“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 dressed up as Eleven for Halloween and had to be talked out of shaving my head at the last minute by my best friend, even as I forced my long-suffering 3-year-old (who needs a haircut and resembles a smaller, rounder Sam Gamgee) to trick-or-treat as a three-foot-high Dustin in a baby trucker hat. I just got two Stranger Things tattoos. As Rebecca Farley of Refinery29 put it, there was the summer of ’69, and then there was the summer of Stranger Things. I’m inclined to agree.
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.
But if she is a victim, she is a victim who has suffered as we have suffered and who came into this world to save it. In a stunning echo of Psalm 22 and Christ’s plea of “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?) on the cross, she weeps “Papa, papa!” when placed in solitary confinement by Dr. Brenner, her ostensible father, in Season 1.
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.
THE SACRAMENTALITY OF STRANGER THINGS
Most of us who grew up Catholic can still recite the Baltimore Catechism’s definition of a sacrament: “A sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” A sacramental – such as a rosary or a scapular – is a sacred physical object used as a means by which we receive sanctifying grace (a sort of mini-sacrament, if you will). These at times uncomfortably physical manifestations of spiritual realities stand starkly at odds with a materialist society like ours.
S. Lewis, drawing heavily from the works of his predecessor Rudolf Otto, wrote much of Otto’s concept of the Numinous: a transcendent spiritual encounter with something wholly otherworldly and not strictly rational, an experience by which one is held bound by absolute awe and wonder. Horror is, of course, the only genre in an increasingly secular world that acknowledges and reveres the existence of the numen, the Other. Art doesn’t get much more Catholic than that. (You show me an iconic ‘70s horror flick and I’ll show you a few bars of Gregorian chant and at least one character in a Roman collar.)
Stranger Things takes this basic principle – that the supernatural is both real and accessible to us through physical means – and runs with it. We see this sacramental sensibility when Joyce hammers holes in her house, strings up fairy lights (cf. John 1:5), and paints all 26 letters of the alphabet on the wall in a desperate attempt to communicate with her son trapped in the Upside Down. We see it in the frequently successful use of walkie-talkies to communicate with those in the Upside Down throughout the series – and particularly when a lovelorn Mike tries desperately to contact Eleven in Season 2. We see it when Nancy and Jonathan challenge supernatural forces of evil armed only with hardware, bear traps, and their wits. We see it when Eleven communicates with Will in the Upside Down by submerging herself in a paddling pool of water to focus her telekinetic powers – a primal baptism of sorts. And we see it, of course, when Chief Hopper delivers Eggo waffles in the woods to Eleven in a box that looks downright tabernacle-like.
In “Secular Spirituality in the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things,” Dr. Liesl E. King writes of Will’s mother, Joyce Byers:
Literature scholars may remember that poet John Keats introduced the term “negative capability,” which describes the ability to harbor two opposing viewpoints without making up one’s mind. I would argue that Joyce Byers practices negative capability in Stranger Things: she simultaneously acknowledges that which is reasonable, by complaining to Jonathan that ‘everyone thinks I’m crazy,’ but at the same time she accepts a reality which lies beyond reason, by rigging up the lamps and Christmas lights to wait for contact from Will. Additionally, her apparent belief that love can transcend the ordinary parameters of reality might be described as a spiritual approach, and likened to the beliefs of those with religious faith.
For what is religious faith but accepting a reality which lies beyond reason? And what is more unreasonable than the Incarnation – that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us? That the God of the universe was born in a barn and we nailed God to a cross and killed Him? That He is present in a loaf of bread in every tabernacle around the world, and we must eat Him in order to save our souls alive?
Just as Eleven redeems the world with a bloodied nose and a mud-stained Peter Pan collar on a horizontal-smocked dress, we too have a God who is so gloriously nondiscriminatory in His offer of salvation that He rolled up his sleeves and entered into messy human history to die a messy death on Calvary Hill for the sake of a bunch of messy bipeds who didn’t deserve such a gross outpouring of divine humility. Friends don’t lie — and greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends.
When it comes to Stranger Things, all the trappings of Catholic sacramental theology are there; only the packaging is different.
THE SPIRITUALITY OF STRANGER THINGS
In 1 Corinthians 1:27, we read: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” And, the Netflix hit series would seem to append, God chose the stranger things of the world to shame the normal.
The lineup reads like a Who’s Who of Flannery O’Connor characters, or perhaps Waugh on a darker day: Joyce, the overworked, chain-smoking, mentally ill single mother raising two boys alone with no help from a deadbeat dad; Hopper, the hard-bitten alcoholic grieving the loss of his daughter to cancer, unable to trust or give of himself again to another human being (indeed, in Season 2 – spoiler alert! – he even plays the Judas and betrays Eleven); Nancy who is, much like Susan Pevensie in the final days of Narnia, a study in vainglory, far too concerned with public image and popular opinion; and of course Jonathan – and to a lesser extent Will and friends – all varying degrees of ostracized oddballs.
Moreover, as Dr. King notes, Lucas is the token black kid in an overwhelmingly white Midwestern community, Dustin has cleidocranial dysplasia and a speech impediment, and Eleven presents a challenge to traditional gender binaries. In storytelling shorthand, they are stand-ins for all those otherized due to race, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
In other words, from this ragtag bunch of sinners and misfits arise spectacular feats of faith, love, and superhuman courage. In this paradox lies the whole of salvation history; in this liminal space lies the Church itself.
After all, Our Lord’s own colorful lineage includes Rahab, the prostitute who saved Israel and David, who committed adultery then killed a man in cold blood to cover his own tracks. In the New Testament we have Thomas, who doubted; Peter, who denied Christ; and Paul, who persecuted Christians for sport. Platitudinously but truly, God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called; on Stranger Things as in life, heroes and losers are very often the same people. The Stranger Things gang is the body of Christ itself in microcosm – dodgy bits included.
Christ has called to Himself not only the pious and unsullied of the world, but also the Davids, the Peters, the Thomases, the Mary Magdalenes, the Rahabs, the Augustines, and used them – all of them – whatever their walk of life, whatever their failings, whatever the enormity of their past sins, to fulfill His plans and accomplish His purposes.
In the end, Stranger Things is a testimony to a God who wants to take us as we are, beaten and bruised and broken and proud and sinful and wallowing in the muck (and maybe even a little vain, alcoholic, callous, neurotic, nicotine-dependent, or emotionally unavailable) – and with the transformative workings of His grace, make something beautiful of us; after all, His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
What could possibly be a stranger – or more Catholic – thing than that?
Donna Provencher is a writer, actor, director, toddler wrangler, caffeine enthusiast, and recent Catholic revert originally hailing from the Washington, D.C. area. She sporadically 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. Check out the inside of her brain over at www.donnasguidetothegalaxy.com. “Write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”