This isn’t the first time that Stranger Things has explored the effects of trauma. The first eight episodes, released in the summer of 2016, were praised by some writers and psychotherapists for their depiction of Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), and how her behavior seemed to stem from her having grown up in a particularly tortured environment. The show, set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, during the early ’80s, was an homage to the cultural hallmarks of that era—The Goonies, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., John Hughes. But it was also rooted in horror, notably the stories of Stephen King. Eleven, like the young protagonist of Firestarter, was given strange powers by a government experiment involving hallucinogens, and gets nosebleeds when she wields them.
Few horror authors are as informed by trauma as King, or as attuned to the ways in which it affects children. Throughout King’s books, the academic Roger Luckhurst has written, childhood trauma is associated with supernatural capacities, but it also tends to reverberate into adulthood and manifest in other ways. Stranger Things 2, which is much darker than the first season, leans fully into King’s exploration of emotional damage and the unknown. Virtually every character in Hawkins is wounded in some way. And the thoughtfulness with which the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, portray their experiences is what most distinguishes Stranger Things from its source material.
One of the most maddening tropes within disaster movies is how characters who’ve endured extreme trauma tend to instantly recover as soon as they’re rescued (picture the survivors of Jurassic Park smiling serenely in the helicopter at the end). Stranger Things was guilty of this to some extent in its first season, as my colleague Lenika Cruz pointed out—when Will first wakes up in the hospital, his friends babble excitedly about how rad Eleven was, and what crazy powers she had, without any real acknowledgment that she’s also very much, to their knowledge, gone. Stranger Things 2, though, is inflected from the start with the sense that, even a year later, its characters are still deeply altered by what happened to them.
Most obviously, there’s Will, who’s returned physically from the Upside Down, but who still flickers intermittently back into that dimension. His doctor at the Hawkins government lab (Paul Reiser) assures Joyce that these after-effects are a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, and that the upcoming one-year anniversary of Will’s disappearance is exacerbating them. This gives little comfort to Joyce, who’s suffering through her own delayed responses to losing her son—fighting extreme panic any time he’s out of her sight.
The loss of Barb is also profoundly felt in the first episode. Nancy (Natalia Dyer) weeps in the bathroom when she visits Barb’s parents, who are dealing with their own loss by denying it, selling their house to give money to a “journalist” who assures them he can find Barb. In the library, Nancy freezes when she sees a girl with red hair, and then lashes out at Steve (Joe Keery), her boyfriend. “It’s like everybody forgot,” she tells him. “It’s like nobody cares.”