‘Stranger Things’ Season 4’s Take on Trauma Was Seriously Messed Up
***Many a spoiler for Stranger Things season 4 ahead***
I have a laundry list of issues about how Stranger Things season 4 ended. The pointless death of Eddie Munson, the best character the show has introduced in ages. Will Byers sobbing his heart out in the backseat of a van while his “best friend” Mike Wheeler doesn’t seem to notice. Shoehorning Steve Harrington and Nancy Wheeler and Jonathan Byers back into an awkward love triangle that should’ve been left behind years ago. I could do this all day. But beyond certain character choices, what gave me the most pause was the plot device around which the whole season pivoted: bad guy Vecna—a.k.a. Henry Creel, a.k.a 001—found and chose his victims because of their past trauma. And this, quite frankly, fucking sucked.
Vecna’s first victim is cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham, and it’s meant to be a mystery at first as to why he’s targeting her. Chrissy seems like a golden girl—nice, pretty, popular, in a loving relationship, no real connection to the strange events from past seasons. Then, as she’s tormented by Vecna’s visions, we see that Chrissy’s life isn’t so perfect beneath the surface. She has a serious eating disorder spurred on by verbally abusive comments from her mother, and has sought help from the school guidance counselor. Though Vecna’s visions are set to induce maximum torment and horror—so the things we hear Chrissy’s “mom” say might not be verbatim—we get the sense that Chrissy has gone through a lot. This is compounded by Vecna torturing her and making her life a living hell until he declares, “It’s time for your suffering to end,” only to then kill her in the most horrific and gristly fashion imaginable—breaking all of her bones and crushing her eyes. Chrissy dies in Eddie’s trailer, setting off the events that will dominate much of the season. But why must she be the one to die? Well, as “volume 1” progresses, that’s a mystery no longer. She’s prey to Vecna because she was already traumatized. Apparently, your trauma marks you out as an easily vulnerable target for a monster.
Memo to Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers: this theme is not a great theme.
After we see Nancy’s fellow high school newspaper reporter Fred Benson suffer the same fate because of his guilt over a car accident, plus the targeting of the depressed and grieving Max Mayfield, it becomes clear that Vecna is preying on the traumatized, and on them alone. All of his (quite young) victims were seeing the guidance counselor for personal issues ranging from self-harm to physical and emotional abuse to overwhelming grief to thoughts of suicide. And because they are young people who had awful things happen to them, they now … get to die horribly?
This recurring motif had me reeling. I’m not sure what Stranger Things 4 thought they were saying, but if they had a point to make, they didn’t make it in the end. Instead, the whole season becomes a kind of torture porn with people who have already suffered as its subjects. Vecna inflicts his “curse” only on teenagers who desperately needed help and are instead singled out for death because bad things occurred in their lives. Yeah. Then we have to watch them suffer again and again and again.
My most generous read of what the writers may have thought they were doing here is a kind of commentary on the cyclical and inherited nature of some abuse. In other plotlines this season, Eleven and Henry Creel both struggle with trauma from their treatment by Dr. Brenner when they were in his care. During her battle with Henry/Vecna, Eleven cites this, trying to break through and appeal to the man within the monster. “I know what he did to you,” she says, pointedly. “You were different. Like me. And he hurt you. He made you … Into this. He is the monster, Henry. Not you.” She’s trying to convince Vecna that we don’t have to embody what was done to us, and we don’t need to turn around and inflict such treatment on others.
That in itself is a strong and important message to drive home, and yet it within the show, it is immediately is rebuffed. Vecna disagrees. He accuses Eleven of being the one to turn him into a monster when she sent him into the Upside Down (sidestepping the small matter that she did so because he had just slaughtered a laboratory full of children and adults). He then says that the power he discovered in the Upside Down enabled him “To become the predator I was always born to be.”
This is where any attempt to make Vecna/Henry/001 sympathetic, or a product of past trauma manifested, completely falls apart. Because from everything we’re told, Henry Creel was born a monster. He’s a full-blown psychopath of a child, raised not in abusive surroundings but in what seems like a loving home. From an early age he delights in hurting animals and psychologically tormenting his family. He uses his burgeoning abilities to make them think their house is haunted before brutally killing his mother and little sister and framing his father for their murders.
This isn’t to say that Henry “deserved” to then become Brenner’s first lab rat or anything that Brenner did to him thereafter. But the storyline, as well as Henry himself, make it abundantly clear that he was always like this—”evil” from the get-go, a born predator. And so Vecna isn’t hunting down people who experienced trauma out of some sick sense of kinship or twisted desire to actually ease their “suffering.” He’s a monster who feeds off of and is powered by the psychic energy of pain, and he recognizes that there’s a deeper well to tap into from those who are hurting. “Motivated by a cruel and misanthropic philosophy, Vecna targets particularly traumatised, mentally ill or insecure individuals,” the Stranger Things wiki notes. Charming.
What’s even worse about the way this all comes to bear on the show is that Vecna’s victims are absolutely helpless to fight back. All they can do is run. It could have been powerful to see these traumatized people—kids, really—refuse to be defined thusly and find a way to defeat or outsmart the monster. But the only trick for slipping his grasp is a temporary retreat into a favorite song. (We do believe in the otherworldly power of Kate Bush, but that’s neither here nor there.) The song quick fix is just that, a bandaid against Vecna’s violent onslaught, not a solution or sustainable. Otherwise, none of them stand a chance.
When the strong-willed Max decides to bravely face her personal demons in order to summon and distract Vecna, she’s forced once again to give a long, painful confession about her feelings about her dead brother Billy and her own thoughts of self-harm. Then she tries to hide from Vecna in happy memories, but he finds her and tortures her all the same. Why so much rehashing of pain and grief and suffering? To what end? The only one who can take on Vecna is Eleven, and she, as the show reminds us, is basically a superhero. The rest of us are screwed, if god forbid we went through terrible things. Max, like Chrissy, Fred, and basketball player Patrick McKinney (who we see being physically abused by his father), is a Vecna victim simply because she was already a victim.
In horror movies—especially ones from the ’70s and ’80s that Stranger Things sometimes cleverly subverts—victims often represented cultural anxieties or “deviants” from the norm. Teenagers who had sex or got drunk or acted out would be the first to go, leaving their more “moral” counterparts to take the final stand. Would it have been boring and outdated for Vecna to have, say, simply targeted Chrissy after a scene where we see her with her boyfriend or doing drugs? Yes, absolutely. The fact of Vecna identifying and feeding on trauma alone isn’t a horrible narrative, it’s that the execution was so brutal to no conceivable end. Pulling back the curtain to show that many people are quietly suffering, despite outward appearances or expectations about their lives, is a vital and nuanced exploration of humanity. The problem is that Stranger Things season 4 had no idea what more to do with these characters after exploiting their trauma except to butcher them and have their deaths assist the bad guy’s master plan. As if it weren’t enough to watch them be hunted and snapped to pieces, we also encounter their brutalized bodies again and again in the Vecna’s creepy Upside Down mind-palace.
I’m hugely disappointed in the theme that emerges—that you are somehow irrevocably broken by circumstances in your life beyond your control. (Unless you are the one person with superpowers; then, you get to rally.) This also plays into how the narrative callously uses and discards Eddie Munson. Recently the Duffers spoke on a podcast about how they had viewed Eddie as “doomed” from the start. “Even imagining the flipside of that, where he does survive that final battle, there’s not a great life waiting for Eddie in the right side up either, so he was really designed from the get go as a doomed character,” Matt Duffer said, per Dexerto. The idea that they intentionally created an emotionally wounded character from the wrong side of the tracks with the concept that no better life could emerge for him is jaw-dropping to me. What a spectacular failure of imagination and fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to be subject to situations when you’re young outside of your control.
Ross Duffer continued: “[Eddie] was always going to be a tragic character. There was no other arc for him. He would have wound up in jail—this fantasy that he would [graduate] sadly was never an outcome for him.” So Eddie, who proves to be wildly likable, kind, bright, creative, and heroically self-sacrificing, still couldn’t have ended up anywhere else but prison? A TV show about inter-dimensional monsters and child superheroes can’t find a way to clear him of absurd Satanic murder charges and let him actually forge a future of his own? I won’t even go into the fact that the only two main characters who suffer and die this season are Eddie and Max (well, she temporarily dies). After a press season of hyping up “volume 2” as a mass blood bath in which none of our faves were safe, it’s really only Eddie and Max who suffer. Both of them come from splintered homes where they’ve lost parents, and they are neighbors in a trailer park lacking the picket-fence suburban privilege that is the visual hallmark of so many seasons of Stranger Things. They’re the people with the most painful backstories in the Party, and then they get to go through the maximum amount of onscreen pain. If I think too much about that I’m going to do a demogorgon scream.
No matter what point the show thought it was making about trauma—if they even had a point—what it actually did onscreen was force traumatized people to relive what happened to them again and again for our consumption. Then they were murdered in the most upsetting way imaginable. To what result? What is the takeaway here? Sure hope nothing bad ever happens to you, or else you’re going to get all your bones snapped by a monster or eaten by fucking bats?
It’s a fallacy to say that trauma must always make us stronger, but it doesn’t have to make us weaker, either. It doesn’t render us as helpless prey, and it doesn’t define us. But that’s the message Stranger Things season 4 seems to want to leave behind. I just can’t for the life of me understand why.
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