When I was a kid, my mom had a book called Christ Returns by 1988. It became a running joke in my family well into the ’90s and beyond; but my sisters and I were too young to remember the apocalyptic fervor of the era. The cottage industry of rapture books and movies was just getting started in the evangelical world; and in the world outside, it was still beyond anyone’s best guess who would win the Cold War. Indeed, many thought everybody would lose. But for kids like me, the decade was a blast. Kids had adventures then that they don’t have now, and the classic coming-of-age films of the ’80s bear witness: E.T., The Goonies, The Never-Ending Story, Stand by Me.
The Netflix original series Stranger Things, which debuted in 2016, is an unapologetic homage to all of this ’80s weirdness and goodness. Moreover, it is a fairy tale. And as G.K. Chesterton says, “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” There are good guys and bad guys, and sometimes kids know better than adults which is which. In Stranger Things, the bogeys come from the Upside Down, a dark motif in Western thought since ancient times, and particularly popular in the Renaissance. The French poet Agrippa d’aubigné depicted the evils of the Wars of Religion as a battle against an inverted world. We find similar ideas in Shakespeare, as well as in the protest song “The World Turned Upside Down,” when ordinary English folk found that their Lord Protector had taken all the fun out of Christmas in 1646. This song would appear again in the American Revolution, and is referenced in the hit musical Hamilton. More generally for Christians, occasionally the realm of things unseen feels all too near, and we are reminded of the spiritual warfare that besets us.
Stranger Things 2 picks up one year after the disappearance of young Will and the demise of the sweet sidekick, Barb. Eleven is missing, Mike longs to see her, Dustin’s teeth have come in, and a new girl with a skateboard and a creepy big brother has rolled into town. The Upside Down is gearing up for a full-blown invasion. Hawkins, Indiana, is thousands of miles from the handful of super Zip Codes from which today’s elites rule the rest of us. But as in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and It, the most important battles take place in the least likely places. It’s up to the little guys to play the unsung heroes. In Stranger Things 2, as in so many of the great stories, there is the unifying danger of facing a common enemy, accompanied by the thrill of defeating it.
Stranger Things 2 introduces new character dynamics, most notably the relationship between Hopper, the childless protector, and Eleven, the innocent freak. Eleven’s pre-teen rebellion is made dramatically more interesting with the development of her mental powers. For her own good (a familiar parental trope that happens to be true) Eleven is forbidden to see her friends. She hits the road and winds up with a group of misfits bent on wreaking punky punishment on their former abusers. At long last, Eleven is reunited with her old crew in Hawkins, just in time to piece together a plan that will put her in the hot seat to save the world yet again. But everyone — the whole body — is needed to get the job done.
The charm of the show shines through in multiple scenes. We want these kids to shut out the Upside Down so that they can get back to playing Dig Dug at the arcade, riding their bikes with abandon, and strategizing about D&D for countless hours in the basement. Even more, we imagine them growing up and having families of their own. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. We root for them the way we root for Sean Astin and his pals to find the rich stuff and save their town in The Goonies — a connection made clear by the appearance of Astin in Stranger Things 2 as the immensely likable Bob. Paul Reiser costars this season as a doctor who wants to play God; but he, unlike last year’s Matthew Modine, comes to his senses. Would that today’s Dr. Frankensteins might do the same.
The school dance sequence in the last episode is pure delight, and yet the Upside Down remains. It always does. Christ didn’t return in 1988. The Soviet Union fell but new enemies took the Soviets’ place. Reagan beat Mondale 49 states to 1, but it wasn’t quite the second American revolution the Gipper said it would be. The stage is set for a Stranger Things 3 and more prestige television that appeals to us all. Until then, we escape together into the nostalgia of season two’s world gone by, and find strength to battle our bogeys now.