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How We Can Use 'Stranger Things' to Explain OCD

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My husband and I finished watching the second season of Netflix’s “Stranger Things.” For those who aren’t familiar with “Stranger Things,” it is more or less a science-fiction series based in the early 1980s where a group of quirky and intelligent middle schoolers find themselves in the middle of an incredibly dangerous and top secret scientific experiment/research project gone wrong in their hometown. The gate to another dimension has been opened, unleashing horrors and monsters that start to take over and threaten their lives and relationships.

If you plan to watch or are currently watching seasons 1 or 2 and do not want any spoilers, stop reading now. But if you have seen “Stranger Things” already or don’t care, let’s carry on. 

“The Upside Down” and Season 1 as a Metaphor for OCD

My husband and I started watching “Stranger Things” last summer, and we were excited for the new season. We started watching season 2 the day it came out on Netflix and finished in about a week. After watching the last episode, my husband made some remark that basically compared “the Upside Down” and/or the monsters there to OCD. To me, this was mind blowing.

As I mentally reviewed what happened in both seasons 1 and 2 of “Stranger Things,” I began to see obvious connections to obsessive-compulsive disorder (click here for synopses, etc.). Will Byers, one of the middle schoolers in the series, is taken by “the monster” into this alternate dimension, which the boys name “the Upside Down.” Basically, the Upside Down is the real world only it is covered in darkness, decay and general eeriness. The only living creatures there in Season 1 that we really know about are the monstrous “demogorgons,” who are attracted to blood, and the victims they bring down to their realm.

In many ways, the Upside Down is comparable to life with OCD. Those with OCD feel as if, though living in the real world, they are simultaneously trapped in a shadowy existence that mirrors reality, but at the same time has them trapped and captured. Rather than feeling able to exercise their own agency, many times those with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder feel trapped by a “monster” that lives inside of their own heads, as if they cannot escape or even explain to others what is happening to them.

In “Stranger Things,” Will manages to use electricity to communicate with his mom in the real world, and she attempts to save and find him, having to battle various forces and unite with others to do so. Many of us with OCD try to talk to loved ones about our disorder and what we are experiencing, but it is so difficult for them to comprehend what we are going through or why we just can’t “snap out of it” and return to reality. Sometimes they attempt to help us, but without the proper knowledge and tools, this help can make it worse or trap us even more completely in our rituals and compulsions.

One of the characters, a girl the boys nickname “Eleven,” was part of the scientific experiments and was the one who accidentally opened this “gate” to the other dimension. Having escaped from the lab, she is found by and becomes friends with the boys and helps them to find and eventually save Will from the demogorgon and the Upside Down. She has to confront the monster directly in order to save her friends from it; this of course, can relate to how in order to really overcome OCD, you often need to use cognitive behavior therapy, medication or some combination of therapy and meds in order to face the OCD rather than concede to it.

The Shadow Monster and OCD Intensifying

Season 2 introduces another villain from the Upside Down, but instead of being a blood hungry demogorgon (though these still end up being around too), it is a “shadow monster” that controls all of the demogorgons and wants to take over Will’s mind and body completely — not to mention all of their town (and probably the world if it could) as well.

This “shadow monster” is an apt metaphor for obsessive compulsive disorder. Sometimes, OCD begins in a way that is annoying and frightening, taking over one aspect of life — like the demogorgon in season 1. Often, it can be fought, overcome or simply endured until it begins to fade and life starts to return to normal. But many times the OCD will lie dormant before it revives and returns, only this time with more strength and power.

At least for me, the OCD did turn into this “shadow monster” — something that takes over completely and begins to affect or influence every aspect of life. Just like the evil and decay spread from and as a result of the Shadow Monster in “Stranger Things 2,” the OCD can begin to spread, taking different forms as it attempts its hostile — though often gradual and quiet — take over of a person’s life.

Fighting Back and Being Beaten Down

Will attempts to stand up to the Shadow Monster at one point in the season, telling it to go away. Unfortunately, it is at this time the monster truly enters and starts to take over him completely, trying to erase his willpower and make him a spy for its nefarious purposes. How many of us with OCD have seen the OCD fight back when we try to stand up to it? It as almost as if the disorder feels threatened by our attempt to withstand and comes back fighting even harder.

It takes a lot of death and destruction in season 2 before the “team” is able to come back together and figure out what is happening and how they can properly fight this “shadow monster.” Will, for one, has to go through an intense detoxification process, aided by his brother, mother and his best friend’s sister, in order to be freed from the influence of the monster. Eleven, who didn’t end up dying in the first season, also must overcome her own personal “demons” and issues in order to close the gap and trap the monsters once again in their own dimension.

Similarly, those of us with OCD have to go through often intense, emotionally and mentally painful, and sometimes terrifying treatment in order to take back ground and regain our lives from obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, we can learn the appropriate techniques and ways to live and deal with it when it arises again, and we can begin to do the things that we need to do in order to manage it.

A Way to Explain Mental Illness

As I thought about the connections between “Stranger Things” and OCD, I began to wonder if this was a more powerful and useful way to explain mental illness to those who are not affected by it. Actually attempting to portray OCD or mental illness is so difficult; especially for OCD, many have lamented the fact that what ends up being portrayed are the compulsions, and often these are taken comically or as been “quirks” by viewers. When detached from the anxiety and obsessions that make these actions seem “necessary” and essential, compulsions become slightly odd or even laughable habits. The problem that those who want to accurately depict OCD face is how to convey and get across the fear and reality of the obsessions.

Using a metaphor like the Upside Down with its shadow monster and demogorgons somehow clearly showed the terror and anxiety that those living with mental illness face regularly within their own minds. The fear that viewers have when watching “Stranger Things” accurately mirrors what living with OCD or a mental illness is like for so many. Perhaps in order to educate others on the reality of mental illness, more shows like “Stranger Things” are in order. Maybe this is the way forward for showing people what having mental illness actually is like.

Of course, I have no idea if portraying the reality of a mental illness was at all on the agenda for the Duffer Brothers or any of the other individuals who made “Stranger Things” come to life. But I am grateful for what they did, regardless. And while it is awful to live in the Upside Down, we need to remember that so many of us battle those monsters and live in that alternate reality every single day. It’s not just science fiction. It’s life with a mental illness.

Follow this journey on The OCD Mormon.

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Lead image via Stranger Things’ Facebook page

Originally published: April 29, 2018
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