When Stranger Things Season 1 debuted last year, it was an instant viral sensation. Set in the 1980s, the show masterfully tugs on the nostalgic heartstrings of all those who love coming-of-age, science fiction, adventure dramas. Those of us who loathe contemporary sci-fi — for its substance-less story lines and cartoony CGI — found refuge in Stranger Things‘ mere 8 episodes. They took us back to a simpler yet more mysterious time. The show took many of us back to our childhood, right back to E.T., The Goonies, Stand By Me, and more. Its synth-based score only added to the nostalgia, captivating our imaginations with every sound.
It was only natural that fan-theories would develop around the show. Countless blogs and comment boxes have been filled with questions, predictions, and debate. A small portion of these theories involve biblical imagery and theology. Some are quite good; others are quite a stretch. In anticipation for the release of Season 2, I decided to re-watch Season 1 and try my hand. Below are my thoughts and observations from a biblical perspective. You may think some of them are quite a stretch, but hopefully some of them are quite good.
Before we begin, a disclaimer. I’m in no way presuming to know the intentions of the writers or directors. I suspect most of my observations are purely coincidental. We all exegete content from a particular lens and it may not be the same lens worn by the writers. Still, that doesn’t stop us from seeing what we want to see. If your imagination is shaped by the Bible, you’ll see traces of it everywhere.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
Stranger Things presents a reality in which natural and supernatural dimensions exist. The Upside Down is a hellish version of the natural world, with its own demon-like predator. The Upside Down is a place of isolation and death (Sheol, Hades).
Eleven’s nickname, “El,” is a Hebrew word for God and the prefix of Elohim. This is likely no coincidence, given Eleven’s godlike abilities.
The show presents a recurring theme of self-sacrifice, which is the Bible’s love language (John 15:13). To one degree or another, all of the good guys sacrifice something for the sake of others. A few examples: Joyce sacrifices her reputation; Hopper puts his job (and life) on the line. At the quarry, Mike is willing to sacrifice himself for Dustin. Benny becomes a sacrifice for Eleven, and Eleven sacrifices herself when she destroys the monster.
Related to the theme of sacrifice is the theme of substitution. In the Bible, animal sacrifice temporarily substitutes human sacrifice (Genesis 3:21). The ram substitutes Isaac but then Jesus substitutes everyone. In Stranger Things, the beloved Barb dies as a substitute for Nancy. How so? The monster is drawn to blood, and both girls bleed. Inside, Nancy’s losing her virginity. Outside, Barb sits at the pool bleeding from her hand. The monster takes the closest prey, and Nancy is saved. The camerawork makes the parallel clear: Frames alternate between Barb gripping the pool railing and Nancy gripping Steve.
Substitution isn’t limited to sacrificial death. When Adam and Eve lose Abel, God gives them Seth. When Rachel loses Joseph, God gives her Benjamin. In a similar way, Eleven is a substitute for Will among his friends. She becomes a “new Will” in his absence. This may explain their connection throughout the series: Before having met, Eleven recognizes Will in a picture. Will hides from the monster in the Upside Down; Eleven hides downstairs in Mike’s basement. Will sleeps in a fort; Eleven sleeps in a fort. Eleven’s bedroom at the lab is nearly identical to Will’s fort, with similar drawings on the wall and each having a lion stuffed-animal on the bed.
The topics of gender and sexuality only add to the similarities between Eleven and Will. Will is called “queer” multiple times and Eleven’s gender is initially ambiguous. Eyewitnesses at Benny’s diner actually mistake Eleven for Will. Some theories posit that Eleven’s boyish appearance is a nod to gender fluidity and/or transgenderism. Yet after visiting Nancy’s bedroom, Eleven longs for femininity. She puts on a dress and a wig and delights in the attention given to her by Mike. How does she look? “Pretty…pretty good,” says Mike. For the first time, Eleven feels pretty. Her femininity has been restored.
But don’t think femininity is dependent upon outward appearances. Later, Eleven will lose the wig and feel ugly without it. Mike tells her that she doesn’t need it. “Still pretty?” Eleven asks. “Yeah,” says Mike. Women don’t need artificial accessories to prove or enhance their femininity. Male and female are distinct, and both are the image of God (Genesis 1:27, 2:22).
Water seems to have an important role throughout the season. It’s pouring down rain when the boys meet Eleven in the woods. Will’s fake body is found at the quarry, drowned. Barb is at the pool when she’s taken by the monster. More importantly, Eleven has to be submerged in water to go to her “black space.” While in the black space, she walks in shallow water. The black space is where Eleven has access to multiple dimensions and where she eventually meets the monster. This is a new world for Eleven, and she must go through a water boundary to get there.
The Bible specializes in water boundaries. Even heaven has a water boundary (Genesis 1:7). The Israelites had to go through water to get to a new world. They left Egypt and entered the wilderness by crossing the Red Sea. They do the same thing at the Jordan River when entering the promised land. So too, we must pass through the waters of baptism to access God’s kingdom. We may see monsters, but Jesus will teach us how to fight the wild beasts (Mark 1:13).
One major aspect of the show is that lights flicker when the monster comes near. Jonathan described it to Nancy as, “The lights speak.” Indeed they do, especially for Will. He can use the lights to communicate with his mother. When Joyce realizes this she says, “I need more lamps.” She buys Christmas lights and strings them up all over the house so Will can send her messages.
This theme climaxes in the season finale. Joyce and Hopper go into the Upside Down to find Will. Wherever they walk, lights come on in the natural world. The lights don’t flicker and go out like they do for the monster. No, the lights stay solid for the good guys. This is how Will could control the lights to communicate. Our heroes are bearers of light in a dark world. In the same way, the children of God shine as lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation (Philippians 2:15).
Much more could be said about head wounds, Lucas’ slingshot, and cruciform positions; the entire season takes place over the course of 7 days, ending with Christmas as the 8th day; dads are absent or totally oblivious, but Hopper acts as a true father; Eleven is 12 years old when Dr. Brenner loses her; Will is hailed as the “Boy Who Came Back To Life.” All of these have biblical significance. There are also visual allusions to the Holy of Holies and Jesus’ tomb.
There is a negative side to all of this: It could be argued that the good guys in Stranger Things reject faith and spirituality. Lonnie encourages Joyce to go see Pastor Charles for counseling, but Joyce says that wouldn’t help. At Will’s funeral, the 3 boys crack jokes among themselves instead of listening to the pastor. Is religion being shown as pointless and irrelevant? Perhaps. Regardless, Joyce and the boys do exhibit faith: They believe in the supernatural when no one else does; they believe Will is alive when no one else does. Faith is inescapable, and God uses all kinds of people to accomplish his purposes.
If Stranger Things could be summarized with a Bible verse, it’d be from the psalms. “The Lord watches over the strangers; he relieves the fatherless and widow; but the way of the wicked he turns upside down” (Psalm 146:9). If the world is upside down, it’s the church’s job to turn it right-side up. May we be lights that speak faithfully. We could always use more lamps, so join the team if you haven’t already. All you need is some childlike faith.