Stranger Things' trip through the mental illness Upside Down



I will never forget the image with which the penultimate episode of Stranger Things: Season One ends, and I will never forget the moment at which I saw it. [Warning: Season One spoilers ahead]

Winona Ryder in Stranger ThingsWe are in the Upside Down. A dying child, the missing Will, lies on a camp bed in his desperate fort, surrounded by an evil forest, stalked by a monster. He has suffered almost beyond endurance. He has little time. But his mother, Joyce, popularly believed to be crazy, has been right all along. He is still alive — though trapped in a dimension of experience inaccessible to most, and almost impossibly hazardous to all. Can he be rescued?

Back on this side of the television screen, as the credits came up, my companion looked at me and said, 'Scary.' I turned slowly away from the screen and shook my head. My voice wouldn't quite come. 'Life,' I said.

Now Season Two is upon us. Will it speak to me as intensely as Season One did? And if it doesn't, will that be a good sign?

We watched Season One towards the end of last year. I was in a bad space. I had been in a bad space for months. But I found Stranger Things riveting, and strangely therapeutic, an island of solace at the end of days which had become more and more difficult to get through. It seemed to me to be telling the truth, even saying something out loud which is almost universally unsaid, or worse, suppressed.

It was the character of Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder) who most captivated me. When I looked at Joyce Byers (or at least, Winona Ryder playing Joyce Byers) I saw myself. She looked like I felt.

If you saw Stranger Things, that may make you laugh. Joyce is the role of Ryder's life, and she seems to give everything she's got to a character who looks more genuinely unhinged than anyone else I can remember seeing onscreen. Both she, and Joyce, seem so taken out of themselves that they are completely unaware of how they look to other people, even, seemingly, the audience. That was the thing that began to make the show important to me. I, too, have been so anxious that I forgot how I looked to other people.


"It does not often occur to us that there may be more that is wrong in our society than is wrong with the people who can't cope with it."


Joyce is already isolated socially — a small town eccentric on the wrong side of the tracks — and struggling to keep a ramshackle life (and house) together. Then her son goes missing, and Joyce is sent into a state of agony, and agonised hyperactivity. Even after he seems to have been proved dead, she believes he is still alive and, worse, trying to communicate with her. She seems to be losing her mind. Everyone thinks this is grief. But we know she is right.

Joyce has different priorities from other people. She thinks nothing of destroying her house — painting the alphabet in large, possessed-looking letters on the living room wall, stringing up unseasonal Christmas lights, hacking a hole through to the foundations — in her quest to reach her son. She doesn't care what other people think. She doesn't even notice what other people think. She knows what really matters.

And here's the thing. In our society, someone who has their priorities right looks mad. When we watch Stranger Things, we are on Joyce's side. But in real life, we would not be.

The depressed or anxious can be people who see things that others don't. They can be bellwethers, reacting more intensely to facts (such as the loneliness and vacuousness of our individualistic society, the emptiness at the heart of our consumer culture) which others either do not question, or have the toughness to take in their stride.

They can be people who hear the secret message embedded within so much of our talk, so many of our institutions — that human beings have no inherent worth, that our value depends on our achievements, our success or failure, even our appearance, and that some people are simply better than others. They can be people whose integrity refuses to allow them to recover from a death or a trauma as quickly and efficiently as is deemed proper. Like Joyce, they can't be persuaded to let go of what they know is most important. They don't 'move on'.

Our attitude, both societally and therapeutically, to mental health is largely pragmatic. We try to change the depressed and anxious so that they can cope better with life in the society in which they live. But we do not listen. We do not change society. It does not often occur to us that there may be more that is wrong in our society than is wrong with the people who can't cope with it.

We tell the depressed and anxious that their thinking is wrong, or 'maladaptive'. We do not allow ourselves to entertain the possibility that there are indeed 'stranger things' with which the mentally ill are well acquainted, and to which the rest of us are blind.

Depression or anxiety could be seen as a kind of quest to gain access to that suffering child, dying in his fort in the Upside Down. If Joyce were not an eccentric, she would 'move on', refuse to be attuned to her son's continued existence, and if she could not ignore it, she would question her own sanity and seek help.

Then she would learn not to hear him. But he would still be there.



Cassandra Golds headshotCassandra Golds is a Melbourne-based author of children's fiction.

Topic tags: Cassandra Golds, Stranger Things, Winona Ryder, mental illness



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Existing comments

Simply lovely article. Thankyou. Going to chase the series now.
Jan Forrester | 30 October 2017

Yes, indeed. "Listen, all who have ears to hear". Perhaps the anxious and depressed are the ones who have ears, who hear what's really going on, who cry out with their very lives, not for help, but in warning. Of course we pity them and try to heal them - but shouldn't we also be trying to hear the warning? Thank you, Cassandra - another insightful and important article.
Joan Seymour | 30 October 2017


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