A Spectre is Haunting Stranger Things Season 3: A Propaganda Study.
This newest season is Russian along.
For many, waiting for Stranger Things’ third season premiere on Netflix was unbearable. Although I’m personally just a viewer, I enjoyed the first two seasons myself, being a general fan of supernatural thrillers. I also have friends who more than enjoyed them; I happen to know that our old op-ed editor, Andy Trussler, stayed up all night marathoning the season as soon as it came out.
That’s not all too surprising, though, when you’re loyal to a show. It’s just what you do. But when I decided to check out season three and developed my own interest in it, I wasn’t engaged as a fan of the show but as a fan of political or ideological horror – terms that I think apply to all horror to some extent, but which are obvious in some pieces more than others. I started to realize that the new developments in the plot and style of ST3 took a bit of a surprising turn, but most other parts of the show remained the same. That along with a similar shift in other media made me think that the writers, or executives at Netflix, made some decisions about the third season that were more politically and business-minded than they were purely artistic.
It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for a series to move in a new direction, of course. Sometimes that’s what saves the show and brings it new life after the initial charm wears off. But with Stranger Things, I didn’t feel like the original fans of the show were going to benefit from the new parts of season three. What was added was something I found kind of goofy – the “evil Russian” spy movie trope, played almost totally straight.
Now, this paragraph contains the spoilers, but it’s kind of impossible for me to write this article without the context, so maybe run back and watch the season before continuing if that’s an important thing for you. In summary, as the mystery unfolds in ST3, we find that the most imminent danger to the town of Hawkins is not necessarily the monsters from another dimension or even the American government officials who are trying to create human superweapons (this was the original vibe of the first two seasons). Now, it seems the more pressing concern is something of an international spy operation: a Soviet attempt to use the supernatural connections of the town as an espionage tool during the Cold War. The threat is now external and foreign, not internal and based in American national interest. “Russian baddies” has been used lots of times post-Cold War era – Marvel still does it, of course – and a lot of the time it’s just done as a kind of tongue-in-cheek reference to when the Cold War propaganda machine in America wanted to foster hatred of the enemy. This seems even more likely to be the case in ST3, which is actually set in such a time period. But although there are a lot of silly moments, and the evil of the Russians certainly is cartoonish, there was not a lot of evidence that some of the content of the seasons was totally in jest. One aspect of that propaganda machine was actually still intact in ST3: fearful anticommunism.
“Russians” and “commies” are used as equivalent terms throughout ST3, and there is no Russian character introduced who isn’t fundamentally associated with the Soviets and their military interests. The favourite new character Alexei, a scientist who is initially kidnapped but gradually becomes a Slurpee-loving, carnival-going ally, notably becomes more sympathetic by experiencing the fruits of consumer capitalism; implicitly this is in contrast to what Soviet society must have been like for him back home. As another political side plot, Erica, an elementary school-aged character, actually has an entire monologue in the script where she praises capitalism and later comments that a Soviet base is poorly made because “when you don’t pay people, they cut corners.” It isn’t that I don’t think Erica is smart enough to know about economics at her age, I do – I just think that because she’s so smart it would make more sense if her politics weren’t horribly informed.
I feel a bit emotionally manipulated by born-again capitalist Alexei and the use of the only black girl in the show as an ideological mouthpiece when she is worth so much more. But maybe you think I’m looking too deeply into it with those examples; that’s fine. I have more things to point to. How about the absolutely relentless product placement throughout this season? I have to wonder how much money the team got from Coca-Cola, Slurpee, Eggo, etc.... Brand names are practically a plot point, and even actually improve the lives of the characters like in Eleven and Alexei’s cases. It’s obvious here that a lot of the writing choices in ST3 are very much financially motivated, which makes it more likely that the United States government itself could have convinced the show to shift its portrayal of US military and police forces. (If you think I sound crazy saying that, google how many Hollywood movies were sponsored by the US military).
Lastly and most interesting, ST3’s star monster, the “Mind Flayer,” is beautifully evocative of what Reagan-era Americans despised about communists. The creature is a giant mass of sludge, sludge that comes from exploded bodies of the people it possesses and kills. Before their deaths, these people are united by a hive mind; they lose their individual memories and identities; they hunt the protagonists cooperatively and can all be collectively harmed with harm to an individual. In other words, the monster – the communist idea – has infiltrated Americans’ minds and hearts and is turning them into one horrible mass that will destroy the paradise of carefree consumerism these peaceful families live in. To drive the point in, this monster is finally defeated inside a literal shopping mall, with Fourth of July fireworks as the weapon. It’s artful how hard they hit it over the head.
ST3 was a frankly fascinating piece of propaganda to view and consider, and I’m not really attempting to make a political statement by discussing it as such. Say what you like about the merits of various economic systems or about the USSR. The point isn’t that propaganda is right or wrong, good or bad, but that it is inevitably woven into popular culture in a lot of different ways. Horror is one of the places where it comes out most, because when we prey on fundamental fears in media, we can get people to squirm easily by finding things they find repulsive physically and ideologically.