Eleven, the superhero of the horror sci-fi show Stranger Things may have saved the world, but she is still grappling with her traumatic past, struggling with guilt and suspicion. The fourth season of Stranger Things, which recently concluded with plenty of fanfare, managed to bring in deeper character arcs that show vulnerability, weaknesses and humility. Max Mayfield, another character, has been transformed by the demons she encounters, while chief of police Jim Hopper continues to deal with his anger issues and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The show has also addressed some major mental health issues that the world needs to become aware of.
Of trauma, isolation & guilt
A single theme that has been highlighted throughout all episodes is how trauma shapes some of the central characters in the show, impacting the overall narrative.
Path A Kalia, a psychological counsellor with InnerHour, a mental health service based in Mumbai, agrees that trauma and survivor’s guilt have shaped every character in the show, all of whom have been changed by it, making them psychologically vulnerable and reducing their resilience. “This does a lot to tell us that while we may think of PTSD in its most extreme form as presenting with flashbacks and clear symptoms, it often also expresses itself in subtler forms that shape one’s personality,” he says. He adds that trauma isn’t always centred on a single event and can be expressed in many different ways.
The complexity of trauma—and yes, mental health itself—is deeply explored in the choice of this season’s villain. Vecna—who has had his own set of traumatic experiences that have moulded his character—is someone who is powerful and capable of good but eventually chooses to go to the dark side.
Shreya Kaul, a counselling psychologist at Karma Centre For Counselling and Well-Being, based in Delhi, explains that Vecna attacks individuals in a psychologically vulnerable space and then adds to their struggles by giving them headaches, nosebleeds and pain, finally brutally killing them after showing them multiple hallucinations. These victims are already dealing with mental health issues—PTSD, eating disorder or depression—and feel isolated.
“It is almost as though Vecna is a personification of trauma and mental illness,” she says. “Isolation and mental health go hand in hand as there is a tendency to cut off from everyone around us as we believe that we won’t be understood, or we just won’t be seen,” she adds.
Additionally, as Tanu Choksi, a Mumbai-based psychologist and counsellor, points out, trauma and guilt are interlinked. This is why Vecna often uses guilt to get to his victims.
“Guilt is a powerful and unhealthy negative emotion that results in low self-esteem, heightened anxiety and depression,” she says. While the series showed the physical manifestation of this guilt, it did have links to the real world. “I thought it was an accurate representation of how our own thoughts can not only exacerbate existing trauma but create a cycle of darkness that we can’t escape,” she says, adding that it also threw light on the fact that trauma is often cyclical.
Anger and art
Anger is an important theme addressed this season, particularly in the case of the protagonist, Eleven, who loses her temper and injures a bully. Choksi delves into the nature of anger itself, pointing out that it is often a defence masking other emotions such as sadness, helplessness and fear.“That’s why anger is intensely irrational and makes you act in ways you normally wouldn’t,” she says. Kalia explains that while anger can play a role in motivation, “in real life, the outcomes of being driven by anger often fall short of a healthy state of mind.”
Not everything about the show is dark and hopeless. There is an interesting way that humour has been used to defuse tension, even in the worst situations, which is also true to life. Humour’s role goes well beyond the ability to make jokes but is about the genuine ability to find humour in difficult circumstances, says Kalia. “This has been positively correlated with optimism, positive life outcomes and overall coping skills and psychological resilience.”
Similarly, music played an important role as an anchor to reality for characters. Kaul, a musician as well, says that she found it fascinating how music was used as a safe escape in this show.“Art allows us to tap into our struggles in a safe manner while being centring for an individual because it relies on our senses,” she says.
Choksi adds that in real life, we associate songs with certain memories, experiences and emotions, making us more likely to listen to a song because it triggers a fond memory. “The show uses music as a powerful tool to anchor people to their happy states, which is something we see in real life too,” she says.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist