Early in the first season of “Stranger Things,” the psychically gifted girl Eleven spells out the show’s central premise by flipping over a Dungeons & Dragons game board and revealing its dark underside. A little boy has gone missing, and searchers have found nothing; Eleven says that he is “hiding” in an evil alternate dimension that the show’s characters come to call the Upside Down. It’s a great scene for many reasons. There’s joy in the simplicity of the idea of the Upside Down, and in the directness with which it’s expressed. And the kids, who are around twelve years old, are at the perfect age for accepting such an idea. Watching their eyes widen, your eyes widen, too.
Four seasons in, the protagonists of “Stranger Things” are hardly jaded—they’re still surprised and appalled by what they see—but there’s a sense in which they’ve exited their wonder years. They’re old enough to remember their younger, more impressionable selves. “ ‘The NeverEnding Story’—that scared the shit out of me!” one of them recalls. The new season takes place in 1986, and “The NeverEnding Story” came out in 1984. Now in high school, they can look back wistfully on the scary movies that they watched in middle school; having become experienced monster hunters, they can face the creatures that stalk them with workaday aplomb. What really freaks them out is stuff like applying to college or saying “I love you” to a girlfriend. When the final season’s villain eventually explains his desire to destroy the world, he argues that human society is cruel and oppressive—a “deeply unnatural structure” that’s “dictated by made-up rules. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, decades—each life a faded, lesser copy of the one before. Wake up, eat, work, sleep, reproduce, and die. Everyone is just waiting—waiting for it all to be over, all while performing in a silly, terrible play, day after day.” Adulthood, it appears, could be the real Upside Down.
The new season is long—eight episodes of more than an hour each, capped by a two-and-a-half-hour finale—in part because it has to pull the preteen version of the show into a more adult frame. It’s a labor-intensive process, which seems to require almost every character to have an extended heart-to-heart conversation (“I see you,” “I’m here for you,” “I believe in you,” etc.). But the over-all effect is to raise the stakes of the show so that, by the end of the season, it’s a team of grownups that’s confronting possible doom. (Stop reading if you want to avoid spoilers.) In the concluding episode, a giant portal to the Upside Down opens beneath Hawkins, Indiana, and the poisonous atmosphere of that nether realm flows upward into the ordinary world. In one of the best shots of the series, Eleven walks through a field of vibrant wildflowers, then encounters a border beyond which the plants are newly dead and gray. She steps across to pick a withered flower. It’s a frightening image of permanent environmental degradation—an adult problem, much scarier than bogeymen from another dimension.
To an extent, all scary entertainments ask a serious question: what is evil? “Stranger Things” has always been a mashup of movies and books from the past—Season 4 combines elements from “It,” “The Matrix,” “Aliens,” “Pitch Black,” “Carrie,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Poltergeist II,” “Terminator 2,” and more—but the show has also pursued this question of evil in a straightforward, uncluttered way. In the show’s first three seasons, the evil in the Upside Down tended to be icky, slithery, and otherworldly; it was Lovecraftian, in that it emanated from a twisted, morbid, and hidden part of nature. Science tells us that insects are beautiful and that mold is magnificent, but venture into a rotted-out basement or turn over a moist log and you might disagree. The Upside Down is a rotten world, and our horror of it flows from the realization that its decay is predatory, hunting us down even if we’re innocent.
Season 4 changes the story. In the finale, a flashback to 1979 shows us a surprising, primordial Upside Down—a version that existed before the series began. It’s not a nice place—a small, homuncular version of the show’s tulip-headed monster roams the rocks—but it’s also oddly pristine, as Earth might have looked during some previous evolutionary era. Henry Creel, the villain, has arrived there after killing everyone in the psychic-experimentation lab beneath Hawkins. (After murdering his own family with telekinetic powers, he became Subject No. 1 in the research program that later produced Eleven.) When Eleven discovers what Creel has done, she’s so filled with rage and disgust that she unthinkingly opens the first crack between the dimensions and shoves him through it.
It’s Creel, we learn, who made the Upside Down what it is. Messed up to begin with, his powers were increased under the traumatic tutelage of Martin Brenner, the scientist helming the Hawkins project; once Creel finds himself in the Upside Down, he reshapes its raw materials in his own image. “I know what he did to you,” Eleven tells Creel, of Brenner. “You were different, like me. And he hurt you. He made you into this. He’s the monster, Henry—not you.” This is a little doubtful: Didn’t a young Creel, acting alone, use his powers to murder his mother and sister, framing his dad for the crime? But the broader point is reasonable. Creel, in his demonic form—he now resembles the Creature from the Black Lagoon and commands an army of monsters—wouldn’t have been possible if he hadn’t been further twisted by others. And this, in turn, means that the Upside Down might have remained merely an unpleasant parallel world, rather than one that threatens to colonize our own.
This account of evil is familiar and realistic. Disturbed people, egged on and empowered, do actually lash out and commit unspeakable acts on a large scale. (A warning card placed before the season’s first episode, in which many children are massacred, notes that viewers may find it disturbing “given the recent tragic shooting at a school in Texas.”) In some ways, this more grounded and human version of the Upside Down is actually scarier, because it embodies an evil for which we must take responsibility. But it’s also less otherworldly, and so in some ways less disturbing. This shift, from the genuinely spooky to the merely psychological—from the unknowable to the explicable—is another way in which “Stranger Things” has become more grown-up.
Does explaining evil ever work? For some of us, accounts of why people do evil things can be satisfying. Piecing together a chain of events, leading from initial conditions to a final outcome, can make the awful comprehensible. But, for others, an element of the unaccountable will always remain. The demons in the Upside Down turn out to be the product of a diseased human mind. But why are human minds diseased? The alternate world that haunts our own has been shaped by a person’s imagination. But why are people so ready to imagine such horrors? Does some bloody vein connect our present selves to our evolutionary past, or is the entropic, destructive aspect of the universe somehow woven into our natures, too?
In David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks”—the grown-up version of “Stranger Things”—evil remains elusive and elemental, and yet the realism of the terrible acts on which the story turns remains uncompromised. The idea is that evil, though it must be confronted, can never be actually explained; even “adult” forms of evil—including ordinary heinous crimes—are haunted by something otherworldly, making them terrifying. Watching the new season of “Stranger Things,” you can get the impression that, as we grow up, we come to understand more about why the world goes wrong. But that, too, could be an illusion of youth. ♦