Halfway through season two of the Netflix hit series Stranger Things, I made the decision to stop watching. Owing to monstrous laziness, I kept putting off writing down the reasons why I stopped. This month, I dumped Netflix altogether.
You could say scuttling Stranger Things was of a piece with nixing Netflix (a lovely idea that still makes me smile).
I had heard about this new binge-watch phenom from ads and friends. Sure enough, I was hooked from the pilot episode. North Carolina twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer had pitched the show idea to Shawn Levy and Dan Cohen, who now serve as its executive producers. Kudos to them for crafting a riveting first season. Among the reasons why the show has grown itself a cult following in the tradition of Making a Murderer (2015) are:
Pitch-Perfect Symbols for the Target Demo
Stranger Things is a visual homage to classic 1970s and 1980s music, set design, and costumes, evoking The ’Burbs According To Spielberg. Even the font of the opening title captures the gauzy ’80s look.
You have assorted dialogue references to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Aliens, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Mad Max, Gremlins, and Stand By Me. You have teen boys getting chased on bikes by the authorities (ET anyone?) and even a girl with something preternaturally wrong with her (hello, Poltergeist and The Exorcist). The four main BFFs (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, and Noah Schnapp) dress up for Halloween as everyone’s favorite slime-slayers (who ya gonna call?). And what is Chief Hooper but a damaged Chief Brody (Jaws) protecting the town from the sharklike Demogorgon?
If all this seems a tad pre-programmed, that’s because it is. To a certain degree. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, openly admits using algorithms to predict which programs viewers will want to watch prior to producing them. Stranger Things—original working title, The Montauk Project—is Exhibit A of this strategy.
The interlacing stories are taut, the dialogue mostly nails the teenage argot of the era, and the production designers work hard to create a consistently creepy Hitchcockian atmosphere. And you get a “What The Hell?” cliffhanger at the end of each episode.
The Upside Down parallel dimension trope is itself the antagonist. The best stories in the horror genre often incorporate some special “other” world where angels and demons battle it out—except that, in The Upside Down, there are no angels.
There are only demons. Indeed, the fictional landscape of Hawkins, IN, is everywhere hellish and nowhere heavenly. Curiously, despite most of the characters being afraid most of the time due to the constant menace of scary “strange things” and the backdrop of a corrupt government bent on mind control, no one prays. The God question never comes up. (Jesus comes up, but only as a swear word; I’ll get to that later.) Hovering near the brave and good-hearted young teens are the chain-smoking divorcées, narcissists, and ne’er-do-well adults. The whole show feels like an ode to brokenness.
Naturally (it’s Netflix, folks!) the creators’ tip their political mitt by depicting the only prominent married couple as unhappily married Republicans—the grim-faced parents of Nancy Wheeler. The Ronald Reagan election sign-sporting dad, Ted Wheeler, assures the evil government agents that he will cooperate. “We’re patriots,” intones the useful conservative idiot.
There are two batches of characters—kids and adults—and the casting choices hook both audience segments. It’s brilliant. The grown-up actors play off Gen X nostalgia, with the casting of ’80s fixtures Matthew Modine (Full Metal Jacket, Memphis Belle, Vision Quest), Winona Ryder (Heathers, Mermaids, Edward Scissorhands), Sean Astin (Rudy, Lord of the Rings, The Goonies), and Paul Reiser (Aliens, Mad About You, Diner). The spritely cast of mostly unknown child actors excel at expressing a mixture of horror and fascination as they discover the spooky government lab at the edge of Hawkins, find the locations of the portals to The Upside Down netherworld, and navigate the conflicts that arise in their friendships.
So why did I stop watching?
First, there’s the blasphemy. For a horror series in which no one prays for help, the name of Jesus Christ is uttered in just about every episode, more and more with each season. Seeing children made to say “Jesus”—casually, sometimes angrily, and often—is bothersome.
While it’s no big act of spiritual courage, I’ve made a habit of making the sign of the cross whenever I hear the Lord’s name taken in vain (in public, in movies, and on TV). It’s just a little discrete act of reparation. Watching Stranger Things started to give me a right arm workout.
If you’re a fan of the show and you think I’m exaggerating, get a pen and paper and jot down how often the name of Jesus is spat out with nonchalant contempt by young teens. Why do the Duffers, Levy, and Cohen make their young employees swear like this? I was a teenager in the early ’80s, went to public school, and had few Catholic friends. We weren’t angels, but no one took the Lord’s name in vain as everyone seems to on Stranger Things.
It’s all too easy to desensitize oneself to hearing the “only name under heaven by which men can be saved” (Acts 4:12) used by kids as a swear word. The frog in the boiling water metaphor is accurate morally if not scientifically. As Peter Kreeft points out in Jesus Shock, the name of Jesus evokes only awe or disgust. There’s no neutral use of the Name by which demons are expelled (Mark 5) and cripples walk (Acts 3:1-10) and through which we are saved (John 20:31).
Second, I started to hear and read accounts of the on-set working environment. The Brothers Duffer told actress Sadie (“Max”) Sink, who was 15 years old at the time, that she had to kiss actor Caleb (“Lucas”) McLaughlin, a detail left out of the script they had memorized.
The meticulously unkempt bosses then had the gall to “jokingly” blame the child for the brouhaha over a kiss that had to be repeated multiple times before they got the desired take. Neither youth was happy about it, as this cringey clip shows. Miss Sink can blushingly say it “didn’t really bother” her all she wants. The fact is, a minor—you know, a child—was pressured into a very public kiss by her adult (and childless) millennial employers.
Neither teen had ever kissed anyone before.
I’m sorry, but theft of innocence is child abuse.
There have been other allegations that the Duffers created a toxic environment for adult women as well. Peyton Brown, a grip for the show, told Instagram she wouldn’t be back for Season 3 of “Stranger Things” because the twin creators “sought out and verbally abused multiple women,” a charge the Duffers first denied and later apologized for.
This phenomenon doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Comparatively speaking, Stranger Things is neither unique nor extreme. As Amy Berg’s brave documentary Open Secret shows, Hollywood has a history of sexual predation on minors.
Take TV’s Growing Pains, for example. You may have forgotten that Leonardo DiCaprio was on this adults-and-children ’80s sitcom. And you may not have known that a young Leo was surrounded by pedophiles such as convicted sex offender Brian Peck, seen here being creepily handsy with him.
That clip was filmed on the set in 1991, the same year of Peck’s offences. He still works with underage actors to this day. And it wasn’t just Peck. Growing Pains Executive Producer Steven Marshall was also jailed for engaging in pedophilic chat conversations that “detailed child abduction, bondage, rape, and murder.”
Side note: Open Secret was ignored by Hollywood, whereas Amy Berg’s documentary Deliver Us From Evil (2006) about Irish-born priest predator Oliver O’Grady was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
And, no, I’m not equating Growing Pains with Stranger Things. I’m saying they differ in degree, not in kind. A more recent example: the showrunners of HBO’s new drug-addled teen drama Euphoria felt the need to include the rape of a trans person, a teen sex scene involving choking, and dozens of penises in a locker room—all of which induced actor Brian (“Astro”) Bradley, 22, to quit after the pilot. We can’t blame you, Astro.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the creators of Stranger Things unconsciously crafted an allegory of how the entertainment industry treats most vulnerable players. Millie Bobby (“Eleven”) Brown, the young girl subjected to torturous experiments, stands for the industry’s victims. Her perpetrator, “Papa” (Modine), who runs the Hawkins Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy, stands for the abusers exposed in Amy Berg’s documentary (and bravely attested to by former child star Corey Feldman). All of which makes Papa a predator, Eleven the prey, and the sneaky government Hollywood itself, a.k.a. America’s Department of Entertainment.
According to 16-year-old Gaten (“Dustin”) Matarazzo, Season 3 will be yet more violent. “It’s definitely gorier,” he gushed to Metro.co.uk,“which is pretty cool.”
Netflix just announced a new show, Prank Encounters, hosted and “executive produced” by little Gaten. The premise of this gem? To lure earnest job seekers into extended Candid Camera-style pranks, which the ad copy promises are “terrifying and hilarious.” Real-life job seekers. Hilarious, wot?
Stay classy, Netflix.
Finally, wouldn’t you know it, Stranger Things is filmed outside Atlanta—as in, Georgia, the very state Netflix announced it will be fighting with the help of the ACLU over the pro-life “heartbeat” laws set to take effect January 1, 2020.
I wish I had a better answer to my own question, “Why didn’t I stop funding these people earlier?”
Viewers need to make their own minds up, but this one thinks Stranger Things is a fat chocolate cake held together by a thin layer of strychnine.
Oh, and watch for the Will Byers character to Come Out As Gay [™] at some point. You can see that coming a mile away.
This article was first published at Crisis Magazine