The horror genre is all too often a canvas for graphic depictions of evil with no redeeming qualities. But the horror-influenced Netflix original Stranger Things uses those frightening elements to a greater purpose. Few stories with these elements use them to such great effect, in a way that makes it not only a fantastic story, but also in a way that, implicitly, leads us closer to a Christian worldview.
At face value, there’s not a whole lot about Stranger Things that’s terribly original. A kid goes missing in a small town, the mom thinks it’s a monster and everyone thinks she’s crazy, but then the investigation eventually reveals the supernatural. But when Will Byers goes missing, who is in and of himself an image of innocence and goodness, a greater battle of good versus evil is revealed, in a way that provides several spiritual correlations.
These correlations really start with four middle-school kids – Will, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas. They’re very close friends who also happen to be nerds, which, of course, means that they play Dungeons and Dragons on a regular basis. In the opening scene of the first episode, the adventurers come up against the presence of absolute evil – the demigorgon, an evil two-headed beast that becomes a symbol for the unknown monster throughout the series. Will, in a foreshadowing of sorts, casts an attack rather than a protection spell – and fails.
It’s the game. But those parallels – of the courageous “Fellowship” against an evil monster, persist throughout the show. Eventually a new traveler shows up – El (short for Eleven), a girl who’s been treated like a lab rat and has superpowers. But, despite being mistreated and abused her entire life, she really just wants to do good, and joins in the search for Will, even though it would be in her best interests to keep running. In a way, she takes Will’s place as the image of innocence for the series, but as an innocence that has power, as well, and a power that she uses for good. There is some violence and bloodshed that accompanies her gifts, but they’re always used in self-defense or the defense of others. There are no grueling moral dilemmas (unless you count stealing to avoid starvation) and no tendencies to anti-heroism or even what we would call vigilantism. Eleven is wholly good and wholly sacrificial.
But the Christian worldview isn’t only about the good triumphing over the bad; it’s also about us, and how we need redeemed. In Stranger Things, we can find a redeemed character of sorts in Hopper. There’s no long list of sins he needs atoned for (or at least not explicitly), but he is certainly a character in need of it. Hopper is the apathetic chief of police who is inclined to brush Will’s mother off as paranoid, but, throughout the course of the investigation, becomes drawn in and comes to really care about finding the boy and caring for his family. The performance here by David Harbour is stellar, and while aspects of his morality, including the fact that he sleeps around, are far less than perfect, the core of his story does express that aspect of the Christian worldview, that we sometimes need woken up to the battle of good versus evil. While Hopper is not in the strictest terms a good model for Christian behavior, he and his character arc is a good example of that general image of change, and the process of starting to care about people.
Hopper is probably my personal favorite cast member. But in terms of worldview, I really find Joyce’s story the most compelling. Joyce is Will’s mother, and after he disappears, she sees some really strange things. At first she writes them off as stress (as do the people around her), but over time, and with persistent investigation, she finds that the supernatural must be involved – her son is trying to speak to her. But this isn’t done blindly. She investigates. She tests things. And when the lights respond in an apparently intelligent manner, and she’s there to see it, the conclusion becomes inevitable.
There are two things I love about this. First, this is a direct tie to apologetics, with something we commonly call the Argument from Design. Because the world around her is reacting in a way that shares features with intelligence and design, she can reasonably conclude that there’s a designer behind them. This is not too far removed from conclusions Christian apologists make from the design of, for example, DNA structure or the fine-tuning of the universe. Conclusions that include the supernatural, when examined with evidence, can be reasonable conclusions.
The second thing I like about this is that while her craziness is apparent to those around her, she never actually dives off of the deep end. She does become obsessed (who wouldn’t if your child was missing?) but she constantly acknowledges “I know this sounds crazy” and refrains from adopting outlandish theories. She just knows what she sees. The viewers all know that even though Joyce sounds crazy, she’s actually right. If these parallels are drawn, there’s a direct application to Christians – you can say supernatural conclusions are crazy, but is there evidence?
All of these items are very positive impacts this show can have in culture. But isn’t all positive. In this show, my complaints are few. But of my few complaints, most of them are about or connected to Nancy, Mike’s sister. Her character arc is mostly unnecessary and an item of plot convenience, especially when it comes to her relationship with Steve. It’s a trite and cliche story about a suburban girl who loves a popular party boy, and all of the drama that ensues related to that gives this otherwise stellar show a drab CW-like teenage flair. With one or two choice exceptions, it doesn’t suit the overall tone of the show well. Her arch also introduces a “PG-13” sex scene, which is even more annoying because of the way it’s filmed – it is interspersed over the end of episode 2 and the beginning of 3, and cut together with a scene of one of the characters fleeing the monster. That’s only tonally conflicting, but is also an irritation for those who want to watch the show without the sex.
Thankfully, however, that’s the only time (aside from the aforementioned scene with Hopper) that this kind of content is employed in the show. The only other concerning content is the language – most of which comes from kids (Dustin and Lucas in particular). It’s not an usual amount for teens and preteens of this age in real-life, but could be troubling for families.
But here’s the thing. I wouldn’t treat this as a family show. Even if it weren’t for occasional sexual content and the language, I still wouldn’t just because of the consistently dark tone and frightening elements. But with that stated, it still comes out on top as a series endorsing a worldview that is almost inescapably Christian, even if implicitly so.