The Lesson of Stranger Things: Audiences Like Kids
Stranger Things, "The Upside Down"
Minor Spoiler Follows
A lot has been said about the properties that were obviously influences on Stranger Things, mostly in a positive light. You’d have to be blind to miss blatant homages to E.T., Poltergeist and Firestarter, but there are also more subtle references to stuff like The Goonies, Monster Squad and It. The one thing all those movies and that miniseries have in common?
Kids. It’s been way too long since we made things like horror movies with children as the heroes.
I get why. Working with kids requires a whole host of regulations to make sure they continue their educations and are not exploited, and even those regulations are woefully inadequate to this day. On top of that, when dealing with a television series or a film franchise, the growth of children into young adults can wreak havoc on continuity, story pacing and deadlines. That's why Tommen Baratheon has been played by two actors on Game of Thrones.
That said, children are a powerful storytelling tool. There’s a reason Harry Potter remains one of the most successful franchises of all time. People like being able to watch a group of kids overcome a great evil.
Children allow heroes to be uncomplicated. Their motivations are often simple and, well, childlike. It’s much easier for us to get behind them as principled heroes who want to do the right thing, or as frightened figures cowering in the corner. You don’t expect kids to fight back, which is why when they do, the victory is all the more impressive.
Being a kid also allows for a level of unquestioning righteous brutality we wouldn’t necessarily give to an adult protagonist. When Eleven straight up murders a team of scientists chasing her and her friends in a gruesome manner, we accept it because people who point guns at kids are scum. It’s the same reason that when Charlie McGee goes scorched-earth in Firestarter, we’re with her all the way even though she's committing wholesale murder. We know that for her to unleash something of that nature, the people on the other end of the massacre undoubtedly deserved it because of the innocence of our hero.
Children also allow for a greater range of emotional acting outside of what we typically expect of adult performers. Stranger Things has already gotten plenty of accolades for the normalcy it portrays with Dustin and his congenital disorder (Cleidocranial dysplasia) as well as the very un-stereotyped writing of Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas. Anyone whose children attend a racially diverse school knows that you get magical things sometimes when children are just allowed to interact with each other sans all of society’s hang-ups.
Boys are allowed to hug each other and console each other in ways adult characters rarely get to. When Mike’s mom tells him it’s okay to stay home from school because she thinks he is mourning the death of his friend, we buy that, even though most men my age would attest this was not the sort of emotional support we got in the ’80s. Maybe seeing it here will make us handle the next generation better.
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All stories that revolve around children’s points of view are inherently about growing up. They’re about discovering the world is a cruel place that needs our help, or finding the confidence in ourselves to strike out into the world, or the fear that comes with change. However, growing up doesn’t stop at adulthood, and that’s why something like Stranger Things works so perfectly. The journeys of Mike, Will, Dustin, Lucas and Eleven are epics in microcosm, total personal evolutions that are small enough to swallow in in the space of an eight-episode series.
They say if you want the truth, ask a child. I wish more shows and movies would re-embrace that in genres like horror that can say things regular family adventures simply cannot. Stephen King once said in ‘Salem’s Lot, “If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one — probably a child — who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it.” That’s what made Stranger Things what it was. The power of children to unabashedly name a monster, believe in what will stop it and care enough to stand with their friends against it simply because that is what you do.
Jef’s book of stories about vampires and drive-thru churches, The Rook Circle, is available now.
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