Warning: SPOILERS for Stranger Things ahead
Few programs have captured the zeitgeist of the 1980s (and our present nostalgic obsession with the decade) as well as Stranger Things. Created by The Duffer Brothers, the Netflix series lives in a shoulder pad and alligator shirt-filled realm that seeks to emulate the coming-of-age cleverness of Stand By Me, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and The Goonies. The series is also infused with a healthy dose of conspiracy theories and supernatural tension a la The X-Files, Stephen King, and John Carpenter.
Since its release in mid-July, the show’s combination of wistfulness, clever characters, lighthearted moments, and dark supernatural thrills have made it one of the most viewed programs on Netflix. The Indiana-based show reawakened memories for many viewers, but it also touched on some very dark subject matter. Each of its eight episodes is tinged with intriguing machinations and peculiar paranormal activities, which build to one heck of a finale.
Assuming a second season is in the works, Stranger Things will likely dive deeper into the shadowy worlds we’ve experienced thus far. Before it does, we’ll lift the veil on the darker edge which drives the binge-worthy series.
What Happened to Eleven’s Mother?
The Hawkins National Laboratory, run by the U.S. Department of Energy down the road from the Byers’ family home, seems innocuous enough – were it not for the show’s tense and terrifying intro. Many small towns have their own odd little government installation nearby (mine certainly did). The mystery of a restricted area may wear off on folks after a while, though. After enough time, the curious complex becomes part of the scenery.
After Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears and Benny Hammond (Chris Sullivan) commits ‘suicide’, Sheriff Jim Hopper’s (David Harbour) search brings him to the outskirts of the Hawkins-based facility. Confused by science or not, the sheriff certainly has a nose for investigation, which catches wind of something rotten at the covert installation. After further investigation into the lab’s history, he discovers a connection to a disturbing CIA program titled MKUltra.
Eventually, he and Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) team up, and their search for Will leads to Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins), who claims to be the mother of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Whether or not she actually gave birth to Jane isn’t as intriguing as what may have happened to her. Ms. Ives’ story further laces the fiction of Stranger Things with our own country’s disturbing covert history.
Unsuspecting Victims of the Psychological War
During 20-year period from 1953 until 1973, the CIA sanctioned illicit experiments on unsuspecting United States and Canadian residents. The end-goal of Project MKUltra was to create effective offensive and defensive tactics against America’s Communist adversaries – who were reportedly conducting similar psychological tests. Led by Sidney Gottleib, the project sought to find new ways to coerce information from potential spies and create mind-control tactics useful in undercover operations.
During the program, victims were manipulated via mind-altering drugs such as Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), hypnosis, and sensory deprivation experiments. Reports also surfaced suggesting the use of torture, psychological, and physical abuse – some of this supposedly occurring under the auspices of a joint if unconfirmed program referred to as Project MONARCH.
After being exposed by the New York Times, the MKUltra operation was investigated by the Church Committee. The congressional commission uncovered thousands of misplaced files, once thought destroyed during the Watergate era, detailing the extent of the unauthorized experiments. Director Gottlieb declared the program a failure, and it was supposedly dismantled in 1973.
However, due to its clandestine nature and the vast number of documents actually destroyed before review, many conspiracy theorists suggest that the program lives on – perhaps in government installations like the DOE lab in Hawkins.
Winning the Psychic Cold War
Matthew Modine deserves a great deal of credit for his performance; from the moment of his arrival, viewers already knew Dr. Brenner wasn’t one of the good guys. As the show progressed, we slowly learned more about the not-so-good doctor through flashbacks to his experiments on Eleven. Exposing the young girl to torture, abuse, mind-bending experimentation, and isolation, revealed just how terrible a father figure ‘papa’ really was.
Of course, Dr. Brenner had his reasons for putting El through such horrible rigors, whether valid or not. Stranger Things slowly discloses that his research is an attempt to expand her telepathic and psychic abilities. And if the Duffer Brothers are as well-steeped in black ops and covert government organizations as fans assume – which they are – the DOE installation is a blend of MKUltra and the Stargate Project.
Stargate was the U.S. Government’s attempt to combat the remote viewing and psychic gap (not as critical as the Doomsday Weapon gap apparently). During the height of the Cold War, U.S. Intelligence believed the U.S.S.R. was developing a so-called 'psychotronic' espionage program. To combat Soviet psychic spies, the CIA assembled a group of allegedly gifted remote viewers and psychics to assist in intelligence gathering and counter-surveillance measures. At one point, the study even included notable mentalist Uri Geller.
After roughly 20 years, the minor program was disbanded and declassified by the CIA. An internal report claimed that the project had failed to produce any noteworthy results. Unfortunately for Hawkins, Indiana, Brenner’s program was a success, and El happened across the upside-down world in the midst of her spy mission.
Weird Science: The Upside-Down
When Will (and Barb) are captured by the “Demogorgon,” the monstrous creature drags them inside a chilling alternative version of our world, which El dubs “the upside-down.” For the residents of Hawkins, accessing this offshoot place is nearly impossible unless they happen to come across one of its rare, squidgy access portals. While Stranger Things is steeped in occultism and horror tropes, the upside-down is founded in surprisingly realistic, if hypothetical, origins.
Faced with proof that Will is still alive, Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) turn to Mr. Clarke (Randal P. Havens) for help. Their science teacher tries to explain their unique question with an offbeat yet scientifically-based premise. The program’s fifth chapter, “The Flea and the Acrobat,” refers to his explanation of the quantum mechanics concept known as String Theory.
The problem of multiple universes, according to Clarke, is a size issue. To an acrobat, a tightrope is perceived as a one-dimensional line, because we’re so much larger than it. Our perception of it only allows us two options – walk forwards or backwards – to avoid falling from it. However, a flea is tiny compared to a human and even the rope. It is able travel along any aspect of the rope, even underneath it, with ease as a result.
While this doesn’t entirely describe the problems facing the boys’ rescue mission (theoretical physicist Paul Steinhardt does a fine job), the analogy loosely explains why most humans, El excluded, can only operate in our present dimension. String Theory purports that most of us aren’t capable of witnessing several worlds happening simultaneously around us.
Even if we could see an alternate world, creating a rift or wormhole to cross into it would require copious amounts of energy (ahem, the Department of Energy Lab). Eleven’s innate psychic and telekinetic abilities, on the other hand, allowed her to cross back and forth between realities – like a mutant from the X-Men (who get some lip service in the show). And while Dr. Brenner’s ‘research’ may have let her breach parallel universes, the unintentional side-effect was releasing the Demogorgon.
Enter the Demogorgon
Our first meeting with the horrific creature is based in pure fantasy, as part of the boys’ role-playing session. In a frightening bit of foreshadowing, Will, Dustin, and Lucas fend off the two-headed beast as their playtime comes to an end. The youngest Byers chooses to aid his friends instead of protecting himself, but his dice rolls aren’t high enough to defeat the monster.
The Demogorgon, according to its Dungeons & Dragons roots, may originate from one of several sources. The etymology of the word itself is possibly a mistranslation of the Greek word demiourgon, a form of the word demiurge – which itself is probably a combination of the Greek word daimon (or spirit) and gorgos (quick). Misnomer or not, the concept quickly made its way into the pantheon of early pagans and Christians.
The creature signified a primal force to some and an unspeakable evil to others. Before long, the mythical entity became a part of medieval literature: John Milton mentions the Demogorgon in “Paradise Lost II,” while Edmund Spenser brings up the “Prince of darknesse and dead night” in “The Faerie Queene.” The creature also stars in a Voltaire short story, is referred to in Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick,” and pops up in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Prometheus Unbound.”
In Stranger Things, on the other hand, the Demogorgon owes its look to Milton and Shelley’s literary descendant, Howard Phillip Lovecraft. The wiry body, snaking arms, and faceless maw feel like something ripped from his nightmarish realms. In addition, the squirming portal in the bowels of the DOE lab, as well as the creature’s wall-bursting efforts at Joyce Byers' house hearken back to the author's nameless, faceless terrors awaiting their victims with outstretched tentacles.
Although this particular iteration of the Demogorgon entered our world via Eleven’s powers, her attempted espionage was orchestrated by Dr. Brenner. Upon discovering the creature, Brenner reveals the true depths of his madness. Much like a man consumed by one of Lovecraft’s dark creations, he makes a figurative deal with the devil. For the future of America’s security, he would willingly sacrifice anyone who got in his way.
History Is the Strangest Thing
In the end, Stranger Things may revel in the 80s world its creators were born into. However, far from a nostalgia piece, the Duffer Brothers used the retrospective programming to explore the Cold War within the human experience. The nameless, shapeless horrors lurking in upside-down realms may be out to drink our blood, but they’re far from our worst enemies.
As terrifying as the Demogorgon could be (and let’s face it, it’s change-of-underwear time for even the toughest individual), it was Dr. Brenner’s ruthlessness and callous nature which allowed the monster access to our world. Our very own government even gave him free-reign to conduct his twisted experiments in the name of national security.
As the show points out, in its very entertaining way, it isn’t the shadow we need to fear. Rather, it’s the Demogorgons within ourselves that allow atrocities like MKUltra or the Holocaust to occur. Fortunately, we have storytellers like the Duffer Brothers who bring the lessons of history to life. It’s our responsibility as viewers to take them to heart.
Stranger Things season 1 is available now on Netflix.