Of Eggos and Dragons: How ‘Stranger Things’ Explores Childhood Trauma
Stranger Things is a show based on the nostalgic exploration of eighties gothic media culture, especially as it relates to youth of the time. The show’s setting and plot are themselves entrenched in political gothic reality, which creates a sort of meta-reality through which the show can explore one of its main concerns: gothic texts as they are experienced by children, and more specifically, what effect these texts may have on children with past trauma. Stranger Things explores the healing process of three children with traumatic past experiences who may only begin their journey towards overcoming their troubled realities by indulging in gothic staples of childhood.
The story centers around a child who was kidnapped at birth and used as a subject in Project MKUltra, a very real and illegal experimental study conducted by the CIA, on sometimes unwilling patients, from 1953 to 1973 as an attempt to develop mind control as a tool for use in the cold war. In Stranger Things, the experiment is a success, notably with the series’ protagonist: Eleven, who developed a form of telekinesis. She eventually escapes after accidentally allowing for the escape of a monster preceding the opening of a portal to a shadow dimension which the show dubs the “Upside Down”. After the escaped monster kidnapped a child, Will Byers, taking him into the Upside Down, the newly escaped Eleven meets with friends of Will Byers and is asked to explain this traumatic series of events, despite having no understanding of the world outside the laboratory she grew up in. It is her chosen method of explanation that sets the tone for the show’s dealing with childhood trauma: Eleven uses a game of Dungeons & Dragons. These Dungeons & Dragons terms are extremely important; they delineate the show’s entire vocabulary in referring to the supernatural. Dungeons & Dragons is what allows the children to make sense of the terrifying situation in the present (arguably a traumatic experience in and of itself) and what permits Eleven to take the first steps towards coming to terms with her past trauma. This is made clear when comparing Eleven’s first interaction with the world outside the lab, in the very first episode of the show, where she meets an extremely kind man with whom she cannot seem to communicate. He treats her situation in an extremely adult way, attempting to grasp her traumatic experience in literal terms, but Eleven, for the most part, refuses to speak. When she does talk, it’s sparsely, and with a great deal of care and distance. This lack of trust, especially towards an authority figure which might be associated in her mind to her tormentor, Papa, is a fairly common symptom of early childhood trauma and abuse. When she does start to open up, it is exclusively towards children, individuals whose understanding of her situation and powers comes across only through their enjoyment of gothic texts, most prominently Dungeons & Dragons, but also notably through comic books, Star Wars, and video games.
All three children find themselves unable or unwilling to speak to their trauma, as well as purposefully distancing from other people until they come into contact with a gothic childhood text that allows them to tackle their trauma in an indirect way. Dungeons & Dragons for Eleven, treasure-hunting, and puzzles for Will, and video games for Max. This specific reality mirrors the workings of a common psychological approach used by professionals in healing patients suffering from, amongst others, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBT as it is often referred. CBT is one of the most common psychotherapeutic techniques used to treat a variety of mental illnesses and afflictions. In therapy, roleplaying is used as a means through which a patient can explore their issues by displacing them onto an imaginary scenario in a safe environment. This allows the patient to interact with their fears as well as gain control over a terrifying situation which helps them come to terms with their reality, as well as practice healthy behaviors which then shape their internal perceptions regarding their trauma. The gothic texts of Stranger Things, especially and most prominently, Dungeons & Dragons, work in the same way for the characters. It provides these children with a platform of understanding and a language, through which they can, by engaging with a fictitious reality in the form of a game, address their trauma in a safe environment, without losing themselves to it.
After the season one finale, whereby Eleven is temporarily banished to the Upside Down, she returns to find that the scientists who first abducted her are attempting to bring her back to the lab in an effort to cover up the events of the first season. Terrified, she finds herself living alone in the woods for months until she is found by Officer Hopper, the policeman who, in the first season, was at the forefront of the search for Will Byers, and one of the only two sympathetic adults fully aware of the supernatural reality. However, his past experience with losing a child leads him to enforce Lockeian logic in his approach towards Eleven. He attempts to protect her from all outside dangers and gothic realities by enforcing paranoid rules and safety regulations which limit her exposure to the outside world, while simultaneously discouraging her from using her powers and hiding parts of her past from her. This attempt to protect the child backfires, as it forces her to repress her trauma, leading to unhealthy tensions between the two. These unresolved tensions culminate in a large fight between Eleven and Hopper preceding an ‘escape’ from Eleven, whereby Eleven compares him to the ‘papa’ that physically and emotionally tortured her. Soon afterward, Eleven leaves for the second time.
Eleven’s departure brings her to uncovering parts of her traumatic experience that she had buried, including the presence of another child, number Eight, on whom experiments were also performed. This second child, named Kali, whose mental ability allows her to create hyper-realistic illusions, is at first, upon reunion with Eleven, a relief. Kali allows Eleven to face her trauma and uncover a truth that Hopper was desperately trying to protect her from. However, the catharsis soon melds into a form of gothic immersion which, far from helping Eleven overcome her trauma, demands that she be consumed by it. Much like her power implies, Kali creates the illusion of a solution in a constant quest for revenge that leads to heavy violence and further trauma. It is, however, merely illusory: an alternative that is attractive for a time due to it relieving a need to approach a painful and repressed reality, but which is unsustainable because the approach forces repeated trauma as opposed to any realistic healing process.
Much like in the first season, where Eleven found solace with Mike, his friends, and the gothic texts that freed her to undertake a process of self-examination within a good support group, it is neither Lockeian isolationism nor Kali’s gothic immersion that allows her to heal. It is a return to the other children and their child-like schemes that allows her to find the first hint of relief in the second season and finally banish the second season’s monster.
In conclusion, Stranger Things explores the path to recovery of three separate children who went through excessive trauma. This path utilizes gothic staples of childhood to simulate the environment of a therapy roleplaying session, which in turn allows for children to approach and deal with their trauma at their own pace, in a safe environment. While other understandings of potential solutions are explored by the show, at times by well-meaning characters, these alternatives are demonstrated to be harmful to the child’s process, either by not allowing for a proper process to be undertaken at all or by forcing a child to become consumed by their trauma. Gothic texts may not replace therapy for children, but by providing a language through which traumatic events can be approached, they might just be a good place to start.
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