Over the course of Halloween, we treated ourselves to a binge viewing of the Netflix miniseries “Stranger Things”. If you haven’t seen it, I’ll offer that it was entertaining–an endearing homage to the nineteen-eighties, Steven King stories, and Sci-FI movies like “ET” and “Close Encounters”. And–full disclosure here–this is largely being lauded as a “period piece”, and the “period” in question is my own, particularly the time of my own childhood. Stepping back into a warm cocoon of memory is part of the enjoyment. Wall mounted rotary phones, old “Coke is it” commercials, Atari, 80s cars, shag carpeting, and brown upholstered furniture are evident everywhere.
I enjoyed also the assembly of 80’s science fiction and horror motifs: You have a group of nerdy middle school friends from broken or dysfunctional families bicycling all around town with little adult supervision or intervention. You have disappearances and other creepy events occurring to people in a small Midwestern town surrounded by a terrifying forest. You have a secret government lab performing mysterious experiments. You have strong (though flawed) characters trying to rise heroically despite their circumstances (the mildly psychopathic yet truth-seeking Sheriff Hopper is a prime example).
In sum, you could find worse ways to spend 7 hours.
Also, stop reading now, because I want to discuss the ending.
But do come back at some point.
Ok, this is the last warning before I plow into details you might not want to know yet…
One of the standout performances for me is the grimly determined orphan “Eleven”, played by 12 year old actress Millie Bobby Brown. Her young eyes radiate despair and terror and hope so hauntingly that it reminded me a bit of Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense”. She surfaces mysteriously into the lives of three friends, who soon learn that she has extraordinary gifts. They also soon find themselves on the run from shadowy government agents, while also hoping to figure out a way to find their missing friend Will.
Since this is a religion-focused blog, I would be remiss to avoid discussing how Eleven (“El” to her friends) is almost a Christ figure. She is of mysterious birth. She possesses an almost unimaginable power–she can levitate objects, kill with a thought, and create portals between parallel worlds. Her life is one of near constant suffering. She reaches out in friendship to the youngsters and loves them. In the end, she sacrifices herself to save the others. Her story is a picture of sacrifice and salvation–one innocent sufferer giving her all so that the others may live. As Jesus stated ages ago, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”
The story involving the missing boy Will Byers, can also be seen as a parable of redemption. Early in the series, he disappears into the grim, toxic, and deadly “Upside Down”–a kind of hell existing in parallel to our universe. His mother, portrayed by Winona Ryder as a petite nervous wreck who never gives up hope, is a spot of emotional warmth. She believes she can communicate with her son and will go to any and all crazy lengths in order to do so; for example, when the now invisible young Will somehow makes some lights blink, she responds and by the end of that day she has every inch of her little house plastered with Christmas lights. When she figures out that he is trapped in a parallel universe, she finds a way to the portal in the basement of the heavily guarded government lab, braving the risk of arrest or murder at the hands of the government men. She enters the “upside down”, braving the toxins and monsters, in a quest to retrieve her lost son. Against all odds, she finds him and takes him out of there. He is redeemed, taken back from the shadow of death, retrieved from the grip of Hell and its monster.
The “Upside Down” is also thought provoking in a theological way. In this story, the “upside down” is a parallel universe, one of many possible alternate realities, like ours but inverted. It has the same geography and even the same buildings–houses, schools, and tree forts–but everything is dark, gloomy, and cold. The air is toxic. A terrifying monster inhabits this land. It is hellish.
What if the Christian “Heaven” and “Hell” are in fact alternate dimensions, peopled by versions of ourselves that are better or worse. Hell might be the “upside down”, and Heaven is an alternate reality that is better.
Along these lines, what if our world is actually the “upside down”, a sick and perverted alternate universe to some other better one. That would fit our appalling history of mass murder and other atrocities, both horrific and banal, that are etched upon history. What if we are the demonic versions of our better selves? By no means am I going to claim this as the real truth, or ignore that it wouldn’t quite fit the biblical narratives, but it can be fun to speculate.