Mazes, Monsters, and Metaphors: Stranger Things and Suburban Horror

I thought Stranger Things 3 was, overall, an excellent season—a great improvement over Season 2 and a return to some of its Stephen King-centric roots that add an extra layer of menace to the proceedings in a show which can, under some circumstances, seem a little too lighthearted and fizzy in places. But Stranger Things 3 managed to continue one of the series’ best thematic through lines wherein the Lovecraftian menace of the Upside-Down serves as a supernatural stand-in for the equally unpalatable but decidedly more familiar suburban horror of child molestation, exploitation, and abuse.

Of course, it is nothing new to see otherworldly horror dovetail with a more familiar, mundane source of fear. H.P. Lovecraft used his cosmic monstrosities as stand-ins for his own racist fear of immigrants and people of color. Shirley Jackson used her Gothic fabulae to give expression to the private terrors of the lonely and misanthropic. Perhaps most importantly, for our purposes, Stephen King uses his alien and supernatural monsters to explore the perils of nostalgia and the small-mindedness it can engender. Given that Stranger Things is both a show that banks on the nostalgia of its viewers and one that’s specifically interested in the horror landscape of the 1980s—a landscape that King was paramount in shaping—it makes sense that he would be central to the way the show uses the otherworldly to consider and talk about the mundane, tapping into the darker anxieties beneath Hawkins’ sunlit, idyllic-seeming surface.

What Stranger Things gets right about the fear of child molestation is that it is, ultimately, a fear that festers in particular among the suburban middle class. To be clear, that is not to say that it is not a reality at all strata of American society. But the fear of child molestation is one that permeates suburbia because it is something that wealth cannot keep out. Suburbs—at least the suburbs as they existed throughout the second half of the 20th century, and in the 1980s that both King and the Stranger Things writers evoke—existed as private (largely white) enclaves, removed from the integrated cities: testaments to the idea that wealth buys isolation, structure, and control which, in turn, buys security for one’s children.

In these suburbs, one can live in a bubble where the indignities of poverty—violent crime, malnutrition, and miseducation—can be kept largely at bay. But when it comes to the specter of child molestation, such an enclave is no clear ameliorative. Streets may be safe to walk and play in, but sexual abuse is a crime that may occur in private spaces like the basements, rec rooms, and bedrooms of the average middle class home. Furthermore, in both the popular imagination and the reality of most cases of child molestation, the predator is someone that suburban clannishness cannot keep out. He (statistically, the majority of child molesters are male) is a trusted family friend, an uncle, a neighbor, a local shopkeeper, the parish priest. The (implicitly white) suburban middle class fear of the child molester is the fear of the hidden monster: the one that looks like you, the one that you never suspected, the it’s-always-the-quiet-ones innocuous person that blends in perfectly with the community until it is too late. Building a community where differences like skin color, income, and failure to adhere to the nuclear family structure are all barriers to entry doesn’t safeguard against such a figure.

With its strong focus on both the 1980s and Midwestern suburbia, it is inevitable that Stranger Things would be a show that dealt with the fear of child molestation in some oblique way, but it has leaned into the topic in Season 3 with a surprising sensitivity and thoughtfulness. This is fascinating, in part, because Stranger Things is also a show that has tried to have its cake and eat it too—by subverting the more pernicious tropes of the ‘80s while still reenacting them.

This is probably clearest in its treatment of Dungeons & Dragons. The show has, obviously, been a huge boon to DnD (and to tabletop roleplaying games in general), and makes a point of showing the lighthearted camaraderie and community that DnD can foster. This depiction may be seen as a direct response to DnD being at the center of the “satanic panic” of the 1980s, in which participation in the game was seen as a sign of moral corruption. When the McMartin Preschool sexual abuse trials erroneously linked the ongoing satanic panic to child molestation in 1986, DnD became further demonized. While Stranger Things’ showrunners, the Duffer Brothers, clearly love Dungeons & Dragons, it is interesting to note the way in which the show breathes life into the link between the game and child endangerment, most notably by having the kids name the Upside Down’s terrifying monsters after creatures from the Monster Manual. In this way, DnD is seen as a safe and harmless pastime while simultaneously providing nomenclature for the Demogorgon and Mindflayer—essentially bringing those monsters to life in a weird parallel to the 1981 anti-DnD scare novel (and source of a Tom Hanks-starring 1982 TV movie adaptation), Mazes and Monsters.

But, beyond the mid-‘80s link between DnD and child endangerment, it is necessary to look at the ways in which the show’s third season (and its second, to an extent) use supernatural monsters as thematically appropriate vessels to represent fears centering on child molestation and rape more generally. Specifically, it’s essential to look at the Mindflayer’s dread, mesmeric influence.

The thematic links between mind control and rape are nothing new: The loss of agency paired with the violation of bodily autonomy that is so often the hallmark of supernatural tropes like possession and mind control are discussed frequently in literary criticism on the subject. Moreover, even in the historical record, 19th-century “sciences” like mesmerism and animal magnetism were met with an overwhelming fear of sexual abuse as the assumed natural outcome. Brue Wyse explains that there was healthy concern over “sexual exploitation afforded by the mesmeric transaction” along with the similar worry that “certain mesmerists, alerted to the affective bond established over a series of sessions, [could] be tempted to capitalise on the inherent erotics of mesmeric dependency.” As a result, Stranger Things’ Mindflayer can be seen as a figurative sexual predator—a malevolent trickster who uses both coercion and force to deny the agency of the people it chooses to use as instruments and makes victims of the people it “partners” with.

The Mindflayer’s possession of Will Byers at the end of the first season becomes one of the central plots of Season 2 and in treating possession/mind control as a form of rape, Stranger Things meditates with surprising gravity on the effect of sexual trauma both on children and their families. If Will is Season 1’s MacGuffin—the reward for the quest that the rest of the characters are on—Season 2 focuses on how his isolation is the result of his traumatic abduction. It also doubles down on the familiar, suburban horror trope of the parent who suspects that their child is being mistreated but is powerless to help. Joyce Byers, who spent the first season desperate and gaslit in her attempts to find her missing son, spends Season 2 persistently looking to him for signs of trauma. It echoes the McMartin Preschool panic as well as the endless “very special episodes” of ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms that centered on the sexual abuse potentiality of “stranger danger.”

This fear is given the opportunity to linger and fester because the hermetic nature of the suburbs prevents open dialogue about the possibility of children being molested. Very Special Episodes give voice to a Gothic voicelessness and anxiety where even invoking the idea that a child could be sexually molested might somehow make the event more likely. This is reflected in the Victorian-born vision of a sacred childhood where, in order to keep a child innocent and pure, they cannot even know what sex is—let alone how it might be used to hurt them. In not being able to be open and honest about the existence of the Upside Down with the rest of Hawkins, Joyce Byers (and Sheriff Hopper, for that matter) is condemned to a kind of intense, unspoken anxiety about what might be happening to Will.

It’s interesting to note that the Duffer Brothers subvert expectations about child molestation here, as well. Season 2’s MVP, the heroic Bob Newby (played with homey charm by Sean Astin), shares much in common with the ‘80s television, Very Special Episode image of a child molester: the kindly, boyish, man-child whose sweet effeminacy and interest in children was seen through the lens of 1980s panic as signaling a perverse sexual desire. Making Bob not just not a child molester but the self-sacrificing hero of Season 2 is to refute the trope that gentle, child-focused men are likely predators and that only toxic masculinity proves your disinterest in sexually abusing children.

Season 3’s Will Byers is also an effective figure for depicting the lingering effects of sexual trauma. The repeated visual cue of Will reaching for the back of his neck when the Mindflayer is nearby makes for a chilling metonymy for PTSD triggers and flashbacks: One can be removed from immediate danger and still be unable to escape the violation of a lack of bodily autonomy. This season gave Will Byers a lot of room to explore grief and anger as a result of past trauma as well as the isolation produced by his friends’ inability to empathize. This plays darkly against the ways in which the rest of the Hawkins gang uses Will’s triggers as a kind of alarm bell. He becomes a living detection tool, and while the show never explicitly delves into it, it becomes another way in which his autonomy and personhood is compromised by those he cares about in the wake of violation and trauma.

While Will and Joyce are both excellent lenses through which to view the paranoia of suburban fear of child molestation and the all-too-real aftereffects of trauma, Season 3 begins to address the way in which the Mindflayer is a harbinger of community rot and culpability when it comes to the endangerment of its children.

Enter Billy Hargrove: neighborhood bully, surprisingly tragic figure, and decent contender for god-like personification of Beauty itself. Randall Colburn over at the AV Club wrote a fascinating article about how Billy is a classic version of the neighborhood bully that populates so many of Stephen King’s classic stories. He tells us:

Where many authors offer their antagonists depth, dimension, and redemption, King often pivots in another direction […] vivid, well-drawn characters, but […] also broken, flesh-and-blood manifestations of whatever supernatural evil simmers beneath the surface […] when King brings us into their minds, we see not a flawed, vulnerable creature, but a cruel, corrupted soul. They want nothing more than to hurt us, and as such, they are exactly what we imagined our bullies to be when we were children. We were right to be afraid.

Where King sees a natural affinity (which Colburn describes as “inevitable” and predestined), Stranger Things, as the article notes, also subverts the trope of the effortlessly and uncomplicatedly evil bully—offering Billy Hargrove a healthy portion of tragedy and suffering. But it is true that Stranger Things 3’s choice to pair the vain, cruel, but eminently imaginable sociopathy of Billy Hargrove with the unspeakable, purposefully unimaginable menace of the Mindflayer makes perfect thematic sense.

It also makes sense insofar as Billy is precisely the kind of complex figure that does not easily fit into suburban conceptions of the world and is therefore a threat to middle class enclaves. Season 2 spent most of its episodes making Billy the exact kind of Stephen King-style monster that Colburn describes. It’s only in the penultimate episode of that season that we get any inkling of his humanity, with a scene in which his father breaks viewer expectations in berating him with “So that’s why you’ve been staring at yourself in the mirror like some faggot instead of watching your sister.” Of course, as Colburn notes, we understand that bullies are often the product of abuse but the particular form of this abuse reveals precisely why Billy is such a pariah in Hawkins, and why Stranger Things pairs him with its supernatural sexual predator.

So let’s talk about Billy Hargrove, both as a character within the world of the show and as metaphoric figure in the schema of suburban fear. Billy is presented, in many ways, as hyper-masculine. Actor Dacre Montgomery is incredibly muscular and Billy is shot as both heartthrob and violent monster—a bastion of ripped, peak-‘80s toxic masculinity. But he is also made incredibly feminine. He has a personal style that veers towards hair metal and glam rock, accentuated with stereotypically effeminate touches such as his pierced ears, his eye makeup, and his long, young-Rob Lowe eyelashes. His scenes of violence and menace are often paired, in Season 3, with a single tear running down his cheek—a crack in the armor of stereotypical masculinity. Even the way he is shot and presented as an object for female lust puts him in the position of being the feminine gazed-upon rather than the masculine gazer. His poolside strut in Episode 1 of the new season puts the viewer in mind of Phoebe Cates’ topless approach in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Both she and Montgomery are transmuted in those scenes into aesthetic objects that exist for the viewing pleasure of both the poolside audience within the show and the viewing audience at home. One can almost hear the Tex Avery wolf howls coming from Karen Wheeler and her hungry circle of lusty moms.

So, in comparing Billy to a “faggot” in Season 2, his father voices a stereotypical suburbanite belief: Not comfortably fitting into masculine paradigms means you are a scary outsider. Beyond the rampant homophobia of early-AIDS crisis 1986 and the pernicious, persistent lie that queer people are more likely to be pedophiles, suburbia has traditionally found particular reason to distrust queer and queer-coded figures. For queer men, especially, the disinterest in heterosexual sex sets them outside the bounds of the limited vision of family that the suburban, nuclear model provides. Billy is not queer, but his father makes sure that the coding of such is explicit—and follows it up with a degradation of his heterosexual encounters, calling his date a “whore.” So Billy Hargrove is a figure that reads to both the world of Hawkins and to the viewing audience as a dangerous outsider—both a bully and a sexually suspect reproductive dead-end.

The fact that the Mindflayer imposes on Billy a violent fantasy of beating up Karen Wheeler feeds into this as well. The Mindflayer is also a sexual predator insofar as it mixes sexual desire and violent impulse in its victims. But Stranger Things reaffirms the unknowability of the child molester in the mind of the suburbanite by spreading outward from Billy to filter into various members of the community. While Jake Busey’s sleazy reporter, Bruce, and Peggy Miley’s town kook, Mrs. Driscoll, are among the flayed, it also absorbs the entire Holloway clan, finding the ultimate inroad to the upper-middle class, suburban, white American family. This comes to a head at the end of the sixth episode, “E Pluribus Unum,” where the flayed sacrifice themselves en masse, to add their biomass to the Mindflayer’s Rightside Up avatar. It’s the ultimate act of violation: the unwilling destruction of the self. The Mindflayer’s predatory instincts end in the homogenization of Hawkins’ citizens under one banner of trauma and violation. That the episode title should refer to a venerated American motto as well the monster’s goals, all while set against the backdrop of an Independence Day celebration lends the proceedings a political valence that speaks to the hollowness of suburbia’s solution to the problem of keeping children safe. In celebration of suburban values and conformity, the Mindflayer thrives while violating the autonomy and sanctity of adult and child bodies alike.

At the end of the season, Stranger Things ultimately puts the suburban fear of molestation on full display through both implicit ideas about family and explicit imagery. Billy Hargrove is given a shot at redemption once he is freed from the Mindflayer’s grasp. This is accomplished when Eleven reminds him of an idyllic memory of his childhood, glimpsed in a psychic vision. The vision is of a return to the safety and stable ties that the nuclear family offers: family outings where mother and child can bond. It is only in remembering that he is not, in fact, a quintessential outsider that Billy can become heroic. This moment is followed almost immediately by his being violently, physically penetrated by his abuser. The Mindflayer turns from oblique, psychological violation of the mind, to violent, physical violation of the body, its phallic tentacles making good on the unimaginable fear of child molestation that goes suspected but unvoiced in the mind of the suburban parent.

Billy is redeemed first by returning to the memory of the suburban family structure and then, more disturbingly, in being violated in the same way he has violated others by bringing them to the Mindflayer’s den. It will be interesting to see if further seasons of the series capitalize on this depiction both of the Mindflayer and of the fears of suburbia generally. For a show that cleverly subverts so many of the tropes it employs, it cannot seem to find a way to escape the unsavory implications both of this central anxiety underlying its story and the metaphoric cruelty of what it takes to keep a community safe.

Tyler Dean is a professor of Victorian Gothic Literature. He holds a doctorate from the University of California Irvine and teaches at a handful of Southern California colleges. He is one half of the Lincoln & Welles podcast available on itunes or through your favorite podcatcher. More of his writing can be found at his website and his fantastical bestiary can be found on Facebook at @presumptivebestiary.

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