“Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied,” says Proverbs 27:20. For anyone who binge-watched Stranger Things, Netflix’s summer horror TV hit, the quote rings true. Our eyes are definitely not satisfied by just eight episodes.
The show – there will be some minor spoilers further down – deals with the disappearance of Will Byers, a geeky kid in small-town Indiana. His mother suffers a progressive mental breakdown; the slovenly police chief is forced to step up as a hero; Will’s three best friends team up with a mysterious girl, Eleven, in what amounts to a real-life version of their Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
It’s unquestionably one of Netflix’s best original shows, mixing iconic cinematography with quotable lines (“Mornings are not for questions,” the chief grumbles. “Mornings are for coffee and contemplation”), memorable characters and an authentically ’80s synthesized Tangerine Dream-like soundtrack. Everything in Stranger Things is deliberate, nail-biting and beautiful, as if Steven Spielberg directed Stephen King, even though it’s created and mostly directed by nascent 32-year-old brothers, Matt and Ross Duffer.
And it’s cursorily Jewish. Winona Ryder (born Winona Laura Horowitz), gives the performance of her career as Joyce, Will’s frantic mother; Finn Wolfhard, a Vancouver native of German-French-Jewish descent, plays Will’s best friend; and two of the best episodes were directed by Shawn Levy (the Montrealer who directed Night at the Museum and Real Steel), who, alongside Dan Cohen, were the show’s hands-on executive producers.
But those are admittedly superficial Jewish links. The meat of the show – themes of how dogged beliefs can isolate you, and how the only solution is a community bound by faith – should resonate with members of a religion defined by cultural otherness.
Liel Leibovitz, writing in Tablet, lays out a beautiful argument for the show’s spiritual grounding: the lead characters aren’t just battling against some otherworldly creature; “what they’re really up against is explaining what faith is and how it works to people who’ve lost the capacity for transcendence.”
Every main character endures some form of aloneness, mentally or physically: Will’s older brother is the school weirdo, and Will’s cadre begins to fray as they bicker over what to do. The chief lives alone after his daughter died of cancer and his wife left him. Eleven’s entire arc is predicated on fitting in and learning about friendship. Joyce remains so adamant that her son is alive that she quits her job, alienates her friends and winds up sitting alone on her couch with an axe on her lap staring at the living room wall.
And then there’s the Upside Down – an alternate universe mirroring our world, but filled with shadows and devoid of human life. It bears a striking resemblance to the Old Testament’s description of hell, a shadow land called Sheol. Before Christian folklore introduced the pitchforks, devils and lava pools, the Bible described an amoral place beneath the Earth’s crust where everyone – the righteous, the evil, even animals – were sent indiscriminately after death. Sheol is a world beyond light, inhabited solely by spectres and dust particles floating in the air. As Proverbs says, this place is “never full” – we are all sent to our own private hell.
If you’ve seen Stranger Things, that description should sound pretty familiar.
Jean-Paul Sartre famously said that “Hell is other people,” but the Duffer Brothers might claim the opposite: hell is abject isolation. Throughout the series, we’re shown sporadic glimpses of Will in the Upside Down, shivering and cold. He is effectively dead and alone, tortured not just by the presence of some demon lurking in the background but by the fear that his loved ones aren’t coming to his rescue. After all, you can fight the demon, but you can’t fight isolation.
Of course, the opposite is true – his disappearance has united a community of misfits in a way that would never have happened otherwise. The most triumphant scenes are when the protagonists realize they’re not alone, they’re not crazy; they’re all in this together.
And if a determined group of outsiders brought together by crazy beliefs doesn’t sound Jewish to you, nothing will.