“The Vale of Shadows is a dimension that is a dark reflection or echo of our world,” Dustin reads. “It is a place of decay and death. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it …”
Stranger Things spoilers — Do not read if you have not watched!
By now, unless you’ve been actively attempting to hide from the outside world, you’ve almost definitely heard of Netflix’s newest, most popular binge-worthy series: Stranger Things. What might seem more apt as an indie-cult-status hit, this pastiche of the ‘80s, borrowing heavily from The Goonies, Twin Peaks, and E.T., has been catapulted into the forefront of popular culture. Yet, while Stranger Things is influenced by a great many classic films, this is not the sole reason for its success. No, there is something more about Stranger Things to which it owes its spot in popular consciousness. Stranger Things effectively taps into a much larger widely held fear: that of isolation, disconnection, and alienation.
When Will is transported to the “Upside-Down” for the first time, his disappearance is total. He completely vanishes from this world without a trace. Yet over time, Will is able to make contact with home: intermittent and fragmented telephone calls, flickering lights; even a brief appearance from the other side. But despite these little gestures, Will’s disconnect is total. Despite his best attempts, his efforts at communication are muddled, filtered, like light shining through a grate. Present, but twisted and distorted.
“Like home … Like home but dark. Dark and empty … and cold.”
This is how Will describes the Upside-Down. It is a world much like our own, where everything looks the same but is slightly different, shifted just ever so slightly as to feel completely alien. For anyone who has ever endured loss, trauma, or great suffering, perhaps this description doesn’t sound so unfamiliar. Those struggling with anxiety or depression disorders often struggle to express the great depths of the inner turmoil which they experience daily; existing in a world very much like the one that normal people seem to occupy but yet cold and dark and very, very empty. It paints a picture of the world as felt by the lonely and avoidant. It can feel as though you are somehow simultaneously present in the world and yet completely removed from it, moving through daily life like a ghost on a different plane. Others may stop and try to understand, and this is helpful — but all trauma is at heart deeply personal, and your best attempts to try and express the true depths of your feelings might as well come across as a set of blinking lights highlighting single letters to form simple sentences as you attempt to compress it all into the inadequacy of language. This is perhaps best exemplified by Will when he reveals to his mother that he is simply “right here” and yet is nowhere to be found. Will, like those who suffer from trauma or illness, is simultaneously here and a million miles away.
This is reflected to us in the characters of Stranger Things; it’s not just Will who is lost in the Upside-Down. Take Hopper, for example. A father who lost his daughter to (presumably) cancer, Hopper’s reality is shifted. He exists in the waking world, following the predictable motions of the everyday. But the suffering caused from his loss alienates and isolates him from those around him. They are able to sympathize, but unable to truly understand the kind of pain that accompanies such a tragedy. Jonathan too, is another example, having lived through his parent’s turbulent marriage and traumatic divorce. Shouldering the burdens of his deadbeat father, Jonathan’s experience singles him out from the happier families in the world around him.
“It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.”
These are the words which Dustin uses to describe the Upside-Down, an eerily accurate summation of just how easily normal, everyday life can be flipped by the unexpected, by loss, grief, loneliness, or illness. We often go about our lives as though we are invincible, pretending that we are infallible, that we are immune from the ills of our world. Yet Stranger Things taps into a subconscious fear lurking in the back of our minds: the ease with which our lives can be turned Upside-Down.
Author’s Note: This piece was inspired by writer Emily L. Stephens over at the AV club for her Stranger Things review series.