There are spoilers for the Netflix show “Stranger Things” in this post.
Be warned: this post is my own wonky interpretation of the show, based entirely on my subjective viewing of the show.
I am not arguing that what I am about to write is what the show is “really about” or that this interpretation will even enhance your viewing of the show in any meaningful way.
But anyways, here goes:
The world of “Stranger Things” is immersed in nostalgia. Everywhere, the viewer sees nostalgic images, hears nostalgic music, and is presented with scenes and plot devices that are themselves nostalgic, in that they mimic scenes from blockbuster movies like the original “Jurassic Park” (raptors = demidogs) or “The Exorcist” (when Will is possessed by The Mind Flayer) or many other such scenes.
To say that the show “Stranger Things” is immersed in nostalgia is an understatement.
But there is one recurring part of the show that is not nostalgic, that does not evoke warm, fuzzy feelings: “The Upside Down.”
The Upside Down is a parallel dimension where faceless monsters prowl around, looking for prey. The Upside Down is also inhabited (and possibly created) by a shadowy monster called The Mind Flayer who appears in visions over the sky of the town.
The Upside Down is just like Hawkins, Indiana (the show’s fictional middle class, midwestern setting), in that landmarks from Hawkins appear in The Upside Down, but they are all dilapidated, covered with dust, broken down and so on.
Here is my interpretation of what I have written about so far:
Hawkins, Indiana (as well as the California town in Season 4), as mentioned, is immersed in nostalgia.
When the various characters in the show enter The Upside Down, they are leaving this nostalgic bubble that they exist in.
Similarly, when viewers finish watching an episode of “Stranger Things,” they are leaving the nostalgic bubble that the show creates for them.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that I am a huge fan of the show. I am not trying to denigrate the show or its viewership by pointing this stuff out, I am just offering my wonky interpretation of the show.
Here it is, for real this time:
“The Mind Flayer,” the dark entity that kidnaps and later possesses Will Byers, is itself representative of the nostalgia that the show is immersed in.
And when characters from the show go into The Upside Down, they are leaving the nostalgic bubble and entering the world of the present day, in which all of the nostalgic elements of Hawkins, Indiana are long dead and gone.
(Madonna’s “This Used To Be My Playground” plays softly, inside your head.)
Nostalgia, in addition to giving us the warm and fuzzies, can also become an incredibly destructive force in our lives. When we as humans indulge in nostalgia, we deceive ourselves into thinking that “the good old days” – whenever they were for us as individuals – were actually better than the present day.
Here’s another spoiler for you: the good old days weren’t as idyllic as you remember them. Bad things happened then, too. People weren’t any more or less “good” back then, whenever “back then” was for you.
To be clear, hopefully: remembering “the good old days” can be a very positive thing, for a million different reasons.
But at the same time, it can very easily become a trap, in that it makes the present day seem like The Upside Down, where everything is old and used up and dilapidated.
If a person spends all their time immersed in nostalgia, it becomes more and more difficult to appreciate the positive aspects of life in the present day.
And this perspective-skewing (and highly addictive) manifestation of nostalgic thinking is what The Mind Flayer represents.
Think about it: in Season 2, as Will and his friends go trick or treating in their matching Ghostbusters outfits, with all kinds of nostalgic images and sounds bombarding the viewer, Will goes into a trance and finds himself in The Upside Down.
All the nostalgic Halloween-themed stuff is gone, and Will is left alone with the massive Mind Flayer, who is towering above him in the sky, with its various limbs dug into the ground.
Later, Will sees The Mind Flayer again and is possessed by it. And the way in which he is possessed is key: The Mind Flayer becomes a cloud of dust (or something) and enters Will through his eyes, ears, mouth, and nose.
Think about how we experience nostalgia: when we see something that reminds us of childhood, we feel warm and fuzzy. When we hear a song from years ago, memories can be triggered. When we taste or smell food we haven’t eaten in decades, our minds can involuntarily drift away to another time and place.
And no matter how great our lives are in the present day, when we awake from these momentary lapses into nostalgia, we as humans have the tendency to tell ourselves that “back then” was better than now, when that quite simply is not the case, in any meaningful sense.
Of course there are exceptions. For some people, the past may have been more pleasant.
But even then, too much nostalgia can make the present day seem worse than it is. What was can (and often does) blind us to what is.
And this negative aspect of nostalgia is what The Mind Flayer represents, in my interpretation.
In season 2, as mentioned, The Mind Flayer possesses Will Byers by turning into a cloud of dust (or smoke, or something like that) and going into his sense organs.
After the possession is over, in Season 3, Will’s friends have girlfriends, and they don’t want to play Dungeons and Dragons with him any more.
There is a painfully emotional scene in Season 3 where Will dresses up in his Will The Wise dungeon master outfit, and tries to get Mike and Lucas to engage in his Dungeons and Dragons campaign, one which he spent a lot of time preparing for them.
But Mike and Lucas are more concerned about a recent fight with their girlfriends. They mock Will’s game, and Will leaves.
Mike follows Will outside, and asks him, did you really think we would never get girlfriends and just play games for the rest of our lives?
And Will – who was possessed by The Mind Flayer, representing negative, backward-looking aspects of nostalgia – answers “Yeah, I guess I did.”
Watch the show if you haven’t, it’s pretty awesome. It’s a nostalgic thrill ride that will press psychological buttons you forgot you had.
But don’t get so involved in it that everything outside of your TV starts looking like The Upside Down.
Thanks for reading. 🙂