In Episode 3 of Stranger Things 2, Will Byers finds himself in the Upside-Down. The shadowy, multi-limbed monster, later known as “The Mind Flayer”, rises high above the school.
Will sprints from the monster, but then he stops. He remembers the story Bob Newby, his mother’s boyfriend, told him about standing up to someone he was scared of as a young boy.
“I said, ‘Go away!’” Bob told Will.
And the thing Bob was scared of disappeared.
Will decides to take Bob’s advice. He looks up at the monster and screams. “Go away!”
The Mind Flayer nears.
He screams again. “Go away!” Tears now in his eyes.
The Flayer’s pace quickens. Even closer.
“GO AWAY!” He screams with everything inside of him.
But the Mind Flayer refuses. It surrounds him.
And then, it takes him.
As a child, there’s a moment where you realize there are monsters in the world, and sometimes, the monsters win.
You come to understand that not only is there evil in the world, but that on occasion, it gets its shit together and lands some decent punches.
And when that happens, you wake up in this unknown space — this nothingness — where the once-solid ground gives way, and without warning, you’re in free fall.
The question, then…is “What next?”
When the Mind Flayer takes over Will, it’s akin to the physical/spiritual possession of Regan McNeil in The Exorcist (1973).
In that film, it’s up to Father Merrin to cast out the demon. Here, it’s up to Joyce, Jonathan, Nancy…and a red hot poker.
However, whereas in The Exorcist we’re not shown the moment of possession, Stranger Things 2 makes it the climax of Episode 3. And it’s horrific.
The Mind Flayer thrusts tentacles into Will’s eyes, ears and mouth. It fully possesses him down to the core of his being. It is, for me, the single-most terrifying scene of Stranger Things yet.
The physical possession of Will Byers is reminiscent of both old sci-fi possession stories such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), as well as the more intense body-horror sub-genre, which includes Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), as well as two David Cronenberg films: Videodrome (1983) and The Fly (1986). The films are linked by a common idea of foreign/uncategorized entities overtaking a human body and using it as a host.
Thankfully, Stranger Things avoids some of the more graphic elements (chest-bursting, decomposition, metamorphosis, etc.), but in doing so, it sets its sight on far more fragile, and frightening ground.
Will’s emotions. His memories. If the Mind Flayer can control Will’s emotions and memories, then it’s found the perfect host.
This is how Will Byers arrives to the knowledge that monsters exist:
He witnesses the monster’s power.
He stands up to the monster’s power.
And then he loses.
And here, perhaps, a difficult lesson: Just because you’re brave doesn’t mean good things will happen to you. However, just because good things don’t always happen, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be brave.
It means you’re going to lose something you love. Or someone.
And now we come to the moment I’ve been trying to avoid the entire time.
My “Monster” moment. I’ve known it as soon as I watched Episode 3.
It’s from The Neverending Story (1984), and it’s the death of Artax, Atreyu’s horse, in the Swamp of Sadness.
*Don’t cry, Dom. Don’t cry…*
I’m not going to post a link, and I’m not going to rewatch it for analysis.
Honest to God, I don’t want to ruin my night and watch that clip. I don’t need to hear Atreyu scream, and I don’t need to see Sebastian cry.
Just because Sebastian’s reading the story, and just because Atreyu’s brave, it doesn’t mean they’re not going to experience loss and trauma.
Every time I think about that moment, I flash back to that childhood moment of free fall — Atreyu’s the hero, and because he’s the hero, nothing bad happens to him, right?
Perhaps, then, the deeper lesson: It’s precisely because of their bravery — because they’ve chosen to stand for something — that’s why it’s a certainty they’re going to experience trauma.
And the kids of Stranger Things exhibit this bravery, this wounding, and this continued courage. They are all wounded at some point — all challenged to give up the fight.
But just because they’ve lost, it doesn’t mean they stop. If anything, it means they fight harder.
So now, “What next?”
You heard it here first: Puberty is the Big Bad for Season 3.
Think about it: It’s the ultimate Body Horror. Everything you thought you knew about your body is changing. Your body is not your own.
We got a taste of it with Eleven’s “Psychic Tantrum”, but now, to have all these kids — two years’ full of government conspiracies, multidimensional deme-dogs, and near-death experience after near-death experience — going through puberty?
The storytelling options are boundless.
Okay, I'm kidding. (Maybe?)
What I mean to say is that for me, the more dramatic, and perhaps traumatic elements of the yet-to-be Season 3, are personal.
What would be worse — for someone to die, or for one of the kids to experience their parents’ divorce, a spitting of households, and having to move away?
Graduation? Break-ups? Teen pregnancy?
Ye, there’re far more cinematic conflicts, but I’m always after the more intimate struggles. Sci-fi is best when it places ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and the more Stranger Things digs into its characters, the better it’ll be.
I have no idea what the Duffer Brothers have in store for Season 3, and I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’ll be watching, that’s for sure.
Stranger Things 2 delves more into childhood trauma and PTSD far more than I thought it would — and for that, it has my respect, fandom and admiration.
So much so, I might even forgive it for “The Lost Sister.”