I gave up television in general a while back (“The television screen has become the retina of the mind’s eye…”). However, last week I was in a place where I ended up breaking that fast and I’m so glad I chose the Netflix original series Stranger Things to do it. It’s like a warm bath of retro pop culture familiarity, but it’s also laden with its own themes and subtext that make it much more than just a sugary, nostalgic treat to be passively consumed. I feel we get a depth of connection to the characters that much of the show’s source material never managed, making the horror seem all the more real. The reality of the secret programs and inhuman treatments behind the show’s fictional mad scientist operation only adds to this.
You don’t need to be conspiracy minded to note that this year has seen a lot of strangeness, chaos, and pulling back the veil of hidden things. Stranger Things fits right in with this increasingly surreal zeitgeist. Others have already covered in depth the show’s homages to popular culture (2) and references to MK Ultra and other horrific covert experiments (2, 3). But I also see a spiritual allegory in play, and that’s what I’m taking a stab at exploring here. Could a pop culture pastiche actually inspire people to question more pointedly; both about ourselves and the institutions we entrust with power? Stranger things have happened…
=== FAIR WARNING: MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD ===
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR & WATCH SEASON 1 WITH FULL MYSTERY
Will and El – Double Entendres
The first time we meet the boys they’re in the middle of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Whatever classes Lucas and Dustin’s characters are, it’s not emphasized. However, Will has first action and he’s most definitely a Wizard. Which is interesting, because one of the prime attributions of The Magician tarot card happens to be will, as in willpower.
From the A.E. Waite Tarot guide:
This card signifies the divine motive in man, reflecting God, the will in the liberation of its union with that which is above.
“The Unity principle, the origin of which is impenetrable to human conceptions, is placed at the beginning of all things.” His upright attitude “indicates the will that is going to proceed into action.”
How appropriate that card #1, the prime motive force, goes first in the game battle!
As these descriptions indicate, this is will in a specific sense. Namely, will that is in alignment with the higher, divine will. In the tarot spread that relates cards to the corresponding number of Sephirot on the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, the Magician is given the position of Keter, or Crown. Keter is correspondingly the first and utmost emanation of the divine will. As a crown, it is the unconscious intermediary between the conscious mind and the Most High. It is also described as “the most hidden of all hidden things” (Will is very good at hiding) and “absolute compassion” (ref). Looking at the cover image (top of page), this is exactly the position Will occupies among the pile of characters.
But Will vanishes, so the quest to find him can be seen allegorically as the quest to find the missing connection to Higher Will. I’ll return to how the story relates to the Tree of Life in a moment. As I will argue, the show communicates that the key to recovering this principle is courage.
What about Eleven?
Her name has a couple of blatant esoteric significances. 11 is considered a master number in numerology, and is widely recognized in occult traditions as denoting magical workings or the magical force itself. Through their friendship with Eleven and rich vocabulary of fantasy lore, the boys come to a basic understanding of Will’s situation well ahead of the adults. El hasn’t lost track of Will. As we see, only Eleven, with her “magical” psychic and intuitive abilities, is ultimately able to find Will through the veil of “The Upside Down” and defeat his tormentor.
The short, nickname version “El” is significant as well because El is one of the Semitic word forms meaning “God”. Taken in context, this implies that the human “magical” potential comes from nothing but the higher source, or the creative spark of the Universe. El’s character in the show depicts this connection or potential as being extremely potent, yet also highly sensitive, compassionate, and innocent (despite the nightmare her entire life has been). The show focuses on Eleven’s powers as a result of genre-hugging mad science, but it also implies that this is a universal potential Dr. Brenner et al. were simply forcing to develop. Other characters, particularly Joyce, are shown tapping into psychic connections as well.
The Divine Union – “I’m the only one acting normal here! I’m the only one who cares about Will!”
Another theme that arises as an explicit sticking point in the story is the importance of care (or lack thereof). For instance, Mike’s father’s obvious lie “That is so unfair son. We care.” causes Mike and his mother to leave the dinner table in disgust. Steve finally tells off his douchey friends because Nancy “actually cares about other people.”
Hmm, Care and Will. Do I detect an indication of the Divine Union here? Heart and Action, Mercy and Severity, Feminine and Masculine. I think, in fact, the basic idea of divine synthesis of these forces is a core theme of the entire show. This is part of what’s illustrated in the Qabbalistic Tree of Life, where the left-hand Path of Severity and the right-hand Path of Mercy are integrated in the Path of Mildness, which connects the lowest Sephirah (divine sphere) to the highest in the tree.
The easiest way to see this in play is to compare and contrast various characters.
Joyce Byers & Chief Hopper
Our grown-up heroes epitomize the proper elevation and integration of these forces. Joyce is a powerhouse of motherly care. She doesn’t need anything external to tell what’s happening with her son because she feels him “in my heart”. Chief Hopper is the only grown man in town willing to take any significant action to find Will and uncover the larger mysteries. While Joyce is busy busting down the doors of perception (NO TRESSPASSING), listening to the lights, and making a giant Ouija board, Hopper is taking a more analytical approach and breaking through the physical doors government players are using to hide the truth. So, Joyce represents the divine feminine and Hopper represents the divine masculine. The cover photo for the show solidifies this notion with these two characters flanking Will and Eleven, and further contrasted with the red and blue backgrounds.
But, of course, the ultimate idea of the Divine Union is to integrate these polarities within oneself, and Joyce and Hopper also illustrate this. Joyce emphatically does not care how crazy she seems to anybody else, won’t let anyone stand in her way, and finds the courage to face terrors despite her anxiety. Hopper epitomizes action, but his drive is informed by care for his own daughter, whom he couldn’t save, and he’s the only one willing to give credence to Joyce’s motherly intuition.
Dr. Brenner & Lonnie Byers
Dr. Brenner illustrates the elevation of lower, egoic will, with a distinct absence of care. Brenner is completely calm and collected, but also ice cold. If Brenner has some real scientific brilliance, we never see it on display. His power seems to lie solely in his Saruman-like ability to manipulate with his voice (hey, he’s even got the white hair!). He’s selling a false projection of care, which is how he mentally enslaves Eleven – through the natural child’s desire for love and attachment.
On my first viewing, I thought Lonnie’s character was just obnoxious and not really important to the story. Upon reflection though, I see he’s being used to illustrate parallels between the world of Hawkins Lab and the wider world. Lonnie is like the “ordinary Joe” version of Dr. Brenner. He is similarly affecting a false projection of care, while actually being an eminently slimy narcissist. Fortunately for his family, they had long ago seen through his BS. In this light, it’s easy to see why Joyce immediately rebukes Dr. Brenner’s attempts to manipulate her.
Lonnie also demonstrates another parallel of killing as a rite of passage. Johnathon relates how, when he was a boy, his father took him on a hunting trip and pushed him into killing a rabbit as some sort of experience in manhood, even though it tore him up inside. Similarly, when Eleven is unwilling to follow “Papa’s” order to kill a cat with her telekinesis this is cause for another isolation punishment. Only after she proves her worth by killing two guards in distress does he embrace her once again.
Karen Wheeler – “I want you to feel that you can talk to me”
Karen, Mike and Nancy’s mom, certainly demonstrates true care. She provides much-needed emotional support for her children and Joyce, but in terms of the larger action, hugs and casserole are about all the help she can provide. I see her failing not so much as a lack of willpower or action per se, but of a thirst for truth. She wants people to feel they can be honest with her, but everyone seems to intuitively grasp that she wouldn’t be able to handle the real truth. Karen settles for assumptions about what’s really happening and is unwilling to push people out of their comfort zones, particularly herself. She offers no real argument to the inane soothings of her idiot husband, who poo-poos any suggestion of something unexpected happening, and believes the government agents are on their side simply because they’re the government. She’s creeped out by Dr. Brenner, but he nonetheless plays her as smoothly as he coifs his hair.
Nancy & Steve – “You do realize you’re a walking cliche, don’t you?”
The story of Nancy and Steve so far is that of people who genuinely care deep down, but don’t really know it until their own failures in this regard push them to grow. The almost absurdly rectilinear decor of Steve’s room reinforces what’s already apparent: that his “suave Bad Boy” persona is nothing but a front, and he’s actually a deeply programmed square playing out masculine fantasies fed through popular culture. Nancy is also playing into these fantasies, seen here imitating the bikini model poster on his wall. Their pale, physical imitation of the Divine Union immediately leaves a bad taste in Nancy’s mouth, while Steve needs to go through a bit more pain to catch on. In the stereotypical Slasher formula, creeps and teenagers who have meaningless sex get instant karma at the hands of the monster, but here there’s a chance for growth. I guess only time will tell whether Steve continues down this path or falls back into jealousy and domination…
Courage and Big Cats
Time and again, Stranger Things hammers on the necessity of courage to really affect positive change or find the truth. One of my favorite moments is when Joyce first sees the Thing in the Wall and runs out to her car to flee. In a delicious twist of our horror movie expectations, as “Should I Stay Or Should I Go” blares, she turns off the engine and walks right back into the house, alone – right back into the storm of poltergeist activity.
I’m not sure if there’s any deeper significance, but big cats are on display as an emblem in several key scenes relating to courage.
- A tiger poster in the background as Mike radios Lucas to convince him they need to go searching for Will themselves. “Will could have cast Protection last night, but he didn’t. He cast Fireball. […] My point is he could have played it safe, but he didn’t. He put himself in danger to help the party.”
- An American flag mural with a tiger face (the school mascot) in the background as Nancy and Johnathon decide to return to their plan to lure the monster and kill it in order to protect Joyce and Hopper.
- A stuffed lion, one of the only comforts in Eleven’s cell. It’s interesting hers is a lion when all the others are tigers. The lion is one of the animals Nancy compares the monster to, so perhaps this is hinting at something about Eleven’s relationship to it. Or perhaps a comparison of her situation in the lab to Daniel in the lion’s den?
- A stuffed tiger in Will’s castle. An emblem of the courage he needs to survive his ordeal in The Upside Down?
- A stuffed tiger in the hospital bed of Hopper’s terminally ill daughter. A cut from the last image is used to make the parallel for Hopper clear. A reminder of the harsh truth that, though courage is necessary for success, it doesn’t guarantee it.
So, what do we see allegorically through the show? That courage is the real expression of the Divine Union. Courage is the fulcrum point where care lifts up the ferocity of the lower, animal will and puts it in service to the Higher Will. Will, the boy, is only recovered because of those who are willing to strike out of their comfort zones, both mental and physical, and place themselves in danger simply because they know it’s the right thing to do. Will, that which crowns consciousness and connects it with the Unity principle, isn’t what brings about right action. It is realized through right action.
A final note on courage: For most of the show, El is too terrified to face the Demogorgon and actively avoids it. It’s only after she experiences true friendship and compassion with the boys, and then their lives are threatened, that she finds the resolve to fight it. Once she awakens her courage, we see that the monster never even stood a chance against her power. More than kill it in a biological sense, she seems to banish it (and herself?) from existence.
The Beast System
There are a number of clues to indicate that Eleven’s relationship to the Demogorgon was more than just contact – that somehow it was actually created from or through her. I wonder if this faceless, bloodthirsty monster is her own awareness of the system she was imprisoned in made flesh. She could have seen a lot through unsanctioned or unconscious remote viewing, after all. I think the leading zero on her ID tattoo is telling. This implies that the architects of this project were planning to potentially abduct and torture hundreds of children, if they haven’t already. When Dr. Brenner is interrogating Joyce, he repeats the number of the creature’s victims three times, “6…6…6”. Brenner, of course, doesn’t actually care about any of them. He’s a representative of the beastly apparatus that stalks in the darkness and gobbles up children all on its own. Note, when Eleven crushes the Coke can Brenner doesn’t break into a full smile until she notices her nose is bleeding.
I love how the creators of Stranger Things made the lab a Department of Energy facility. The DoE is indeed a major player in covert projects yet, unlike the CIA or NSA, rarely has the villain finger pointed at it. It suggests another level of interpretation as well – that the real motives of the shadow elite involve controlling or feeding on human energy. The Archon concept, if you will.
I would feel like this is a stretch of bias if not for the “Hawkins Power And Light” vans they use to operate covertly around town. Let’s be real. There’s no chance that Dr. Brenner and the system he represents are actually interested in Eleven’s abilities and The Upside Down just to fight the Soviets. No, their interest is in holding a monopoly on information, both ordinary intelligence and true knowledge about human consciousness and the nature of reality. Their goal is to hold worldly power and the light of wisdom.
Yet, Hawkins Lab is only one part of the formula that outputs evil and suffering. The show has a lot to tell us about the ugliness in the town as well. Everybody just assumes the lab is working on something related to fighting the Commies (“Space lasers” or something) and hardly gives it a thought. Even after Hopper points out that the people at the lab were clearly lying to them, his dopey underlings either don’t care or don’t have enough imagination to think it could be significant.
We find cruelty out in Hawkins too. After all, the men and women who are willing to work as muscle, domestic spies, torture orderlies, and clean-up crews all had to grow up somewhere at some time. The adolescent bullies who torment our young heroes seem like good candidates once they get older and settle down some (racist, homophobic, and ablist – their parents must be so proud).
The show demonstrates that the evil of Hawkins Lab, as extraordinary as it is, couldn’t exist if not for the ordinary evil and ignorance of society at large. Which leads me to,
Just What The Hell Is “The Upside Down”? …no pun intended.
Well, a dark, alternate dimension, okay. But it certainly doesn’t obey physical laws in the way you’d expect some material reflection of ordinary reality to. We see all the buildings, trees, and various objects of… The Rightside Up, but no corresponding reflections of animal life. When someone moves a car in The Rightside Up, does the ghost car version drive itself in The Upside Down? If so, we didn’t get to see. Furthermore, the Demogorgon rips through walls to enter our dimension, yet when it departs there’s no evidence of damage. Clearly, this dimension is more mental or psychic than tangible.
The other strange thing is how organic it is. Looking at the “snow” it seems to me that it has a lot more in common with marine snow than the chilly variety. I get the impression that, if our experience of the world is at the sunlit ocean surface, The Upside Down is the abyssal plain. Here is where old, submerged thought forms have settled into some sort of ground state. So, the realm of the collective unconscious or collective Shadow. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be an evil place by its nature, but the actions and spiritual state of humanity have been raining down all sorts of nasty detritus, and strange organisms are flourishing in it. Whatever this gooey, webbed and tendriled entity/ies is, it seems to have colonizing ambitions…
One thing is for certain: all is still not well.
I’ll leave it there for now, although I may write additional posts as ideas take form. Please, chime in! Honestly, I’m still a pretty low-level Wizard myself, but boy am I working on getting that XP =P