«Stranger things» and the charming denial of the shadow

(May 2021) – By Jada Sirkin
Translation by Jada Sirkin & Dama David
NOTE: in Spanish, the word “encantador” refers both to “charming” and “enchanting”. During the text we chose to use both words.


As we can see, the horror tradition is one of the oldest and most enduring film genres. That this is so should come as no surprise to anyone with even a minimal knowledge of the life of the Western imagination, for among the oldest and most persistent stories in our cultural heritage, and perhaps in the heritage of the human subconscious, are terrifying tales. Indeed, a psychic history of culture could be written very effectively from the point of view of the morphology of its monsters, the history of those personifications of emptiness that successive generations have chosen as basic nightmares. (...) Each epoch chooses the monster it deserves and projects; and all of them are, in their horror, blood brothers. (...) The monster is, let us repeat, the force that men only face in the simplified world of the lagoon, the force that civilization prevents them from facing. To come face to face with the monster is to confront, in a preternaturally violent atmosphere, the full terror of maturity. (...) Horror cinema - which is always one or another variant of the most primitive of human myths, that of the hero and the dragon - is really a myth of the origins of civilization (the defeat of the dragon is the archetypal creation of human order and the overcoming of chaos).
Frank D. McDonnell, The spoken seen: film and the romantic imagination


Not that this is a sensitivity contest, but Dustin is perhaps the most sensitive character in "Stranger things". At least, he is the one who grows fond of the baby demagorgon; he is also the one who shows us that demagorgons, beyond their voracity, can love... and to love would only be, here, not to devour —at least, to delay the feast and let the heroes fulfill their narrative mission as heroes.

Demagorgons have no face, they are just mouth, a mouth that opens like a hungry flower. They are a kind of carnivorous plant with a human-like body; but they are not human, they are their shadow! The dehumanized human, the human gone monster. How can they not devour everything if they were so repressed in the shadow? They have no face! How can they not devour everything if they are the incarnation of that rejected part of us that makes the face, perhaps the most human thing in the human body, become a pure mouth? The face, that which identifies us, is, on its B side, the pit of death. The demagorgon is the voracious side of the human. Had we the sensitivity that Dustin has to love the monster, maybe the monster wouldn't be such a monster —but, if the monster wasn't such a monster, there would be no story.

I get that this is a genre series and that it plays with vintage aesthetics and explicit awareness of being an '80s-type horror series, but, still, we can ask the question: are we still about good and evil?


In more or less updated forms, as charming as the period costumes, role-playing, lab stories and Winona Ryder's nerves (and love) are, what we have here is one of those narratives where good is pitted against monstrous evil. The monstrosity of side B is proportional to the attempt side A makes to hide it —to deny it. The more charming side A seems, the more naive the mothers of the family are (delightful Cara Buono in the role of that naive mother who never finds out anything about what is happening on the other side), the more monstrous side B reveals itself —even if it was an urban myth, they used to say that Xuxa's cassettes, when they were turned over, or played backwards, contained diabolical messages. The cassettes could be recorded on both sides; and to forward one was to reverse the other. With the advent of CD and DVD, the tapes could no longer be turned over. Maybe that's why we need to go back to the 80s —to find the world turned upside down.

Has the world turned upside down in the 1980s? What happened in the 1980s?, asks the child narrator to his father in Sam Shepard's short story "Berlin Wall Piece". Singer Marvin Gaye was murdered —by his father! (a reverend!!!) in 1984, the year in which the first part of the series is set. And the Berlin Wall fell —the wall, that wound that expressed the division of the world into two warring forces. What is a wound but a division —the manifestation of a polarization/enemity, the expression of an unrepairable separation? Ken Wilber says that every dividing line is a potential battlefield. You only fight where there is division, you only fight where there is a wound. You only fight where there is good and evil —the wound is the division between light and dark. But that which divides can also be that which communicates. Is the wound a portal?

The psychic effect of the Cold War (or the psychic weight of what the Cold War expressed) was (and is) such that the Russians are still the evil ones. We need bad guys. Even 30 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the polarization is still active and, in order to justify it rationally, here we turn back in time. In "Get Smart", Western Control was threatened by the bad guys of Kaos. The other side is always perceived as chaos —an intolerable force because of its power to disorganize. That which disrupts rational order is demonized. Psychodelics played an important role in the disorganization or dismantling (at least the threat of dismantling) of a certain controlled image of Western culture. Apparently due to a series of experiments with LSD, a girl is born with strange powers. Scientists investigate her and make her enter that black zone that we could easily think of as the unconscious —we don't know whether hers or that of the whole of humanity. In the very bottom of one of her journeys, the little girl sees something that scares her too deeply; the scream is so powerful that opens up the wound between the unconscious and the conscious world.

Perhaps due to the lack of sensitivity and empathy of the scientists, perhaps due to lack of care, whatever, the wound was opened —and now, it's still open. Having tried so hard to keep its secretions under control, the pus of the unconscious bursts out. Closing (much less, covering) the wound does not imply that there is no longer a wound. The wound is there because the other side is still considered the upside-down (the world turned upside down). No one doubts that this enchanting world of charming children is side A and the other, dark and full of giant spiders and humanoids with carnivorous plant faces, is side B. But who says? Who says that that one is the upside-down and this one is the A-side?

"Stranger things" appears to be yet another in a long line of narratives about the struggle of light AGAINST shadow. This version of the shadow is powerful and intelligent —too sensitive. The demagorgons work with a huge telepathy, like spider cells-tentacles —all of them, one body. The children on this side are the ones in charge of matching that cooperative power. Why children? Perhaps children are the most capable (or the only capable) of the telepathic enterprise and networking. Only certain sensitive adults seem to have the capacity (the innocence?) enough to join in the coordinating enterprise. It is touching to see the kids joining forces, working as a team. The cause is the same as always: survival. And that's fine, it's moving to see us working for survival. The struggle of life against death (of light against darkness, of good against evil) is still enchanting to us. Why do I say "still"? Maybe it will always be that way! While other Netflix series are being discontinued, supposedly due to audience shortages, "Stranger things" continues to rack up seasons —it wants more, like the upside-down monster.

We get the series we deserve. Let's not blame Hollywood/Netflix for the incessant reproduction of enchanting and witty survival narratives. Popular culture is a feedback dialogue between consumption and production. You produce what you read and you read what you produce —and you produce what you read. Our archetypalized sensitivity call for archetypal narratives with easy-to-read forms that make us feel the things we know how to feel —and need or even have to feel. How can we not be moved when little Eleven gives her all at the end of the first season to close that dangerous, festering wound?

We must be moved! And that wound needs to be closed! Of course it does! The point is this: it's going to reopen. And it will do so for two reasons: because a closed wound does not stop being a wound (the repressed does not stop pulsating), and because a closed season is still an open series. We all know the narrative formula by which the small and innocent Will, some time after the restitution of order, shows us that something of that other world of shadows has remained on this side. Yes! The necessary promise to open season/wound 2! And 3 and 4 and...!

The problem (the bummer) of thinking all these things through is that the challenge is both psychic and commercial. Every commercial problem is a psychic problem. Thinking these things endangers both our psychic structures and our mercantile structures, which are nothing more than an expression of the psychic ones. The entertainment market feeds on our mental loops. Survival narrative sells and we buy because it is addictive. It is beautiful, it is charming, it is addictive. It reveals the addictiveness of our perceptual patterns that make side A (the face, the luminous identity) the only thing allowed, and side B (the hidden need, that fierce and wild hunger, fueled by rejection) what must and needs to be repressed, over and over again. As we already know, it is that very repression that sustains and feeds back the loop. The loop is sustained by the inability (or immaturity) of consciousness to notice and assume the difficulty of recognizing the repetitive way in which we refuse to encounter all that material stored on the other side of ourselves.

Is "Stranger Things" a parody of the horror productions of the 80s? Yes and no; let's say it is just enough to justify the existence of the repetition: a certain level of semi-parodic self-consciousness seems necessary for contemporary sensitivity/intelligence to accept going back to those (not so) old forms of spectacle. In that sense, the investment made in creating an aesthetic that clearly refers us to that not so old form becomes important. In fact, when the series came out, one of the things that were heard the most were these: the shared and agreed notion that it was a kind of remake-imitation of the horror aesthetics of the 80s. That plus (that weaving of cultural nods —"yeah, we know what we're doing, isn't it charming?") was perhaps necessary for us to give it the okay, to buy it.

"Stranger things" is not just a series, it became a social/cultural phenomenon that generated fanaticism and a lot of merchandising. Why? Its forms are charming (enchanting). The revival of vintage aesthetics seems to have in itself something very attractive, which surely has to do with the level of recognition it can generate in the viewer. Recognition generates complicity, yes, but why so much fanaticism? I wonder if fanaticism is not an exacerbated form of complicity, a way we have of deciding and confirming an adhesion to something with the secret objective of not looking at what is so vicious about that something, what are the hidden reasons for our need of adhesion. I suppose it is a complex (and perhaps not entirely planned) combination of elements that results in this massive phenomenon of hyper-adherence. Becoming very fanatical about something is a way of generating and confirming identity and belonging. In this sense "Stranger Things", like many other cultural forms, is like a club, a space of belonging.

Many so-called artistic experiences work this way, as meeting and consensus points, as tribes, as families. Tribal and family behavior is characterized by the precise definition of its shadow. The family is a necessary system of exclusions. It is not by chance that so many commercial narratives use the motif of the threat of the family world and the need for the tribe to cooperate to fight evil, the shadow, death. It is no accident that most of the most popular narrative works are structured around the polarization of good guys and bad guys. It is not by chance that tribal survival narratives are the best sellers. Be they Russians, be they faceless monsters, be they incomprehensible obscurities, be they shadow-corrupted parents, be they greedy wizards or greedy hobbits or deranged Nazis, the bad guys are necessary to sustain the polarization that makes the narrative a familiar, readable, recognizable, comfortable, safe structure.

The familiar narrative is functional to the survival of the physical and psychic form. Mass phenomena, idealizations, stellar and divine projections of pop culture icons, the deification of whomever, are, among other things, ways we modern humans find to feel part of a kind of religion. Worshipping the same person religate/reconnect us. At a basic level, religion (reunion) is possible insofar as it functions as a weaving of rejections. We come together narratively on the basis of what we agree to reject. There is nothing like rejection to join forces. There is nothing like speaking ill of someone to bring us together.

Now, to speak evil is to create evil. Would evil exist without the word that defines it? We need that evil to organize ourselves and survive, we need that evil to entertain ourselves. To entertain us is to hold us between —between hands: it is to hold an identity —a moral order. When we do not complain about something or someone, when we have no one to blame, the conversation easily enters a void —boredom and meaninglessness lurk. Complaint and gossip not only entertain us, they organize us. We organize and entertain ourselves by rejecting, denying our shadows, projecting them on the outside —or on the downside, or on the B-side.

Denying the shadow sells because what sells is the promise of more. We want to keep fighting. And to fight (to deny) is to promise future battles. To deny anything is a guarantee of a comeback —a reloaded. As in many genre-serial narrative experiences, what we buy is dissatisfaction itself. We buy because we know we will be able to buy more. We buy the promise of dissatisfaction. In order to dissatisfy us, the shadow has to be denied. If the shadow was understood and integrated, the struggle of light against darkness would be complete and the series would have nothing more to narrate. For the shadow not to be understood as the other inevitable and healthy side of light, the level of repression has to be maximum, so that the monstrosity (the request for light) acquires such dimensions that it is impossible for consciousness (the enlightened side) to embrace it.

Imagine what would happen if all the characters were like Dustin and embraced the little monsters. Yes, the possibility is unthinkable because most monsters are no longer so small —and the monster needs to be small in order to be loved. When the monstrosity grows beyond a tolerable threshold, love is necessarily denied by the luminous A-side identity. How to love a monster that has grown so much? Is it love too strong a word? Is it that we can change the verb to love for the verb to listen? If we cannot love it, at least listen to it? Yes, but, anyway, how can we listen to a monster that has grown that much? We don't know, let's don't know, there are no formulas, but let's watch again Deeyah Khan's "Meeting the enemy."

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