Stranger Things: A Literary Masterpiece



Laptop featuring the title for the Netflix series Stranger Things.

Note: The following article is a loose reflection on Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like A Professor and how the novel works in conversation with the plot of the Netflix Series Stranger Things

The hit Netflix show Stranger Things is one of the most complex and calculated works of media of the current era. What makes it so ubiquitous is how it caters to a vast audience on both entertainment and intellectual levels. For example, a somewhat surface-level way the show broadens its range of viewers is by introducing storylines that each target a different audience. The adults watching are given the storyline revolving around Joyce Byers, Jim Hopper, and occasionally Murray Bauman. It addresses more mature topics, including parental fears of child abduction, divorce, the death of a child, cancer, and being able to learn to love again after bad experiences with marriage. The teen audience is met with the adventures of Steve Harrington, Nancy Wheeler, Jonathan Byers, and later Robin Buckley and Eddie Munson. In addition to attending to the mess that is the Upside Down, their storyline portrays realistic encounters for a teenager, including relationships, bullying, social hierarchies, college applications, and much more. Finally, the show draws in a younger following through what are considered to be the main characters: Mike Wheeler, Lucas Sinclair, Dustin Henderson, Will Byers, Eleven, and later Max Hargrove. The producers, the Duffer Brothers, use this piece of the show to focus on more encouraging themes. These include embracing personal quirks, loyalty and companionship, and morals. 

The chapter “Nice to Eat With You: Acts of Communion” in the novel How to Read Literature like a Professor discusses the significance of dinner scenes in compositions and media. To quote the chapter, “Generally, eating with another is a way of saying ‘I’m with you, I like you, we form a community together’ and that is a form of communion.” This immediately reminded me of Stranger Things (Season) 4, in the episode “Chapter Three: The Monster and the Superheroes.” The characters in this segment include members from the three parties: Joyce and Murray, Jonathan and Argyle, and Will, El, and Mike. The Duffer Brothers used this scenario to somewhat take the symbolism of sharing a meal detailed in this chapter and corrupt it—a common theme for the brothers. Where dining in a group would typically represent trust and community, the Duffer Brothers create an absolute contrast. Each character present at the table is withholding information from the other parties. Therefore, the audience is unsure of what to expect, despite the nature of the show making the viewers the only ones excluded from the characters’ deceit. Contrarily, say you are watching Modern Family, another popular television series that may contain a dinner scene. A person watching the show for the first time may see the family gathered for a meal and make the prediction that one of the parents may ask an invasive question of one of the children and one of their siblings may rat them out, leading to an outburst. One may also predict a fight erupting between the adults at dinner for something akin to forgetting an important date. These scenarios have been recycled in contemporary media so often that we as a society have stopped acknowledging their unoriginality. Stranger Things does the complete opposite. It takes viewers out of their element and skews their perception of literary archetypes and symbols they may not have realized had become somewhat of a comfort zone. 

As aforementioned, the Duffer Brothers love to take literary symbols of benevolence and pervert them. A series of scenes in Stranger Things Season 4 depict the murder of various side characters by the main antagonist of that season, creating a hole in their place of death that works as a portal between the Overworld and the Upside Down. The chapter “Now Where Have I Seen Her Before” in How to Read Literature like a Professor addresses how this is a twisted allusion. The chapter references the book Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, and a scene where his characters fall through a hole in the road, noting it as a nod to Alice in Wonderland. It’s described as “the world the squad discovers below the road, the network of Vietcong tunnels (although nothing like the real ones), complete with an officer condemned to that there for his crimes, is every bit as much an alternative world as the one Alice encounters in her adventure” (page 30). Once again, the Duffer Brothers have taken a well-known concept of holes symbolizing entrances to alternate worlds, making the link between Stranger Things 4 and Alice in Wonderland almost impossible to ignore. Now, it would be wildly inaccurate to call Alice’s Wonderland a paradise; for each white rabbit and unbirthday party there is a red queen to counter it. However, when faced with the decision between falling into the Upside Down or Wonderland, I assume most would prefer the latter. This is because, once again, the Duffer Brothers took this whimsical concept and contorted it into an underworld. 

These distortions may be attributed to the dark pop-culture references in the series, specifically season 4. The series takes place in the 1980s, the first season revolving around a group of children riding on bikes in their “cursed” town, trying to find their missing friend. Sound familiar? If you have read or watched Stephen King’s IT, that may be the case. However, that is not the only slasher film Stranger Things pays tribute to. Nightmare on Elm Street was used as inspiration for the fourth season, with Freddie Kreuger as a cookie cutter for the antagonist. Each are undead serial killers who were once human, who psychologically torment their victims before ending their lives. Each slasher referenced in the show, Kreuger, Pennywise, Vecna, also have a designated “anti-wonderland” that works as a source of power and advantage as they fight the teenagers actively trying to defeat them. Pennywise has the sewer system, Kreuger has the boiler room where he originally died, and Vecna has the Creel house in the Upside Down. 

In short, the complexity of layering in Stranger Things through references and the corruption of literary symbols paired with the superficial layering of generational storylines make Stranger Things one of the most impressive literary works in this decade. Those who know how to spot the allusions and imagery in the show can appreciate the hours of analysis the show underwent. That being so, those who watch for surface-level entertainment do not find themselves drowning in a sea of metaphors and analogies.