Stranger Things and the stench of totalitarianism

Michel de Certeau

In past ages the powers controlling our great institutions of Church and State were much less tolerant of free speech and free interpretations of influential texts in our culture. Censorship was a routine instrument of government. Our freedoms now are more respected. Or are they?

As one cultural critic (Michel de Certeau) has observed, “Today, it is the socio-political mechanisms of the schools, the press or television that isolate the text controlled by the teacher or the producer from its readers.” He died in 1986 so did not live to see or feel the impact of social media as a controlling mechanism for the herding of human beings. Nor did he see the frightening denial of free speech now spreading like cancerous cells under the banner of liberal democracy.

Just think of the controls exercised by the bullying trolls on Twitter – at one end of the scale. Then consider the selective management by the mainstream media of the public narrative on the political and social issues of our time.

A potent example of the former was recounted recently by The New York Times. It was a sad story of the fate of a woman in Missouri who had the temerity to dream of trying to make her beloved Democratic Party a safe place for a pro-life advocate like herself to play a part in her State’s and her Nation’s politics.

Joan Berry, a Democrat from the day she heard John F. Kennedy campaigning in her state back in 1959, this summer successfully secured a clause in her Party’s platform which told pro-life citizens that there was a place for them in their midst. It wasn’t easy but when it went to a vote at a meeting of the State’s Democratic Committee, it passed by 32 votes to 25.

Joan went home from that meeting feeling she had struck a blow for an open society, for democratic politics and for the Party to which she had dedicated her political life. She and her husband went off for a quiet weekend in the country. Then her daughter rang her. “Mom”‘ she said, “You better stay there for awhile. There is uproar on Facebook and Twitter about what you did.” Pro-choice Missouri was outraged and what they were prepared to say and threaten to do to poor Joan – and those 32 members of the Party who went along with her proposal was, well, unprintable.

To cut a long and sad story of one public-spirited elder stateswoman short, the Party Committee was reconvened and promptly rejected Joan’s proposal. Joan Berry hadn’t even asked the Party to reconsider its position on the life issue. She just wanted her Party to be a forum where free speech was tolerated.

Cereau, however, saw an escape hatch for those beleaguered by what is nothing less than the tyrannical forces of dominant and domineering public opinion. He pointed out that “behind the theatrical décor of this new orthodoxy is hidden…the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the masters.”

Art to the rescue.

When I first saw Matt and Ross Duffer‘s runaway Netflix success, Stranger Things, last year I wondered if I might not be drawing some consolation of this type from the experience. I wondered if this phenomenally successful piece of entertainment – some will say hokum – might not also be offering all of us an allegory for our time. We live in an era when alien forces baffle us and seem surround us on all sides.

I cannot read the minds of the Duffer brothers. But the truth is that what we read, hear and see in the artifacts of our civilization depends not only on the genius of the creators of those works. It is also often determined by our own experiences and by the power, character and developed state of our own creative imaginations.

What Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or Lord of the Rings says to us is not only what their authors’ intended to say but it may also be elaborated and enriched for us by what our own thoughts, sensibilities and experience of life bring to the creative table. We interpret great works of literature not only in the context of the time of their creators. We often, and with great benefit, read and interpret these works in the context of our own times our own problems and our own versions of the human condition.

Part of my fascination with Stranger Things was precisely because it seemed to say more about us, our time and our condition than a great deal of the general fare that is offered to us as entertainment.

In an interview in which the Duffers are asked about what seemed to be the universal truth they were trying to convey in the series, Matt Duffer commented that today “On television there’s been this huge avalanche of shows with antiheroes. A lot of our characters are good-hearted people. And they have a lot of compassion.” His brother Ross added that in Stranger Things, “Even when there’s darkness, people leave the show feeling a bit of hope there.… It’s about these friends that are there for each other no matter what, that there’s this mom (Winona Ryder) that’s there for her son no matter what. And to us there’s something both universal, and hopeful, about that.… That’s where we wanted to go.”

Yes, but I think their story resonates even deeper than that. The darkness he talks about is really dark. Indeed it is as dark as the hell of Paradise Lost or in Tolkien’s land of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. This is the “upside-down world” of the plot, intimately and terrifyingly known to the little girl, “Eleven”, and into which characters stray and in which some lose their lives, others lose their minds and which, throughout the series, encroaches on the real world. Its hidden forces are seeking to infiltrate and possess our world for their own grotesque and malign purposes.

On the surface these are natural forces manipulated by humans. Netflix, in its promotional material, speaks of supernatural powers at work. But in fact what we are shown is the work of vile power-hungry people and their mal-functioning experiments. The preternatural evil may emanate from the Father of Lies but, if it does, it happens like most of the evil in the world – through the medium of mankind.

Back in the 1950s we had the Red Scare. This in its turn spawned the monster of McCarthyism. We look back on that now and see it all as so much paranoia. McCarthyism revolted us and was essentially an instrument as capable of perpetrating injustice as what it railed against.

More effective antidotes of the age were the fables and fictions which countered the threat – ranging from those of Orwell, Huxley and others, to the productions of Hollywood’s own fable-factory – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. It captures better than any other film the fears of that era. It did not say who the body snatchers were. It did not need to. It played into the real fears of the age.

So, if the Duffer Brothers are warning us about a threat to our civilization wrapped up in a piece of ‘eighties nostalgia with echoes of E.T. and The Goonies, what might it be? I can’t say what it is for them, but I know what it is for me.

The dystopia of Stranger Things may be read as a metaphor for many things: a world wrecked by man-made climate change; a world destroyed by the genetic manipulation of our food supply; a world mirroring that in which Planned Parenthood trades the body parts of human babies it aborts “for the good of humanity”. It may also be a warning that the nonsense of gender ideology and the attempted manipulation of our biological selves are destroying the very essence of our humanity. Take your pick.

In the series we have a compelling juxtaposition of the murdering evil men and women working in a grotesque human engineering facility with the semi-innocent adults and handful of “dungeons and dragons” besotted twelve-year-old kids of a sleepy Midwest town.

Can they be compared with the gullible victims of transgender activism whom we read about – individuals who are seeking reversals of surgical mutilation by professionals in the grip of a gender-bending political ideology? Echoes of all this in Stranger Things are loud and clear.

Let us return to Michel de Certeau.

Joan Berry gets bullied and bludgeoned by the Democratic Party in Missouri because she wants freedom for people to talk about their conviction that unborn children are human beings. Students on campuses around the western world put “no-platform” bans on serious thinkers who question the orthodoxies of our time and even seek the removal of academic staff who do the same. Gender-bending ideologues scream about inequality and repression of individuality when anyone tries to object to their manipulation of human nature to suit their whims.

Speaking truth about our times in plain language can be dangerous. When this becomes the norm in our culture we, thankfully, can turn to works of imagination to search for the truth and to reach a kind of wisdom. Through them we can perhaps talk more meaningfully to each other and come to wisdom more effectively than by any other means. And we can do so with no little joy – until the world once again becomes a safe place in which to speak freely.

I don’t know what creative channel of communication might now be open to pro-life Democrats in Missouri to enable their voices to be heard in the Party again. If they cannot find one then undeniably what is coming from this “upside down world” is an undeniable stench of totalitarianism.

Stranger Things – an even more daring interpretation

millie-bobby-brown-on-stranger-things

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.

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“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.

 

 

Curiouser and curiouser – “Stranger Things” and the Culture Wars

stranger-things-poster

(Spoiler alert if you have not seen the series yet)

Past ages, and the institutional powers of other ages – spiritual and temporal – were much less tolerant of free interpretations of influential texts in our culture. Our freedoms now are more respected.

However, as one cultural critic (Michel de Certeau) has observed,

“Today, it is the socio-political mechanisms of the schools, the press or television that isolate the text controlled by the teacher or the producer from its readers. But behind the theatrical décor of this new orthodoxy is hidden (as in earlier ages) the silent, transgressive, ironic or poetic activity of readers (or television viewers) who maintain their reserve in private and without the knowledge of the masters.”

It is with this freedom, and in this spirit, that I have watched and been enthralled by Matt and Ross Duffer‘s runaway Netflix success, Stranger Things.

What we read, hear and see in the artefacts of our civilization depends not only on the genius of the creators of those artefacts. It is also often determined by our own experiences and by the power, character and developed state of our own creative imaginations.

What Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm or Lord of the Rings says to us is not only what their authors’ intended to say but it may also be elaborated and enriched for us by what our own thoughts, sensibilities and experience of life bring to the creative table.

Stranger Things is, I think, one of those artefacts which is giving us much more to think about than we realise. Before you shout out in outrage, be assured that I am not – yet – bracketing this contribution to popular culture among the great artefacts of our civilization. It has its flaws but it also has its great moments.

After the first series of Stranger Things was streamed on Netflix last year, the Duffer brothers, its creators, had a conversation with Dawn Bonker, a senior writer on the website of their alma mater, Chapman University.

It’s about much more, they say, than the story of a small town turned on a tilt when a young boy named Will disappears, a strange little girl (Millie Bobby Brown) arrives and a paranormal mystery unfolds. Tantalisingly, and disappointingly, Bonker does not explore what that “much more” might be – with the exception of an observation by Ross that the story is about friendship.

As the plot unfolds the boys teach the little girl, called “Eleven” – because all they know about her is that she has 11 branded on her wrist – how to be a friend, how to trust people, and that “friends never tell each other lies”. The truly sinister and deeper layer of meaning of the story centres on the origin and treatment of this little girl and her mother. Their persecutors are the genetic and mind-bending scientists at work in the government laboratory on the edge of the town. “Eleven” has been raised in this laboratory, manipulated and physically abused. The boys she stumbles across when she escapes from her murdering manipulators help her on the road back to normal humanity.

Ross: There’s something so innocent and sweet about how central friendship is to them. When you really boil it down, that’s what really matters. It’s those very simple life lessons – being a good friend can go a long way.

Matt: On television there’s been this huge avalanche of shows with antiheroes. A lot of our characters are goodhearted people. And they have a lot of compassion.

Bonker asks, was that your universal truth, or a theme you were trying to convey?

Ross: I hope so.… Even when there’s darkness, people leave the show feeling a bit of hope there.… It’s about these friends that are there for each other no matter what, that there’s this mom (Winona Ryder) that’s there for her son no matter what. And to us there’s something both universal, and hopeful, about that.… That’s where we wanted to go.

Yes, but I think they go much farther than that. The darkness he talks about is really dark. Indeed it is as dark as the hell of Paradise Lost or the land of Mordor. This is the “upside-down world” of the plot, intimately and terrifyingly known to “Eleven” and into which characters stray and in which some lose their lives, others lose their minds and which throughout the series encroaches on the real world. Its hidden forces are seeking to infiltrate and possess our world for their own grotesque and malign purposes.

On the surface these are natural forces manipulated by humans. Netflix, not quite accurately in its promotional material, speaks of supernatural powers. But in fact what we are shown is the work of vile  power-hungry people and their mal-functioning experiments. The preternatural evil may emanate from the Father of Evil but if it does it does so like most of the evil in the world – through the medium of mankind.

Back in the 1950s we had the Red Scare. This in its turn spawned the monster of McCarthyism. We look back on that now and see it all as so much paranoia. But as the old joke goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get me. McCarthyism revolted us and was essentially an instrument as capable of perpetrating injustice as what it railed against. More effective antidotes of the age were the fables and fictions which countered the threat – ranging from those of Orwell, Huxley and others, to the productions of Hollywood’s own fable-factory – like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), described as one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. The original version (there have been several remakes) captures better than any other film the fears of that era.

So, if the Duffer Brothers are warning us about a threat to our civilization wrapped up in a piece of ‘eighties nostalgia with echoes of E.T. and The Goonies, what might it be? I can’t say what it is for them, but I know what it is for me.

There are two strands of evil at work in the US Department of Energy’s Hawkins National Laboratory. In what way they are connected or were originally connected is not clear. I does not matter. One has resulted, through the manipulation of mothers and their children, in the development of human beings with super powers which the super State clearly intends to use for its own ends. The other has resulted in the creation of a super virus which controls carnivorous dog-like monsters and which can also take possession of humans. The scientists in HNL have lost control of the virus and now it is threatening to overrun the planet, leaving us with an “upside-down world” as terrifying as anything Cormac McCarthy laid out before us in The Road.

The dystopia of Stranger Things may be read as a metaphor for many things: a world wrecked by man-made climate change; a world destroyed by the genetic manipulation of our food supply; a world mirroring that in which the laboratories of Planned Parenthood trades the body parts of human babies it aborts “for the good of humanity”. Take your pick.  It may also be a warning that the nonsense of gender ideology and the attempted manipulation of our biological selves is destroying the very essence of our humanity. This indeed is, for me, the most compelling interpretation and seems to be underlined by the fight-back of two of the characters who are among HNL’s victims – Eleven and her sister – as well as the mother who fights for the body and soul of Will who has been possessed by the virus to end all viruses.

It seems to be further supported by the juxtaposition of the murdering evil men and women of HNL with the semi-innocent adults and the wholly innocent dungeons-and-dragons besotted twelve-year-old kids of a sleepy Midwest town.

For anyone with the slightest trace of paranoia about malign cultural forces running amok in our society, this speaks volumes. Is there a day, certainly not a week, which goes by without some new grim warning about what our gender-bending ideologists are asking the scientific and medical community to do for them. Take just one example from a recent Daily Telegraph headline, “Sex change regret: Gender reversal surgery is on the rise, so why aren’t we talking about it?”

The accompanying article spelled out a disturbing scenario and related allegations of cover-up and manipulation surrounding it. Echoes from Stranger Things were loud and clear.

In it we are told that around five years ago, Professor Miroslav Djordjevic, the world-leading genital reconstructive surgeon, received a visit at his Belgrade clinic: a transgender person who had undergone surgery at different clinic to remove male genitalia – and since changed their mind.

That was the first time Prof Djordjevic had ever been contacted to perform a so-called gender reassignment “reversal” surgery. Over the next six months, another six people also approached him, similarly wanting to reverse their procedures. They came from countries all over the western world, united by an acute sense of regret.

But these stories are taboo, they are not being heard. Over a week ago, it was alleged that Bath Spa University turned down an application for research on gender reassignment reversal because it was a subject deemed “potentially politically incorrect”. James Caspian, a psychotherapist who specialises in working with transgender people, suggested the research after a conversation with Prof Djordjevic in 2014 at a London restaurant where the Serbian told him about the number of reversals he was seeing, and the lack of academic rigour on the subject.

Djordjevic’s real nightmare is this: while the World Professional Association for Transgender Health guidelines currently state that nobody under the age of 18 should undergo this surgery, he fears this age limit could soon be reduced to include minors.

Were that to happen, he says, he would refuse to abide by the rules. “I’m afraid what will happen five to 10 years later with this person,” he says. “It is more than about surgery; it’s an issue of human rights. I could not accept them as a patient because I’d be afraid what would happen to their brain and mind.”

Add to that, the story, also in the Telegraph (November 13), that the Church of England has issued advice for teachers in church schools, fully supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which said that primary school-age boys and girls should be allowed to dress up in whatever they choose, regardless of their gender, including a “tutu, princess’s tiara and heels and/or the fireman’s helmet, tool belt and superhero cloak”.

Rev Nigel Genders, The Archbishop’s Chief Education Officer, speaking about advice says: “Our guidance is practical. It says that children should be able to explore their identities as they grow up.

“For smaller children this may involve getting the dressing box out. For older pupils it might mean having informed conversations to grow in knowledge and respect for each other.”

I haven’t seen anything yet about a third series of Stranger Things coming down the tracks. The Duffer Brothers ended series two… Well, I better not say anything. But there seemed to be a nod to something ominous, suggesting that the “upside-down world” hadn’t gone away.

Indeed it hasn’t – and from news like that above it seems that the Archbishop of Canterbury might even be leading us there.