Of Fairy Tales and Stranger Things

Stephen Woodworth

In his preeminent book on preaching, Telling the Truth, Frederick Buechner wrote, “If the world of the fairy tale and our glimpses of it here and there are only a dream, they are one of the most haunting and powerful dreams that the world has ever dreamed.”

Indeed, the fairy-tale genre has persisted from storytelling to literature to film and television precisely because it faithfully captures not only the reality in which we live, but the future for which we hope. The parabolic portrayals of comedy, tragedy, conflict, and resolution serve as signposts for our deepest longings, fears, and aspirations. Even while they offer entertainment and escape, fairy tales are infinitely valuable pedagogical tools.

There have been few shows in the past year in which this has been more apparent than Stranger Things. Written and directed by the Duffer brothers, Matt and Ross, the Netflix show is partly a horror series and partly a coming-of-age tale. In broad strokes, the narrative follows the disappearance of a child from a small town and the long search to bring him home, an effort that comes to involve both monsters and a young girl with telekinetic powers.

An homage to the 1980s in setting, design, and emotional tone, Stranger Things features a band of misfit kids as the heroes, a storyline immediately recognizable to a generation who grew up on the work of Steven Spielberg and Stephen King. As Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker, “It’s a genre throwback to simpler times, with heroes, villains, and monsters.” And yet, the show is far from being mere nostalgia. As Nussbaum notes, “It’s also haunting, and has a rare respect for both adult grief and childhood suffering. It’s an original… The flashbacks are about vulnerability, how people are bruised in places that no one can see.”

TC Podcast: Stranger Things - Grace in the Upside Down

This seamless interplay between innocence and terror, redemption and loss is what makes Stranger Things such a fascinating watch. Children in the series are forced to confront a darkness that adults are unable to protect them from, while the adults are reduced to childlike faith in a reality they are unable to control. Themes of divorce, death, abuse, and abandonment are woven into the very fabric of each episode. And it is precisely this unwillingness to flinch from truth-telling that makes the show theologically faithful in ways that are far more complicated than simply exploring the divide between darkness and light.

For Christians, Stranger Things recalls the work of Geerhardus Vos and George Eldon Ladd, who described a view of the kingdom in which Christ’s death on the cross is seen as the initiation of his universal reign over all of creation. Christ conquered death, sin, and evil. And yet, despite his victory, the kingdom of God continues to confront these forces until Jesus returns again and ushers in a new heaven and new earth, where his reign will have no end. We currently live, in Vos’ words, “between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet.’”

Stranger Things reflects this kingdom theology, and in doing so departs from the classic fairy tales that it otherwise evokes, with their happily-ever-after-endings. In contrast to traditional, tidily packaged offerings, the Duffer brothers tell a story in which hope and loss, life and death, joy and pain coexist. They seem to be working in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, who said, “The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things … beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords.”

This can make Stranger Things difficult to watch. Not as much for its eerie music or tense, fantastical sequences, but for its portrayal of the real world in which we live. A world where some children are found, while others are lost. A world where evil is defeated, yet still waits in the darkness “for a more opportune time.” A world that has already been overcome by Christ, and now awaits his return, when he will set all wrongs to rights once again.

Topics: TV