Apart from its talent for recapturing the best of 80s pop culture, the exceptional appeal
of Stranger Things comes from its way of looking at what is dark and scary in our world and
beyond, and then processing this through the perspective of children.
Will’s disappearance and the fight against the Demogorgon is the story of children first
glimpsing the darkness of adulthood and facing this challenge head-on by filtering the big,
bad world through their own language, games, and values.
So, Stranger Things helps to teach its audiences how to think more like a kid again.
It reminds us to have open minds that can see what’s going on, even if it’s truly
strange and terrifying; to rise to the occasion by channeling the stories or games that inspire
us; to hold our friendships dear; and to be wary of those that might dismiss the reality
of your fears and your imagination.
From the first moments of the show, Stranger Things thrusts the audience
into the mindset of children.
The beginning scene in the laboratory is traditionally horrific, full of flashing lights and eerie
music that build our anxiety.
It’s immediately announced to the viewer that this is a horror show.
We then flash into safe suburbia, but the sprinkler on the boys’ house’s lawn mimics
the music and light rhythm of the laboratory scene.
So, while we transfer out of the horror feel into a safe-seeming location, the threat lingers,
"Something is coming, something hungry for blood."
and the boys in the midst of their Dungeons and Dragons seem somehow to be aware of that
threat (while older characters aren’t).
"What if its the demagorgon." "Oh God we are so screwed if it's the demagorgon?" "It's not the demagorgon."
"An army of trageldytes charge into the corner!" "Trageldytes?" "Told ya!"
While many remember childhood as a carefree time, the early Dungeons and Dragons game
what feels like life-or-death scenarios.
"Oh my God Oh my god oh my god"
One large lamp above the table, while only a few scattered fainter lamps leave great
portions of the room in darkness.
When the perspective shifts into these shadows, viewing the table from a source of obscurity,
the audience gets the feeling that these four children are being stalked or watched.
After the game, when the boys ride home at night, they seem completely exposed and unprotected,
their small bike lights surrounded by an intimidating sea of darkness This visual foreshadows what’s
to come, but also dramatizes the way that the boys already constantly feel threats around
It’s this open mindset in which they haven’t yet outgrown the ability to believe in supernatural
Later in the first episode, when Will is kidnapped by the Demogorgon,
the boys’ prediction of peril is realized, again through this visual motif of a small
"The demagorgon... It got me."
Again through this visual motif, light in darkness while the precedent in the game doesn’t
totally save him, it prepares his mind for what’s about to happen.
"Do you hear that? That sound?" "Boom... Boom... BOOM!"
Rather than stare disbelievingly around him, he bravely brandishes a gun in an attempt
to save himself.
Will proves himself not a helpless child but rather a motivated person ready to defend
And in the season to follow, his group of friends prove the most capable and effective
in the fight to bring him back, thanks to their mental fortitude and willingness to
see the truth.
The children use games and toys to process severe problems in simpler, more inviting
And the show includes us in their thought process.
Right before the boys begin gathering forces
to look for Will, the camera literally illustrates the turning of the tables as its focus switches
from Will’s piece, the wizard, to the Demogorgon.
It viscerally demonstrates that it’s the Demogorgon’s move, and game, now.
However, despite the foreboding tone of this switch, seeing it on a board game renders
the reality more manageable.
Plus, in a board game, every player gets their turn.
If it’s the Demogorgon’s now, then that means it will be the boys’ again before
long. Eleven clears the board to explain the location of Will. The elimination of the previously known rules, resets the stakes.
Mike: What if this is Hawkins, and this is where Will is.
"Like the veil of shadows."
At the same time, the presence of the board and pieces gives them confidence by grounding
them in in what they know.
As bad as the situation may seem, the fact that Will is hiding from they’re facing
the monster instead of the bad men almost creates better odds.
They can mentally prepare to face this monster because they’ve faced this monster before
in their game.
This shows how it helps children to deal with scary concepts -- and accept truly horrific
lost in some different version of the world, so their way of processing it is to relate
it back to something familiar.
This shows how it helps children to deal with scary concepts -- and accept truly horrific
events -- through fantasy and role-playing.
"Why would the chief set us up? Nancy, maybe... but the chief?"
"Lando Carithian." "Shut up about Lando!"
As an audience, we could learn by this example; things that sometimes seem complex and over
our heads can be easier to deal with if we compare them to past experiences or successes.
Comparing reality to the game also sometimes extends to treating reality as a game.
To discuss the day’s happenings and come up with a plan of attack, the boys communicate
Therefore, the conversation becomes instantly less worrying; it’s just two boys playing
The walkie-talkies resurface during first contact with Will since his disappearance.
"If I go there will be trouble. An' if I don't it will be double." "Will is that you? It's Mike do you copy?"
Despite the intensity of this moment – they’re listening to their very distressed friend
trapped in a different layer of the world – the fact that contact is made through
a toy feels like they’re just playing pretend.
Even the way that the boys prepare to challenge the monster -- Lucas
brings his “wrist-rocket,” his fancy name for a slingshot, and Dustin brings snacks
"Seriously?" "We need energy for our travels, for stamina."
-- are just same matter-of-fact ways they’d get ready to play their board game.
By reducing reality to a game, the kids feel braver, more up to the challenge, and can
still have fun while facing terrible dangers.
"Mike!!! I found the chocolate pudding!"
The kids’ strong bonds with
each other are a constant reminder of what’s most important to kids -- friendship.
"You can't have more than one best friend." "Says who?" " Says logic."
"Well I call bull on your logic, because you're my best friend too."
These kids know that human connection and treating each other decently should always
come first, whatever struggles we face.
This makes the audience think about whether we hold ourselves to the same standards in
After all, if these kids can hold on to what’s important while facing the Demogorgon, then
what’s our excuse not to do the same?
With such high value placed on friendships, the kids can resolve any argument.
"Everything I said about you being a trader and stuff... I was wrong."
Mike and Lucas’s interactions after their fight suggest that they’ve had disagreements
before, but usually just a handshake and apology are enough to be friends again.
They’re stronger together than apart.
"Do you even remember what happened on the Bloodstone path?"
"We couldn’t agree on what path to take, so we split up the party."
"And those trolls took us out one by one, and it all went to shit, and we were all disabled!"
"So we stick together, no matter what!"
Not only will they stick together in the face of crazy danger, the kids are
such devoted friends that they literally risk their lives to save one another, as they devote
themselves to finding Will.
"All I know is Will is alive...Will is alive! All we have to do is find him."
Stranger Things also shows the easy development of a new bond: the boys’
friendship with Eleven.
Mike and Eleven’s first genuine interaction is shared laughter at silly comforts,
Making new friends is easy and natural for kids, but it’s far harder to slip immediately
into a true friendship the older we get.
Refreshingly, Eleven’s new friends accept the ways that she’s different and see her
“weird” qualities as cool.
"She’s our friend and she’s crazy!"
They’ve also been the “weird kids” at
school, so they are able to empathize with Eleven’s feeling like an outsider.
"What is friend?" "Is she serious?"
The boys can’t imagine life without each others’ friendship, and it horrifies them
to think Eleven’s never experienced that.
Mike emphasizes the idea of a promise to Eleven.
"Promise?" "It means something that you can't break ever."
It may seem to us fairly naïve to trust someone because they say you can, but it’s a notion
children swear by.
And it denotes a valuable quality in children to trust and respect what others say without
the cynicism of adulthood.
This friendship is where the kids find their greatest power, reminding the audience that
the most important choice in life is trusting and valuing other people.
The kids’ world is separate from the adult world, and the show establishes an interplay
between the mundane adult world and imaginative kid world.
While their parents are theoretically there to protect them, the adults can’t truly
help because they are unable to understand the reality as kids see it.
"I think we should tell your mom"
"I second that."
"Who’s crazy now?"
"How is that crazy?"
"‘Cause we weren’t supposed to be out tonight, remember?"
"So, if I tell my mom, and she tells your mom, and your mom-"
"Our houses become Alcatraz."
To these kids, the possibility of all their moms knowing is scarier than any life-or-death
horror they could face.
This is echoed later on in the episode when the boys are at school.
The scariest part isn’t the lost girl who doesn’t really speak or actively respond
to them -- it’s the idea of Mike’s mom finding out that a girl spent the night.
"If his mom finds out a girl slept over last night-" "He's in deep shit right now"
But on another level, it shows that for kids, social and parental pressures often feel more
stressful even than the challenges that they perceive as the life-or-death.
While most parents are a lot more aware of their kids’ activities than the adults in
Stranger Things, "Is that Will I hear back there?" "No, no it's just Mike." "Wasn't Will supposed to spend the night?"
it’s still true that parents can’t really intervene to help their kids
face the trials that feel to them most dramatic and difficult in their lives.
The uncrossable barrier between the adult and child worlds lies in acknowledging truth
-- they know that their parents can’t understand and would try to reduce their interpretation
of the world to nonsense.
For the audience, the way the kids protect their truth from their parents reminds us
to be wary of those people that are too closed-minded, too “adult” in that sense, to understand
the rich layer of imagination and “stranger things” that our inner kids can still perceive.
We should steer clear of these small-minded people who would diminish our worlds to only
what they accept is factual and normal.
"And you shouldn't like things because people tell you you're supposed to."
Stranger Things teaches us to be open-minded even when reality is beyond belief; to manage
the challenges we face by treating them like a game; to remember that friendship and human
bonds are more important than anything else; and to be wary of people who will dismiss your beliefs. In other words, think like a kid.
"I'm a monster." "No El, you're not the monster, you saved me. Don't you understand?" "You saved me."