This article contains spoilers for the first seven episodes of Stranger Things Season 4.
Only on Netflix’s sci-fi horror drama Stranger Things have teenagers gotten used to fighting interdimensional demons. Early in Season 4, Robin (played by Maya Hawke) offers an explanation for her and her friends’ nonchalance in dealing with threats from the Upside Down, the desolate alternate realm that regularly sets monsters loose. “We’ve actually been through this kind of thing before,” she tells Eddie (Joseph Quinn), a classmate who’s just encountered the Upside Down for the first time. “Mine was more human-flesh-based, and theirs was more smoke-related, but bottom line is, collectively, I really feel like we got this.”
She’s not wrong: The horrors of the Upside Down are somewhat predictable. Whether demogorgons or demodogs or the “Spider Monster,” the beasts that cross into this world—and, primarily, the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana—are vicious but also faceless and mindless. They hunt for food as predators do. Over the course of the previous three seasons, they’ve upgraded in size and ferocity, graduating from preying on humans to possessing them. As in the ’80s film franchises that Stranger Things pays homage to and borrows from, each new installment levels up with scarier perils and twistier plots.
The long-awaited fourth season, which started streaming today, does so significantly. Every episode is supersized, and the season is split into two parts; the final two episodes will air in July, with the finale running at a movie-length two hours and 30 minutes. The story has diverged into multiple strands, adopting a Game of Thrones–like structure as each episode hops from Hawkins, where most of the adolescent characters remain, to other places around the world. The telekinetic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) is in California recovering from losing her powers. Her adoptive father, Hopper (David Harbour), is secretly alive in a torturous Russian prison. These subplots don’t fully connect by the end of this first batch of episodes, and the tonal shifts are often jarring. Yet amid the show’s ballooning scale and scope, Stranger Things finds an unexpected anchor not in its ensemble of fan favorites but in its latest villain: a supernatural serial killer dubbed Vecna after—what else?—a Dungeons and Dragons character. Vecna resides in the Upside Down, but unlike previous visitors, he’s humanlike, with a voice, a face, and, most chilling of all, a worldview.
Those features make him scarier than any antagonist Stranger Things has depicted before. As the mystery unravels, Vecna appears to be operating according to a belief system, not according to mere survival needs. He considers the way humans live to be “poisonous,” too rigid in its structure of clocking in and out day by day, while shaping people’s choices—building nuclear families, saving money for retirement—according to societal demands. He intends for others to agree with him, and though he wields the ability to infiltrate minds, his strongest power is his talent for emotional manipulation. Thus, as alien as Vecna looks—the subtitles note “wet squelching” whenever he appears—he poses an eerily familiar threat. By creating an antagonist with a philosophy, Stranger Things has created a villain not only that is realistic but that challenges the show’s very premise.
At first glance, Vecna appears to be a riff on Freddy Krueger, the fedora-wearing baddie from A Nightmare on Elm Street. (The actor Robert Englund, who played Freddy in the original films, appears in a handful of memorable scenes in Episode 4.) But where Freddy feasts on dreams, Vecna creeps into people’s minds while they’re awake, confusing them with visions and talking with them directly. He has a particular point of view, even a personality. He doesn’t consider himself a threat and approaches his victims as if he’s a benevolent force enlightening them instead. “It’s time for your suffering to end,” he says to his first mark. “I want you to join me,” he explains to his second. He seems to delight in trying to change his victims’ mind, using his baritone voice to lull them into believing him.
In past seasons, the actions of Stranger Things villains were much more open to interpretation: They could be representative of trauma, grief, and the particular strain of paranoia that coursed through America in the ’80s—or they could simply be bloodthirsty monsters, no analysis necessary. Vecna, however, comes with a thorough backstory. He used to be human, a sensitive boy who felt misunderstood and muzzled, developed abilities in Hawkins, and became Dr. Brenner’s (Matthew Modine) first test subject—essentially a guinea pig, much like Eleven, who had no one to confide in.
Such history fills in many of the gaps in the Upside Down’s mythology, while crucially rooting Vecna’s evils in a deeply human motivation: to persuade others to listen to him. As a child, he grew irate at his family for not seeing eye to eye with his perspective that humans live in “a cruel, oppressive world, dictated by made-up rules.” As an adult, he manipulates Eleven into believing she can’t trust anyone at the lab but him; her rejection of his proposal to work together leads to a fight that tears open a gate to the Upside Down and traps him there. As Vecna, he operates like an astute cult leader, picking targets who are emotionally vulnerable, isolating them so his outlook is the only one they see.
In other words, Vecna is the manifestation of conspiratorial thinking gone wrong—a surprising twist for a show that has always rewarded every theory concocted by its characters. As my colleague Sophie Gilbert noted, “The show’s story is built on the premise that various strains of delusional thinking are actually true. The government has conducted highly unethical drug tests on human subjects. Terrifying alien monsters are real.” But with Vecna, the show points out how horrifying such thought processes can be. Theories can turn out to be correct, but challenging the truth constantly can corrupt minds, destroy relationships, and sow chaos. As Vecna commits murder after inexplicable murder, the residents of Hawkins descend into a state of era-appropriate satanic panic. The real terror, Stranger Things makes clear, isn’t the fact that Vecna exists but that the human mind can fall prey to twisted thinking—a conclusion that still resonates today.
Midway through the season, the teen heroes figure out one way to stave off Vecna’s influence: music. When he ensnares Max (Sadie Sink) in his realm—she’s mentally susceptible, given her grief over the loss of her brother in Season 3—her friends learn that playing her favorite song can remind her of reality. Max’s ensuing escape is a nail-biting sequence in which she looks like she’s trying to escape her own head, reaching for her actual world, which she spots in the distance. After she flees, she doesn’t go anywhere without a pair of headphones looped around her neck, fearful she’ll forget real life exists. That’s the real threat of a conspiracy, Stranger Things suggests: A potent, injurious vision can worm its way inside anyone’s mind—even your own mind—but if it lingers long enough, it can dominate your beliefs so completely that reality becomes akin to a pipe dream. By then, the villain isn’t someone else. It’s you.