The fairy tale is a popular form of folk tale with fantastical characters and magical elements. Madame d’Aulnoy coined the term ‘fairy tale’ in her 1697 collection of tales, when such stories were in fact a form of adult fiction. Such printed collections – popularised by later male authors such as Charles Perrault, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson – were developed from even earlier oral tales. These original fairy tales were much darker, sinister and morally assertive than the contemporary stories we know and love today.
For example, the earliest recorded version of Sleeping Beauty is found within the Perceforest, a collection of six books containing prose and poetry that describes the fictional history of Great Britain. The book originated in France sometime between 1330 and 1344 and includes a chapter on the Histoire de Troïlus et de Zellandine. Unlike the romantic, if anti-feminist, child-friendly version of the tale, in which the Princess is awoken from her cursed state of perpetual sleep with a kiss from Prince Charming, Troilus rapes Zellandine while she resides in a coma. Zellandine falls pregnant and gives birth to the child without waking. Over the centuries, strong themes within such classic examples of the fairy tale have been diluted to suit a younger audience, as this fiction become synonymous with children’s literature.
Stranger Things (2016), the recent cultural phenomenon exclusive to Netflix, as part of their Originals series, is written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer. Praised for its pop-culture references to 1980s television, films and music, inciting a nostalgic response in viewers, the show can arguably be classed as a contemporary fairy tale for adults, in the way that it embodies similar dark themes, archetypal characters, and magical elements.
The story follows a group of adolescent boys (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) in 1980s Indiana, specifically a town called Hawkins. When searching for their missing friend, Will, who vanishes after coming face-to-face with a mysterious monster, the boys discover a young girl hiding in the woods. The girl identifies herself as Eleven (which correlates to a marking on her wrist) and is revealed to have telekinetic powers. The friends eventually learn that Eleven is a government weapon, a result of MKUltra, the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency) mind control programme that ran from the 1950s into the 1970s, and involved illegal experiments on human subjects. Eleven has escaped her captors, specifically lead scientist Dr Brenner, after excessive experimentation exposed the potential of her abilities and her mind ripped a hole between this world and another, the Upside Down. In doing so, a monster has found its way into this world from the other dimension and kills Barb, the best friend of Nancy, Mike’s older sister, after dragging her into the Upside Down.
Will has also been transported to this dimension and is surviving by hiding from the monster. He communicates with his mother, Joyce, via energy, making lights in the house blink. Joyce is thus disbelieving when Will’s body is found in a quarry. The local sheriff, Hopper, has been investigating the disappearances and is suspicious of the government base located on the outskirts of the town. He discovers that Will’s ‘body’ is not real, and has been planted to cover the disappearance of the boy. Hopper teams up with Joyce, Nancy and Jonathan, Will’s older brother, to find Will; their plan is to enter the Upside Down through the gateway in the depths of the government base. Joyce and Hopper are caught sneaking onto the base and Hopper strikes a deal to tell Dr Brenner of Eleven’s whereabouts as long as he and Joyce can go into the other world. They locate and bring Will out alive while the monster, wounded after being baited by Nancy and Jonathan (in order to distract it from Joyce and Hopper’s presence in its world), kills Dr Brenner and goes after the children. Eleven, severely drained after killing a group of government officials, sacrifices herself to save her friends by fighting the monster with her mind; she obliterates the creature and is engulfed in the swarm of particles.
Stranger Things is thus concerned with a variety of universal themes across the landscape of fairy tales, such as good versus evil, death, loss, guilt, redemption, faith, friendship, love, adolescent angst, sexual awakening, morality, loyalty and bravery.
This can be seen in the archetypal characters within the series. We of course have a band of heroes with the children. All display bravery in the face of danger, as well as a fierce loyalty; they sneak out in the dead of night to look for their missing friend despite the dangers of not knowing what happened to him; attempt to evade government officials to ensure Eleven isn’t recaptured; and Mike jumps off a cliff to save Dustin from being sliced by the town bully. However, these well-meaning, if naïve, acts are eclipsed by the bravery, resilience and spirit of Eleven. Despite being torn from her mother’s womb and raised as a human lab-rat, with no concept of the outside world, she is the most compassionate, understanding, and selfless character in the series. It is interesting that she is the character relied upon by the male group to save them in times of peril, thwarting the traditional fairy tale trope of the damsel in distress. This is particularly evident in the final episode, when she uses her powers to save her friends – knowing that it will kill her – in the ultimate heroic act.
Instead of a wicked stepmother, we have a morally ambiguous stepfather in Dr Brenner, the lead scientist in the experiment programme. The government base is essentially a fortified castle imprisoning a young girl with magical abilities who wants to be a princess and is controlled by her evil stepfather. Manipulative, cold and austere, he has convinced Eleven to call him ‘Papa’, an ironically endearing term for a father figure considering the sterile environment and conditioned relationship between the two characters. Wanting to please her ‘Papa’ out of love, as well as the fact that she will be punished with solitary confinement if she disobeys his orders, Eleven has elements of the abused Cinderella archetype, used by her stepfather to do his bidding. However, though the show does little to flesh out the shadowy persona of Dr Brenner’s villain (we know he was considerably involved in MKUltra), he is used as a one-dimensional figure to develop Eleven’s complex backstory and reveal her status as the true hero of the tale.
The boys’ favourite teacher, Mr Clarke, is the dispatcher, or oracle, of this tale; the boys actively seek information from him on several occasions and he unknowingly provides them with the knowledge required to progress in their quest. From his explanation of parallel universes, to a how-to-make-your-own guide in building a sensory-deprivation tank, he is the source of scientific understanding that feeds into the magical elements of this fairy tale.
Every fairy tale has a princess and her Prince Charming, and Stranger Things is no exception. Unlike classic fairy tales, however, Nancy subverts the conventional relationship between gender roles, passivity and power. Nancy actively decides to search for the monster, convincing Jonathan to do so. It is Nancy, not Jonathan, who travels through the portal to the Upside Down in Mirkwood, despite not knowing what she will find on the other side. She is daring, brave, and refuses to be intimidated by peer-pressure at school. During the initial episodes she is revealed to be dating the most popular boy at school, Steve, and decides to sleep with him for the first time of her own accord. In several earlier scenes she is revealed to be staunch in her refusal to have sex with him, so when she initiates this action, we know it is on her terms.
As Nancy hunts the monster with Jonathan and seems to develop feelings for him, it is unclear who Prince Charming actually is within this blossoming love triangle. Similarly, the voyeuristic actions of Jonathan, as he photographs Nancy undressing as she is about to have sex with Steve, and the fact that Steve ‘slut-shames’ Nancy by calling her such on spray-painted signs in the town, after seeing her with Jonathan and jumping to conclusions, ensures that both men are not the squeaky-clean Prince Charming we would expect to see. This is further complicated by Steve’s guilty conscience developing his seemingly shallow character, and Jonathan’s internalised longing for Nancy, as he would rather her be happy with Steve than selfishly admit his feelings. It is precisely this uncertainty or complexity, and the fact that Nancy does not need either man to save or define her, that makes the trio a modern incarnation of traditional roles.
In regards to the Upside Down, which is revealed to be another dimension that exists in parallel to ours and is literally a dark mirror of the world we know, the series provides little information in regards to this mysterious plane. We learn that the atmosphere is toxic and it is inhabited by a predatory monster that hunts for food in our world – resulting in several missing persons in the town – through the tears in time and space, dimensional gateways, caused by the amplified telepathic power generated during Eleven’s experiments.
Within Germanic mythology, Myrkviðr – literally translated as mirky / dark / black wood – is referred to as a dark and treacherous forest that separates worlds; those who navigate it must do so with great care, even the Norse gods. The term was anglicised by William Morris in A Tale of the House of Wolflings in 1888, and later implemented by J R R Tolkien in The Hobbit from 1937, as Mirkwood. In Stranger Things, Will meets the monster on the road leading to Mirkwood before he is transported to the other dimension, and it is here that Eleven encounters the boys for the first time, as well as the place that Nancy and Jonathan discover a gateway to the other world. This reference suggests that the Upside Down is reminiscent of the dark or enchanted wood of the fairy tale.
The enchanted forest is a place of transformation, where magic thrives and monsters and supernatural beings dwell. In fairy tales, the enchanted forest may have vegetation, specifically trees, that act as doorways to other worlds, which often seal shut behind curious travellers. This is the case with Nancy, who journeys to the Upside Down through the hollow trunk of a tree in Mirkwood and confronts the monster, before climbing back through the portal just in time before the opening organically seals shut.
The enchanted forest also contains a collection of creatures. In the very last scenes of the film, we discover that Will has been residually affected by the extended period he spent in the Upside Down, as he vomits a black slug into the sink – we saw a similar creature protruding from Barb’s mouth when Eleven encounters her dead body in the Upside Down. Will also has a flashback here or, more worryingly, is temporarily transported back to the other dimension. The fact that a large egg was discovered by Hopper and Joyce on their rescue mission into the Upside Down to find Will, and that a worm-like creature was attached to his face when he was found, suggests that Will has some sort of parasitic connection to the Upside Down. Indeed, in a myriad of mythologies, heroes travelling beyond the boundaries of our world are deeply affected by the time spent in the other dimension and are oftentimes unable to leave because of this contamination.
In Greek mythology, Persephone was abducted by Hades, god of the underworld, and taken to his domain where she was tricked into eating pomegranate seeds. As she had eaten food from the underworld, she was forced to remain there for the winter months, corresponding to the number of seeds she had consumed. Her mother, Demeter, goddess of the harvest and agriculture, mourns for her daughter during these months, which affects the seasons. In a mirroring of this mythology, it seems that Will has been affected in a similar way by his own time in, and infection by, the underworld of Stranger Things, which poses several story strands for the continuation of the series in the new season.