The following article contains spoilers for STRANGER THINGS 2

What led to the immense popularity of STRANGER THINGS? Sure, 80s nostalgia has been a pretty hot commodity lately, but it must have been something more profound. Perhaps audiences were yearning for a time where we were more disconnected; where we didn’t have the ability to plug-in 24 hours a day for a bombardment of information.

It was a time where it was easier to hide away from the evils of the world. It’s that yearning for escapism that likely captured the popular imagination. It’s sentimental for those who lived it, and its wish fulfillment for those who didn’t. However, it’s naive to think the world didn’t have problems back then. The evil was always there.

Like the Upside Down, the darkness was hidden just below the spaces of the world we thought were safe. It hid in the cracks and in the out of the way places. We view the past of the 80s through Day-Glo colored lenses and forget about the tumult of that time.

It’s telling that the most terrifying thing in STRANGER THINGS isn’t the cavalcade of creatures from the upside down. It’s the faceless Hawkins Lab. In episode 4 of season 2, we see the depths of their omnipotence. They surround Nancy and Jonathan as they try to break their vow of silence. They are the tentacles of secret knowledge and vision.

A physical parallel to the Shadow Creature of the Upside Down. Their unfeeling nature is both callous and evil. “Mistakes have been made,” Sam Owens says of Hawkins Lab’s horrifying experiments. His greatest concern is keeping everyone in Hawkins ignorant of the evils lurking under their town beyond the pale.

It’s through Hawkins Lab and other antagonist forces that series creators the Duffer Brothers criticize the type of nostalgia at the heart of STRANGER THINGS.

Nostalgia Complex

Stranger Things 2

The biggest critics of STRANGER THINGS will often dismiss the show as disposable nostalgia porn. An imitation of superior art from the 80’s. While I would hesitate to put STRANGER THINGS on the same artistic level as the works that inspired it, I would never call the show disposable.

In fact, this season, the Duffer Brothers seemed to acknowledge their over-reliance on nostalgia and 80s archetypes. When Lucas summarizes the entire plot of season 1 to new character Max, she responds that she finds it “derivative.”

In 2017, nostalgia for the Reagan-era 1980s feels as myopic as nostalgia for the 1950s. Anyone who was not white, hetero, an upper middle class would find those time periods equally oppressive. The Duffers comment on this in episode 5 with a speech from journalist Murray Bauman.

He explains that there is a curtain that people keep up between themselves and the darkness of the world. “They like the curtain. It provides them stability, comfort.” It’s that same curtain that nostalgia for the 80s rests on.

There’s a massive irony of STRANGER THINGS commenting on this concept. The series is all about comfort: the comfort of reflection for the “simpler times” of the 80’s. It’s the type of sinister comfort that brings about legions of grown-ass men complaining about an all-female GHOSTBUSTERS. Obsessions with the past stunt growth in the present. In a way, STRANGER THINGS is the perfect vessel for this story.

It draws audiences in with the promise of comfort but instead reveals a more sinister world where men use women for their wombs, as Dr. Martin Brenner did Eleven’s mother. It’s a world with unhinged racist, homophobic bullies, and anyone outside the traditional idea of Reagan’s pristine suburban America is ostracized and targeted.

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The Darkness Beneath

This exploration of those darker undercurrents began in season 1 when bullies made claims that Will was in “fairy heaven” following his disappearance. In season two, Billy’s father tells him to stop “looking at himself in the mirror like a faggot.” STRANGER THINGS subtly reminds us of the ignorant, but widely accepted, heteronormative prejudices of 1984. The evil of the Upside Down isn’t just some Lovecraftian monstrosities: it’s the suppressed bigotries of small towns like Hawkins.

Billy reacts to his father’s threats toward his masculinity by lashing out at those he perceives as lesser. He emotionally abuses his sister, usually with pointedly misogynist insults, and makes unsubtle racial remarks about Lucas being “someone to stay away from.” Billy personifies the types of racist, homophobic, and misogynist attitudes that feel all too common in 2017. If he were around in 2017, he’d probably be filling up his Twitter account with Pepe memes and “Men’s Rights” hashtags.

Part of the power of STRANGER THINGS is that for Mike, Will, Lucas, and Dustin, their outsider status makes them heroic. The Duffer brothers portray the Party, in this season especially, as a group of academic whiz kids. Their knowledge of science and mechanics (and Dungeons and Dragons) is often their greatest weapon in the fight against evil. They lack physical strength, but their mental strength is why they’re able to win the day.

Their belief in community and teamwork is how they solve problems. They stand as a counterpoint to the type of masculinity of Billy and the scientific knowledge of Hawkins Lab. The series shows respect for science, community, and intellectualism as the ultimate weapon against ignorance and apathy.

The Mind Flayer

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Part of what makes the evil of figures like Hawkins Lab and Billy so sinister is just how mundane they are. For a series about psychic powers and interdimensional monsters, the most menacing figures are the most ordinary. This even extends to the powers of the monsters in the show.

The big bad of STRANGER THINGS 2, a monster called the Shadow Creature, is an intangible being that possesses Will in order to control its army of Demogorgon (correction: demo-dogs) and conquer our dimension. The Shadow Creature is the perfect representation of the banality of evil because of its ability to possess the living. This darkness can take hold of anyone.

Dustin compares the Shadow Monster to the Mind Flayers from Dungeons and Dragons. He says Mind Flayers “believes it’s the master race.” Steve immediately compares them to the Nazis. This connection only cements the Duffer Brothers’ thematic attention to humanity’s capacity for cruelty. Writer Hannah Arendt had first coined the phrase “banality of evil” in her book that reported on the trial of Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann.

It was this officer who famously tried to defend himself by claiming he was only following orders. Arendt was deeply disturbed by his complete lack of guilt for his actions and coined the phrase “banality of evil.” In the world of STRANGER THINGS, it’s the banal that is often the evilest. The torment of bullies or the indifference of government creates a more palatable terror than the hidden forces of monstrous darkness.

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Following Orders

It’s hard not to think of Eichmann when Eleven confronts her own torturer alongside her sister, Kali. He, too, tries to claim that he was only doing as he was told. This man isn’t part of a fascist movement, but rather a sanctioned U.S. agency.

The show uses this extreme metaphor to emphasize that an absence of morality in the face of totalitarian authority is the greatest act of evil. The guard was only a cog in the machine of Hawkins Lab, but he was the one who used the weapons of torture when told to do so. He was a cog, but without cogs, a machine cannot run.

Ultimately, STRANGER THINGS season 2 becomes a statement on action in the face of indifference. Our heroes are underdogs. They don’t wield the power of a government or massive private corporation. However, they choose to act when the safety of the world is threatened. They are cogs that decide their own fate.

In STRANGER THINGS, the nostalgia isn’t meant to comfort. It’s there to remind us that the past doesn’t define our present. In our present, we can easily see the monsters of bigotry around us. Nothing is hidden anymore. If the choices are do nothing or fight, then the best thing we can do is round up our party and prepare to keep the true monsters at bay.

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