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The Strangeness of Death: A Reflection on ‘Stranger Things’ Season 4

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Discussions around the latest season of Stranger Things seemed to be centered around one question: Who’s going to die?

The overwhelming attention of fans toward potential (and realized) deaths on the show demonstrate a truth about death in our world. Despite it being seemingly inevitable, virtually everyone, regardless of their religious persuasion, treats death like a stranger to our world.

Virtually everyone, regardless of their religious persuasion, treats death like a stranger to our world.

Religious Things

Season 4 of Stranger Things was divided into two parts. Numerous reasons have been offered for this break in the Netflix tradition, which historically releases entire seasons at once for binging. Other streaming services have adopted a more traditional week-by-week schedule and, as a result, captured the cultural conversation for longer stretches. Whatever led to the move, the two sections of the show treat religion very differently.

In the first part of the season, as the danger is ramping up but not fully realized yet for the main characters, viewers could catch an occasional out-of-context Bible verse and an ineffectual statue of Jesus. The most prominent religious imagery was an abandoned church, emptied of its religious significance and filled with crates of 80s era nostalgic consumer goods. Appropriately enough, the hollowed-out church building provided only a temporary reprieve for an escaping hero before they were recaptured.

As the season concluded, however, religious talk and imagery filled the story. Vecna, the show’s menacing villain, is cast out of this world and hurled into a hellscape through flashes of lightning, suggesting Jesus’ description in Luke 10:18 of Satan falling from heaven. To bring about the apocalyptic end of Hawkins, Indiana and possibly the world, Vecna seeks to use four people, or, one could say “horsemen.” And as he captures Eleven, the messianic super-powered teenage girl at the heart of the story, Vecna binds her feet, stretches out her arms in a crucifix pose and pins her against a stained-glass window with a rose stem forming a type of crown behind her head.

In the climax of the show, we see a eucatastrophe, a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien to describe “the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” It’s a “good catastrophe” in which the heroes temporarily save the day despite overwhelming odds. Some use the word “miracle” to describe their victory.

But, as Paul reminds the church in Corinth, the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Death has not yet been defeated in the fictional town of Hawkins, despite the show’s repeated reversals of the seeming ultimate demise of characters. In the way the show treats the end of a character’s life, we see the strangeness of death in their world and our own.

Death is the most unnatural aspect of our existence, and our reaction to it shows we know this to be true.

The Strangeness of Death

The hit Netflix show has established a pattern of introducing a supporting but beloved character only to have them meet a sometimes-heroic-but-almost-always-gruesome death by the season’s end. They’ve also demonstrated a habit of seemingly killing a character only to bring them back in later seasons. But even when the mourning is misplaced, there’s still a lesson in the grief.

When characters meet their untimely fate in Stranger Things, there are immediate responses and lasting ramifications. Usually, a friend is present to witness someone’s last moments, which are accompanied by pleading for more time, sadness over lost opportunities, and anger at the end. In season 4, Vecna seeks to capitalize on the shame and grief many of the characters feel over the deaths of others. They feel a responsibility for the loss of life, and it weighs on them, opening the door for evil exploitation.

But why is that the case? Why would they feel guilt about something that is as seemingly natural to this world as breathing? Why do those deaths bring out such raw emotions? Rationally, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about a life ending. In fact, at this point, the kids in Hawkins should be shocked when a friend actually makes it out of a harrowing situation alive. Yet they mourn for the loss of life, and they’re right to do so—and so are we when we encounter death.

As Vecna has unleashed monsters from the upside down into the idyllical 1980s world of Hawkins, Indiana, Satan has unleashed sin and death into this world. The show’s ferocious demogorgons, essentially giant petal-mouthed demon lizards, are obviously from another world. But, despite being an expected and all-too-frequent reality for us, death is also clearly an unwelcome invader.

Death doesn’t seem right, despite it being all we’ve ever experienced. Whether it comes tragic at a young age or expected after a long life, death is seemingly inevitable. Yet, in almost every instance we face it, we treat death as unnatural, as a stranger to our experience. Something in us rebels at the very existence of death, and that something is the image of God.

Regardless of one’s religious perspective, we view death as a violation of what should be. Our innate reaction reveals a deeply held, if suppressed truth: we were created for eternity. We were supposed to live forever. Death is not natural. It is the most unnatural aspect of our existence, and our reaction to it shows we know this to be true.

Yes, we may cry when we see our latest favorite character die on Stranger Things or another show. Yes, we will mourn when we encounter death in our world. We do not mourn as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13), but, in the midst of our hope, we do mourn. We know that death has been defeated and that victory will be fully realized one day. But until then, we declare the reality of eternal life by our sorrow over the temporary existence of death. Our tears, whether they flow over a fictional character or a beloved family member, show death to be the strangest thing of all.

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Aaron Earls

Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com and a freelance writer living outside Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four kids. He earned his M.Div. in Apologetics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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