Netflix’s new runaway hit Stranger Things is deeply rooted in horror and sci-fi nostalgia, particularly the stories of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. It also carries on another, less awesome tradition: gaslighting.
At first, you might think I’m going to discuss the strong ableist language aimed at Eleven, the girl at the center of the story. While yes, that’s important, there’s a bigger issue we need to focus on.
The story also stars Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers, whose son, Will, goes missing in the first episode. In the second half of episode one, Joyce receives a distorted phone call with Will’s voice on the other end, and then the phone zaps her with electricity. Joyce receives a similar phone call in the next episode, and later sees an alien-like creature coming through the living room wall.
As if her son going missing and the possibility of him being dead wasn’t enough for one person, seeing monsters from another dimension only makes things worse. That’s where things get tricky. While it’s reasonable to be in a constant state of panic, it’s just as easy to medicalize and pathologize these behaviors — and that’s what the people around her do.
Anytime Joyce talks about communicating with Will through the assortment of Christmas lights she strings up, or about the creatures from the other dimension — a.k.a. The Upside Down — or even about how she knows Will isn’t dead, she’s deemed crazy or delusional. Her reality is so quickly dismissed, written off as her being sleep-deprived and possibly hallucinating. Never once is her reality validated — not even by her oldest son, Johnathan. Hopper finally validates in episode six that her suspicions had been right the whole time.
It could be easily said that this gaslighting helped maintain the suspenseful tone of the show, to add dramatic irony, to hide the agendas of the folks at Hawkins Lab. But this trope is nothing new. Especially in the horror and sci-fi genres!
Gaslighting through the ages
Recently, The Walking Dead’s spinoff, Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD), used this trope lay out the pilot episode’s initial plot line. The protagonist, Nick — who’s a heroin addict — witnesses the beginning of a zombie outbreak. But his observations are attributed to the influence of heroin, and Nick is continuously deemed a liability and a burden because of his addiction. He’s often told he’s over-exaggerating. (Because dead bodies can’t just die and then get back up, right?)
Long before FTWD, in the famous 1990s show The X-Files, F.B.I. Agent Dana Scully constantly gaslights Fox Mulder. Any time Mulder experiences something that Scully can’t substantiate, she tells him things like, “it’s probably a form of psychosis,” “you saw it because you wanted to see it,” “it’s just the power of suggestion,” etc.
The 1980s brought us Nightmare on Elm Street — in particular, the third film, Dream Warriors. Most of this installment of the series takes place inside a psychiatric hospital, where patients (who turn out to be the last surviving kids of Elm Street) are being held for injuries from Freddy Kreuger’s attacks. The injuries, however, are diagnosed as suicide attempts. Medical staff reject the patients’ claims that Freddy is trying to kill them through their dreams. They’re treated like any other psychiatric patient and their experiences are dismissed entirely. It’s not until Nancy (someone who’d survived numerous attacks from Freddy) stepped in and did her best to convince medical staff that their claims were real.
Hell, I’ve even seen this trope used as early as The Twilight Zone. The constant medicalizing and pathologizing of behaviors that aren’t deemed “normal” is nothing new.
But it raises several questions: Why is it that if someone tells us something that falls outside the boundaries of our logic and imagination, that person is deemed “crazy”? Why are we so quick to deny the realities of others, or to throw those with mental illnesses under the bus?
In Joyce Byers’ Case, if the creatures from The Upside Down were just “in her head,” how does that make her experiences — her reality — any less real?
Sure, it’s just a show. But the repeated use of this trope adds up to a much larger picture. A picture in which we gaslight and victim-blame. All of this serves to stifle progress toward normalizing mental illnesses. It only continues to move harmful stigmas and imply that experiencing trauma or intense events strips us of our credibility.
[Content warning: Spoilers for Stranger Things, X-Files, Nightmare on Elm Street, suicide, addiction, gaslighting and ableism.]