can sci-fi horror be a vehicle for mental health awareness?

Warning: the following article contains spoilers for Stranger Things seasons 1-4

Every year, a television series is released that takes the world by storm. The fourth season of the hit Netflix series Stranger Things broke the record for the biggest premiere weekend on Netflix for an English-language TV show, with 286.79 million hours viewed. When watching the newest installment of the series, it may have become apparent that mental health was a prominent theme. This article will detail the multiple ways in which creators of Stranger Things 4, Matt & Ross Duffer, explore the complexities of mental health throughout the season.

The Antagonist

In the fourth installment of Stranger Things, we became aware of Vecna, the monster behind all the horrific events from the previous seasons. Vecna torments his victims by psychologically forcing them to relieve their most harmful thoughts through illusions. During this waking nightmare, Vecna sends them to the 'Upside Down, an alternate dimension that mirrors our world, only darker and much more sinister.

At one point, Vecna targets highschooler Max Mayfield, preying on her trauma from the death of her brother Billy. Max's trauma presented itself in the form of intense guilt, as she never had a strong bond with Billy. By replaying memories that reinforced Max's guilt, she became an easy target. 

Through this tactic of twisting his victims' reality to only focus on their past mistakes, Vecna develops a hold on his victims that becomes increasingly difficult to break. He is comparable to that tiresome little voice inside our head, often associated with depression, that seems to know every 'flaw' about us and is nearly impossible to turn off. When in Vecna's trance, his victims become powerless and unable to control their situation. 

Psychologists believe that this 'voice' is a byproduct of past experiences. It creates automatic fear-based patterns in our brains and tries to protect us from certain memories with the hope of not repeating similair actions in the future. By painting a memory as "bad" we avoid thinking about it. While having this fear-based self-protectiveness made sense in the past when we were helpless, it may no longer be appropriate for our lives as adults. Vecna takes advantage of his victims' lack of control over rewriting this fear-based pattern, using this as a vehicle of torture.

The Cure

While the picture painted above shows Vecna as an unstoppable force, Stranger Things offers a solution. Since Vecna's hold forms through the power of negative memories and thoughts, by focusing on the opposite, positive memories and thoughts, freeing oneself from his terror is possible. By shifting her thoughts and attention to the positive memories of hanging out with her friends, Max was able to put a temporary block on Vecna's hold. She was also able to achieve this through her connection to music, in this case, the 1985 hit "Running Up That Hill" by Kate Bush. By connecting to something positive like her favorite song and memories with her friends, Max could take back control of her thoughts. Her ability to mask negative thoughts and memories with positive ones can be applicable in real life as well. 

Broad Minded Affective Coping (BMAC) is a therapeutic technique that utilizes the recall of positive memories and mental imagery to elicit a positive effect. In a 2017 study conducted by Natash Holden et al., researchers examined the impact of BMAC. The predicted result was that feelings such as safety and warmth would increase for individuals following the study, while those of fear and sadness would decrease. As expected, the results demonstrated that the anticipated emotional changes in individuals took place. 

BMAC is relatable to the approach Max took by tapping into her memories to break out of Vecna's unforgiving grasp. She felt an intense sense of fear before and safety and warmth once reciting memories of positivity with people she loved.

A hit Netflix series on the surface, Stranger Things 4 has plenty of lessons to offer us:

  • Our negative thoughts are only as powerful as the energy we invest in believing them
  • Focusing on the important relationships in our lives with family and friends can slowly shift our mindset to a more positive one
  • Our depression deceives us into believing that we are 'the monster' and will be stuck in this depressive mindset forever

Next time you decide to enter the 'Upside Down' and watch an episode of Stranger Things, see if you can spot the mental health messages. While managing emotions and thought patterns are complicated, victory over that voice inside our heads is possible.

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