Stranger Things and Our Quest for the Extraordinary in the Ordinary
***This article contains spoilers for the first season of the Netflix series Stranger Things.***
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “strange” as “different from what is usual, normal, or expected.” The relatively new filmmakers the Duffer Brothers pulled off the unexpected by casting four middle-school-age boys as the central characters in an adult-targeted TV show. Television networks told the brothers it wouldn’t work unless they targeted the show at kids or made the two leading adult actors the main characters. They were rejected fifteen to twenty times, with one TV exec telling them, “You either gotta make it into a kids show or make it about this Hopper [detective] character investigating paranormal activity around town.” But the brothers were loyal to their own creative instincts. Matt Duffer responded by saying that if they were to follow this advice, “[t]hen we lose everything interesting about the show,” and they sought out instant streaming networks instead. The loyalty to the script for their horror/science fiction series, Stranger Things, paid off. According to Parrot Analytics, the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix summer hit was the most popular digital original series in the U.S. for the week of July 17 to 23. What TV execs perceived as strange in the Duffer Brothers choice of main characters became normal as the new Netflix series spread through Facebook and Twitter feeds.
There are unseen realities being made known to us, while we await the fullness of that knowledge.The decision to stick with the middle school boys as central characters for the show appeals to many viewers who can relate to a nostalgia for the ’80s of their childhood. Though the Duffer Brothers were technically ’90s kids, they absorbed many ’80s movies and exude this influence throughout the series. In a Rolling Stone article by Kory Grow, Matt Duffer is quoted as saying, “Once we decided that the Eighties would be the best time, we realized it would allow us to pay homage to all the things that inspired us most. Maybe we could catch a little bit of the feeling of Stephen King’s books and the Spielberg movies. We allowed all these influences to converge into the idea for the show.”
In Stranger Things, Spielberg’s E.T. and King’s Carrie come together in various elements: a boy hides a supernatural being; kids adventure around town on bicycles, Mike (Finn Wolfhard) and Elle (Millie Bobby Brown) have a relationship akin to E.T. and Elliot; and, like Carrie and her nosebleed-inducing telekinetic powers, Elle is trapped by a smothering adult. The show layers on pieces of ’80s culture, especially classic ’80s sci-fi and horror films. But for all its various dark elements similar to Aliens, the Poltergeist, and Nightmare on Elm Street, Stranger Things retains a lighter side captured in the boyhood camaraderie and innocent adventures of Stand by Me and The Goonies. Even the comedic relief of young, toothless Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo) harkens back to Chunk in The Goonies.
The appeal of the show is in the several nods to a striking era of pop culture. And it’s a culture that is still relevant and not so far off from us today. We get all the feels of nostalgia when we see dearly loved classic films (ones many of us have grown up with) in the spirit and details of Stranger Things. Much like E.T., Carrie, and The Goonies, the show’s setting is a quintessential small town in Indiana, a town so mundane and ordinary that no unusual crimes or events have happened in decades. And yet the ordinary is disrupted by the extraordinary when one of the four young boys, Will (Noah Schnapp), goes missing. Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) doesn’t take Will’s mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) seriously when she appears in his office harried and anxious about her son. Hopper isn’t put off by her frenzied state, but instead offers rational reasons for her son’s absence. He even dismisses her claims to have heard her son breathing over the phone by attributing her experience to grief. But as time presses on, Hopper’s suspicions rise above the ordinary.
Stranger Things contrasts the ordinary with the extraordinary, the normal with the supernatural, and the mundane with the unexpected. We see an ordinary local light and energy company (Hawkins Light & Energy) masquerading as a secret laboratory for government scientists, a normal kids game (Dungeons & Dragons) supernaturally morphs into reality, and a mundane house unexpectedly becomes a haunting ground for a monster from another dimension. Todd VanDerWerff refers to the show’s contrasting images in his article for Vox:
If nothing else, the Duffers have a real talent for coming up with gorgeous images that will stick in your imagination. They blend the weird with the mundane, in a way that pays true credit to how thoroughly they’ve digested their obvious inspirations.
I was particularly taken by Joyce, sitting alone in a room, surrounded by Christmas lights and trying to shout into the void, even after the corpse of her son had been discovered. Or when Chief Hopper cut open that corpse and discovered it was effectively a stuffed animal, filled with soft, spongy material.
“Things” in the show are truly much stranger than they appear: a flesh hunting monster tearing through domestic wallpaper, a small town discovering a portal to an alternate reality (the Upside-Down), a young girl with mind powers who can squish your brain or make you pee your pants, and a sensory deprivation tank rigged up in a middle school gymnasium to make contact with missing people in the other dimension. Stranger Things juxtaposes these seemingly separate realities, perhaps even revealing that there is something extraordinary beneath the ordinary.
And isn’t this, in some sense, what we all want? What we are all seeking in life? The idea that there must be more than what we see, hear, feel, and know right now? We can find this societal quest for the extraordinary in the ordinary when we examine our motivations. Those who consult a psychic to learn their futures or contact loved ones who have “gone to the other side” are the more obvious contenders on this quest. However, we can also see this play out in settings such as the drug culture. A drug user’s motivations are quite complex, but one aspect of drug use is the desire to experience something extraordinary. Drugs are the gateway to a perceived alternate reality for many people; they provide a chance to be someone else and escape the mundane. But we don’t have to engage in illegal activity to escape the mundane: we can attempt to seek the extraordinary in social media, bungee-jumping, skydiving, romance, or even a work promotion. The quest is found in anything that connects us to something greater than our ordinary and gives us a rush of feeling or a shot of adrenaline.
There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking the above experiences (minus the drugs) as long as we remember that they point us to something more extraordinary: the presence and glory of God in Christ. We ordinary mortals are made in his image. C. S. Lewis captures this thought well in The Weight of Glory:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. . . . There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. (45-46)
We are on a quest for the extraordinary in life, because he has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), and we subconsciously know we were made for so much more. We are not ordinary. As G. K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy, “We have all forgotten what we really are.” And, one might add, whose we are. There is an unseen but real extraordinary thing happening in us and around us. Because people made in the image of God are coming into his kingdom. All around us imago Dei beings are trapped in the Vale of Shadows, held captive by a man-eating monster, but also being rescued and brought back home. So yes, there is more than meets the eye and more than what we know now. There are unseen realities being made known to us, while we await the fullness of that knowledge. The extraordinary is happening now under all the ordinary. God is moving in the stranger things of life.
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