Reader note: This article was written in-between the release of episodes 7 and 8-9. Mild spoilers ahead!
Since 2016, Netflix’s “Stranger Things” has captured America’s attention with 80’s nostalgia, impressive special effects, and a unique plotline that keeps us on our toes. Season 4, released this May, has been no exception. Undeniably, the darkest and most chilling to date, timid watchers would be well-advised to watch this season in the daylight hours or with a trusted friend or pet.
I will admit: some moments of season 4 seemed unnecessarily dark. Murdered children, prison torture, and demon possession place heavy loads on viewers. And yet, as with all moments of darkness, “Stranger Things” invites us to consider—alongside teenagers—where we see glimmers of the hope of the gospel amidst the dark.
The antagonist of season 4 is the monster/demon Vecna, a tortured soul himself who now seeks after the souls of some of our favorite “Stranger Things” characters. It doesn’t take a theologian to notice a theme in Vecna’s victims: each has a secret, a sin, or a past trauma that enslaves them; a “demon” they cannot shake off their back.
There is Queen Bee cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham, whom we discover has been tormented with an eating disorder and condemning comments from her mother about her appearance. There is nerdy Fred Benson, who survived a deadly car accident for which he now blames himself. Perhaps most notably, there is heroine Max Mayfield, whose broken family life and stepbrother’s death continue to haunt her. Though Chrissy and Fred do not survive, Max is rescued from Vecna’s grips by her devoted friends and a voice from outside (more on that later).
After Vecna possesses and subsequently kills his victims, they become literally ensnared: wrought with a thick vine-like plant that keeps their lifeless bodies tethered to Vecna’s habitation. Again, we don’t need to stretch our imaginations too far to see what is going on here: Vecna has taken those who were emotionally ensnared in this life only to physically ensnare them in their death. Vecna, evil himself, holds them captive in his powerful grip.
Real Life Snares
Even if our teenagers have never seen an episode of “Stranger Things,” they know what it means to be ensnared. They know what it is to have a sin struggle or a past trauma so significant that no amount of distraction, numbing, or even good things like therapy or prayer, has been able to shake. They know what it feels like to be in the grips of an eating disorder, a pornography addiction, or a family wound that cannot be released, despite their best efforts.
Disturbing as this season might be, it’s a visual reminder of the biblical reality of the nature of sin: sin enslaves and ensnares. The Apostle Paul knew this well, using slavery as his predominant metaphor for sin. Writing to the church at Galatia, he helps these new Christians see the reality of their life apart from Christ: “formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” (Gal 4:8-9, emphasis mine). Similarly, the author of Hebrews encourages us to “lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us […]” (Heb 12:1, emphasis mine).
Sin, it turns out, does more than distance us from fellowship with God and our neighbor. Whether a sin of our own disobedience or a sin that has been committed against us, we are bound, ensnared, and enslaved to sin that has a tendency to “cling so closely,” preventing us from escape and freedom.
Like Vecna’s victims, sin renders us lifeless and unable to free ourselves. We discover that we are much like Legion, the demon-possessed man in Mark 5, “bound with shackles and chains,” isolated, and in need of rescue that comes to us from an outside source.
The Friend Who Rescues
Athough Chrissy and Fred are unable to escape Vecna’s murderous grip, Max is rescued, albeit not easily. Viewers are kept in suspense as Max begins to slip into the darkness of Vecna’s world; it seems we have lost her for good.
Then, Max’s devoted and crafty friends devise a plan to save her: recalling a conversation with a former victim of Vecna, the friends remember that music—particularly an old, beloved tune—has the power to pull someone out of Vecna’s world and bring them back to life. Acting quickly, Max’s friends don her with headphones and play Max’s favorite song. And it works! Upon hearing this outside voice, a voice of comfort and pleasure, Max is released from Vecna’s grip. This voice, it seems, is even more powerful than the snares of death and evil.
Like our teens who find themselves ensnared to sin, we all need a voice from the outside to rescue us. Thankfully, we have a word that comes to us that is sweeter than even the most beautiful of melodies this world can offer. This is a word that declares “it is finished”—we have been permanently freed from the strong grip of sin, death, and evil, because Jesus Christ has taken them all upon himself.
Jesus himself comes to us, unshackles our chains, and offers us liberation and healing from those demons that have sought to chase us down and bind us. He said as much in his own job description: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me […] he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18).
When we hear this good word, this voice of rescue and freedom that comes to us from outside ourselves, we, like Legion, are restored to our right mind, liberated from the torment of those sins and wounds that cling to us so closely. Though we will never fully shake the hurt of some of our tormentors in this life, we have the assurance that one day, Jesus will liberate us from all hurt, pain, sin, and trauma forever, casting Satan and his ensnaring schemes far into the depths of the sea.
Like Max, our teenagers need the headphones of the good news of the gospel placed around their ears. You’ll note that for the remainder of the season, Max is never far from her cassette player. Vecna might try to come after her again, but she now knows where to turn for rescue. For teens who seem to be slipping away into the grip of sin and darkness, we can play them the best song we know: Jesus’ word to them that because of the cross, sin no longer has dominion over them.
So, if you are up for the intense and dark moments of “Stranger Things 4,” I encourage you to use it as a window into discussion with your kids. Use it as a tool to remind them that no doubt, there are “stranger things” out there—Satan is active and powerful, targeting especially those who are under the weight of a seemingly unshakable sin.
But thanks be to God, there are stronger things, too. Jesus Christ and his word to us are far more powerful than the grip of sin. There is freedom to be found in him, the one who took on the battle with sin and evil on the cross so that we might be released from its powerful grasp. It is indeed for freedom that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1).