This post is the first in a new series I’m trying out, where I examine elements of pop culture through the lens of sustainability and social justice. It’s no secret that I find pop culture fascinating, and I’m interested to investigate how these different facets of our world can reflect and shape the narratives we engage with.
Also, this obviously contains spoilers.
When Stranger Things’ third season arrived on Netflix in July I, like many others, shamelessly devoured the entire thing within days. I wasn’t unique in being drawn into the 80’s nostalgia, the shady government dealings and the monsters around every corner.
And, of course, this isn’t the first time. In past years I’ve looked on nervously as the demogorgon pushes through walls and stalks the streets of Hawkins at night (RIP Barb). I’ve been poised, ready to hide behind a pillow, as Will experiences unwelcome invasions from the mindflayer and our favourite characters run from demonic dogs (RIP Bob). But, for some reason, there was one aspect of this newest season that left me more unsettled than any monster from The Upside Down.
The horror, for me, culminated in one terrifying scene. Nancy and Jonathan break into the house of Mrs Driscoll, an old woman who has become obsessed with the rats breaking in and eating her fertiliser. Hearing strange noises they head to the basement – which is dark, creepy and illuminated by flashes of lightning of course – and find Driscoll hunched over the fertiliser herself, manically shovelling it into her mouth whilst looking completely deranged and ready to kill if you tried to take the bag away.
The moment is both genuinely harrowing and nausea inducing. Something about it is so visceral that I can almost feel the fertiliser in my own mouth when I think about it. It’s just all round gross and unnerving and way creepier than any monster in the show. But it’s also never fully explained. We see rats and various infected humans munching their way through as many chemicals as they can find, leaving behind trails of packaging and soil wherever they turn, but this recurring symbol is never clearly addressed.
The theory around this plot point goes like this: without chemicals the flayed are simply hosts, like Will himself was in season two. By ingesting these chemicals they create a ‘new substance’, which essentially helps them all explode into a human-jelly hybrid that fuses into the horrible shape-shifting ooze monster that the gang eventually have to take down.
It makes sense but also, let’s be honest, isn’t it kind of a reach? There are multiple other ways to tell this story, and the idea that combining chemicals would somehow defy the laws of chemistry to make your entire body turn to parallel-universe-goop instead of, you know, just killing you, seems a little thin on the ground. So why give it so much airtime?
Well, I have my own theory. Many have discussed the miniseries Chernobyl and the obvious parallels it draws in modern-day approaches to the climate crisis, mainly in terms of inaction and denial despite clear evidence. But I’m here to say that I think Stranger Things has something to say about climate breakdown too. And yes, this is the hill I will die on.
So hear me out. The first thing I thought when characters started chugging down toilet cleaner like it was happy hour, was about how chill and normal everyone seemed to be with the idea that chemicals in our own homes could be so extreme that they could cause intense chemical reactions. The horror was that they made people spontaneously combust into monster stew, not the fact that we would willingly spray these chemicals around our homes without a second thought. I will admit I’m a bit of a hippy and natural cleaning convert, come for me all you want, but isn’t it at least mildly terrifying that we’d use chemicals that strong in our own homes? Because, spoiler alert, if we’re spraying them that also means we’re breathing them in.
In the Stranger Things universe, as in the real world, we don’t seem to mind ingredients like formaldehyde, acetone, xylene, ammonia and bleach in our homes, as long as it doesn’t turn us into a morphing evil blob. Never mind the headaches, chronic respiratory problems, asthma and declining lung function. Never mind the VOCs and particulate matter from household products that rivals the amount coming from car exhausts and pollutes our air. And we’re fine with the toxins in fertilisers that can destroy soil, damage our kidneys, lungs and liver, and cause cancer, just as long as the mind flayer doesn’t get us. The horror focuses on the monster, and completely overlooks the fact that having chemicals that extreme in our homes probably shouldn’t be normal.
The second thing I thought of when I watched Mrs Driscoll eating fertiliser, was the film The True Cost. The Andrew Morgan documentary exposes multiple issues in the fast fashion industry, but I immediately recalled the coverage of pesticide use in conventional cotton production. As well as leading to spikes in cancer, birth defects in children and chronic illness from exposure, the film shows how farmers get trapped in cycles of pesticide poverty. We see how Monsanto sells genetically modified cotton seeds to farmers, which require pesticides to grow. Over time the pesticides stop being effective and the farmers have to buy more and more, spiralling into debt in the process. When it becomes too much, the farmers die by suicide. Their bodies are usually found in their fields, having drunk the pesticides themselves. While the role that GMO seeds play in this has been debated, it’s hard not to feel concerned that something we spray onto our crops could be so incredibly toxic that it’s a common cause of death, especially when soil health is crucial to the continuation of our species. Those farmers, the future of our soil, and how we should really be talking about whether spraying potent chemicals all over everything that grows is a good idea, is all I can think of when I see Mrs Driscoll in that scene.
In the Stranger Things universe the mindflayer wants to turn the world our beloved heroes know into The Upside Down. But the chemicals we use everyday, in agriculture and our own homes, hold the potential to actually make that happen. When soil is depleted and air is polluted, the idea of a shadowy parallel present where everything is dying doesn’t seem that impossible an idea. It makes sense to directly link the ingestion of these chemicals to the very thing that could bring about this destroyed world because, honestly, it’s not that radical a metaphor.
Stranger Things may not directly parallel impending climate doom like Game of Thrones, or criticise government inaction in the face of facts like Chernobyl, but the idea that it might have something to say about the way we treat our planet isn’t unfounded either. Even before the horrific fertiliser feast, in season two one of the major indicators that something is very wrong can be seen in poisoned pumpkin patches. The diseased world of The Upside Down creeps into the fields of local farmers, leading their crops to fester and decay. It’s a chilling foreshadowing of a world where things can no longer grow due to poisoned soil, and it’s a future that is very much possible in the world we currently inhabit.
I imagine you’re thinking ‘that is quite the narrative you’ve invented there Francesca’, and I will admit that you’re right. I am projecting my own knowledge and worries onto a fictional tv show that just wants to revel in 80’s nostalgia and let kids save the day. But you know what? Even if it’s not a deliberate decision, the context we’re in does inform the choices we make. The world around us seeps into the things we create, sometimes without us even knowing it. I, therefore, don’t think it’s totally impossible to imagine that some concern over our planet’s future may have subconsciously snuck its way into the writer’s room, just like that little demogorgon slug Dart before it went full batshit and turned into an evil dog.
My point is, when the crisis is this big, the eco-anxiety this all-encompassing, it’s not difficult for it to creep into every perception of the world around us. For it to unconsciously guide the creative choices we make. Television often struggles to deal with climate issues that aren’t set in post-apocalyptic sci-fi wastelands, because it’s hard to root such large issues in human narratives audiences want to follow. But that doesn’t mean the worries aren’t there, they just show up in other forms. Chernobyl may be a more overt story about what happens when we close our eyes in denial, but Stranger Things is a story that suggests we can’t look away even if we want to. The threat of The Upside Down literally looms over the town of Hawkins, each character’s anxiety that it might tear apart the world they know and love at any moment can easily be a mirror to our own dread too.
And let’s not forget, The Upside Down is only a threat because of the innate humanness of the whole problem. It’s an invisible nightmare that only breaks into the real world because humans, specifically governments, push too far. Doesn’t that sound familiar to the progression of CO2 levels in our atmosphere? Sure, maybe burning fossil fuels doesn’t release a host of creepy monsters that make people and rats explode, but it’s still very much a man made issue that only exists because people in power just don’t know when to change course. The threat of The Upside Down is as frustrating as it is scary; we find ourselves yelling at our screens because the men making the decisions don’t seem to realise that maybe calling it quits, instead of literally destroying everything, might possibly be a better option. And sometimes, the shouts I direct towards my TV don’t feel all that dissimilar from the shouts I direct towards the news.
When we think of a possible future where we haven’t staved off the worst effects of climate change, it’s easy to look at stories that set themselves in worlds that are far from the present. We think of the deserts of Mad Max: Fury Road and the anger of those left alive, or the metropolises of Blade Runner 2049, populated by individuals steeped in existential crises. Stranger Things avoids both of these images, instead presenting us with a world that feels somewhat real, filled with tangible nostalgia and memory we can access. Then it couples that with an alternate version, filled with destruction. At its core it may just be a fun show filled with pop culture throwbacks, but that doesn’t mean that, deep down, it isn’t also a way to reflect the unease we’re all feeling too.