OC graduate theology students tackle Stranger Things in podcast

By David Russell, Lex Moore, and Payton Minzenmayer | May 05, 2017

How does faith influence and guide our interactions with pop culture? Biblical themes run deep in the veins of favorite films, TV shows, and novels. These undertones are often overlooked, but with closer inspection, they can provoke thoughtful insight.

Oklahoma Christian Graduate School of Theology students are no strangers to applying faith in everyday life. David Russell, Lex Moore, and Payton Minzenmayer, students in OC’s graduate theology program, decided to share their experiences of seeing faith in the media they consume.

The three students lead Deeper Podcast, a podcast series that addresses almost every aspect of modern faith in pop culture. One of the latest podcast episodes takes a fresh look at the hit Netflix series Stranger Things. Fans of the original series will enjoy the theological perspective on the show’s monstrous villain and his dualistic nature.

If you haven’t seen the series and are planning to catch up, the discussion below contains spoilers.

The Demogorgon

In the first episode of Stranger Things, the audience is introduced to four boys – Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Mike – who are found sitting around a table playing a spirited game of Dungeons & Dragons.

An impression of apprehension hangs over the scene as the boys await their fate in the next move of the game. The audience is shaken from the suspense of the scene when Mike reveals the monster of all monsters in the D&D universe.

The Demogorgon is more than just a formidable foe from the popular role-playing game. It is the name the boys give the monster that breaks out of the Upside Down realm, abducts Will, and terrorizes the small town of Hawkins, Indiana. The Demogorgon is a symbol of unspeakable, invisible evil and the chaos that visits the otherwise predictable lives of this small town.

The concept of the Demogorgon did not originate in the Netflix series, however. In fact, this evil being has a long history, and Stranger Things is only the latest in a collection of novels, epic poems, and other works stretching back centuries referencing the terrifying name.

The Demogorgon’s Literary History

Beginning in the Middle Ages, the Demogorgon was characterized as a powerful, primordial demon. In John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, Demogorgon is “the dreaded name.” In Milton’s earlier work, Demogorgon is explained as the ancestor of all the gods in ancient mythology.

In 1820, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley imagined the Demogorgon not as a creature, but as a dark, shapeless god residing in a cave deep in the underworld.

Like a Medieval Voldemort, the name of the Demogorgon was too terrible to say or even spell out. However, what’s more important than the name is what the name signifies. In the case of Stranger Things, it’s a fear of the unknown and a fascination with realms beyond.

Duality in Stranger Things

Stranger Things may be a love letter to the 80s, but its marauding demon carries on a timeless tradition. The most popular image of the Demogorgon and the one adopted by Stranger Things is a two-headed monster with dual natures that lives in perpetual conflict with itself. One side is destructive while the other side is deceptive. The two sides are a part of each other, but constantly at war.

The Demogorgon isn’t the only existence of duality within Stranger Things. The Demogorgon comes into the real world, but takes its victims back to a place just as depraved as itself, the “Upside Down.”

The real world and the Upside Down parallel each other. The Upside Down is a decayed version of the real world, almost like looking into a broken mirror. Before we can go any deeper in our understanding of the Demogorgon and his Upside Down realm, we have to discuss the show’s other figure of mystery, a young girl named Eleven.

What’s in a Name?

We know names are powerful. When God created the world, He spoke things into existence by giving them a name. God named the light “Day.” He named the dark “Night.” Names are descriptive as they are in “light,” “dark,” “day,” and “night.”

Names also can be prescriptive. In scripture, we see names describing and prescribing people to us. Who is the most beloved king of Israel? It is David, whose name means “Beloved.” Elijah means, “My God is Yahweh.” Elisha means, “My God is my salvation.” Emmanuel, a name given to Jesus, means “God is with us.”

In Stranger Things, we meet a young girl with a strange name, Eleven. Eleven is different and has powers. She can lift or move things with her mind and travel the regular world and the Upside Down realm.

In many ways, she is a savior to Dustin, Lucas, Will, and Mike. The appreciative groups of boys nickname her El. Here is where things get interesting. “El” or “Elohim” in Hebrew translates as god. El-ijah means, “God is Yahweh.” Emmanuel means “God with us.” At some level, El is like a god compared to regular people.

Duality in the Bible

A common difficulty people encounter when reading the Old and New Testaments is understanding the character of God. We tend to see God in the Old Testament as a destroyer and punisher.

Nations like Egypt, Philistines, and Canaanites are destroyed. Nadab and Abihu are killed because they offered strange fire (Leviticus 10). In the New Testament, we tend to see God as grace-filled savior. We get Jesus, baptism, and the message of redemption. We hear phrases like, “Your sins are forgiven” (Matthew 9).

Our limited perspective also limits our understanding of how things should be. We want to quickly take something like Stranger Things and presume the Upside Down is a representation of Hell. Allow us to suggest an alternative meaning.

Yet there is more than we might initially be aware. If we look closer, we can see an Old Testament God being grace-filled. God will not destroy Sodom if there are 10 good people (Genesis 18:32). God is the one who blots out your transgressions and remembers your sins no more (Isaiah 43:25). In contrast, we see punishment and death in the New Testament. Ananias and Sapphira were killed for lying (Acts 5).

There seems to be a dualistic nature in God. There are things in our finite understanding we would label as “good” and things we might label as “bad.” Both come from God. The rain that blesses the farmer’s crops also floods the town downriver. This can be bothersome to many.

God’s nature appears very dualistic, like a Demogorgon. Where in Stranger Things is the Demogorgon counterpart? Our theory is that Eleven represents the missing counterpart to the Demogorgon. It may just be that Eleven and the Demogorgon are one and the same.

In one of the last scenes from season one, we see the boys and Eleven running from the Demogorgon. When they are finally trapped and have nowhere else to run or hide, Eleven is forced to face her darker side – the part of her she’s been running from.

Eleven approaches the creature. She raises her hand and the creature raises its hand to her, in a mimicking motion, as if looking through a broken mirror. Eleven releases her power at the creature, and both Eleven and the creature disappear.

Stranger Things in Faith

In many ways, we can see what appears to be a dual nature of God. This may be a matter of perspective. We do not understand God, so it shouldn’t surprise us that God does things we don’t always understand. That is why we call it faith.

Our limited perspective also limits our understanding of how things should be. We want to quickly take something like Stranger Things and presume the Upside Down is a representation of Hell. Allow us to suggest an alternative meaning.

We are in the Upside Down. We are in the world of darkness, decay, and death. That’s why we pray that God’s will be done on Earth, in the place of darkness, decay, and death – that his will be done here as it is in Heaven. We pray and ask God that things will not be Stranger Things, but that things will be as they are in Heaven above. We ask, “As above, so let them be below.” That’s a prayer worth praying.

At OC, we encourage to students to pursue their passion for faith and study in any outlet they can find. Want to know more about what it’s like to be a graduate student in OC’s Graduate School of Theology? Read here or contact us for more information about OC!

Want to learn more about faith and pop culture? Tune in to other Deeper Podcast episodes!