Processing Fictional Trauma: Stranger Things Edition

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE FIRST SEASON OF STRANGER THINGS.

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!

This summer, Netflix took us by storm with the new series that terrified us and gave us all the nostalgic feels… Stranger Things. This show had it all…. suspense, horror, romance, science, Christmas lights, D&D, waffles… all framed around us reliving our past with Trapper Keepers, popped collars, giant glasses, and even gianter hair. What’s not to love?

Stranger Things logo with characters

Despite all the awesome, however, Stranger Things was certainly full of fictional trauma for both the characters and the viewers. Interestingly enough, the two most frequent traumas I’ve seen people talking about don’t necessarily directly involve Will, despite his story being the focus of the show. The two greatest emotional blows seem to be stories of Eleven… and Barb.

While Eleven might seem the obvious choice, Barb’s character really seemed to strike a major chord in many, many people. Barb was the slightly nerdy friend, a bit of a goodie Barb.jpggoodie, who was feeling concerned about being left behind once her best friend started dating the popular kid in school. Every single person that ever attended high school – whether it be in the 80s or any other decade — had insecurities, and Barb is those insecurities personified. While each of us likely had a slightly different experience, the fear in high school that if <insert thing here> happens, my friends won’t talk to me anymore is a feeling we can likely all remember…. As is going places where we’re not comfortable and maybe even drinking when we didn’t want to just to try to keep a friend or look “cool.” The idea that she did all that, and then still got snubbed by her friend… well, the hurt was palpable, and one that I have most assuredly felt in my life, and I’ll bet Barb Diving Board 3I’m not alone there. Seeing Barb sitting on that diving board, alone and devastated… that definitely gave me more reminiscent high school feels than the fashion references. Losing friends is always brutal, but for some reason in high school it’s just exponentially worse. And so, for so many of us who lived through high school – especially if we happened to be slightly nerdy (come on, fess up, we’re all family here!), Barb was us… and we were Barb. Having Barb then be the one major character that didn’t make it… well, the trauma was real.

While Barb was a character in which many of us saw ourselves years ago, Eleven was a character that likely tapped feelings and instincts we have in the present to protect kids, whether they’re ours or someone else’s. As the story unfolded, we saw just how horrible Stranger-Things-3-El-in-cell-850x560.jpgEleven’s life had been. The abuse, the neglect, the complete lack of real emotional connection of any kind… her entire story was tragic, from beginning to “end.” As a mental health professional who worked with abused and neglected kids for several years, seeing Eleven’s story was heartbreaking, as I knew the struggles she’d likely face if she made it through… the PTSD, struggles in relationships, challenges trusting and coping… seeing kids deal with this is so painful, even when they’re out of the abusive environment and healing. As a mom, watching Eleven made me want to rip my kid out of bed and snuggle her and ply her with Eggos and tell her I love her forever… and as my child is a toddler with sleeping problems, you know that’s a big statement. But ultimaWe Can Call You Eltely, after the difference facets of myself reacted in their various ways, a solid take away that I’ve seen with my own eyes to be true is that the kindness of one human really can make all the difference in the world to another human. We don’t know the true fate of Eleven at this point, but what we do know is that if she actually is gone, her brutally dark world had some light at the end… all due to the kindness of a nerdy kid named Mike, and it likely made all the difference in the world to her.

It would seem that one of the primary reasons why Stranger Things became such a massive hit is because the story sucked us in, and made us truly care for and – perhaps more importantly – relate somewhat to the characters on the screen. I was the awkward kid in elementary school that struggled with social interaction (like Mike and even Eleven), and the nerdy kid in high school who the popular kids didn’t talk to (like Barb)… my husband played D&D with his friends starting in elementary school to escape into another world and far away from the challenges of being bullied in school (like Mike and the boys), and felt like an outsider in high school (like Jonathan) . We totally understood the struggles of the kids and teenagers, especially with the whopping dose of 80s nostalgia drizzled on top. But as most of us are likely adults, I think we also related to the adults in the story as well… the Winona Lightsmother who flat out refuses to give up on her child, no matter how crazy everyone thinks she is; the police chief who got housed by the worst kind of trauma but is still trying to make the world a better place in his own flawed way; the mom who desperately wants her kids to talk to her, but knows they aren’t and is terrified for them and frustrated with herself. Stranger Things gave us a unique opportunity to not only look back and see ourselves and our awkwardness and insecurity in the past from a relatively safe distance now that we’re grown, but it also gave us the ability to look back and see how it may have been for our parents. While it’s true we likely didn’t get chased by literal monsters and taken to the upside down back then (I really hope you didn’t… that place was completely terrifying), many of the struggles are still relatable. Maybe we were so caught up in our own problems that we didn’t notice how fiercely protective our parents were, or how hard they were trying to get through to us, or how difficult it was for them to watch us struggle to make friends or deal with challenges. If you’re a parent now, the show might’ve been even more engaging because you could maybe relate to the kids and teens from your past, as well as relating to the adults in your present. An interesting emotional experience to be sure!

Stranger Things was chock full of feels, amazing plots, and engaging characters and dialogue. But ultimately, if I had to sum up the emotional take-aways from this show, I believe I would sum them up as these:

  1. While we may have strongly related to Barb when we were in high school, we have all likely come a long way since we were similar to her, and are probably not her any more. We have survived that life phase (even if she didn’t… *weeps*), and are now older and hopefully wiser. If seeing Barb brought up some old feelings for you, you might talk to a friend about it or journal… but remember, we are not in high school anymore. We made it through!
  2. If you are a parent now, or are around kids in any capacity, use the trip down memory lane that Stranger Things gave you to remember how damn hard it was to be a kid, and maybe apply some of that empathy to your kids or the kids you’re around. Parenting is HARD, and there is no two ways about that. But childhood was pretty tough too. Let’s all remember that we’re all struggling through together, regardless of age.
  3. Be kind to each other. Mike’s kindness literally saved Will’s life and maybe even the world. He wasn’t perfect, and he had anger outbursts and melted down, but ultimately he was kind to someone in need and he apologized when he needed to. And that kindness saved the day. We could all learn a lot from Mike.

Group Hug.PNG


Did Stranger Things stir up any feels for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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Filed under Fangirling, Mental Health, Uncategorized

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