Stranger Things: A Hidden Message
What is a 'mind flayer' if not the mental anguish we all experience as humans at one point or another in our lives? The Upside Down isn't the only secret world in Hawkins. Read on to discover the other hidden world inside the hit TV series.
The Hidden Message
Stranger Things is an engaging show and fun to watch, but it is deeper than just an 80's themed Netflix series about a group of teenagers exposing top secret government supernatural mysteries. When I watch Stranger Things, I see all of the comical banter and unrequited love stories and I love it. But I love this show even more for the other parts I see; the wildly creative commentary on mental health.
I remember when the first season aired. For those who haven't watched this show, The Upside Down is an unseen world the characters refer to and sometimes get sucked into. It is a world that has the same layout as their real world, but feels dark and eerie. This world is where various monsters have been forged who prey on the minds of people who live in the town. Years ago, As I watched Season 1, I immediately connected the confusing and scary world of The Upside Down to the experience of depression or panic attacks. While in a state of mental unwellness, your surroundings are familiar, but things can look fuzzy and feel frightening. Your friends and family are there calling out to help you, but you can't quite grasp onto the life boat they have sent for you. When scary moments happen, some people even experience a phenomenon called disassociation. This can manifest in various ways, but people often describe this state as "feeling not real" or feeling as if they are watching themselves from a distance. Disassociation is actually a really brilliant safety mechanism our brain can activate when the world overloads us with a traumatic experience or overwhelming emotions. It helps by activating a numbing or "unreal" perception of the actual events to protect our brain from fully experiencing the depth of the difficulty we are encountering. While this can be effective in some ways, it can also be alarming and make someone feel as if their world is upside down.
Trauma and Mental Health
As the seasons continued, I always looked forward to spotting the ways in which the story connected to mental health. In my observations, the most recent season, highlights the darkness that people face when they suffer with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This mental affliction is often associated with Veterans who have suffered through unspeakable horrors of war. My prayers and thanks go out to all those who have served this great country. But PTSD is not just reserved for people who serve in the military. Trauma does not discriminate and can happen to anyone. Traumatic events leave an imprint on our mind, body, and soul that sometimes leads to a fragmented place of despair. Season 4 of Stranger Things has a monster named Vecna who searches out traumatized individuals to possess and suck the life from to grow stronger. How is Vecna able to possess their minds? Through their fragmented trauma memories. Each scene where an individual became captured by this monster is an incredible visual depiction of what someone who suffers from PTSD may experience during a flashback. Every character who fell victim to Vecna had a trauma history that created feelings of guilt, anger, and anxiety. These characters were suffering from what I would describe as nightmares, panic attacks, and flashbacks of their past experience. Vecna almost appeared to be a manifestation of their triggered minds. Mental health conditions can manifest as physical realities for people that often make them feel scared or not worthy, as depicted by Vecna's narration to the characters.
I'm not sure if this was a purposeful part of the development of Stranger Things. If so, hats off to the writers and producers who were able to successfully and subliminally entwine some very important issues within a captivating show.
When Your World Turns Upside Down
We all have our own personal monsters that live within us. Unlike the masks we wear on Halloween to depict ghouls and ghosts, these monsters often go unseen, just like the world of The Upside Down. But monsters stemming from our own minds and realities do not have to prevail. The characters in Stranger Things always seem able to help their friends who have been plagued by these monsters and ultimately defeat these demons. How do they overcome these challenges, you may ask? The answer is simple. They do it TOGETHER. And therein lies one of the cornerstones of healing.. social support. Having people around you who love and support you can make all the difference during terrifying times. You can see the characters who suffer in Stranger Things find inner strength and utilize this, in combination with their loved ones to ultimately come out of their challenge stronger.
This is the most important part of the story to me. While entertaining, it may not be realistic to believe a group of teens could outsmart secret government scientists. But being their for each other; noticing when someone's world may feel upside down even if their not able to tell you themselves and finding a way to be with them through that difficult moment... this is entirely realistic, and something we could all start doing today.