The Bizarre Amnesia of Stranger Things
Contains spoilers, but you won’t remember them
So, here’s the strangest thing about Stranger Things: I cannot remember anything that happens in this show.
Here is a list of the things I remember.
-The kids play D&D
-Will gets captured by the monster
-El has mind powers
-They rescue Will but not Barb, who has to die to both convey the seriousness of the situation and also narratively punish her best friend for being sexually active
-there’s more demogorgons but smaller
-Sean Astin is in it
-Whats-his-name (with the hair) heroically protects the kids from...some... kind of danger
-Hopper fights the Terminator and maybe dies.
-Robin is gay!
-There’s a mall.
The funny thing is that I remember the EXPERIENCE of watching it. I remember watching the first season between my fingers, shoulders hiked around my ears, terrified but also enjoying the sense of engaging in a Cultural Moment. The second season kicked off by watching with a bunch of other college students in an auditorium at night, sitting in uncomfortable desks. The third season, I watched over the course of a weekend, cool and comfortable in an air-conditioned apartment in July, hardly scared at all.
And every time I sit down to watch an episode, I will be there, happily watching this show, enjoying it, until the screen cuts back to a different scene with different characters-- and I won’t remember what anyone is doing or how they got there.
And it’s not just me. I was watching recently with my boyfriend when he turned to me and said
BF: “Remember back when El killed like twenty people??”
BF: “Yeah, she blew up their heads! Didn’t she blow up their heads?”
Me: “Oh my god! That happened.”
A few days later, I was talking about the show with some friends, and we could NOT come up with the name of the boy with curly hair, the one who’s dating El, for like ten minutes. I forgot Nancy’s name for at least the first five episodes of Season 3. The name of their town? Something, Indiana. What was Sean Astin’s character’s name again? Kevin? Bill? Patrick? The only one who I consistently remember is Dustin, because what kind of a monster could forget Dustin.
Not only do I fail to retain any information about what’s happening-- the characters also seem to have trouble remembering. In season two, we see Hopper wandering around a pumpkin patch in unnatural decay, wondering aloud why it could possibly be that strange things are happening in the town, a mere one year after he rescued a boy from the literal shadow realm and met a girl with telepathic powers.. In one of the more recent episodes, whats-his-name and Dustin are struck with the sudden realization that-- wait-- what if the extensive Russian spy network in this Indiana small town is actually somehow related to the interdimensional portal that opened up two years ago?? As opposed to, you know. All the other reasons why the Russians might infiltrate the Midwest.
But maybe that’s just a consequence of having a show where the plot, and the characters, aren’t really the main point. I don’t watch Stranger Things because I love the characters (though I do-- looking at you, Dustin). I watch, and I think most of us watch, because we like the feeling of it. The aesthetic. The gentle, somewhat self-indulgent nostalgia.
For me, that’s not so much nostalgia for the 80s (I wasn’t born until the 90s), but it does make me think of summer breaks in my own small town, when I used to go to the roller rink and swap music with my friends, or when I would bike to the park and settle in with a book for hours at a time. The time when my best friend and I would write song lyrics on her walls in marker and paint. When the street fair was the most exciting civic event of the year, and I would look forward to the petting zoo and to seeing which couples were still ‘dating’ a month after school ended.
There’s a lot that I don’t remember about that pre/early teenage time, and I’m sure there’s a lot that would surprise me if I were to be reminded of it now. Things that were scary, or difficult, or sad--the times I felt awkward, or unlikeable, or unpopular, or a target for random comments from creeps, have mostly faded into the distance for me now. When I think about my twelve and thirteen-year old self, I don’t think about those times so much. I remember that they happened, but I don’t remember the specifics. It’s glossed over by the memory of drinking lemonade, and listening to Owl City, and feeling loved.
So maybe, when I see it through that lens, maybe it makes sense that Hopper doesn’t seem to remember pulling Will out of the Upside Down, and Steve (I finally remembered his name) and Dustin don’t immediately leap to supernatural explanations even after experiencing it first hand.
This is the core dilemma of Stranger Things. Hopper and Joyce and Dustin and El and every one else whose names I don’t remember have defeated the demagorgon, been through literal hell together, and come out the other side. So what now? They MUST forget the demogorgon, forget how bad it really was, to have any semblance of a normal life. But they also can NEVER forget the demogorgon, right? Because what if he comes back? What if he sneaks his way in to their world and they don’t recognize him for who he is until it’s too late?
It’s not just the problem of supernatural evil, either. What would it mean for us to confront the fact that El killed dozens of people? Or that, Hopper beat the shit out of practically everyone this season, with hardly any provocation? Or that Jonathan took photos of Nancy without her knowledge or consent? The relationships that they have built depend on a certain degree of forgetfulness. It’s not even that these characters are beyond forgiveness or that their actions were not understandable-- especially El. But I think it would be interesting if they, and the writers, and we try to reckon with these questions, and see where that leads us.