In the widely successful Netflix series, Stranger Things, creators The Duffer Brothers introduced their audience to a place known as “The Upside Down.” Coined by badass superhuman and beloved buzz cut slayer, Eleven, The Upside Down is allegedly where Will, best friend of Mike, Dustin, and Lucas is being held hostage by a no-faced beast known as The Demogorgon. You know, casual stuff.
“Like the Vale of Shadows?” Dustin asks as the three friends try to understand Eleven’s explanation of their friend’s vanishing. He then reaches for his Dungeons and Dragons guidebook and elaborates: “The Vale of Shadows,” he reads, “is a dimension that is a dark reflection, or echo, of our world. It is a place with decay and death, a plane out of phase, a place with monsters. It is right next to you and you don’t even see it.”
In a separate part of town, Will’s mother, Joyce and older brother, Jonathan, are also searching, though to no avail. Joyce, (played by Wynona Ryder) who is arguably the most connected to Will, seems to make contact with The Upside Down early on, though her understanding of it is quite bleak. After receiving a phone call from an unknown sender, whom she believes is Will, she begins finding patterns in her son’s attempts at communication and the faulty electricity in her house.
“He was talking to me through the lights,” Joyce says to a doubtful Jonathan when he finds her sitting in Will’s room surrounded by lamps.
Later on in the series, when Joyce has furthered her ability to connect with Will, she asks him where he is, to which he replies, “it’s a lot like home but much darker and colder.” Otherwise a much more childlike description of how Dustin’s D&D guide introduced The Vale of Shadows, which he, Mike, Lucas and Eleven have all grown to know as The Upside Down.
When I watched this series (both the first and second time) I loved it because of the way it opened my imagination, made me laugh and anxiously squeeze my pillow, and introduced me to my new—and forever to reign—girl crush: Eleven. But it wasn’t until after I recently watched a film in a vastly different genre that I started to realize the real life connections Stranger Things has to today’s society.
Colonia, starring Emma Watson, which was in my Netflix queue behind Stranger Things, is a film set in 1970s Chile about a woman who joins a cult to save her boyfriend, only to find that said cult, the historically deplorable Colonia Dignidad, is one which nobody has ever escaped, and is home to crimes far worse than she could have ever imagined. As I watched it, I was horrified to see such a place with people so cruel and misguided. I wanted it to be over, I wanted to return to “my world”, one in which these things “didn’t happen.” Which is interesting, considering mere days before watching it I couldn’t get enough of a series based on a no-faced monster that steals people from their lives and fills their gut with slugs. But I suppose I can equate that to the imagination and how we thrive in our ability to choose when to leave it. This would also explain why, even when the credits rolled and Emma Watson and her boyfriend stood safely outside the walls of Colonia Dignidad, I couldn’t help but shake that the movie wasn’t over, because in many ways it wasn’t.
Colonia was dark. It was a reminder of the crimes being committed in the day to day. Real crimes that we can’t blame on no-faced monsters, as the guilty parties, the real monsters, are people we know. People who walk among us. To put it bluntly, we ourselves are the monsters. We are the ones sentencing people to the Upside Down. Men send women there, women send women there, groups send individuals, individuals send themselves, and on and on and on.
In Stranger Things we see a number of different depictions of how people end up in The Upside Down. Will is taken without warning or reason, preyed upon because he’s innocent and weak. Barb is taken too, though arguably as a result of being wronged by a friend, the details of which acting as a catalyst to her ultimate demise. Nancy, the friend in question, discovers the Upside Down by accident, though in genuine pursuit to right her wrong. Joyce and police chief Hopper enter willingly in pursuit of Will (and, you know, also kind of for Barb, but not really), exposing themselves to all that entails, regardless of the consequence. And finally, Eleven, who seems to have a strange connection with both realities, yet ultimately lacks a comprehensive understanding of either, tries to make sense of where she really belongs or further, which reality she truly deserves.
Which begs the question: have we all been to The Upside Down?
I think yes. I think at some point we all have or will all be able to relate to one of the characters’ passages into the darkness and they’re eventual escape—or lack there of. For in today’s society we’ve all seen the face of the Demogorgon, and we all know its name: Hate.
Hate is the monster that feeds on us all. That which tries to rip us from our lives and fill our guts with slugs. It carries us into the darkness and strips us of our hope. What’s worse is that while we are the victims of hate, we too are its creator.
While our world can be a dark place, a bleak reflection of what we wish it to be, it is also full of heroes. There are real life Mike’s and Dustin’s and Lucas’s refusing to give up the fight for the truth. There are Joyce’s and Hopper’s and Nancy’s willing to put themselves in harm’s way to right wrongs. There are Eleven’s, real life superheroes, finding those who need to be saved.
So as we flicker between the world we know and the world we created beneath us, shuffling between fighting to save others, crying to be saved ourselves, or screaming that there are still people left to be saved, we must realize how important we all are to this war. How crucial each of us is in seeking those on the side of the world which should not exist and refusing to let temptation cause us to sentence ourselves. For even though we all want to be an Eleven, sometimes it just starts with one.