Reality is Analog: Philosophizing with Stranger Things / Part One
Since when does reading a story constitute an incantation calling up its imagery before the body’s eyes and not the mind’s?
– Thomas Ligotti, “Alice’s Last Adventure”
The Strange and the Weird
We say that something is strange when it defies reason, when we can’t find an explanation satisfying enough to stop wondering what it is. There are at least two ways in which this can happen. A thing can be strange in effect or strange in fact. In philosophical terms, the first kind of strangeness might be called epistemological, meaning that it has to do with how we perceive things; the second kind of strangeness might be called ontological, meaning that it has to do with the way things actually are at their inmost.
Epistemological strangeness arises when, though I can conceive of no rational explanation for the thing before me, I nevertheless maintain the belief that some explanation would obtain if I had more information. If cryptozoologists captured a Bigfoot and determined that it was an extremely rare bipedal ape, the whole Bigfoot phenomenon would prove to have been an instance of epistemological strangeness—strangeness in effect. In contrast, ontological strangeness arises when an event is unexplainable in principle because it defies rational explanation in an absolute sense. This is an inborn strangeness pointing us to the strangeness of reality itself at the fundamental level. Certain phenomena that particle physicists study seem to be ontologically strange. And according to the imaginal or “daimonic” interpretation of the Bigfoot phenomenon found in the work of John Keel and Patrick Harpur, ontological strangeness also defines the real Bigfoot, the one that forever eludes capture even though people have been seeing it for centuries in the wilderness of North America and will probably continue to do so for as long as there are forests for sheltering mysteries.1See John Keel’s classic paranormal investigation The Mothman Prophecies (1975), and Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality (1995).
In art and literature, absolute strangeness is called the Weird. Weird things aren’t things I don’t yet understand but will understand when I know more about them. They are things that elude all possible explanation because they are rooted in unreason. There exists in the West a “weird” artistic tradition going at least as far back as Edgar Allen Poe and including such luminaries as Arthur Machen, Alfred Kubin, H. P. Lovecraft, Daphne Du Maurier, Philip K. Dick, Robert Aickman, and David Lynch. While these artists are all singular, there is one trait they have in common: a stubborn love of irresolvable ambiguity. Because you can’t get to the Weird without being absolutely ambiguous.
On the surface, it would seem that the hit web series Stranger Things deals with epistemological strangeness, not the Weird. Thanks to its proud emulation of popular adventure and horror films from the 1980s, the show boasts a cloak of familiarity. It isn’t until you think about it afterwards that what seemed epistemologically strange in the moment—the monster, the Upside Down, the feats of ESP and telekinesis—was strange in the second sense, and that the web series bears only a formal resemblance to the Spielberg, Carpenter and King narratives it draws upon. The latter are full of strange things, but the things in Stranger Things are, well, stranger.
Is the show a work of science fiction or fantasy? For all its deployment of tropes belonging to both of those genres, Stranger Things admirably avoids the one that neither of them seems able to go without: exposition. The creature and its world are never rationalized; this, despite the fact that the story includes a scientist—Dr. Brenner, played by a subdued Matthew Modine—who is in the ideal position to deliver the obligatory expert soliloquy. Without that necessary dose of exposition, it is impossible to say which of the two broad speculative genres could lay claim to Stranger Things.
It is true that chapter five contains some speculation as to the nature of the threat the characters face. First, there is the fable of the flea and the acrobat, which the science teacher Mr. Clarke offers up to illustrate how one might travel to another dimension. Second, there is the passage on the “Vale of Shadows” that Dustin finds in his Dungeons & Dragons manual. If Mr. Clarke’s fable had proven definitive for making sense of the situation, Stranger Things might legitimately have qualified as science fiction. If the passage on the Vale of Shadows had done the trick, it would have been a fantasy. But as it stands, each explanation implies an entirely different frame of understanding, the first hearkening to modern science, the second to magic and the supernatural. Moreover, since the first speculation is clearly a high school teacher’s attempt to vulgarize a complex piece of quantum theory, and the second comes from the an adventure game rulebook, we can add that there is something artificial about each of them. The rationalizations on offer seem to have been deliberately framed by the filmmakers as human fictions intended to make sense of an inhuman reality. The absence of authoritative answers leaves the viewer to speculate for herself after the final episode has ended. The show remains open, ambiguous to the end, and it is this quality that raises it above the normal run of generic entertainment to make of it something that defies genre, something genuinely weird.
So, while Stranger Things draws on the fantastical American films and novels of the past, the way it frames its prodigies make them stranger, on close scrutiny, than the bizarreries of formulaic conventions. But the weirdest thing in Stranger Things may be neither the creature that stalks the woods of Hawkins, Indiana, nor the psychic abilities of the young government abductee known as Eleven. Far weirder, I think, is the synchronistic event that sets the story in motion, and what this event might imply to those who wish to see more in the series than a suspenseful tribute to eighties pop culture.
Since this synchronistic event is never acknowledged in the narrative and plays no part in the plot, it is easy to overlook. Nevertheless, as with any other instance of synchronicity, it assumes tremendous importance if seriously taken into consideration, since it cannot be grasped without calling into question our whole working model of reality. Here is how it happens. At the very moment that an extraplanar monstrosity escapes from a secret government laboratory on the outskirts of town, four boys are playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement of a suburban house. Mike, the dungeon master, is narrating a scene in which the adventurers encounter Demogorgon, an obscure pagan entity mentioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost and resurrected in Gary Gygax’s classic roleplaying game as one of the most challenging foes in the Monster Manual. Will, who plays the party’s wizard, attempts a fireball spell but doesn’t roll high enough to harm the creature. After Mike’s mother sends everyone home, our hapless boy-wizard bikes off into the night, only to meet Demogorgon in the flesh.
What are the chances you encounter a demonic humanoid on the very night your fifth-level magic-user fought one in the Caves of Chaos? Without the preceding prologue revealing that something nasty was in fact set loose in Hawkins that night, the most sensible explanation for the monster’s appearance would have been that the boys’ imaginative play had brought it into being. Had this been the case, Stranger Things would have stood as an explicit endorsement of the Christian Right’s efforts to ban Dungeons & Dragons in the eighties on the basis that it enabled kids to commune with the demonic. Fortunately, the teaser assures us that the connection between the D&D encounter and subsequent events in the real world is coincidental rather than causal. But that’s just what makes it weird. As Carl Jung realized when he introduced the concept in the 1950s, synchronicity is not a causal process. Jung agreed with the skeptics that synchronistic events are coincidences, but he maintained that they are coincidences that mean something. What made his theory controversial was that it made meaning integral to the event instead of regarding it as a caprice of subjective interpretation. In other words, Jung saw the expression of meaning as a property of the natural world rather than a surface effect of human mentation. Synchronicity, for him, was a real psychophysical process, but one that the modern worldview could recognize only at the cost of abandoning certain rationalistic assumptions about how the cosmos functions.
And so Will and his friends imagine a monster in a game only minutes before he encounters one in reality. If nothing else, the event suggests the interrelation of mind and world. If the psyche can enact worldly events that haven’t yet occurred or are happening elsewhere, we cannot continue to hold that the products of the mind are mere figments. They must rather be seen as real events in themselves, imaginal ones that can conspire with their material counterparts in obscure ways. My sense is that this interpretation bears out when we consider other aspects of the series, and that the creative and destructive power of the imagination is one of the great themes of Stranger Things. Recall that the central figure is a little girl who has learned how to affect the physical world with her thoughts, and who, as a consequence of this eldritch ability, has inadvertently let into our world the nameless evil that takes Will away.
Is the creature an alien, a demon, a ghost, a spirit? Are there others like it? What does it want? If it survives on animal flesh, what did it eat before Eleven opened a portal to its desolate domain? During a flashback in the fifth chapter, we learn that Eleven first encountered the creature during a remote viewing exercise conducted while she was still held captive in the government laboratory. The event seems to have put an end to a series of such exercises, the aim of which was to use Eleven as a psychic weapon against the Soviet Union. Note that in this first encounter, Eleven sees only the creature, not the place she eventually refers to as “Upside Down.” The being appears in the blackness of her private mental space, and when she touches it, a fatal connection is made. Only then does the Upside Down reveal its own existence in the form of the yonic rift that materializes in the lab.
These details raise an interesting question: Did Eleven merely happen upon the creature in her psychic wanderings, or did she create it? Until season two comes along to explain everything to death (one can hope it won’t, but it probably will), we are free to speculate. Anyone thinking through the flashbacks that punctuate the series will note that the creature’s first appearance occurs as a bit of a non sequitur in the context of Eleven’s backstory. Ostensibly, Dr. Brenner’s intention was never to contact other planes of existence but to develop Eleven’s psychic faculties in order to spy on (and assassinate) Communists. The fact that a savage monster pops up in the midst of these comparatively mundane psi experiments leads me to believe that its appearance has as much to do with Eleven’s psychological trauma as with a wrong turn she might have taken on the astral plane.
There is no mistaking the signs of complicity between the girl and the creature. Eleven is racked with guilt from the beginning. Thanks to Millie Brown’s impressive performance, it is clear that she feels responsible for the horror that has come to Hawkins. Once we take note of that, some striking parallels come to the fore. For instance, Eleven flees the laboratory on the very night the monster breaks out, as though the latter had freed her from her cell. Both the creature and the girl exhibit an insatiable appetite, the one for mammalian flesh, the other for Eggo waffles and whatever else Mike gives her to eat. When the boys set out to find the portal to the Upside Down, Eleven uses her powers to lead them astray; indeed, she never sheds her reluctance to help them find the being that took their friend. Finally, there is the curious fact that while the creature appears to be attracted by blood, it never comes when Eleven’s nose or ears bleed as a result of her psychic exertions.
When Eleven finally decides to come clean with the boys about what’s going on, she indicates the creature using the lead miniature representing Demogorgon. True to D&D lore, the miniature has two heads. Considering the initial synchronicity and the fact that the Dungeons & Dragons book proves a helpful resource in dealing with occult forces, one wonders how deep the connection with the game goes, and whether the bicephalous miniature hints at a dyadic entity, such that the creature can be said to be an aspect of Eleven, an embodiment of her id, or a tulpa spawned by her anguish and rage after a lifetime of torture. The idea that Eleven’s unconscious mind had a hand in producing the monster dovetails nicely with the implications of the initial coincidence, namely that the wall between psyche and matter is a thin one, boasting windows and doors.
I am not arguing that the creature is “really” Eleven’s creation in the sense that this was the Duffer brothers’ intention. As far as the filmmakers’ designs are concerned, the surface narrative is compelling enough: Eleven encountered the creature by accident as a result of being pushed too far by her abusive minders. This is all one needs to get in order to follow the story. Nevertheless, certain elements in the show do reveal an affinity between girl and monster, one that verges on sympathy. Yet this “sympathy” is metaphysical in nature. It is not present in terms of actual fact within the narrative but exists at the level of the virtual dimension of the fictional world.2The term “virtual” has a long history, one dating back to medieval philosophy. The fin de siècle philosopher Henri Bergson described the virtual as the ideal or spiritual aspect of material reality, and it is this conception (further elaborated upon by Gilles Deleuze) that I have in mind here. It is very different from the digital conception of the virtual, which signifies an immersive simulation of material reality, that is, a representation rather than an element of the physical world. The virtual becomes apparent when we look at the world aesthetically in terms of oneiric resonance, symbolic correspondence, and imaginal power. In Marcel Proust’s formula, it is “real without being present, ideal without being abstract.”3Quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, 58. Virtuality is an aspect of the work of art just as it is an aspect of the real world. Beings flow into one another in the virtual. Everything means more than its purely practical or workaday apprehension would dictate. In this preternatural light, the charade of a cosmos composed of separate, discrete objects gives way to a multitude of prodigious connections. Even the most commonplace things begin to seem stranger than they normally appear.
On the most obvious reading, the title of the show is a reference to the phrase “Stranger things have happened,” which suggests that however outlandish a purported event may seem, the past assures us that it cannot be so bizarre as to be deemed impossible. The notion of infinite possibility is therefore built into the title of the series. Furthermore, since the title’s source phrase focuses on what has gone on in the past (“Stranger things have happened”), the viewer is subtly alerted to the series’ retrospective orientation as soon as it appears in the opening credits. It is as though we were being told: “Here are some curious events that happened in another time. Beside these, even the strangest occurrences of your own day will seem ordinary by comparison.”
That other time when the bar for strange was set is the fall of 1983. It is a significant date, since we are then on the eve of 1984, a historical juncture that looms in the popular imagination as the demarcation point that George Orwell set between the open society he cherished and a new reign of tyranny rooted in the perverse logic of thoughtcrime and doublethink. Interestingly, in the autumn of ’83, we are also weeks away from the launch of the Macintosh line of personal computers. Apple’s publicity campaign for the new Macintosh included a memorable Super Bowl advertisement, the content of which gives a sense of the significance contemporary Americans attributed to Orwell’s prophecy. An athletic blonde, the only spot of color in a drab dystopian world, hurls a sledgehammer at the giant screen from which Big Brother addresses an audience of shorn mind-slaves. As the screen explodes, a narrator says: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” In no uncertain terms, the ad claims that Apple’s new product heralds an era of freedom in the very year that Orwell set his age of oppression. It is interesting to watch this advertisement from the vantage point of the early twenty-first century, when personal computing, though a liberating force in some respects, has served as a platform for the establishment of a surveillance society of such breadth and scope as to leave Orwell’s clunky third-world police state in the dust. Suffice it to say that, in retrospect, 1983 is something of a symbolic threshold. By transporting viewers with impressive verisimilitude into late months of that year, Stranger Things simultaneously places us in the shadow of Big Brother and the dawn of a brave new world defined by the digital.
Of course, the digital culture touted by Apple was already alive and kicking in ‘83. Personal computers had been on the market since the mid-seventies, and the Internet was just a few years away. But for all the attention it pays to historical minutiae, Stranger Things is conspicuously unconcerned by the digital realities of the eighties. Mike, Lucas, and Dustin, the roleplaying trio of rejects whose search for their missing friend forms the heart of the story, are classic science geeks. One would expect them to be obsessed with computers. Yet the machine that has them salivating at school isn’t a Commodore 64 but a ham radio, an apparatus that could hardly have felt like the cutting edge one year after Tron came out. As a matter of fact, computers are entirely absent from Stranger Things. There isn’t a single Atari console or coin-operated arcade game to be seen. Even the secret government lab where Eleven received her sinister education in the supersensory seems to function without a hint of digital tech, the scientists’ tests being performed on what appear to be analog machines.
It’s a curious omission to say the least, because one of the most compelling aspects of Stranger Things is its obsession with the lost relics of the 1980s. When it comes to technology, however, the show’s interests seem to lie squarely in the objects that preceded the digital revolution foretold by Apple, and the roles those objects can be made to play in the workings of the Weird. That brings us back to the title, and to a different interpretation of its meaning. If we read the first word not as an adjective but a noun, and the second as denoting physical objects rather than events, “stranger things” can signify “things that have to do with strangers,” or more relevantly, things that are themselves strangers to the viewer. In scene after scene, we are shown objects foreign to life in the later information age. Almost by virtue of their having disappeared, these objects seem to acquire an uncanny power in the fictional universe. Jonathan’s Pentax camera can capture the form of the monster in the woods. Boomboxes, ham radios, incandescent light bulbs, rotary telephones, and walkie-talkies can become instruments for communicating with the disincarnate. Roleplaying games (conceived here as virtual machines, different in kind from the video RPGs that would all but replace them in time) can be veritable oracles, imparting knowledge of the occult and allowing their players to imaginatively enact, albeit unknowingly, events destined to happen in the near future. Throughout the show, these props are framed so as to appear as fetishes in the original sense of the term; they are objects of power, “magic items” in D&D parlance. Given the comparatively dull behavior of the real-life devices littering the lives of viewers, it isn’t hard to derive from Stranger Things the intriguing proposition that by estranging ourselves from the technologies of the past, analog technologies, we have lost an avenue into certain obscure regions of the Real. Read this way, the title of Stranger Things echoes a memorable line from the screen adaptation of another work of prophetic nostalgia, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.”
Of course, the idea that modern technology is a magical phenomenon, that automation by natural forces and possession by occult ones are at bottom the same process, goes back at least to the discovery of electricity. The Spiritualist Movement of the nineteenth century had good reason to name its main publication The Spiritual Telegraph, for as Erik Davis notes in his marvellous book Techgnosis, the revolutionary character of telegraphy lay in its “groundbreaking transformation of energy into information.”4Erik Davis, Techgnosis, 61. (Emphasis added.) The allure of the electric, and of the apparatuses its mastery made possible, was such that occultists and scientists alike “looked to electricity to explain the raps, creaks, and table-hops that occurred during séances.”5Ibid. No doubt, this is partly because there is something uncanny about inanimate objects behaving like animate ones. The alien intelligence we sense in thunderstorms also seems to exist in our electrical automatons, especially when these are not performing exactly as they should.
It is this enduring ambivalence of energy and will, nature and artifice, matter and spirit, that the Duffer brothers reawaken with those unsettling shots of malfunctioning light bulbs, telephones, and tape recorders. As in the films of David Lynch, these electrical blips and glitches are signals portending the imminent intrusion of inhuman forces in the human world. The association feels right because we know, instinctively, that electricity isn’t human-made; it is an immense force of nature that humanity has harnessed for its own relatively minor purposes. It therefore retains in our minds all the wildness, unpredictability, and autonomy of the non-human universe from which it comes. There is a sense that this wildness remains present in our technological contraptions.
Or at least it does so when the contraptions of a certain type, if we’re to go by the implications of a period piece that gives the analog gadgets of its period a preeminent role while omitting their digital counterparts entirely. Why did the creators of Stranger Things, consciously or not, insist that the objects capable of dialing up the supernatural aren’t the familiar devices of the twenty-first century but the analog ones that have become strangers to us? It is not my intention to argue that one would have better luck contacting a deceased grandmother with a rotary telephone than with a mobile. Nevertheless, I believe that Stranger Things’ implicit affirmation of a power at work in analog technology makes metaphysical sense, because the analog and the digital embody opposing conceptions of nature and reality. My thesis is that the Netflix series, despite its nostalgia and playful pastiche of late-Cold War Hollywood films, returns us to modes of existence that the pervasive algorithms, codes, and interfaces of Apple’s utopia are threatening to make obsolete.
|↑1||See John Keel’s classic paranormal investigation The Mothman Prophecies (1975), and Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality (1995).|
|↑2||The term “virtual” has a long history, one dating back to medieval philosophy. The fin de siècle philosopher Henri Bergson described the virtual as the ideal or spiritual aspect of material reality, and it is this conception (further elaborated upon by Gilles Deleuze) that I have in mind here. It is very different from the digital conception of the virtual, which signifies an immersive simulation of material reality, that is, a representation rather than an element of the physical world.|
|↑3||Quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Proust and Signs, 58.|
|↑4||Erik Davis, Techgnosis, 61. (Emphasis added.)|