“You’ve experienced trauma Max, and when you keep your feelings, your pain, bottled up the way you do, it doesn’t take much to trigger them again. So now when it rains, it storms.” Ms. Kelley, Counselor
Stranger Things has delved into interesting thematic concepts in their four seasons. For example, season three focuses on the power of memory and nostalgia. This season delves into the painful world of trauma and its impact on the lives of those dealing with it. This is clearly seen in the characters of Max, Hopper, and El.
Cutting Herself Off
After the trauma of season 3 and witnessing Billy’s death, Max has withdrawn inside herself, cutting herself off from her friends. She walks around with headphones on, not interacting with those she built relationships with previously. This makes her a target for Vecna, the villain of season 4, who preys on those who have experienced unresolved traumatic events. All of his victims experienced something life-changing that causes them to feel guilt and shame.
Thinking her death is imminent, she writes letters to all her loved ones expressing the feelings she had been holding inside. One of these letters is to Billy, and she reads it at his gravestone, telling him she’s sorry. As she finishes up, she enters a trance where Vecna attempts to kill her. In her vision, she sees Billy who calls her out saying she wanted him to die and that was why stood there and why she hides from her friends. Vecna says he is there to end her suffering once and for all.
Her body soars into the air like the previous victims, and we think her life is over. However, thanks to Nancy and Robin, who figured out a possible lifeline through the power of music, they are able to reach her through her favorite song. The music itself isn’t enough though—the song opens a portal back to her friends, but it is her remembering her friends and happy memories with them that empowers her to break from Vecna’s grasp and to get away. She injures Vecna and starts running towards the opening while her song “Running Up that Hill” plays in the background as rocks and debris crash around her. Suddenly, she opens her eyes and falls back to the ground. As they hug her in happiness, she breathes, “I’m still here.”
In volume 2, Max attempts to lure Vecna back in order to bring their plan to kill Vecna to fruition. In order to do this, she admits that what Vecna said was true and that she had wished Billy would die, and it was the guilt of this wish that haunted her.
Playing the Blame Game
Hopper’s trauma is partially revealed in season 1 when we see him in shambles after the death of his daughter and the ending of his marriage. His intense guilt over not being able to save his daughter is explained in more detail in this season when we find out that he had been exposed to Agent Orange and knew there was a risk for any future children. His other friends who had been exposed experienced child deformities and deaths, but he still decided to have a child.
He saw her death and subsequent tragedies as the result of him. He says that he used to think he was cursed, but now he believes that he is the curse. He is ready to give up until he realizes that he and the other Russian prisoners are facing a demogorgon. This reveals that El is still in danger and that a portal is open if the demogorgon is still alive. This gives him new purpose, and he shakes off his apathy. Realizing he still had a purpose to serve, he is able to look towards the future, if not with hope, then with determination.
Get to the Truth of the Matter
In this season, El is plagued with the fragments of a memory in which she believes she is responsible for killing several of the kids in the research facility. She doesn’t remember the entire event, however, and struggles with understanding what kind of person she is and whether she is a monster. This struggle comes to a head when she is bullied at a roller skating rink and reacts violently, slamming the offending bully in the face with a roller skate. When Mike and El discuss this later, she accuses him of looking at her like she’s a monster, something she is believing about herself.
Once she is reunited with her former Dr. Brennan and Dr. Owens who want to help her regain her powers. To accomplish this, she must go back in time to when she was first learning to control her powers. This allows her to finally relive the memory that has been festering in her mind, allowing to finally get to the truth of the matter that she in fact did not kill those children; however, it does bring up other difficult issues.
Confronting the truth forces her to consider her complicated relationships and how they’ve shaped the way she views herself. Particularly problematic is her relationship with Papa (Dr. Brennan) who has spent her entire life sending conflicting messages.
Her moment of truth is when she states that it wasn’t her who was the monster it was him. Later on, Vecna has the same moment with her, revealing her own culpability in who he had become. Although this truth is painful, it helps her truly understand the situation.
Trauma Doesn’t Have the Final Say
In each of these characters’ lives they have to deal with trauma and its residual effects. For Max, her guilt and shame at wishing for the death of Billy made her cut off her friends. Her moment of healing came when she was able to open herself up to them, remembering how much she cares for them. It was in this moment that she was “here.”
For Hopper, his revelation came when he stopped blaming himself for the choices he made in the past. Instead of focusing on his self-hatred, he gave himself agency to change his future. He looked ahead instead of behind and found that, while he could not change the past, he could change the future.
For El, her path was complicated with relationships and events that were not straight-forward. From the beginnning, she had been lied to over and over again and given conflicting messages where the ones who professed love of her also hurt her repeatedly. She could not trust herself and believed herself to be a monster. In the end, digging into the truth of the matter, no matter how scary, brought her freedom. While it didn’t completely exonerate her from being “bad”, she was able to see that she wasn’t who Papa and One were telling her she was.
All of us experience trauma, and like Max, Hopper, and El, we will want to run from the messages this trauma tells us about ourselves. We may cut off others who care for us; we may drown it in mind-numbing behaviors, lose ourself in an inner dialogue of self-hatred, or block it out of our thoughts. However, if we can be brave like these characters were, we can learn to reach out and not shut people out. We can have the courage to move forward. And we can face the truth in its entirety. Then maybe we too can say like Eddie “I didn’t run away!”