Nostalgia, Fantasy, and LossStranger Things and the Digital Gothic
Released on Netflix in 2015, Stranger Things, created by Matt and Ross Duffer, is set in the everytown of Hawkins, Indiana, in the year 1983. The eight-episode first season and nine-episode second season follow the adventures of four boys—Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin)—and one girl, Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), as the boys go from just playing Dungeons & Dragons to struggling with a real-life version of the popular fantasy role-playing game. In the first episode the series' three animating events happen; a monster attacks the mysterious Hawkins National Laboratory, Will Byers vanishes, and Eleven emerges from captivity, held for experiments at the same lab as the monster. Throughout the remaining seven episodes, the boys battle with the monster, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) does all she can to get her son back, and Sheriff Hopper (David Harbour) helps Joyce when no one else does. At the end of both seasons, the Duffer brothers successfully fuse together the reality of Hawkins and the people who live there with a world just beyond their grasp, a world of monsters, darkness, and unexplained phenomena. The two worlds exist side by side, but most of the citizens of Hawkins are unaware of this mysterious world, a world the boys refer to as the Upside Down. In terms of the narrative, Eleven and her telekinetic powers are the conduit between the two worlds; aesthetically, the Duffers link these two worlds with lights, specifically light bulbs powered by electricity, which flicker whenever the two worlds intersect with each other. [End Page 136]
Before any discussion of Stranger Things can move forward, however, we must begin by reimagining what it was like to be in a videogame arcade in the 1980s. We went to arcades in the mall, and these places were separate worlds—darkened rooms full of flickering screens, in which we could get lost for hours at a time. The time you spent in these dimly lit and isolated worlds depended on a combination of factors: your amount of quarters, your skill level, and the rules (or lack thereof) established by your parents for how long you could be gone. The arcade was a place to get lost in the various fantasy worlds of games like Frogger, Pac-Man, and Galaga. Key to the arcade's appeal was its separation from the rest of the world. In the arcade, the most inadequate athlete or uncool mathlete could be a conquering hero, a delicate fantasy always threatened by reentry into reality. Returning to the real world brought changes to our bearing. When we emerged from the cocoon of the arcade, we squinted our eyes and blinked until our sight readjusted, a physical reaction that forced us to recognize that we had left the darkened room and to accept the shock that went with our leaving the fantasy world for reality. Today, in the digital era, videogames have changed significantly. People can now play games as prosthetic extensions of their bodies. Videogames today are like Pokemon Go, which uses digital technology to braid together the real world with the fantasy world of the game. The two worlds are no longer separate; instead, they operate together, the fantasy woven into the fabric of our reality. In the article that follows, I would like to suggest that the aesthetic appeal of Stranger Things rests on this distinction between the arcade of the 1980s and digital mobile-phone technology of the twenty-first century. Stranger Things is built like a new digital game while masquerading as one from an arcade in the 1980s. It appeals to our desire to separate from one world and get lost in the next, but it never leaves us feeling like we will not return.
A remarkable aspect of Matt and Ross Duffer's Stranger Things is how it activates a tapestry of signifiers from the 1980s. Indeed, each and every one of these popular culture signifiers from the 1980s are worthy of their own individual discussion. The show's playlist includes a range of well-known music from the decade, bringing together punk, post-punk, pop, and metal. Music by New Order, Joy Division, the Clash, Corey Hart, the Bangles, Devo, and Ratt figure prominently in the plot and help [End Page 137] provide richer meaning to the characters. The show employs visual cues and references to movies made by Stephen Spielberg, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, and David Lynch. The storytelling and characters could be borrowed from the pages of Stephen King novels and Dungeon & Dragons campaigns. The score calls attention to composers like Tangerine Dream and Harold Faltermeyer. I could probably fill the entire space of this article listing all the references Stranger Things uses to nostalgically replicate the world of the 1980s, but the aim of my argument is much more limited. I am primarily interested in how Stranger Things digitally recreates the analog technologies, signifiers, and mise-en-scène of the 1980s, and how these aesthetics relate to the idea of loss. Stranger Things contains narrative and aesthetic techniques from the traditional Gothic style, updated for the digital era, and the Duffer brothers follow a familiar Gothic practice of haunting the present with strange and frightening images of how we used to live. Typical of the digital Gothic, the story and style are driven by braiding together the analog past with the digital present, the former haunting the latter. In this essay, I argue that the 1980s operates not only as a historical referent for the story, but also in similar ways to the show's mysterious underside, the Upside Down. In other words, Stranger Things nostalgically reminds us of a time, the 1980s, when we could actually get lost or go missing (in the positive and negative sense of those ideas). It is as if the show opens up the possibility of getting lost, but much like a Spielberg movie, brings back the missing. The contrast between now and then is primarily technological. We live in a time dominated by the idea that nothing should be lost, and all digital technology obsessively concerns itself with this central aspect of life. Digital technologies like GPS, cellphones, high-definition television, Fitbits, and so on operate on the idea that loss should be impossible. Stranger Things, therefore, relies on traditional Gothic tropes to scare us with the idea of getting lost in the analog 1980s while constructing the show with the totalizing potential of today's digital technology.
The Gothic Gaze
To better understand the ways in which Stranger Things depicts the potential for loss as nostalgic, I want to combine the psychoanalytic concepts [End Page 138] of Jacques Lacan with Gothic aesthetics. In its use of flickering lights as the dividing line between the visible world of Hawkins, Indiana, and the invisible world of the Upside Down, Stranger Things invokes a series of Gothic signifiers designed to provoke our desire to see more and less of the events surrounding the vanishing of Will Byers and the emergence of Eleven, the young girl with telekinetic powers who escapes the Hawkins Lab.
Lacan refers to the objects that provoke our desire as the gaze, a concept that has recently undergone significant revision from how it was used in film theory prior to the twenty-first century. Theorists such as Joan Copjec, Slavoj Žižek, and Todd McGowan have successfully rescued Lacan's conception of the gaze from its Foucauldinizing in the 1980s. Prior to the twenty-first century, the gaze was often misunderstood and misapplied. In its fundamental sense of the term, the gaze is a visual form of the objet petit a, the object-cause of desire. The gaze is a blank spot or stain that occludes some portion of the things we look at, thus provoking our desire to see more. In other words, we desire to see more because we cannot see everything. Mari Ruti explains, "The Lacanian Gaze is the very opposite of the mastering (male) Gaze that Mulvey analyzes: the Lacanian Gaze destroys mastery, bringing with it the impotence of unintelligibility."1 Hugh Manon further simplifies the gaze by arguing it is neither absence nor presence in the field of vision. Instead, he uses the term partialness to show how the gaze is an object that arrests our vision, not as an object fully perceived or fully grasped, but as an object in the process of being revealed.2 For new Lacanian theorists, the gaze is a partially revealed object-cause of desire in field of the visible.
The new Lacanian conception of the gaze comes from a close and faithful reading of Lacan's anecdote about working on a fishing boat. The story Lacan tells about himself serves as the foundation of his thoughts on the gaze. As a young man Lacan took a job working on a fishing boat, leaving behind the comfortable environment of his middle-class and educated upbringing. In his words, he "wanted desperately to get away, see something different, throw [himself] into something practical, something physical, in the country say, or at sea."3 He goes on to describe daily boat trips and how they range from the dangerous to the dull. One particular day on the boat, a fisherman named Petit-Jean pointed to an [End Page 139] object floating in the water, a sardine can glittering in the sun, and asked Lacan "You see that can? Do you see it? Well, it doesn't see you!" Lacan explains that Petit-Jean's comment left him feeling unamused and suggests the comment's designed intent was to make him feel "rather out of place in the picture" of the working-class men fishing for a living on this boat.4 For Lacan, the moment with the sardine can and Petit-Jean illustrates how "the point of the Gaze always participates in the ambiguity of the jewel. And if I am anything in the picture, it is always in the form of the screen, which I earlier called the stain, the spot."5 Petit-Jean's inscrutable comment about at whom the sardine can is and is not looking invokes an anxiety in Lacan about his place in the boat and the fishing village. He is only playacting at fishing, making Lacan, in his mind, feel as if he is out of place, like the sardine can, in the village. But Lacan's anxiety is also provoked by the partialness of Petit-Jean's comment and the can floating in the water. He can only understand both by filling in the blank spots with his imagined sense of self. Or, as Ruti explains, "The sardine can is a vaguely unsettling object that looks back, a blank spot in the ocean's surface that distorts this surface in the same way that Lacan distorts the surface of life in the fishing village; it's an uncanny entity that signifies that something is slightly off."6 A partially revealed object, or an "uncanny entity," at the edge of our vision, signifying that "something is slightly off," is not only the best way to describe Lacan's conception of the gaze, but also works as an effective definition of the Gothic.
At the center of Gothic art, architecture, and literature is a sense of the past haunting the present. Whether it is an historical crime from the past returning for revenge in the present, or a sacked and abandoned religious edifice reminding us of past violent transgressions, the Gothic, as an art form, provokes our anxiety for what used to be. But what we see in the present never tell us the whole story of what happened in the past. At best, the present form or its representation tells us a story that we only partially engage because full engagement with the past misdeed would invite engagement with a truly traumatic experience. Marc Olivier explains that the literary Gothic form is formed by an attachment to a specific past. He argues that early Gothic literature almost always situates its characters in the period of pre-Reformation England and torments the living with the past as represented by specific places like [End Page 140] ancient abbeys, churches, castles, or ancestral homes.7 Echoing Olivier, Fred Botting explains the specific forms of torment we find in the Gothic tradition: "In Gothic fiction certain stock figures provide the principal embodiments and evocations of cultural anxieties. Tortuous, fragmented narratives relating mysterious incidents, horrible images and life-threatening pursuits predominate in the eighteenth century. Spectres, monsters, demons, corpses, skeletons, evil aristocrats, monks and nuns, fainting heroines and bandits populate Gothic landscapes as suggestive figures of imagined and realistic threats."8
Botting, moreover, isolates the setting of a Gothic story as the locus of trauma. Decaying, bleak, and full of hidden passageways, the abbeys, churches, and castles of Gothic literature harken back to a past associated with superstition, barbarity, and fear.9 Initiated by Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto and reaching a peak of popularity by 1810, Gothic fiction traffics in anxieties created by events like revolution, industrialization, urbanization, sexual progress, and scientific discovery. Novels like Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) plumbed the anxious depths readers had about the rapidly changing world of nineteenth-century England. Often set during the historical evolution from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, Gothic fiction represents how the shadow of the former haunts the present of the latter. Manon argues for the significance of these shadows and their aesthetic, not just historic, meaning. Shadows, as Manon explains, exist on the limit of knowledge in a Gothic text. When shadows appear, they insist that "over there, a past peephole at the edge of our mundane reality, lies a gaping, inscrutable beyond. In Radcliffe's texts there exist inaccessible regions that are implied, but beyond sight. Whatever we see, there is more to it."10 Shadows partially evoke, in Gothic fiction, a sense that we know why the haunting is taking place, but something ultimately blocks us from the whole picture. That incomplete picture might be an understanding of plot elements or historical context, but whatever is missing from the picture, the Gothic form relies, from the eighteenth century to today, on positing the darkness beyond that threatens enlightened, logical ways of seeing and knowing in the present. A shadow emerging in Gothic fiction [End Page 141] operates as a "structure that arrests our vision by making clear that things are partly unclear"11—much like Lacan's conception of the gaze.
For all of its comparisons to Spielberg movies, King novels, and Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, Stranger Things functions much more like a nineteenth-century Gothic novel. Set in the Reagan 1980s and during the waning days of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the series invites viewers to see the Cold War's haunting fallout on our contemporary twenty-first-century culture and politics. Like the monster unleashed from the scientific overreach at the Hawkins National Laboratory, the Cold War operates like a repressed historical referent standing ready to always return as a reminder of why we live the way we do now. The Duffers never engage the historical Cold War, except metaphorically, leaving it to operate like a historical shadow, but the show runners do invoke secret government programs like MK Ultra and Stargate, programs run by the Central Intelligence Agency and US military, designed to teach subjects to use their minds to, among other things, remotely view events happening all over the world and employ psychokinesis as a weapon. Both programs aimed to see and know more about Soviet activities than the existing technological capability of US intelligence agencies. In our contemporary era of total surveillance, these secret government projects—as depicted by the character Eleven and the Hawkins National Lab—seem barbaric, on the one hand, and woefully insufficient, on the other. Like its nineteenth-century predecessors, Stranger Things posits our Cold War past as a monster that escapes from a mysterious realm that can no longer be adequately guarded by the institutions entrusted to do so, casting a historical shadow on our present age. Finally, for the gaze to be Gothic, the narrative requires an object arresting and blocking our vision at the intersection of an unseeable, haunted past, which can only partially be understood in the present.
Lights and Loss
The haunting beyond represented by Cold War experimental practices looms over Stranger Things, but it is the depiction of the parallel worlds of Hawkins and the Upside Down that fuels the show's connection to the Gothic. As I explained in the previous section, the best way to understand [End Page 142] the concept of the gaze is the word partialness. In other words, our desire for something we see (or hear, touch, or taste, for that matter) is guided by objects in the process of partially revealing themselves. Therefore, the gaze sparks our visual desire precisely because it is partial and not because it shows everything. Our visual desire is often arrested by things that are unclear. Lights, however, are designed to show all by illuminating a darkened room or street corner, thus allowing us to see all that is there. When they flicker, they only partially reveal what is there, thus arresting our vision and making us desire to see more. The flicker of lights is central to the Duffers' overall aesthetic design of the first season of Stranger Things, and the flickering arrests the characters' vision in a partial revelation of the Upside Down.
In the tropes and plot scenarios described in the previous section, the Gothic makes the crucial point that the gaze is not on the side of the subject, but on the side of the object. Typical desire allows subjects to feel confident about walking into a room, looking around, taking things in, and feeling like they are the center of things, but the Gothic encounter typically exists to shatter the subject's confidence with a half-seen object of strangeness from which something seems to look back. The strangeness of Stranger Things emanates from Joyce Byers's interaction with the lights in her house and their connection to her lost son, Will. Joyce has the ability to partially communicate with Will through the lamps in his room and, later, the strings of Christmas lights she hangs throughout the rest of the house. Nothing about Joyce's interaction with the lights leaves anyone feeling self-assured; instead, it makes all the characters aware of the partialness of Will's unseen presence. Moreover, the quasi-Ouija board she draws on the wall of the living room further inflames our sense of a haunting presence in the Byers home. At one point, Will can be seen through the wall, trapped in a world beyond. Still later, the monster appears in the Byers home coming through the walls and roof to invade the reality of the characters. Each one of the moments where the beyond is invoked is set-up by the flickering lights, a signifier of partialness. When the flickering lights appear, they posit the sublime possibility of a world beyond, in which Will is still alive and communicating with his mother, but they also represent the limited access the characters have to the Upside Down. Like Lacan's conception of the gaze, the lights [End Page 143] activate our desire to see more while also being an obstacle to seeing all there is to see.
The first episode introduces and then repeats our encounter with the Gothic gaze of the flickering lights and the haunting, inscrutable beyond in the pre-credit scenes. The structure of these three scenes effectively operates throughout the ensuing eight episodes. In the opening shot, the camera tilts down from a starry night sky to an extreme, highangle, long shot of the Hawkins National Laboratory. The Duffers seem aware that shots of these kinds of Cold War–era government buildings should resonate with American viewers today in the same way an abandoned, decaying Catholic monastery did for readers of Gothic novels in nineteenth-century England (see Figure 1). This shot invokes a haunted Cold War past when governments and corporations experimented with limited analog technology, the rest of the population going about their daily lives unaware of their sinister intent. In the second shot of Stranger Things, we see flickering lights inside the lab. Cutting from the establishing shot to inside the lab, we see a closed, hatch-like door shrouded in shadows made by the flickering fluorescent lights. We hear the hum of experimental technology—a type of hum typical of magnetic-based analog technology, ubiquitous to these kinds of locations—and watch as the camera dollies toward the closed door. The hum is interrupted by the door bursting open and a scientist running toward an elevator through a maze of indistinguishable government hallways. The scene ends with two point-of-view shots: one of the scientist looking at the half-lit and mysterious hallway, and another of him looking up at the creepy noise [End Page 144] coming from above his head. Juxtaposing this mysterious introduction, the Duffers cut to a less-threatening domestic scene. Opening with a close-up of a sprinkler and following it with an establishing shot of a suburban family home, we hear a voice-over narration ominously tell us that "[s]omething's coming, something hungry for blood." Then the Duffers cut to a scene where young boys are in the middle of playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons. Mike Wheeler, the now-embodied voice-over narrator and dungeon master, continues describing the scenario for the other three players, Will, Dustin, and Lucas. Mike warns his friends of the looming trouble they face, telling them "[a] shadow grows on the wall behind you, swallowing you in darkness. It is almost here."
The juxtaposition introduces us to two of the key sites where the drama of the show plays out, but it also invites us to consider the ways in which the partiality of the beyond arrests our imagination. Mike's description of the campaign he and his friends are playing essentially replicates the preceding scene of the scientist's encounter with the mysterious entity. The Duffers, in effect, braid together the world of the unseen beyond with the real world of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will, suturing them together with the Gothic signifiers of the flickering lights in the lab and Mike's description of the shadows swallowing you in the darkness. To further braid together the two worlds—one of government experimentation and the other of pen, paper, dice, and imagination—the scene ends with the lights over Mike's carport flickering, the boys turning on the headlights of their bikes, synthesized music playing on the soundtrack, [End Page 145] and Will's headlight turning on and off before he sees the monster for the first time. Finally, the opening scenes end with a close-up of a light bulb (see Figure 2) in the shed where Will is taken, its brightness gaining in intensity until we hear a pop and Will disappears, upon which the light goes back to normal and the scene fades to black. The scenes leading up to the vanishing of Will Byers are followed by the now iconic credit sequence, which also replicates the same kind of Gothic partialness.
The opening credits crucially establish the fusion of analog and digital aesthetics employed throughout Stranger Things. Part Tron, part Stephen King book cover, part John Carpenter movie, part New Order video, part arcade video game—the credit sequence, designed by Michelle Dougherty, with music composed by SURVIVE, a band from Austin, Texas, arrests viewers with its combination of images and sounds. In a video explainer created for the website Vox, Christophe Haubursin interviews Dougherty, a graphic designer at Imaginary Forces.12 In every one of Dougherty's answers, we can hear her state clearly that her artistic goal in combining digital technologies with analog practices is Gothic partialness. First is the choice of font for the show's titles. According to Dougherty, the graphic designers at Contend used ITC Benguiat font—the font typically found on the covers of Choose Your Own Adventure and Stephen King novels. Moreover, ITC Benguiat has been long been used as the font for the FBI warning against piracy at the beginning of home videos. Once the text of the logo was created, Imaginary Forces added its distinctive flicker. Dougherty further explains in the Vox interview that she and her team wanted to replicate the manual way that old credit sequences were made, by filming each individual cell of the [End Page 146]
minute-long sequence. Then they took their manual, analog creation and fused it with newer digital practices. During the manual, analog portion of the title creation, the team at Imaginary Forces used an old film stock called Kodalith, well-known for its high-contrast images. Once they shot the separate cells for the sequence, they shined a light through the back of the cells and re-photographed them (see Figure 3). As Dougherty explains to Haubursin, the designers backlit the film cells to replicate the inconsistencies, mistakes, contrast, graininess, and flicker of older Kodalith photography. Finally, they digitally animated the whole sequence and enhanced each element of the crude, analog aesthetics. As the logos slowly build on screen, letters emerge from claustrophobic extreme close-ups, which make it impossible to see each individual letter by itself, until the entire title comes together, fully revealed in a much more comfortable medium shot. All of the letters and surrounding black space in the title sequence slightly flicker, and graininess can be seen all over the screen, giving the titles the look of old film running through a projector. The music accompanying the credits extends the sequence's analog partialness. SURVIVE is best known as a synthesizer band that prefers to use older, analog equipment rather than newer digital keyboards and computers. Band members Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein explained to Rolling Stone magazine13 that they used older Moog, Roland, and Korg synthesizers to compose a series of irregular intervals and atypical notes for the ethereal, pulsating music that accompanies the onscreen text. The two musicians, moreover, drew on their interests in Dario Argento and John Carpenter films, and they [End Page 147] referenced scores created by noted synth forerunners Tangerine Dream and Harold Faltermeyer.
The music composed by SURVIVE, the Kodalith technology recreated by Imaginary Forces, and the logo's font used by Contend, all fuse the analog inconsistencies of the past with the digital present. The music, the text, the colors—they all flicker like the lights in the show, and the flicker invites us to feel the haunting presence of the past of analog tech, Cold War–era experiments, and government buildings. As final reinforcement of the importance of the flickering lights and the haunted past to the tone and narrative, the Duffers finish the first episode with an image of the enigmatic Eleven as the boys stumble upon her in the rain, their flashlights shining through the dark on her unspeaking presence (see Figure 4). The first episode ends here: lights in the dark connecting Eleven, the girl escaped from the shadowy laboratory, and the three boys looking for their missing friend, Will.
Later in the first season, the flickering lights operate as a conduit between Will and his mother, Joyce. In episodes two and three, Joyce discovers that she can communicate with Will via the lights in her home. From her first encounter at the end of episode two to the end of episode three, Joyce starts talking to a lamp in a quasi-séance with Will, then collects all the lamps in the house to talk to him, and finally strings together multiple strands of Christmas lights throughout the house in hopes of better communication. Ghosts communicating with the living through electricity has long been a trope in literature, film, and television. Stranger Things invites viewers to see a connection between Will's flickering presence with that of Carol Anne in Poltergeist (1981), the electromagnetic ghosts in Richard Matheson's Hell House (1971), or the woman crawling out of the well as seen on the evil VHS tape in The Ring (2002). However, Will is not a ghost. Will is alive but trapped in the unseen beyond that parallels the reality of the other characters. The flickering lights that Joyce uses to communicate with Will open up partial breeches into the unseen Upside Down. In episode two, a creature pushes itself through the wall of Joyce's home while she tries talking to Will via her lamps. In episode six, Joyce sees Will alive through an opening in the wall of her living room. The lights create a way for Joyce to communicate with Will (see Figure 5). She learns from talking via the lights that he is alive and not safe. She also learns that the monster can travel from the [End Page 148] Upside Down to the Byers's home, the lights linking passage between the two. In each case of Joyce's communicating with Will via the flickering lights, the Duffers use the lights as signifiers of loss. But loss in Stranger Things is not some inscrutable and unsolvable X. Instead, loss is partial. Rather than letting Will's vanishing remain hidden for much of the series or killing his character, the Duffers hide him from the everyday world of his family and friends while letting the lights create both a connection and barrier to seeing him.
The lights that cut in and out in the Hawkins lab, the lamps and Christmas lights in the Byers's house, the shadows described by Mike during the Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the bulb that shuts on and off when Will is kidnapped by the monster, the Kodalith film stock used to give the credits an analog look, and the analog synthesizers used by SURVIVE for the show's theme song: all of these examples reside on the show's line between the reality of the characters and the beyond, an aesthetic border created by a flickering partialness, a Gothic gaze, arresting our attention and desire throughout each episode. Each aesthetic element is carefully calculated to invite our desire to see more while partially blocking our access to see all. The Gothicness of its aesthetics is created by the relationship between the analog-looking world we see onscreen and the hidden digital practices that created it.
If there is a trend in the criticism about Stranger Things that verges on a type of consensus, it is the show's nostalgic appeal. Many think pieces on [End Page 149] the quality of the nostalgia of Stranger Things litter the Internet, focusing mostly on questions about the show's pop-culture signifiers. Articles by fans and critics alike typically agree that the depiction of the 1980s in Stranger Things is at the heart of its appeal. Whether providing an analysis of the music, toys, fashion, or technology, Internet think pieces typically focus their insights on how the show deploys its well-known signifiers in service to the show's narrative and characterization. Given this trend in popular criticism surrounding Stranger Things, I want to pivot off all the insights these writers have about the importance of such objects—like the Demogorgon action figure, the Millennium Falcon, and Realistic walkie-talkies—to argue for a kind of unifying theory of the show's deployment of nostalgia.
Fusing the show's Gothic gaze with nostalgia reveals how much Stranger Things operates as a fantasy of distance. While Eleven and the boys fight onscreen against a monster from a haunted beyond, millennial audiences watch a show set in a pre-Internet age in which the kids can get lost and might not be found. In an article about the show's nostalgic use of Lovecraftian tropes, Joshua Rothman describes the depiction of childhood in the 1980s as a pocket universe far away from the problems of the twenty-first century: "Hawkins, Indiana, comes across as an enchanted and uncanny pocket universe in which barely supervised children enjoy freedoms (and confront terrors) from which they'd be insulated in our helicopter-parenting age. The show's gifted and charismatic young actors convincingly embody eighties kids who, having never seen an iPhone, are accustomed to using their imaginations."14
Rothman essentially argues that the 1980s operate as the last predigital decade and nostalgically depicts this decade as a time when kids could avoid capture by the authorities by just being kids, depending on a knowledge of the world based on toys, games, and comic books. In psychoanalytic terms, Rothman's illuminating insight about Stranger Things helps us to see how distance—distance, as Lacan would put it, from the suffocating presence of the Other—helps fuel the fantasy at the heart of the show. To fully explain the fantasy of distance operating throughout Stranger Things, it is important to do two things. First, I want to develop a psychoanalytic theory of fantasy by connecting it to the gaze, and second, I want to connect this theory to the show's depiction of surveillance, [End Page 150] which is presented to millennial audiences as nostalgically limited, thus pointing up its daily, and Gothic-like, presence in the lives of people living in the twenty-first century.
Earlier in this article, I explained Lacan's fishing experience and its significance to his theory of the gaze. It went something like this: Lacan sees a sardine can floating in the water while on a fishing boat he had no business being on. A real fisherman, Petit-Jean, points out to Lacan the can's utter disregard for Lacan's presence, making the young psychoanalyst-to-be realize how out of place he is in this tableau. For Lacan, this moment is the beginning of his theory of desire always staining our ability to see, making what we cannot see just as important as what we see. The gaze, in other words, lures our desire to see while also blocking our ability to see without being influenced by our, for lack of a better term, psychological baggage. Our baggage, therefore, is why we often feel like we are not seeing the whole picture of any given situation, which creates the suspicion that our access to total sight is being blocked by some unseen Other, an ideological rift that manifests itself as anxiety in our psychological well-being. To fix our anxiety, we turn to fantasy. Fantasy allows us to cover over the gap between wanting to see clearly and the feeling of being blocked. To better explain the ideological relationship between the gaze and fantasy, let me humbly add my own fishing metaphor to Lacan's. When we go fishing, we cast lures into the water hoping a fish will bite. We stare all day long at the screen formed by the water between us and the fish. As we bob back and forth in the water, waiting for a fish to strike or suffering the defeat of its refusal, we cannot help but imagine why any particular fish takes our bait. But our imagination of the whims of why a fish does what it does cannot fill in the blank space between us and them. Because the screen partially blocks our ability to see the fish in action, we must invent fish desire, attributing to fish all manner of behaviors designed to make us look foolish for trying to catch them in the first place. Once we begin imaging the evasive behaviors of the fish we are trying to catch, we have moved into the realm of fantasy. Fantasy is a psychological space in which we imagine we can access the motivations of the Other. If we catch a bunch of fish, we imagine them as stupid creatures that fell for the lure of our bait. If we do not catch a lot of fish, we imagine them laughing at us and our stupidly deployed bait. Either [End Page 151] way, we imbue the fish with a narrative that fills in the blank of what we cannot see. The narrative, in a way, suggests the fish steal our satisfaction by robbing us of our ideal belief in ourselves as clever enough to lure fish to their capture. Fantasy provides an answer provoked by the gaze, providing us with the belief that, while we cannot see everything, it is because someone or something is blocking us. A nostalgic fantasy, therefore, mollifies anxieties produced by the idea of the Other robbing us of our enjoyment, replacing it with a domesticated image of a time when plenty of fish took our smartly crafted and presented bait. If only we could return to this time, the nostalgic fantasy goes.
Slavoj Žižek argues nostalgic objects, whether they exist in the subject's reality or in screened entertainment, work to hide antagonisms limiting the totality of what we can see. He explains: "The answer to our problem is clear: the function of the nostalgic object is precisely to conceal the antimony between the eye and the gaze—i.e., the traumatic impact of the gaze qua object—by means of its power of fascination. In nostalgia, the gaze of the other is in a way domesticated, "gentrified"; instead of the gaze erupting like a traumatic, disharmonious blot, we have the illusion of "seeing ourselves seeing," of seeing the gaze itself."15 Most cinema produced by Hollywood, and its close relative, the streaming television series, aims to do exactly as Žižek defi nes nostalgia. Our cinematic and televised entertainment mostly works to hide the antagonism between the eye and the gaze. In other words, Hollywood almost always creates entertainment about the missing, but the missing always returns. Whereas real desire never reaches satisfaction, Hollywood, more often than not, employs a narrative and aesthetic formula that relies on an integration of the dissatisfactions of desire with the satisfactions of fantasy. In his groundbreaking book, The Real Gaze, Todd McGowan rethinks Lacanian film theory and Hollywood movies. He divides cinematic history into four categories based on their relationship to the gaze: the cinema of fantasy, desire, intersection, and integration. The cinema of integration is the largest of these categories and the one to which most Hollywood movies conform. McGowan argues that the cinema of integration "is the predominant cinema in the world today. Though it has its roots in the filmmaking practices of Hollywood, the cinema of integration exists throughout the world and manifests itself in [End Page 152] both commercial and independent filmmaking. This type of cinema … offers subjects the opportunity to experience the traumatic enjoyment of the gaze while remaining safely within the structure of fantasy."16 For Žižek and McGowan, the structures of nostalgia and fantasy are the two primary ways we try to avoid encounters with the gaze. McGowan also makes the gaze central to the way we enjoy our cinematic and televised entertainment, reminding us that we watch movies and television shows primarily because they allow us to see more than we do in reality. But they almost always keep us safe from any real trauma.
Stranger Things divides its narrative and mise-en-scène into two worlds: one of desire and one of fantasy. The world of Hawkins, Indiana, contains the daily dissatisfactions typical of our lives. Kids struggle to understand why and how grownups do the things they do, and the parents do the best they can to support and love their children despite the ups and downs of adolescence. The Upside Down, however, is the world of fantasy. It is a parallel world, similar to the Dungeons & Dragons campaign played by the boys, which operates unseen in reality (see Figure 6). The Upside Down is a space that Eleven can see because of her telekinetic powers, but only she can. Eleven dramatically explains how the two worlds exist separately but together when she flips over the boys' game board, the black underside of the board signifying the world where Will is lost and the monster dwells. In the fantasy space, we often see replications of reality—like Will's fort, Castle Byers, and the boys' school, where Eleven sacrifices herself—but these places have been overtaken by decay and are covered in the floating ash we see all throughout the Upside Down. Traditional Gothic entertainment typically keeps the haunted world beyond our vision, hinting at its existence with shadows. Stranger Things invites us, however, to see the beyond haunting our reality. Moreover, characters can cross in and out of one world and into the next. The monster can move in and out of Hawkins because Eleven accidentally opened a gateway between the two worlds, and at different points in the show, every character finds their way in and out of the Upside Down. The fantasy structure of the first season is ultimately completed when Will Byers is rescued by Hopper and Joyce, and the second season when Eleven shuts the door connecting the two worlds. In both seasons, the Duffer brothers domesticate the terror of the Upside Down by making it [End Page 153] knowable and beatable. Whether it is the return of Will, Eleven's ability to see into it, or the free passage characters and monsters have into it, Stranger Things allows us to feel the threat of the Upside Down but safely returns us to stable reality of Hawkins.
While the characters defeat monsters and missing kids return to their families, the nostalgic feelings created by Stranger Things are much more dependent on the current predicament of viewers in the twenty-first century than on the Duffers' recreation of a Spielbergian 1980s. The show's Gothicness depends on the division of the world between Hawkins and the Upside Down, the haunting of the former by the latter, but there is another world of unseen practices that exists in the reality of Hawkins instantly recognizable to contemporary viewers: the world of government surveillance. In the opening of this section, I suggested that Stranger Things offers us a fantasy of distance, and in the Lacanian sense of the word, distance means the ability of the subject get some breathing room from the overproximity of the Other. Throughout both seasons, government agents are shown surveilling the world of Hawkins in hopes of finding the escaped Eleven. The surveillance is primarily eavesdropping through tapped phones or parabolic microphones. Agents also pose as repairmen who work in the neighborhoods in which the kids live. In all cases the surveillance tactics are beholden to an outdated notion of tactics. By outdated, I mean the tactics are designed to blend into the normality of the world of Hawkins. All of the eavesdropping happens through hidden taps on phones, with agents at the Hawkins Laboratory listening to hours of conversations while huddled in dark, [End Page 154] smoke-filled rooms. The eavesdropping via parabolic microphone takes place as normal-looking vans drive through suburban neighborhoods, the spying government agents capturing snippets of conversations going on in the homes they pass by. The agents also spread out through the neighborhood posing as repairmen working on telephone poles and power lines.
In Stranger Things 2, the surveillance increases. As the Hawkins National Laboratory tries its best to disarm the locals about the dangers of its experiments, it increases its peeping into the lives of the people who live nearby, especially those involved with Will and Eleven. In episode four of the second season, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) decide to avenge Barbara Holland's (Shannon Purser) death. Doing so raises red flags at the lab, and government agents start following Nancy and Jonathan. The Duffers do something interesting here. As Nancy and Jonathan wait in a park to talk with Barbara's mother, Nancy begins to notice her surroundings, not because something is out of the norm, but precisely the opposite; things are too normal. The adults read newspapers, walk dogs, jog, play with kids, and so on, but Nancy notices—through a skillfully edited montage of shot-reverse-shots—how each agent is trying too hard to not look like they are watching. The Duffers know contemporary viewers live in a world of constant surveillance, and a scene depicting agents trying to blend in with other folks at the park is too obvious. Nancy notices the agents for who they are, and she and Jonathan try to run away but fail. The agents are unable to create an air of unsuspicion necessary to public stakeouts. Their presence becomes suffocating, and to demonstrate the building anxiety for Nancy and Jonathan, the montage cuts increase in pace. While the surveillance of the people who live Hawkins is sometimes easy to discover and other times not, the show's scenarios always return to the idea that surveillance in the 1980s was easier to notice and avoid. For the characters, the practices of government spying were like many of things consistent with the adult world, oblivious and unhelpful. One thing remains clear, however. In the 1980s of the show, surveillance could be avoided. With the right amount of smarts and determination, the characters defeat their would-be surveillers because analog technology fails to totally blanket society. [End Page 155]
The Gothic Present
As Žižek reminds us in the quote used earlier, nostalgia presents us with the illusion of "seeing ourselves seeing." His point suggests that nostalgia invites us to feel satisfied that when we are confronted with the past nostalgically, we will look upon it without being traumatized by it. We will see everyone who lived in the past as naively satisfied with the way things were. Gothic stories, however, invite us to see the past as haunted and worth repressing. The stories advise us to not open specific doors or go inside particular houses for they might erupt with the hidden traumatic past. Stranger Things pulls off a kind of reversal of these coordinates. Rather than hide the possibility of loss, Stranger Things romanticizes it. We see this in every aspect of the show's narrative and aesthetics. The Duffers have braided together the differing worlds of the Gothic and nostalgic, analog and digital technologies, small-town America and its haunted parallel dimension, and surveillance practices both new and old. These combinations are designed to not only tell a Gothic tale about the 1980s but also remind us of what horribleness lies beyond today. Twenty-first-century audiences live with constant awareness of being watched. We are watched by cameras everywhere. We know that nothing we do on our computers is ever truly deleted. We worry that our cameras on our phones and computers are recording us. We worry that Siri, Alexa, and the Google Assistant are listening to us. We know that what we say on the phone is being data-mined for threatening keywords. We know that any email we send can be retrieved to be used to incriminate us. We know our Internet browsing creates a profile of who we are and what we buy, a profile that is then sold over and over again to various corporations and political organizations. We know that, ultimately, we cannot evade those who want to watch us. The nostalgia of the two seasons of Stranger Things rests on the fantasy of there being a time in the not-so-distant past when we could get lost. Like Will Byers in the Upside Down. Like Nancy and Jonathan, who disappear and expose the lab by going to an investigative journalist. Like Mike, Dustin, Lucas, Eleven, and, later, Max, who manage to evade government agents trailing them by using their bikes and imaginations. Like all the characters who go into [End Page 156] the Upside Down and return. As we watch the Duffers' depiction of the 1980s, we become nostalgic for a time when people knew a lot less about the lives of others—and we are haunted by the world we live in now.
Jason Landrum is the Faye Warren Reimers Professor in the Humanities and Associate Professor of English at Southeastern Louisiana University, where he teaches and researches psychoanalytic approaches to film, television, and literature. He has recently published articles on fathers in Breaking Bad, the death drive and the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, and media representations of criminal profiling.
1. Mari Ruti, Feminist Film Theory and Pretty Woman (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 46.
2. Hugh Manon, "Shadow, Blur, Glitch: The Gothic Route to Contemporary Digital Aesthetics," Paper presented at American Comparative Literature Association Conference, Harvard University, March 19, 2016, https://www.acla.org/annual-meeting/about-annual-meeting/annual-meeting-archives.
3. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York:W. W. Norton, 1998), 95.
4. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 96.
5. Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts, 96–7.
6. Ruti, Feminist Film Theory, 47.
7. Marc Olivier, "Glitch Gothic," in Cinematic Ghosts: Haunting and Spectrality from Silent Cinema to the Digital Era, ed. Murray Leeder (New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 253.
8. Fred Botting, Gothic (New York: Routledge, 1996), 2.
9. Botting, Gothic, 2–3.
10. Manon, "Shadow, Blur, Glitch."
11. Manon, "Shadow, Blur, Glitch."
12. Christophe Haubursin, "How Stranger Things Got Its Retro Title Sequence," Vox, October 25, 2017, https://www.vox.com/videos/2017/10/25/16544860/stranger-things-logo-intro-font.
13. Christopher Weingarten, "'Stranger Things': Meet the Band Behind the Show's Creepy, Nostalgic Score," Rolling Stone, August 1, 2016, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/stranger-things-survive-talk-their-creepy-nostalgic-score-w431789.
14. Joshua Rothman, "The Old, American Horror Behind 'Stranger Things,'" New Yorker, August 17, 2016, https://www.newyorker.com/books/joshua-rothman/the-infinite-nostalgia-of-stranger-things.
15. Slavoj Žižek, Looking Awry: An Introduction to Jacques Lacan through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991), 114.
16. Todd McGowan, The Real Gaze: Film Theory After Lacan (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), 115.