Stranger Things: Mental Health and Bullying
There is no doubt that the Duffer Brothers have mastered the art of horror and the supernatural; drawing upon everything from Goonies to Nightmare on Elm Street there is no shortage of terrifying villains and monsters in the Stranger Things universe. The hit Netflix show has also always been brilliant at tackling the teenage experience whether that takes the form of Dungeons and Dragons gatherings or high school parties. Hailed the darkest season yet, Season 4 of Stranger Things has been all anyone can talk about since the release of ‘Volume One’ on May 27th of this year. Season 4 went above and beyond with gore, quirky new characters and 80s pop culture references but it also managed to make some profound points about human nature and who the real monsters might be.
This season’s villain, Vecna’s modus operande took the form of mental torture; forcing fragile teens to relive their darkest moments before killing them. This allowed for some profound exploration of teen mental health in a subtle and exhilarating way and it’s certainly no coincidence that three of Vecna’s four victims were seeing the school counsellor.
Vecna traps his victims in a hellscape of their own creation with all exits literally boarded shut, a harrowing yet symbolic image of what mental ill-health and being trapped in your own head can feel like.
Vecna’s first victim, Chrissy, begins the show as a beautiful cheerleader dating the most popular jock in school. However, is is then revealed that what her adoring classmates don’t realise is the immense pain Chrissy is experiencing daily. The details of Chrissy’s personal life aren’t explored extensively but it is suggested that her family life is difficult and her self-esteem is plummeting. These are presented in the form of truly terrifying visions of her maimed parents and criticisms from her mother echoing around her.
The secretly depressed cheerleader may be something of a cliche but in this case it feels truthful and it is treated with care. Chrissy is instantly easy to sympathise with and her subsequent death is truly heart-breaking.
Another example of Vecna’s emotional manipulation is in Fred, Nancy’s bespectacled assistant’s death. Fred is targeted because of a car crash that was his fault, his guilt and shame taking the form of Vecna to torture him. In both of these cases, emotions and trauma take physical forms, forcing the victims to face their demons head on.
In Max’s case, Vecna played on her guilt regarding the death of her brother, Billy forcing her to confront him and the moment of his demise over and over again. Max however, is able to confront Vecna and survive his first attack using the power of friendship (and Kate Bush) to anchor her in reality.
Stranger Things has always pushed the “power of friendship” message but in this scenario in particular it makes a deeply important point about the strength of teen friendships and how support networks are saving graces in our darkest times. To support this, Science Direct states that social withdrawal is a common coping strategy for those contemplating suicide which only solidifies the idea that having trusted loved ones surrounding you can be a lifesaver. There is certainly something to be read into in the fact that Chrissy and Fred, who don’t seem to have true friends don’t make it and Max who has brave and kind people surrounding her, does.
The use of soundtrack has also always been one of the show’s strengths and this season was no exception. Kate Bush’s ‘Running up That Hill’ is exquisitely used as Max’s anthem and as something which tethers her to her friends and the real world when Vecna invades her mind. Once again, this feels appropriate for a show so dedicated to chronicling the teen experience as music is one of those things that is so important during adolescence in particular.
This season also saw an exploration of bullying and it’s consequences in Eleven’s experience in a Californian high school as well as the jocks’ war on ‘Hellfire Club’.
Season 4 sees Will and Eleven separated from the Hawkins gang having relocated to Lenora Hills, California. Contrary to what her letters to Mike say, Eleven has a horrible time of it at school. The head mean girl, Angela brutally teases and mocks Eleven, calling her out in front of the class, filming her humiliation and throwing a milkshake on her.
Despite the lack of visual horror, the bullying scenes in this season are, in some ways, scarier than the more “horror” based Vecna scenes and it would be difficult to find someone whose heart doesn’t go out to Eleven. After watching this season it cannot be denied that the cruelty of insecure teenagers is a truly terrifying concept and it could even be argued that Angela is as much of a villain as Vecna, their methods are even similar – using people’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities to torture them.
Back in Hawkins, we see a classic conflict; the jocks vs the nerds. Chrissy’s grieving jock boyfriend, Jason and his possy of basketballers take on the innocent D&D club ‘Hellfire’ which is comprised of, among others, Mike, Dustin and newcomer to the show, Eddie ‘The Freak’ Munson. Inspired by the very real ‘Satanic Panic’ which swept the 80s, the series sees Jason wage war on ‘Hellfire’ after Eddie is suspected of murdering Chrissy in a satanic ritual. Jason convinces the frightened townspeople that the club is a cult which is murdering teens for their devil worship and manages to assemble a threatening mob of locals.
Once again, it could be argued that Jason and his jocks are as villainous as Vecna forcing the show’s heroes to combat not only a supernatural creature from the Upside-Down but also high-school bullies. The challenges of everyday teen life seem to never be very far away in this show despite the out-of-this-world occurrences.
In a similar vein, by examining Will and Henry Creel (Vecna’s) storylines this season it could also be seen that society itself is a central antagonist or evil force.
The character of Will took a bit of a backseat this season which was a shame as Noah Schnapp’s performances never fail to amaze. Since Season 1, there has been speculation around Will’s sexuality and many have seen his profound speech to Mike and subsequently to Jonathon in this season as confirmation of this. Of course, nothing has been confirmed by the Duffers or any other authority on the show but there is certainly evidence to back up these fan theories as Will frequently references his “being different” and status as an outsider.
Once again, the show presents how society alienates those that don’t fit like Eddie, Eleven and Will. Maybe this is the Duffers showing us what happens if we do reject these people as it has been revealed that Will will once again have to face the terrors of the Upside-Down next season.
Vecna is the first Stranger Things villain to have a backstory: as the son of Victor Creel he was a strange child, an outcast obsessed with spiders and killing rodents. Through his societal alienation Henry discovered his power to enter the minds of and kill creatures such as rabbits. His anger grew and grew until all of this rejection ultimately culminated in the murder of his parents and sister and, later on, his transformation into Vecna. Not only did this make for a magnificent twist but it is yet another message about tolerance and acceptance. For example, if Henry Creel had been loved and nurtured would he have become Vecna?
So, Stranger Things Season Four has certainly wowed audiences and critics alike not only in its quality of acting, use of soundtrack and nostalgia but in its maturation and darkening. The show is growing up alongside its actors and each season seems to pile on to the previous, improving and developing every step of the way.
The Duffers stated that they didn’t want to abandon anything that happened in previous seasons and wanted to recognise the profound trauma these teenagers have experienced. In doing so, the characters feel even more realistic and vulnerable this season and their experiences feel more universal and emotional.
Vecna certainly made for a chill-inducing villain but in many ways, the humans of the story like Angela and Jason are crueller. Vecna’s method of murder also foregrounds some highly relevant and important points about teen mental health and the amalgamation of epic action sequences and profound social commentary was truly outstanding this season. It may seem ridiculous to take moral messages from a Netflix TV show but in many ways, Stranger Things teaches us that tolerance and acceptance goes a long way and a lack of such things has terrible consequences.
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