This article contains spoilers through the entirety of Stranger Things 2.
One of the most horrifying moments in Stranger Things 2 comes toward the end of the third episode. Will (Noah Schnapp) is at school, helping his friends look for D’Artagnan, a sentient blob Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) found in his trashcan. Will peeks inside a bathroom stall. The word EVIL is scrawled on the wall, as if to foreshadow what’s about to happen. D’Artagnan, hiding behind the toilet, hisses, and the sound triggers Will, shifting his reality back into the Upside Down. Seeing a dark shape manifest in the hallway, Will runs outside, but then turns to face it. The gargantuan black form invades his body, entering his eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, enveloping him whole.
The scene is visually and aurally jarring. The sound effects—a combination of thunder, growling, and robotic beeping—crescendo, as Will is overpowered by the Shadow Monster, the major antagonist of Stranger Things 2. It’s terrifying, but also disturbing simply because it’s so obvious that Will is being violated. And in the following episode, as Will returns to reality and tells Joyce (Winona Ryder) what happened, his language echoes words used by survivors of assault. At first, he pretends he can’t remember. Then, pressed, he tries to explain. “I don’t know, it came for me,” he says, crying. “And I tried. I tried to make it go away, but it got me, Mom. I felt it everywhere. Everywhere. And I still feel it.”
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.”
In the same way that Will’s friends use Dungeons & Dragons as a framework to understand what’s happening in Hawkins, Stranger Things 2 employs its supernatural storylines to explore trauma in the real world. Some events, like losing a friend or a child, need little translation. Others, like what happens to Will in Season 2, stand as analogies. The treatment of his “episodes” mirrors real manifestations of PTSD: They’re not “nightmares,” Chief Hopper (David Harbour) tells Joyce, they’re flashbacks, which is why they feel so real to him in the moment. And Joyce experiences them too to a degree, freezing when the phone rings. Meanwhile Will, unable to efficiently verbalize what he’s feeling, finds some solace in art therapy, using his crayons to draw countless dark, jagged pictures of the feelings he can’t explain.
Eleven, absent from her friends for almost all of the second season, has her own painful progress, and her relationship with Chief Hopper is one of the most intriguing elements of her storyline. Hopper, who was revealed in the first Stranger Things to have lost his daughter to a fatal illness, begins to see Eleven as a replacement. Like Joyce with her son, his instincts are to keep her confined in order to keep her safe from the government operatives who are searching for her. But this chafes with Eleven’s own psychological trauma from being imprisoned for so long by the man she called Papa (Matthew Modine). Inevitably, she erupts with frustration at being kept apart from her friends, and with Hopper gone all day. “Nothing happens!” she shrieks. “Nothing happens and you stay safe,” he counters. “You’re just like Papa,” she tells him, before shattering the windows in a psychic outburst of rage.
In the final episode of the second season, Hopper acknowledges his own mistakes, and compares his grief to a black hole. “She left us,” he tells Eleven of his daughter. “The black hole. It got her. And somehow, I’ve just been scared, you know? I’ve just been scared that it would take you too.” It’s a moment that heals some of the discord between them, and addresses the conflict between each of their needs. Other families in the series aren’t so lucky.
Like King does in It and Gerald’s Game, Stranger Things 2 explores the heritage of trauma, and how it can be passed from one person to another. This is most clearly embodied by Billy (Dacre Montgomery), an archetypal bully and the older stepbrother to Max (Sadie Sink). For most of the second season, Billy is purely a jerk, screaming at Max, pushing around Steve on the basketball court, and warning Max to stay away from Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin). But in the eighth episode, the show reveals that Billy is tyrannized by his own father, physically beaten, emotionally abused, and forced to repeat what his father wants him to say. It’s behavior that he in turn inflicts on Max.
The canon of ’80 movies Stranger Things draws on isn’t always so textured with its treatment of bullies, who are usually one-dimensionally cruel. King goes deeper with Henry Bowers, one of the antagonists in It, who’s abused by his father, a mentally ill former Marine. Violence, King emphasizes, is generally a learned behavior rather than an instinctual one. Stranger Things 2 echoes this insight by emphasizing that Billy uses his aggression to relieve the trauma he experiences at home, but also that it reverberates through Max. “My stepbrother’s always been a dick, but now he’s just angry all the time,” she tells Lucas. “And well, he can’t take it out on my mom. … I guess I’m angry, too.”
The use of anger as a tool for traumatized kids is similarly depicted in the breakaway seventh episode, when Eleven travels to Chicago to find Kali (Linnea Berthelsen), her “sister.” Kali, who was also imprisoned in the Hawkins lab by Modine’s Dr. Brenner, has recovered as a teenager by adopting a group of misfits who’ve also been damaged by society, and seeking revenge against everyone who’s harmed her. Her anger, she tells Eleven, “festered. It spread. Until finally I confronted my pain, and I began to heal.” But the show argues that Kali’s empowerment through action harms others, particularly the children of the people she pursues, perpetuating a cycle of violence that even Eleven can see isn’t as positive as Kali attests.
Horror stories, King has written in Danse Macabre, are appealing because they offer a way of communicating what can’t always be said out loud. They provide a chance to experiment with “emotions which society demands we keep closely in hand.” But they’re also intangible fears made literal—indistinct kinds of anxiety channeled into vanquishable enemies. King writes that monsters are often metaphors (or analogies, as Lucas points out) for real suffering, and real trauma. And Stranger Things 2, for all its comedic moments and ’80s-movie tropes, understands this better than any of its predecessors. The darkness, it explains, is always there, in this dimension and in others. But it also presents a more honest path to surviving it—not an instant fix, but a slow, difficult path toward recovery.