Defeating the Darkness in Stranger Things

Julia York

Max has been through hell.

Since arriving in Hawkins, Ind., Max (Sadie Sink) has suffered emotionally absent parents, the angst of teenage dating, and multiple face-offs with the monstrous forces of the Upside Down. She also witnessed the violent death of older brother Billy (Dacre Montgomery), who treated Max with crushing disdain.

In Season 4 of Stranger Things, Max finds herself trapped in the Upside Down, which feels more than ever like a literal version of hell: the landscape is blood-soaked and fiery red, now haunted by the malevolent Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), who is intent on making Max his next victim.

If Season 4 of Stranger Things feels darker than previous installments, it is not only because the gang of teen heroes travels into a version of the Upside Down inhabited by flesh-eating bats and a corpse-like villain who is gruesomely killing Hawkins’ teenagers. Season 4 also wields the power of its characters’ trauma, as Vecna uses their worst experiences against them.

Within the Christian discourse on Stranger Things, it would be too easy to relegate the evil Vecna to a caricature of the devil and thus a foil to Christ. What’s most interesting about Vecna is the way he reminds his victims of their missteps, sins, and shame, using their guilt as a means to deliver punishment. When Vecna infiltrates the minds of his victims, he conjures horrific visions of their most painful secrets in order to bind them to the belief that they deserve to suffer such a dark fate. Chrissy the cheerleader (Grace Van Dien) is tormented by apparitions of her own depression and eating disorder. Fred the cub reporter (Logan Riley Bruner) is haunted by the scene of a fatal car crash he caused. Max is reminded of Billy’s death and her lingering guilt over her relief at his demise. Vecna’s strategy—the crux of his villainy—turns on his ability to implicate his victims in their struggles and convince them they do not deserve freedom from their burdens.

For her part, Max tries to keep the darkness at bay by remaining attuned to a greater truth—a favorite song which grounds her in reality. Throughout Season 4, Max is rarely seen without her headphones plastered to her ears in an attempt to drown out Vecna’s mind control by listening over and over to Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” The song stirs something in Max: a comforting familiarity which draws her back to herself and away from Vecna’s infiltrating powers. Although the lyrics describe a deep longing to cry out to a divine figure (“If I only could / I’d make a deal with God / and I’d get him to swap our places”), Max is not portrayed as particularly religious. Yet it is striking that Bush’s song, filled with the pulsing message of one’s need for some sort of savior, is the most powerful element in the very moment Max attempts to escape Vecna.

With her rippling voice and rhythmic synths, which evoke the sound of feet meeting and pushing off the ground, Bush’s melody echoes the familiar and eerie chords of the Stranger Things score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. The result is a deeply satisfying culmination of 1980s bops and the original, haunting, electronic theme. As Max, in the real world, hears the tones of her favorite song, the music reverberates and echoes loudly within the Upside Down, reorienting her and drawing her consciousness away from Vecna and back to her real self—the one floating in a trance above a graveyard while Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Steve (Joe Keery) struggle to bring her back to earth.

Season 4 wields the power of its characters’ trauma, as Vecna uses their worst experiences against them.

The use of “Running Up That Hill” is all the more potent for Christians who resonate with Max’s longing for divine freedom and intervention in the moment of her condemnation. Though Max herself may not be crying out to God, her favorite song’s supplication to a saving power—one who could swap places—is the heart of the Christian longing and holy experience. Instead of being overcome by our burdens, we have been saved by the profound work of Christ, who went to the cross on our behalf.

In the moment when Max is about to be dealt her fate by Vecna, she sees—through a gap in the darkness of the Upside Down—her three friends desperately trying to save her. Noticing this, Vecna turns to her and utters, “They can’t help you, Max. There’s a reason you hide from them. You belong here.” In a fallen world, humanity knows this feeling all too well. Like Vecna, Satan would have us believe we deserve to be rejected, despised, and abandoned by those we love for the sins we have committed or the traumas we suffer. But, like Max desperately breaking away from Vecna and running towards the gap in the clouds, Christ calls us instead into his glorious and healing light, so we may not be implicated for our sins or fated to forever dwell within our pain.

Here, I am reminded of Philippians 4: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” When Max replays “Running Up That Hill” over and over, her thoughts turn back to these very things, making her impenetrable to Vecna’s influence. Though we do not dwell in the fictional Upside Down, our lives encounter their own inevitable darknesses. It is only when we remain close to Christ, who reminds us of our reality as saved, forgiven people, that we are no longer bound to the power of our depression, sins, shame, or trauma. Like Max, we have been given the profound gift of an escape, where we can run up that hill and towards the light.

Topics: TV