The American Paranoia of Stranger Things 3
This article contains some spoilers for Season 3 of Stranger Things.
Burger King. Sam Goody. Ghostbusters. New Coke. Vending machines that get stuck. Sitting in the trunk of a station wagon. Stranger Things, Netflix’s mega-smash show about monsters in small-town Indiana, is so replete with the motifs of 1980s Americana that watching it can feel like an exercise in affective memory. The series is adept at pushing the right emotional buttons, to the point where an episode in the third season, Stranger Things 3, features a montage of moments from earlier episodes that precipitates nostalgia all on its own, with its Eggo waffles and its tiny, fierce, tousle-headed heroes.
But the series isn’t just about the brands. This is a show about light and dark, and as deftly as it mimics the glaring neon of Reaganite consumer culture, it tweaks the conspiracy theories blooming in the shadows. Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown), the telekinetic girl taken in by a troupe of childhood friends in the first season, is the product of an MKUltra-style government experiment that tried to give superpowers to babies in the womb. In Season 2, when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) try to offer closure to the family of a friend who was murdered by an inter-dimensional monster, they visit Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), a journalist turned professional crackpot. Bauman believes, among other things, that the Russians have somehow infiltrated Hawkins, Indiana, and that the spate of disappearances around town is connected to the government-run Hawkins National Laboratory. As a character, Murray is genially, foil-hattishly nutty. Here’s the thing, though: He’s not wrong.
Conspiracy theories, in fact, are in the show’s DNA, a counterforce to all the cuddly Spielberg evocation and the tween-age bonding. Before Stranger Things bore its current title, its creators—the Duffer Brothers—reportedly named it Montauk, in reference to long-standing rumors about government-run psychological experiments on human test subjects conducted on military bases on Long Island, New York. The show’s story is built on the premise that various strains of delusional thinking are actually true. The government has conducted highly unethical drug tests on human subjects. Terrifying alien monsters are real. People can become possessed by dark external forces that absorb them into one diseased hive mind. On the rare occasions when these events are exposed, the military does cover things up.
Stranger Things 3 is more deeply informed by American paranoia than ever before, as the show starts to mine classic, Cold War–inspired works of the mid-1980s. Red Dawn is an obvious overarching influence, that gung-ho story of a handful of teenagers fleeing Soviet invasion. So is Day of the Dead, George A. Romero’s zombie horror about militarism and power. The Terminator, James Cameron’s dystopian hit about an unconquerable cyborg killing machine, gets the show’s most palpable allusion yet: an unbeatable enforcer with a motorbike and a single, ligneous facial expression.
The Duffer Brothers’ pivot toward Russia is signaled in the first scene, a stylish, near-silent sequence set in 1984 that depicts a team of Soviet scientists using what appears to be a giant energy beam to break down the fabric between this world and the Upside Down. It’s a comically horrible idea: The Upside Down, as seen in previous seasons, is a wasteland of an alternative realm inhabited by gruesome monsters that keep surfacing in Hawkins to abduct teenagers, possess children, and test the physical impact of tentacles on man-made structures. In Season 1, Brown’s Eleven accidentally opened a portal to the Upside Down in a fit of telekinetic rage, unleashing a monster that ran amok in Hawkins and transported Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) to its ashy dimension. In Season 2, Eleven closed that same portal, after a different monster from the Upside Down possessed Will and used him as its vessel.
While Dustin, Steve, and the new character Robin (Maya Hawke) go to bat against a perceived Soviet threat, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), Will’s beleaguered mother, is indulging delusional tendencies of her own. One day early in the new season, all her magnets fall off the fridge, an arbitrary occurrence that the forgivably jumpy Joyce immediately connects to the Upside Down. Nancy, working as an intern for a group of boorish male editors at the Hawkins Post, sniffs out a conspiracy theory involving rats acting abnormally and some missing fertilizer. Will, neglected by his buddies after they all find girlfriends, also becomes convinced that the monster that possessed him in Season 2, the Predator-like Mind Flayer, is back.
In the real world, all these characters’ suspicions could easily be written off as the products of psyches responding to pressure, or to trauma. After what Joyce has been through, of course she sees monsters everywhere, and Ryder’s performance finds a sympathetic space between brittle neuroses and maternal protectiveness that would be hard for another actor to balance. Will’s declaration that the Mind Flayer is back is a cry for help that brings his friends back to his side, reunited as a taller and more visibly pubescent team. Nancy’s awful job of fetching hamburgers and coffee for chain-smoking newspapermen who belittle her and name her “Nancy Drew” would naturally lead her to pursue a story so improbable, it would make her reputation if she could break it.
Stranger Things 3, again and again, hints at how preposterous its characters’ theories sound. After Joyce describes Murray Bauman as not eccentric so much as “certifiable,” the grizzled police chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) replies that it’s a case of the “pot calling the kettle black.” One of Nancy’s most compelling interview subjects is, her editors tell her, a paranoid schizophrenic who is not to be trusted. When Dustin tells a friend that he’s “so, so busy trying to save the world from Russians and monsters,” the response is laughter. How can any of these things be true, not least all at the same time? Where, apart from the fantastical realm of 1980s film and its imitators, would they be?
The Stranger Things malcontents might observe that the show tends to do the same thing over and over again and that the formula is getting stale. The first part is accurate enough; the second isn’t necessarily so. Season 2 more wholeheartedly used monsters as a metaphor for trauma, and the experience of having things happen to you that feel grotesquely, inexplicably alien. Season 3, with its recurring asides about capitalism (Ferguson’s scene-stealing Erica, it turns out, is a tiny plutocrat) and its energetic exploration of the suspicious recesses of the human psyche, offers up a show for America’s birthday that’s more nuanced than it initially seems. A free-market economic system can be both impossibly damaging to small businesses (see: the new arrival of the Starcourt Mall in Hawkins) and a preferable alternative to the authoritarian communism of America’s 1980s enemies. Pop-cultural works can be ludicrously jingoistic and yet oddly innocent. Overactive imaginations can be dangerously irrational while also being the hallmark of great storytellers everywhere.
What these ideas come down to, in the show’s thrillingly propulsive and self-consciously familiar conclusion, is the nature of a country that fully believes it’s the greatest in the world while also being well aware of its own capacity for destruction. If each decade has its cultural touchstones, the products of the 1980s sing out their ballads of good versus evil, their mythical vanquishers, and their naïveté that endures beyond all credibility. And so the paranoia and the ingenuousness of Stranger Things go naturally hand in hand. Looking around the Hawkins Fourth of July fair in one scene, taking in the fried foods and the rigged games and the “ugly decadence” of it all, Murray says, with cheerful pleasure, “It doesn’t get more American than this, my friend.”
SOPHIE GILBERT is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers culture.
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