This is a far more daring – and much more interesting interpretation of the Netflix series which is shaking up the world than I offered a few days ago. If the range and depths of possible interpretations is a sign of a masterpiece then perhaps we do have one on our hands.
It comes from Donna Provencher, a writer, actor, director, toddler wrangler, caffeine enthusiast, and recent Catholic revert originally hailing from the Washington, D.C. area.
In the week in which someone in this world has paid $450 million for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi this interpretation seems to make even more sense. Great Art continues to be wonderful and mysterious – still challenging our vain pretences that we know everything.
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of the bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon. Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him . . . to the idea that . . . limitless terrors [have] a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” –G. K. Chesterton.
It’s no surprise to anyone that I love Stranger Things. Like, a lot. Probably too much.
I initially resisted the phenomenon, believing the show to be more sci-fi (which is not my jam) than horror (which is). But I eventually let myself be talked into sitting on my then-boyfriend’s couch in northern New York and binge-watching Season 1 in one fell swoop over the course of several days. And I was hooked.
I was also a “happily” lapsed Catholic at the time, a self-proclaimed agnostic and secular hedonist, so I was simultaneously in love with the show and repulsed by my own love for it, for reasons I could not articulate. With each subsequent episode, I felt more and more afflicted by uncomfortable truths – truths I pretended to have forgotten, but had forgotten I remembered. All my life I have been haunted by God, as Dostoevsky and Dorothy Day before me have said – and the summer of 2016 was no different.
Spoiler alert: I started talking about coming back to the Church about three months after the show premiered on Netflix and finally came back in September 2017.
“In reading Chesterton,” C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy, “as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”
I wasn’t careful enough in my viewing habits. Stranger Things was God playing fast and dirty with my soul – a private gamble that, although I lost, I still took home the winnings.
THE THEOLOGY OF STRANGER THINGS
Eleven, the waffle-loving heroine of Stranger Things who has so captured our cultural consciousness, is the most conspicuous Christ figure in modern art since Aslan first breathed on Narnia. The similarities are unmistakable: Everything from Eleven’s mysterious origin story to the nickname, “El” (“God” in Hebrew), that the boys affectionately bestow on her, to the ultimate sacrifice she makes for Will’s friends while battling the Demogorgon in the Season 1 finale, to her long-awaited resurrection in Season 2, looks suspiciously Christlike upon examination. She even bears a stigmata of sorts in the form of a tattooed “011” on her wrist – a visible manifestation of the suffering she has endured.
Despite the debt of ‘80s childhood nostalgia Stranger Things owes to E.T. and the Stephen King oeuvre, writes Thomas P. Harmon in “The Strangeness of Stranger Things,” Eleven is no impish, whimsical Spielberg alien: she is a child abuse victim.
She is tortured, exploited, cast out, rejected by society, betrayed by her own friends, descends into hell (the ultimate Upside Down) to free the souls entrapped there, sacrifices herself for the good of humanity, and rises again. O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Cor. 15:55)
“Eleven would get it. She always did,” says Mike in Season 2. “Sometimes I feel like I still see her. Like she’s still around, but she never is.”
And yet she is: Lo, I am with you always: even to the end of the world. (Matthew 28:20)
It is equally hard to miss the Marian imagery surrounding Joyce Byers, flawed though she may be. One can easily imagine the Blessed Mother pleading with her own Son on Calvary – much like Joyce Byers as Chief Hopper performs CPR compressions on Will – “I love you so much, please, please come back to me,” and the fleeting frames of Joyce cradling Will after his “resurrection” resemble nothing so much as a Pieta for the 21st century. That scene in particular – as well as the moment in Season 1 where she holds and comforts Eleven, who has never known a mother, after a particularly brutal experiment trying to contact the Upside Down – give us a show a little too Catholic for comfort: a show about a Mother’s love that conquers even death.
Donna writes for the San Antonio Express-News and is a former columnist for the Watertown Daily Times in northern New York. Her work can also be found on Scary Mommy, XOJane, and the Stop Abuse Campaign. She invites us to check out the inside of her brain over at www.donnasguidetothegalaxy.com.
“Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Read her full post on Stranger Things here.