Like countless others this month, we’ve been binging Stranger Things season 4. We were expecting monsters and alternate dimensions. But we weren’t expecting the strong allusions to battling mental health issues… In this blog, Miss Mustardseed explains why THAT scene with Max and Vecna prompted tears of sorrow and hope. (And Rosie interjects, because they don’t call her ‘Verbose’ for nothing.)
HEADS UP! SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”alan Bennett, ‘The History Boys‘
I’ve never been a big believer in fate or the power of the universe. But I did come close last week, after watching Stranger Things 4, Chapter 4: ‘Dear Billy.’
Wiping tears from my eyes, I was messaging Rosie (Verbose, MC & co-founder of Invisible Cabaret) to prepare her for the weighty watching experience – only to discover that she had just been watching the exact same episode, at the exact same time, 96 miles away. (Editor’s note from Rosie: I was also sobbing.) My content warning may have come too late, but the fact that we had been watching, apart but together, somehow felt very apt.
Throughout the first few episodes, my partner and I had been discussing what themes we could identify emerging in this series. Stranger Things has already grappled with grief, trauma, and adolescence. We know by now that the series doesn’t shy away from the big topics, while still managing to maintain its signature brand of goofy charm (and back-to-back ’80s bangers).
Anyone familiar with the Stranger Things universe will know that the Upside Down (i.e. the dark parallel dimension that characters get stuck in – like, a lot) plays on elements of psychological horror. In the first series, a terrified Will Byers is forced to communicate with his mother through blinking Christmas lights when he is trapped in an alternate reality; many of us can recognise the terror of being isolated with no evident way out. In the second and third series, the Mind Flayer threatens to take over group consciousness through stealthily subjugating the group’s friends and neighbours. Here, the terror comes from a powerful enemy infiltrating your brain, and not being able to trust those closest to you; again, the fear of alienation and loss of safety is key. But Season 4’s Boss, Vecna, is a new breed. He stalks his prey with a spooky chiming clock (a countdown to their demise) and an ever-increasing barrage of reminders about their most horrific memories. Vecna’s victims are almost seduced by their own trauma, until they are overpowered and broken (quite literally).
Right away, there was something eerily familiar in Vecna’s use of guilt and shame to trap his victims – the excruciating and relentless replay of painful past experiences. It was Max’s battle with the villain, however, that switched on the lightbulb in my head.
In particular, Vecna’s dialogue in this scene rang an ominous bell:
“There’s a reason you hide from them… you belong here* with me.”
Editor’s note from Rosie: *The ‘here’ that Vecna is referring to is a grotesque parody of our world: retaining its structures and shapes, but in twisted, rotting forms. His kingdom is marked by decay and death. How could we belong there, when it’s so primally disgusting to us? Only if we believe we are equally repulsive – a product of our repugnant decisions. I have a lot of Feelings(TM) about my evangelical Christian upbringing, but I do occasionally remember a pearl of wisdom. The way Vecna works reminded me of something I once heard a preacher say: the power of shame takes us from seeing an action as bad, to believing that we ourselves are bad for acting that way. In some ways, Vecna can be seen as the personification of trauma, or even the “logic” of suicidal ideation: forcing us to repeat the pain of our past until we can see no future. It robs us of our positive imagination, so all we see is a dark, distorted version of our reality; one we cannot find inclination to fight, because it’s what we feel we “deserve.”
Okay, back to Lily.
In therapy, I have often discussed the negative internal narrative inside my head: how it ebbs and flows – some days fading into the background, and others driving me to distraction. It doesn’t feel like my voice and exists separately to the logical part of my brain. And yet it is more convincing, more compelling, more persuasive. It is almost uncanny how quickly it silences and subdues every other part of me. It tells me I am unworthy. It reminds me why I should feel guilty about many, many things, and never forgive myself. During some very difficult times as a nurse over the past 3 years, my exhaustion surrendered new ground to the voice. It even convinced me at times that everything would be easier if I wasn’t around.
As much as this scene between Max and Vecna terrified me, it went on to surge with hope. Ultimately, Max is saved by friendship and music. She is empowered by hearing all her friends calling her back to earth, as she sprints through the mire to answer their screams for her to stay. As she begins to gain the upper hand against Vecna, a compilation of happy memories rush back to her, a reminder that her past is also filled with love and connection and meaning, alongside the trauma. This is accompanied by a powerful soundtrack, Max’s favourite song (Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill). The scene reminded me of the amazing power that music has, to carry memories and messages that reach us where nothing else can. I was reminded of the words of the genius composer, the late Stephen Sondheim:
“Oh gosh, the privilege of being able to write music is just – that’s a gift from God… Music… it’s a magical art. I don’t know how the human mind ever got to it, because everything else is somehow representational and literal… How did that happen? Is it from the birds? What is that from? How did we learn – how did we make music? I can understand, vaguely, how man learned to speak because he had to communicate things; but what is this?… it seems to me miraculous.”stephen Sondheim
Editor’s note from Rosie (yes, again): I love the choice of Running Up That Hill for this scene – not only is it so epic-sounding, but the lyrics are all about wanting to swap places with somebody. The song plays while Max’s friends are screaming her name, begging her to fight whatever private, internal battle she is facing (something none of them have experienced and none of them can see). The climactic montage is accompanied by Kate singing ‘C’mon angel, c’mon, c’mon darling’ – I was already shedding a tear but that finished me off! It reminded me of the times I’ve been rooting, desperately, for a friend, as they did battle in their own head against dark, “suicide logic” thoughts – ones I wished I could physically reach in and pluck out. I’ve wished I could lend them my eyes, my ears, my strength, to see them as I do, as someone who loves them. It also got me because I have a habit of talking to myself in terms of endearment; something I started doing as a self-compassion practice when my disabled body began failing me. I often cajole myself with a ‘come on darling,’ to remind myself I’m rooting for me! In these instances, it’s almost like I borrow strength from this higher version of myself. Will I picture this higher self as Kate Bush from now on? Couldn’t possibly say…
As the momentum built, I felt the connections light up inside me. The determination, despite everything, to reject that voice and to win. Max’s reassuring whispers upon her return: “I’m still here… I’m still here.” A powerful scene, beautifully rendered; deeply familiar in both its terror and hope. And one I was so glad to have watched together with Rosie, far apart but still close.
We hope that anyone else who has experienced these feelings takes this scene as a reminder that, whatever ‘vecna’ tries to tell you: you are worthy of love, of support and of joy.
“Let me steal this moment from you now C'mon, angel, c'mon, c'mon, darling Let's exchange the experience, oh And if I only could I'd make a deal with God And I'd get him to swap our places I'd be running up that road Be running up that hill With no problems”
Cover art by @mymermide – tagged on our Instagram post.
Hear more from lily, aka miss mustardseed:
Transcript available here.