Stranger Things, Season 4 (Netflix, 21 Laps Entertainment, 2019).
Last summer, Netflix released the fourth and penultimate season of the sci-fi horror drama Stranger Things to widespread rave reviews. Many fans saw this latest installment as a return to the exceptional storytelling of the show’s first season. For those of us with an interest in theology, it provided a compelling exploration of the age-old battle between good and evil that resonates with Catholic spirituality.
Season Four picks up with the show’s young heroes—Eleven, Max, Mike, Dustin, among others—as they try to move on with their lives after the climax of Season Three when they managed to close the gate to the “Upside Down” (the hellish alternative dimension in the Stranger Things universe that is home to various terrifying monsters and dark forces). Over the course of Season Four, we learn the identity and origin story of the series’ main antagonist, a character that the teens name “Vecna” after a monstrous, mind-controlling villain from the game Dungeons and Dragons.
Vecna uses telepathic powers to invade the minds of his victims, mounting what is effectively akin to a spiritual attack that, if successful, results in their gruesome death. Lacking physical form in the normal world (referred to in the show as the “Right Side Up”), Vecna’s attacks begin in the mind and only later bring about the destruction of the body. It is noteworthy that Vecna targets victims who have experienced trauma, grief, and guilt, and who are therefore more susceptible to despair.
Vecna is the ultimate accuser, tormenting his victims with their darkest thoughts, their sense of self-disgust, and feelings of guilt and shame before he kills them. He attempts to convince them that they are unlovable, beyond redemption, without hope. “You belong here with me,” Vecna tells Max when he has her in his grip. Another of Vecna’s victims, Fred, is tortured by memories of a hit-and-run he was involved in; Vecna accuses him of being a murderer who doesn’t deserve to live. Under Vecna’s mind-controlling influence, Nancy (one of the show’s protagonists) is confronted with her best friend Barbara's body—a friend who died in Season One partly due to Nancy’s neglect.
This is the essential question at the heart of the show: are humans essentially good or evil? Vecna would have us believe the latter.
The way the show depicts Vecna’s attacks being repelled is equally revealing. To resist Vecna’s power means resisting the temptation to despair. In one particularly iconic scene in the fourth episode, Vecna attacks Max Mayfield, transporting her mind to the Upside Down while leaving her body stuck in a trance-like state. However, just as it looks like all is lost, Max’s friends begin playing her favorite song (“Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush). She slips out of Vecna’s grip in the Upside Down and runs towards a window of light through which she can see her friends gathered around her unconscious body back in the Right Side Up. Later on, when asked how she plans to elude Vecna’s control, Max replies that she will run towards that light.
The scene where Max escapes Vecna’s influence is a powerful depiction of the antidote to despair. In our darkest moments we need to surround ourselves with loved ones who can call us towards the light, reminding us that we’re loved and loveable, that life can still be beautiful and worth living. Being in the depths of grief and depression feels like being sucked into the Upside Down, where everything is decaying, and the color has been drained from the world. Only beauty and love can help us to transcend this darkness, and those of us who have been to the Upside Down and back know that music does indeed have the power to save us, to call us back to reality by reminding us of who we are.
Near the end of Season Four, Vecna describes the disgust he feels towards humanity (which he refers to as “a unique type of pest”), calling the way we live “deeply unnatural.” He doesn’t see love, meaning, or beauty in human life. All he sees is cruelty and deception, or as Max puts it, “It’s like he only sees the darkness in us.” Vecna tells the show’s hero, Eleven, that he uses his powers to restore “order” to the world, becoming “a predator, but for good.” In this scene, we witness how truly upside down his thinking is: not only is Vecna “The Accuser,” but also the “Father of Lies,” distorting truth and the very nature of reality to exclude the capacity of the human heart for altruistic love and goodness.
It is significant that Eleven, the only character in the show who is a match for Vecna’s powers, wrestles with the question of her own identity throughout Season Four. “Am I a monster?”, she repeatedly asks herself. In a way, this is the essential question at the heart of the show: are humans essentially good or evil? Vecna would have us believe the latter. Tormented by incomplete memories from a traumatic moment in her past, Eleven believes herself responsible for the deaths of all the children in the experimentation facility in which she was held captive. So long as she believes that her powers are essentially evil, capable only of murder and harm, she is unable to use those powers to fight Vecna and protect her friends.
The pivotal, defining moment of the season is a scene in episode seven in which Vecna tries to convince Eleven to join him. It is the moment where she rejects evil and her identity as a force for good is solidified. Parallels with the moral universes of other great epics of fantasy and sci-fi like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings abound, perhaps because all of these classic stories tap into universal truths about the struggle between good and evil, and the nature of human free will. Just like Luke Skywalker facing down the lure of the Dark Side, and Frodo Baggins tasked with the destruction of the One Ring, Eleven not only needs to reject evil, but must discover within herself a different source of power, one that is stronger than the evil she fights.
In an echo of the Jedi lore, Vecna tells Eleven that drawing from her anger makes her more powerful. For a moment it looks like Vecna might overpower Eleven, but then she taps into a memory of her mother telling her that she loves her, and with the great surge of energy that this gives her, Eleven is able to conquer her foe, casting him into the Upside Down like Saint Michael casting Satan into hell. Eleven discovers that it is love rather than fear, hate or anger, that unlocks her greatest strength.
Regardless of the religious views of the show’s creators, and despite the stated agnosticism of some of its protagonists, I would argue that the nature of evil as presented in Stranger Things is profoundly Catholic. St. Augustine reasoned that evil is not a created thing, but rather the rejection, corruption, and total absence of goodness: “For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?" he wrote. Vecna’s world is one where every lovely thing is decaying, rotting away, full of absence and corruption.
For all the strange monsters and supernatural goings on in the series, the true horror is what a normal man without any extraordinary powers does to the children that he abducts and uses as test subjects in his experiments. Dr. Brenner presents himself to the children he holds in captivity as a benefactor, a father figure and teacher, but in truth he is an arch child abuser, controlling and objectifying them as he trains them to be used as weapons.
We see in various flashback sequences that it is Dr. Brenner’s experiments on his first test subject, Henry Creel (Vecna as a child), that unleash Vecna’s evil upon the world. Evil, in the Stranger Things universe as well as in Catholic theology, isn’t a monster from another dimension. It is rather something we introduce or amplify when we turn away from the good, true, and beautiful.
Beyond Vecna’s dramatic origin story and the clash of good versus evil embodied in the conflict between Eleven and Vecna, Stranger Things Season Four also explores the complexities of the human response to evil in other minor characters and subplots. Eddie Munson, the school drug dealer and social misfit, goes on a true hero’s journey as he learns to face his fears and fight for what’s right. Eddie considers staying in hiding to protect himself but ends up giving his own life to save his friends and the town that rejected him. As the Duffer brothers (creators of Stranger Things) explained in an interview on Josh Horowitz’s podcast, despite his self-professed cynicism Eddie isn’t “a nihilistic person.” Underneath his tough exterior he’s motivated by hope and a desire to protect the vulnerable and fight for the good; he feels afraid, but still makes the choice to do what’s right anyway. For all Jason’s moral grandstanding and position as the golden boy of the community, the flawed underdog Eddie can see what’s at stake more clearly than Jason.
In the final shot of Season Four, our heroes look out over their hometown, Hawkins, as the grass withers and smoke rises. The Shire is burning, as Eddie predicted it would. For the time being, it really does look as if Vecna has won. The creators of Stranger Things have certainly painted a compelling picture of despair and the forces of evil, but it is the show’s exploration of the David and Goliath dynamic of love in the face of evil that help it to transcend the horror genre to something more meaningful. Can the Duffer brothers offer viewers a compelling account of the vanquishing of evil to bring the series to a satisfying close in the fifth and final season? If they can build on moments like Eleven’s memory of her mother’s love, Eddie’s laying down of his life for his friends, and Max running towards the light, I believe that they can pull it off.
Sophie Caldecott is a writer who lives on the edge of the moor in South-West of England. She has previously written about Stranger Things 1-3 for Humanum, and spoke about the theology of Stranger Things 4 on BBC 4’s Sunday program in July 2022.
Posted on July 16, 2023.