes in the series.
Suffice it to say that I wanted to delve into their explanations and offer my own, which I’ll admit will likely be unpopular and perhaps even ridiculed. I’ll begin with the affirming points of the show, namely the nostalgic aspects that appeal to us Gen Xers; the virtuous qualities of many characters in the show – sacrifice, loyalty, honesty, to name a few; and the superb plot that unfolds intensely but steadily. There’s plenty of reasons why 80’s kids love Stranger Things, but we should also acknowledge that the show presents a distorted view of the battle against evil and unseen worlds.
The series arc eventually introduces viewers to The Upside Down, a mirror universe that is occupied by diabolical creatures. In this way, even the residents of a small town can be caught up in something greater than them, which is certainly part of the appeal. We long for something bigger than what we see in front of us. We can observe a longing for something more than what this world offers, and certainly the flip-side of this ethereal realm (e.g., The Upside Down) is for us to face the reality that there are frightening and mysterious spiritual realities that we cannot fully grasp or manage.
The foulness of The Upside Down now threatens our realm and many seem powerless to stop it.
When contemplating the dangers of spiritual battles, we must affirm what power we have, though, through our faith. We can control, via our free will, whether or not the presence of evil pervades our lives. I know this personally. The entire time I watched Stranger Things, I felt a sense of impending doom. There was never evidence that the people who entered The Upside Down or even those who tried to control it in the Laboratory understood that they could face and rebuke the demonic. In fact, as Christians, we must do this with confidence!
Why admonish something that has no counterpart, though? That’s another issue I had with the show: no trace of holy redemption. Sure, the human characters exhibited heroic and redeeming qualities, especially when Eleven sacrificed her life to save the boys who had become her friends, but where was the Redeemer Himself? Nowhere. We see this ghastly and clearly evil monster that is other-worldly, but no angel or God to save His people.
There is no mention of a Rightside Up. There’s nothing to suggest that the preternaturally evil monster has an omnipotent and benevolent nemesis, namely, someone who is sublimely holy – God!
When I was a young teen, I dabbled in the occult for a short period of time, which I explained in detail in an article I wrote three years ago for Catholic Exchange. The result was the same sort of experience I witnessed in Stranger Things: fear, anxiety, and the false sense that this bizarre and inexplicably evil presence was too powerful and could not be contained. But, perhaps like the characters in Stranger Things, this belief deceived me.
I lived much of my life – decades even – with this spiritual oppression looming behind me and hovering over me. It was subtle, to be sure, especially after I had confessed my involvement with the occult and did my best to live a life indicative of sanctity. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I learned I had to officially renounce the evil, and I did this with the help of two lay Catholic women trained in deliverance ministry.
One cannot close the portal to The Upside Down, so to speak, without acknowledging the all-sovereign Creator who is the only One we serve. We do not obey Him out of fear. Instead, it is out of love – the same love that was alluded to through the characters’ vague sense of sacrificial compassion in Stranger Things. But it was a finite love, of course, conditional in some regards. Every character was flawed, representing the human condition of concupiscence.
Where was the antidote to the hideous monster in The Upside Down? The characters had to investigate it for themselves, often at very high costs, and they went to great lengths to unravel the mystery that the laboratory was hiding from the public. In many cases, they committed crimes and sins, which the creators of the show clearly wanted us to justify because of the main premise – that the evil must be discovered and destroyed at all costs.
Is it necessary to lie in order to destroy evil? Or to break into a high-security facility? I’m not sure I have the exact answer, but evil is not conquered with sin.
There were several other articles I read that I intended to dissect in this article, but space and time have limited my ability to do so. I will mention that the other two blog posts I wanted to mention both stated that they saw elements of the gospels, Theology of the Body, and a glimpse of heaven in Stranger Things. Maybe I missed something huge, but I never saw any sign of heaven or even anything remotely related to it.
My point is this: I’m entirely in favor of creative licensing and our ability to enjoy a variety of fictional stories that utilize our imaginations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with watching Stranger Things. But when Catholics attempt to convince the populace that there are clear elements of Catholic spirituality woven throughout the miniseries, I have a problem with that.
We can, and should, see the good in everything around us, including the movies or TV shows we watch. Stranger Things absolutely has components of human goodness. But it was lacking in one glaring necessity: God. We saw the demonic; we understood and accepted that evil does exist. But we did not seek or name the only One who created all things and can vanquish such malevolence.
My hope was to see a beneficent deity introduced in Season 2, but it appears that it’s just a continuation of chasing the Demagorgon into oblivion, along with the intriguing unraveling of backstories, including that of Eleven’s cruel abduction and the abuse of her psychic powers.
After I completed the deliverance prayers to renounce my participation in the occult, I was enveloped in God’s healing mercy. This joy elevated me to shed tears of gratitude as His peace settled in my soul. Isn’t it more empowering to be spiritually liberated by our Triune God than to succumb to spiritual pessimism?