Joy Rising Out of Trauma

In the brilliant sci-fi/fantasy Netflix series Stranger Things the main characters all go through trauma:

Joyce loses her son, Will. Jonathan loses his little brother.
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Eleven/Jane is experimented on, deprived of parental care, tortured, and manipulated psychologically.
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Dustin, Mike, and Lucas lose their friend and think he’s dead.
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Will is taken by a creature to another dimension and no one on the other side knows he’s alive. He is called “zombie boy” by his peers and haunted by nightmarish visions and flashbacks of the Upside Down.
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Kali was experimented on and given a number, like Eleven.
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Sherriff Hopper lost his child to cancer and his marriage ended.
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The list goes on. Trauma. PTSD.

Life in the Upside Down.

Stranger Things 2 also explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. Consider Billy, a bully and the older stepbrother to Max.

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Billy is pretty much your standard jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas. But the show reveals eventually that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and is now repeating what his father wants.

What the show does well is to give us an opportunity to talk about/deal with something that is often very difficult to handle. Anyone who has suffered great trauma in life knows just how hard it can be to address it. Time and time again, the characters of Stranger Things are in a back-and-forth state of post-traumatic stress. They are neither in the moment of trauma nor fully isolated from its effects. This is the Demogorgon.

demoAnd it is extremely difficult to defeat.

In one scene, Joyce, Bob, and the boys are looking for the location of vines that are growing beneath the surface, in the upside down.

mapBobBob’s puzzle-solving skills come in handy, as he is able to draw a map using Will’s seemingly random drawings. This scene is a metaphor for navigating trauma. It’s beneath the surface, but it can be difficult to find a map to heal the lingering emotional wounds.

This is why a sweet kid like Eleven feels like both girl and monster. This is why Will feels like a zombie or a freak.

So how does Stranger Things offer a path to healing?

The show does a great job, I think, of demonstrating shared trauma: many of the main characters stand with each other in solidarity, encourage each other, and find deeper connections as a result. They construct a “new” family. The honesty and connectedness of shared trauma and acceptance can lead to realization, aha moments, personal growth, and even joy/gratitude. Examples from the show:

Kali “grew up” with El in the lab but they had not seen each other for years. When they reunited Kali shared: “I just feel whole, like a piece of me was missing and now it’s not.” Kali also understands El’s pain and protects her. She offers her a new purpose and encourages El to develop her special abilities. Sadly, Kali chooses to use her powers to get violent revenge. Because of this, El decides to return to her original place of trauma.

And in spite of Kali telling El that Going back to Hawkins and her friends is pointless and empty, El cones to the realization that what and who she was searching for was there all the time. She wasn’t a monster or someone to blame for the upside down. She didn’t have to be an outcast either.

She could help her friends.

Stories like this one can offer us a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with emotions that society often demands us to keep hidden. But stories can also make the intangible fears into literal things; in other words, indistinct kinds of anxiety can be channeled into flesh-and-blood enemies like the Demogorgon or Shadow Monster.

The darkness of trauma [the Upside Down], Stranger Things explains to us, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But there is a path to surviving it—not a quick fix, but a slow, arduous path to healing and recovery. And along that path are people who share our trauma, sit with us in times of loss, pain, and suffering. We find solidarity with them, friendship, and the kind of joy that goes far beyond surface happiness. It is the joy in knowing that your seemingly messed up, freakish existence is more than that. The trauma that you have suffered doesn’t tell your whole story. You are writing your story each day, right now. And others are interested in your fresh and unique narrative.

So friends, wherever you are on your journey today—whatever trauma you have suffered or are suffering, remember that you are not alone. Keep on writing your story anew. Much love to you in the Upside Down.

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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