In the trailer for the new volume of Stranger Things, the eighties-homage paranormal series from Netflix created by self-identified nerds the Duffer Brothers, Max, a young girl, stands alone, gazing at a ruined version of her own world.
Cut to all the kids sitting in grim silence together in a speeding van while an adult voiceover says ‘I know you’re frightened,’ and acknowledges that they are not prepared for the fight to come. ‘You’re not ready.’
There could be no better allegory for the hell that kids all over the world have survived these past couple of years, and their struggle with the monstrous world bequeathed to them by adults.
The series makes excellent use of Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill, which has been duly propelled to the top of the charts.
‘Do you want to feel how it feels?’ Kate Bush sings in the trailer, as a trio of adult protector figures march onscreen.
‘I have this terrible feeling,’ one of the kids says next (a version of the oft-repeated Star Wars line, ‘I have a bad feeling about this.’) It’s Robin, the goofy queer girl.
The series speaks directly to adults like me, who came of age in the 1980s with Star Wars and Kate Bush. We assure our kids we had our own form of end-of-world terror in the eighties. We were afraid of nuclear war! And also climate change! We tell them that we relate to their existential fears; that like us, they will survive them.
Do you want to feel how it feels, for these children, the series asks? To be dragged into the world of grown-up destruction?
Robin explains: ‘It might not work out for us this time.’
The ‘Upside-down’ in Stranger Things, the alternative world beneath our own reality, is frozen in the past according to the script. It’s a vision of what has been, but also offers a vision of what is potentially to come, an appalling reality for which adults are ultimately responsible. In this place children’s minds and bodies are hideously broken from the inside in a harsh metaphor for the unbearable strain of adult demands, the distortion and breaking of the spirit.
The trailer surveys corridors of the cruel subterranean institution at the heart of the story, the school/laboratory where children have numbers for names and learn only submission to authority and aggression against others. Dead bodies slump against the walls. It is barely even an allegory. It is impossible not to think of Uvalde, and Parkland, Sandy Hook, Columbine.
What are the kids’ weapons, in the fight against the apocalypse for which they are not ready? Max, the lonely girl, settles her headphones on her ears and presses ‘play’. Mainly, the weapon is music.
Like Max, facing the destroyed world alone with her tape player, my teenager relied on music to survive the hell of lockdown here in California. Everyone knows that the last couple of years have been hard on kids, but I think few people understand the devastating extent of the mental health crisis that children have endured, the dramatic rise of depression, self-harm, suicide, the depth of the trauma that they continue to carry. For him, music was a genuine source of salvation in an existential crisis.
‘It is over,’ intones the monster in the trailer. ‘Now I just want you to watch.’ There is nothing to be done, according to him.
We basically told our children a version of this in 2020, when my kid’s school closed and he did not see a classroom again for eighteen months. After years of being told to minimize ‘screen time’, he was instructed to live with every interaction mediated by a screen.
My teen loves horror movies. He’s analytic-minded, and explains to me that some are allegories of struggling with one’s internal demons, and some represent conflict with external forces. He is old enough to see that the actual monsters in many of these stories aren’t the ones that require special effects to create; they are the men in suits.
We have watched Stranger Things together throughout the series, most recently in separate parts of the house while I was isolating with Covid. ‘This is hard to watch,’ I wrote to him in the chat in the scenes where the camera roves through those hallways filled with dead, bloodied children. The Uvalde shooting was less than two weeks in the past. The day after the Uvalde massacre I had gone to my part-time job as a high school English teacher in San Francisco, and admitted to my students that I did not know what to say, and I could not promise I could keep them safe. Their faces were so grim and so young, so tired of being praised for their resilience.
We ask them to accept so much.
Eddie, the Dungeon Master metal dude of the season, rips his guitar from its display place on his bedroom wall and brandishes it like a weapon against the monster who asks him to suffer, to watch. The kids in Stranger Things survive through music, through listening, together. They model what it might look like to refuse to go quietly into the upside-down death cult. They will go loudly, with Kate Bush, and collective action, and triumph!
In the real world, my kid has a bad feeling that it might not work out this time.
Okay, I reply. I’m listening.