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  • Writer's pictureKaya Long

ZOMBIE BOY: Stranger Things’ Exploration of Trauma via Nostalgia

The opening credits for Stranger Things has become nothing short of iconic and may very well give fans nostalgia long into the future. But viewers don’t have to wait for a throwback. Not only does Stranger Things take place in the '80s, but the show also takes inspiration from the classic cinematography of that era as well– a decade notoriously known as an iconic, fun-packed sliver of time that seemingly everyone either reminisces about, or wishes they could experience, even just for a day. The familiar appeal of the vibrant retro colors of the '80s, iconic songs from that decade such as “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, and David Bowie’s “Heroes,” along with the low lighting illuminating the characters, work in tandem to evoke a feeling of comfort within the viewer, while unearthing the dark subtext of a child grappling with trauma– a timeless struggle with reverberating consequences.

After a debut season with Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven center stage, her season 2 storyline sharply diverges from the quaint rural town of Hawkins, a place the audience has found a peculiar comfort in despite its uncanny nature. The protagonist instead leaves Indiana behind as she navigates the vast city of Chicago– a place seemingly beyond Hawkins’ supernatural extremity. Meanwhile in Hawkins, while Eleven seeks closure by avenging the childhood and mother she was robbed of, all eyes are on Will.

Will Byers (played by Noah Schnapp) is just a young boy, recently rescued from an alternate dimension known as the Upside Down– an abandoned and twisted version of Hawkins festering with evil and pulsating with terror. Despite Will’s best attempts to integrate himself back into his life, he can’t make his way down the school halls without being heckled and disparagingly labeled as “Zombie Boy.”Around Hawkins he is notoriously known as the “Boy Who came back from the Dead” (“Madmax” 14:54).

The show shines light on the dark reality of not only how trauma affects a child, but it gives the viewer a glimpse of how their trauma might appear to someone peering in from the outside, and how often that trauma doesn’t appear at all. In the pilot of the series Will is playing D&D with his friends and riding his bike through the suburbs one moment, and in a flicker of a lightbulb, he is gone. No one knows where he is or how to help him. Many of the adults meandering in and out of the picture give up on him entirely. Then there’s his mother, Joyce Byers (played by Winona Ryder), who says “I will keep these lights up until the day I die if I think there’s a chance that Will’s still out there” (“The Flea and the Acrobat” 29:06). He is, for the record, but every waking hour Will spends withering away in the Upside Down, trapped, helpless, and unable to save himself, the more perpetual his terror becomes.

The stark shift from Will having next to no screen time in season 1, to being the center of the storyline in season 2, goes to show how when a child is actively in a traumatizing situation, their suffering often goes unnoticed by the people around them, even those that care. Will’s friends and family only “see” him and the trauma he has endured after the fact, and even then, it is only through the ways trauma has changed him. They hover over him and “treat [him] like [he’s] gonna break,” but the damage has already been done (“Madmax” 32:02). Their paternalistic response is too little too late, and only makes him “feel like more of a freak” (“Madmax” 32:08). The changed dynamic between Will and his loved ones reveals how trauma instills a nagging sense of displacement and not belonging in the world above the darkness lurking beneath.

Ever since Will came home “he hasn’t been himself,” as noted by his older brother Jonathan Byers (played by Charlie Heaton). Though he was rescued, his trauma in the Upside Down quite literally turns his world upside down long after he returns. He becomes a hollow, barely identifiable outline of himself. This trauma extends past the Upside Down that only Will can see, and plants itself beneath the surface of the world above, threatening its structural integrity and uprooting the place Will used to call home. It manifests as a vast and expansive network of roots and tunnels, a presence that is incomprehensible, but undeniably intrusive.

In the aftermath of Will's trauma, he finds himself helplessly trapped in the endless cycle of reliving his trauma again and again– alone. The doctor concludes with confidence that he is just having “episodes” particularly heightened as a result of the “anniversary effect” opening “neurological floodgates” in his mind (“Madmax” 26:40). But Will’s flashbacks aren’t flashbacks at all. When he strays from his group of friends he is seemingly blipped into the Upside Down with no warning, a phenomenon Will refers to as “now memories.” His friends and family may not be able to see what he sees, but they can see the terror plastered on his face when he returns. Will can’t even deduce what he is experiencing himself. His trauma blurs the lines of reality, tangling them in a daunting mass of knots until it is impossible to distinguish what is real and what is a figment of his imagination.

The monster that terrorizes him manifests as an ominous dark shadow that follows Will everywhere– except it is not his own. Although this shadow monster literally resides in the Upside Down, the fabric of Will’s once ordinarily familiar world provides no protection for him. In the blink of an eye, just like the flicker of the light bulb where his trauma began, Will constantly finds himself back in the world he was rescued from – on a daily basis. He has no control, not over this physical manifestation of his trauma, not over his terror, and after he becomes a host, merely a slave of the shadow monster, he doesn't even have control over himself. Worse of all, he is unable to articulate how he feels to those who want to help him, but he “feel[s] it everywhere” and “just want[s] it to go away” (Will the Wise 4:50). He must revert to drawing to communicate his internal turmoil, but as the frantic scribbles flutter to the ground they mean nothing to those around him. Even after they connect the pieces, and Bob Newby (Joyce’s boyfriend, played by Sean Astin) realizes that “it’s not a puzzle, it’s a map,” Will’s friends and family find themselves standing at the heart of the emptied living room overwhelmed by an expansive network of tunnels surrounding them. They look small and insignificant in comparison to the vast jumble of roots sporadically intertwined– an incomprehensible map of Will’s trauma. Unlike a puzzle, it is not enough for them to simply put the pieces together. Approaching trauma from an outsider perspective entails reading and contextualizing the bits and pieces of information given, even if the signs given are seemingly too convoluted to make sense of, and even if there is no clear starting point, the destination is unknown, and there is no end in sight.

Aside from exploring how the nature of trauma makes it difficult to interpret what is going on, the show goes a step further to reveal the ways in which the source of a child’s trauma is often covered up either by the child who is under the influence of their trauma, or by someone else with something at stake. The doctors at Hawkins National Laboratory for example constantly dismiss Joyce’s concerns about Will and assure her that although “It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” it is best to “Just let him lead the way” (Madmax 26:19 and 27:02). Meanwhile, the lab attempts to combat the ways the Upside Down has literally plagued the soil of the surrounding area, cutting off a lifeline of nutrients for life above. As a host of the shadow monster, when the lab burns what’s been “growing beneath [them] like some cancer” this literally hurts Will too (“The Spy” 14:37). In fact, it immediately puts him in an unbearable amount of excruciating pain coming from everywhere at once. This symbolizes how the senseless suppression of the manifestations of trauma, regardless of intent, is extremely damaging and often exacerbates the consequences. Instead of looking at the situation for what it is and identifying the source, the people from the lab see the problem as a “mistake” that they “can’t seem to erase,” but they “can stop it from spreading” (“Will the Wise” 27:40). It is a poisonous garden and their temporary reactive measures are equivalent to “pulling weeds.” (“Will the Wise” 27:46). But that’s the thing with weeds: they always grow back.

In its own unique way, Stranger Things takes inspiration from the defining qualities of '80s cinematography such as low light– a visual that provides a feeling of nostalgia for so many people, and deploys it as a way to emphasize how the perpetual mental turmoil caused by Will’s trauma claims what used to feel like home to him. Nostalgia and trauma both have the power to change one’s perception of reality. The nostalgia of the '80s that is exploited by the show fundamentally requires a hyperfixation on the “good,” and the ignorance of the bad that would otherwise interfere with this romanticized version of history. While the audience indulges in the comfort of familiarity, Will has been forever changed. The consequences of his trauma may reverberate throughout the rest of Will’s life, but echos fade, wounds heal, and trauma can eventually be overwhelmed by the “good” too.

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