“There’s an H.P. Lovecraft sort of approach,” Matt Duffer put it—“this inter-dimensional being that is sort of beyond human comprehension.”
The co-creator of Stranger Things was explaining the way the show’s primary monster had changed between its first season and its second, the way it had—and this is, be warned, a minor spoiler—expanded from a slimy beast with muscular limbs and a be-petalled face, FTD gone WTF, to, now … a form that has, strictly speaking, no form at all. The monster of the Things that have become even stranger does not dwell in chilly woods. It has no flesh that can be broken by a bullet or pierced by the nail-studded head of a baseball bat. It has no flesh at all. The new enemy of Hawkins, Indiana, is, instead, miasmic in form and postmodern in sensibility: It infuses the air. It lurks in the crevices, at once everywhere and nowhere. It is that most unsettling of threats: the kind that hides in plain sight.
Monsters, in many ways, are mirrors: They tend to reflect the deepest anxieties of a place and a time and reflect them back to the people who live them. Frankenstein’s creation gave grotesque form to Victorian fears about technology’s effect on the human soul. Godzilla, in the next century, did the same, interpreting the looming threat of nuclear annihilation as a hulking lizard with atomic breath. Environmental catastrophe; economic collapse; epidemics; aliens; serial killers; kidnappers; weaponized ennui; apocalypse of varying stripes—each fear has found a form, on a screen, as a monster.
So Stranger Things, a show that is set during a decade that found Americans’ analog existence first ceding to the demands of the digital world, has created a beast that is revealingly non-corporeal, a powerful shadow that resides in the world’s negative spaces and, also, embodies them. Hawkins’s new megamonster is vaguely arachnoid in shape, vaguely viral in function, and by turns, apparently, both electric and gaseous. The show’s kids nickname it “the Mind Flayer,” and it’s appropriate: This is a monster of the mind. It hijacks the system—a body, a town, a world—right through the nerves. It lives among the people, below the people, around the people, in the parallel world of the Upside Down. And in its formlessness—monsters, mirrors—lurk anxieties about terrorism and climate change, about Facebook and hacking, about systems that are too powerful and not powerful enough. The invisible. The invincible. All the threats we cannot see and therefore cannot, directly, fight. No amount of human bravery or ingenuity—no well-aimed slingshot, no powerful gun, no bold act of collaboration—can destroy it. The Mind Flayer is helplessness, made monstrous.
Netflix’s release of Stranger Things 2 was long scheduled to coincide with the time of Halloween, which in the Gregorian sense marks a period of seasonal change—the sun retreats, the leaves fall away, that which has been sown is finally reaped—and which, in mystical tradition, is the time that finds the veil dividing the living from the dead to be at its most porous. The spirits cross over. The ghosts walk among us. In the year 2017, however, in the United States, the annual period of harvesting and haunting coincided with a different kind of spiritual rupture. The new Stranger Things ended up capping an October that began with, and was in many ways defined by, the revelations that Harvey Weinstein had allegedly harassed and assaulted and otherwise preyed on women. And that his alleged predations had calcified into a system.
Throughout the month, as the world turned colder and darker, more accusations arose, about Weinstein and so many other powerful men: of alleged abuses that had played out, reportedly, over months and years and decades. James Toback—more than 300 women—and Roy Price, and Knight Landesman, and Larry Nassar, and Leon Wieseltier, and Mark Halperin, and George H.W. Bush, and John Besh, and Hamilton Fish, and Ben Affleck, and Kevin Spacey, and Andy Dick, and Mike Oreskes, and Jeremy Piven, and Chris Savino, and Lars von Trier, and Oliver Stone, and Brett Ratner, and Dustin Hoffman. Day by day, as if in a horrific, late-season plot twist, there came more allegations. More revelations. More suggestions that there are monsters among us.
Over time—slowly but also swiftly, as these things so often play out—what began as “the Weinstein story” expanded, hewing to the same general trajectory that had transformed the Demogorgon of Season 1 into the facelessly monstrous void of the current moment. The stories soon turned into a phenomenon: what my colleague Adrienne LaFrance has called “the Harvey effect.” And as it expanded, the phenomenon took on environmental valences. Harassment and assault swept through Hollywood and the news media, across politics and athletics and academia, winding around every #MeToo and “David Cop-a-Feel,” every “I’m sorry if I” and “I now deeply regret” and “not who I am” and “under investigation” and “the relationship has now been terminated.”
This is one of the ironies of the Harvey effect: The monsters are also, so often, the myth-makers.
Each new revelation is good. Each new revelation makes the world safer for women and for everyone else. Each is a triumph of journalism, a testament to the moral worth of dogged and empathetic reporting. But each new revelation also exposes the reach of the shadows, the scale of the monstrosity, the depth of the lie. Each one suggests how thoroughly the logic of the Upside Down has insinuated itself into an environment that has for so long professed to be right-side up—how the world has for so long managed to be both itself and its opposite, at the same time. Title IX on the one side; grab ‘em by the pussy on the other. Empowerment on the one side; but look how she dressed on the other. Hillary Clinton on the one side; Hillary Clinton on the other. Every new Cosby or Ailes or O’Reilly or Polanski or Tyson or Trump, every new allegation of a man acting as a monster, makes it more apparent that the laws we have trusted in—laws not just of courts and juries, but of everyday morality—were not, in fact, laws at all. Momentum, mass, the dynamics of progress: The physics themselves were false. The good place was also the bad place. The monsters had been with us all along.
There will very likely be more allegations in the months to come, more open secrets stripped of their secrecy. And each one, as before, will likely serve to ratify a sense that the world is not quite what it had claimed to be. Shortly after the Weinstein news broke, in a piece headlined “The Harvey Weinstein Scandal Is Changing How I Look at the Movies,” Slate’s movie critic, Dana Stevens, likened the revelations to “the discovery that your kitchen floor doesn’t just need refinishing but has been eaten from within by a seething mass of termites.”
Like “the Mind Flayer,” it was an apt analogy. The men who have allegedly perpetrated harassment and abuse and assault have also been powerful men, people who shape not only the careers and the fates of those in their employ, but also the tales we tell ourselves about who—and what—we are. As the writer Rebecca Traister noted, “The men who have had the power to abuse women’s bodies and psyches throughout their careers are in many cases also the ones in charge of our political and cultural stories.” They are often the people at the centers of things. This is one of the ironies of the Harvey effect, and also one of the tragedies: The monsters are also, so often, the myth-makers.
Another of those ironies: The monsters have remained with us and above us in large part because they have taken care to make themselves banal. They do not breathe fire. They do not trample buildings. Instead, they blend. They infiltrate and insinuate. They tease and laugh and cajole. They grab and insist and, then, move on. Their victims are not so lucky. For them, often, the horror lingers. It becomes its own wraith, constant and unrelenting. The new season of Stranger Things, my colleague Sophie Gilbert pointed out, excels especially in its exploration of trauma, in its deep understanding of how the effects of one terrible event can radiate outward, their exhaust giving way to exhaustion. In the formless body of the Mind Flayer, the horrors of the show and the monsters that perpetrate them merge into one. Smoky and shadowed, nowhere but anywhere, the tangled wraith does what all monsters will, in the end: It turns the world upside-down.