Netflix goes back in time to reinforce the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Prior to this season, I was a huge fan of Stranger Things. As a child of the ‘80s, I grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons, watching movies like E.T., and looking forward to visiting the local mall. Stranger Things felt familiar to me; I was the perfect audience.
“Still preoccupied with 19, 19, 1985." -- Bowling for Soup
Although never a fan of horror, I found much to love about the first three seasons. They could be scary at times, but they were never wake-with-nightmares terrifying. Sure, the monsters were gruesome, but Eleven was usually around to blast them into the other dimension. And the camaraderie of the cast was magnetic and entertaining. It was great television, and I loved it. But then along came season four, and instead of conjuring positive 1980s nostalgia, it summoned damaging biases that should have been left in the past.
Prior to our family’s struggle, I had a prejudiced view of mental illness. I’m certain this began in adolescence. My middle school showed Psycho in the cafeteria on movie night. Looking back, I can’t believe they actually did that. I vividly remember all the seats lined up like a theater, little kids shrieking in terror. It was hard for a 12-year old to sleep after that, wondering if people like Norman Bates really existed in the world.
Growing up, some of the most popular movies had essentially the same plot: psychotic killer sneaks up murdering people in the most graphic ways. Halloween was one of the first, with Michael Myers escaping the sanatorium and running around with his freaky white mask. Friday the 13th followed closely behind, the various Voorhees family members haunting Crystal Lake. And how about Nightmare on Elm Street? This was a franchise about how you could never be safe from a psychotic, even in your dreams.
Like so many of my peers, I was brainwashed. Although I had never been with someone suffering psychosis, I was convinced of its deadliness. This could not have been more wrong. Recent research has shown that those with serious mental illness commit violent acts less than 3% of the time, which confirmed historical studies with comparative results. Psychotic individuals are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else. They are mostly scared and confused, in desperate need of compassion and support.
Slasher flicks, and similar tropes from the world of entertainment, perpetuate a lie that does real damage. The stigma prevents people from asking for help, even if they begin to sense something off in their emotional state or thought process. It keeps us, as a society, from addressing mental illness in the same way that we do other diseases. Personally, when my loved one first became psychotic it scared the hell out of me—an unfortunate result of Hollywood’s exaggerated portrayals.
And that’s why I was so disappointed by this year’s Stranger Things. Almost immediately, it became clear that the theme that the Duffer brothers had chosen to resurrect was '80s horror, specifically movies cursed with tragically unrealistic psychotics. They even hired Robert Englund, the star of Nightmare on Elm Street, to play the institutionalized patient in the stereotypically spooky mental hospital. As much as I loved the prior seasons, I almost couldn’t watch anymore; I was too mad and frustrated.
Time warping back to 1985 was fun when it wasn’t detrimental, but old school scary movies did too much damage; we shouldn’t be revisiting and celebrating them. We’ve come too far to lose ground now. I’ve read articles arguing that season four encourages asking for help when faced with mental illness because the one kid who survives only does so after reaching out to her friends. But I’m not buying it.
Humans have been wired to react more powerfully to the negative than the positive. Max’s survival might have sent a positive message, but it became lost in the overwhelmingly destructive portrayal of the psychotic villain. Unfortunately, the primary take away from this season will be the misconception that mental illness is scary and dangerous. Make no mistake—Stranger Things has set us back in the battle to end the stigma. As social psychologist Roy Baumeister says of the negativity bias: