Communicating the Upside Down: Meaning Making and Semiotics in Netflix’s Stranger Things

Anahit Behrooz | November 6, 2017

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At its heart, Stranger Things is about tension: the tension between the normal and the weird, the familiar and the unfamiliar, the known and the strange. The normal and the familiar are established through the show’s primary setting – the small, quintessentially American town of Hawkins, where everyone knows everyone, children can play outdoors and, according to the town’s chief of police, Jim Hopper, the worst thing to ever happen was an owl flying at a citizen’s head. This familiarity is reinforced on an extradiegetic level through the numerous intertextual references to numerous works of 80’s sci-fi genre fiction, which provide a network of signifiers that make Stranger Things immediately readable and accessible. At the other extreme, events happen throughout the show to destabilise this familiarity.

In the first season, the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Byers reveals an uncanny other world, called the Upside Down. A decaying, toxic imitation of Hawkins, the Upside Down unleashes monsters and disruptive forces into the primary world, deconstructing the fixed meanings within it. Its very name, the Upside Down, hints at its chaotic, anarchical nature, and its ability to subvert and unsettle significance and understanding. In the second season, this disruption continues, as the Upside Down begins to spread through the material world, “like a cancer”, continuing to cause further deconstructions of familiarity and meaning. Cinematographically, the Upside Down is represented by visual disruptions on screen: at numerous points, such as at the end of season 2 episode 4, the presence of the Upside Down is signalled by the camera rotating 180 degrees, similarly destabilising the viewer’s perspective.

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The protagonists of Stranger Things exist primarily in the liminal space between Hawkins and the Upside Down, navigating the realm of the familiar while haunted by the threats and disturbances of the Upside Down. They also exist in the liminal space of adolescence, with its own threats and disturbances. The concurrence of these experiences breaks down the protagonists’ ability to communicate with the adult world and with one another both literally and metaphorically.

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The primary mode of conveying meaning – language – fails to bridge the gap between Hawkins and the Upside Down. The events that take place during the protagonists’ adolescence are strange to the point that familiar linguistic systems fail to communicate them. Will’s voice comes through several devices when he first crosses into the Upside Down, such as his home phone, Mike’s walkie-talkie, and the long distance radio in the school, but only in muffled fragments, and the device is frequently destroyed before the entire message can be communicated. Instead, the characters are forced to turn to new forms of signing and conveying meaning. In season 1, Will uses the lights to signal his presence. The meaning derived from the lights evolves from a binary on/off signal, to a primitive “blink once for yes, twice for no” code, to a rudimentary alphabetical system where the lights can spell out words. In season 2, episode 4, when Will struggles to verbalise his visions of the Upside Down, protesting that it is “hard to explain”, his mother Joyce suggests that he not use words, encouraging him to draw instead. The result is an intricate map of the Upside Down drawn in crayon over hundreds of pieces of paper, each fitting next to the other like a giant jigsaw. In season 2, episode 8, when the Upside Down literally takes control over Will’s voice, he taps out messages to his friends in Morse code using his fingers. The various modes of communication – linguistic, visual, manual – all show a desire to create and transmit meaning despite the ongoing rupture between language and significance.

Moreover, the framework that the other characters use to talk about the Upside Down and what it contains is reminiscent of Derrida’s notion of différance. Lacking the vocabulary to articulate what is out there, the protagonists defer signification by referring to things that are known. Thus, the monster in season 1 becomes the Demogorgan – the monster of their fantasy board game Dungeons and Dragons; the shadow monster in season 2 becomes the Mind Flayer – again from Dungeons and Dragons – despite Chief Hopper’s frustration that the characteristics of the two do not entirely map onto one another; and Dustin identifies the pollywog found in season 2 according to what it is not (amphibian, reptile, cold blooded). The fantastic nature of the Upside Down, and its extreme subversion of reality, works to highlight the slipperiness of language, and its inability to ever completely signify.

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The relationship between this semiotic disruption and the show’s fantastic framework is key. Generically speaking, science fiction and horror work to articulate social and personal anxieties, and to demonstrate how they can be negotiated. Stranger Things depicts numerous anxieties, from the anxieties surrounding adolescence and growing up, to those around technology and genetics. The characters’ struggle to convey meaning within a world removed of its familiarity and riddled with such anxieties is a poignant metaphor for adolescence and the concomitant loss of stability and certainty that comes with it.

About Anahit

I’m a third year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. My research explores representations of medieval literary tradition and manuscript culture in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, I’m interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between.

Article edited by Maria Elena Torres-Quevedo

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

The Duffer Brothers, creators. Stranger Things. Netflix, 2016.

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