It’s not long into the second episode of Stranger Things that the references begin. In an echo of the snyth score that creeps around the edges of the scenes, Eleven is likened to Michael Myers from Halloween.
However, the Myers of this story isn’t stalking the young residents of Hawkins in their homes. She is, instead, invited into their basement. She does watch the boys and their interactions, and puzzle over their friendship and their belongings, but it’s clear her detachment from their childhood isn’t because she hasn’t had one. She isn’t monstrous, like Myers, as her vocabulary later shows she doesn’t so much know what an ordinary life is, but more she has forgotten.
In a flashback, brought on by her sudden confinement in Mike’s cupboard, we see how this has been forcibly taken away from her. Matthew Modine’s character – ‘Papa’ – watches on as Eleven is dragged into a small, windowless cell. It’s a terrifying scene for the tiny figure of Eleven, made all the more impactful when Mike finds her huddled in tears on the floor of his cupboard.
Mike, Lucas and Dustin have reason to fear Eleven – her sudden appearance, her otherness, that she is pursued by ‘bad’ guys, and her later reveal of telekinetic ability – but they don’t. This may speak to something of childhood, and children’s ability to see fear as a part of their lives rather than something to explain away in adulthood, but I’m not sure.
Later on, Joyce Byers, still reeling from Will’s disappearance and the horrific phone calls she receives, runs from her house at the fear of some presence in Will’s room. The stereo blares, the lights flash, and all of a sudden the wall moves toward her, reaching. She screams, and runs, and gets in her car. But then the music from the stereo returns, and she turns the ignition off. Joyce’s decision to go back into the house is telling, and resembles the boys’ welcoming of Eleven, but whether this is significant or not in terms of how the people in Hawkins deal with strange occurrences remains to be seen.
(I haven’t seen past this episode yet, so this is all indicative of early speculation.)
But it’s possible this is leading us somewhere. All the characters are, relatively speaking, thinly drawn. The first episode could move us beyond this due to the abundance of plot, but this episode is slower, and more focused on small character moments. A large section is devoted to a party that seems parallel to the main storyline. Many characters – like Joyce, Hopper, and Jonathan – exhibit characteristics that suggest much, much more, just like Eleven. And yet while Eleven is clearly the ‘mysterious’ character, she’s the one we get some answers on.
Jonathan arrives at the school to put up posters about Will. Watched on by Nancy, Barbara, Steve and his sidekicks, they describe him as depressing, but why? It seems an odd word choice to describe someone so soon after a tragedy, unless it is linked to a much larger narrative involving Jonathan and the kids at school. Nancy speaks to him sympathetically, but when the bell goes he leaves school, and it’s not even clear if he’s still a student there or just dropping in to put the posters up.
Later, there’s a quiet scene with Hopper meditating on Hawkins having a missing child and suicide in twenty-four hours, and how rare this is in the town’s history. But who is his companion? We know his wife’s gone, and there’s a suggestion of a previous relationship with Joyce, but the lack of context to this scene seemingly raises questions needlessly.
Obviously more will be revealed, but it’s an interesting choice that seems intentional, rather than lazy. There are so many areas to Hawkins that suggest more, but are withheld. Some many doors locked, and like Will’s bedroom, there are areas marked ‘no trespassing’.
The clue, I think, is in the title.
‘The Weirdo in Maple Street’ is a direct reference to a Twilight Zone episode from 1960 – ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’. It’s a classic of that series, and one that looks at the suspicions and paranoia of a suburban street as it finds itself under threat from some unseen terror. The residents turn on each other and blood is spilled, and the episode closes with the following narration from Rod Serling:
‘There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill – and suspicion can destroy – and a thoughtless frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children – and the children yet unborn.’
Stranger Things takes place a whole generation after this episode, and in some ways these characters could be those who watched ‘The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street’ as children. Who the ‘weirdo’ is of this episode is unclear, as any one of these characters could fit the role. And that’s telling.
Eleven wanders around the Wheeler house like E.T., taking in the photos, the La-Z-Boy, Mike’s toys with alien attention. And yet we are alien with her. We are visiting the lives of these people in Hawkins, set decades ago but relayed to us in the wrappings of other stories we’ve encountered in our lives. Eleven might be alien, but these people are the strange things. They’re the ones with gaps in their lives, with awkward silences and unspoken conversations. They are the weirdos, like the monsters on Maple Street, and how they tackle the fear in their lives will determine whether they turn on each other, or if they can conquer prejudice and suspicion altogether.
The fate of Barbara is interesting. The scene has all the hallmarks of a slasher from the 80s, particularly when her solitude on the diving board is juxtaposed with the fragile union of Nancy and Steve upstairs. But given this scene’s proximity to Eleven’s sit-down with the boys, it invites more speculation beyond just the demise of Barbara.
Eleven says Will is hiding, not gone. To demonstrate she flips their D&D board upside and places a figure on the smooth black underside. If he is hiding, then the implication is that it’s somewhere close, and yet apart from the world of Hawkins. Whether it’s something akin to the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks, or some parallel underworld, I suspect we’ll get more in the coming episodes. But Barbara’s disappearance gives us another character to perhaps witness this through, while still maintaining Will’s mystery as central to the story of Stranger Things.
Through its characterisation, and Eleven’s sparse exposition, it’s clear that the Duffer Brothers are pointing at some sort of unspoken underbelly to Hawkins. For most of the characters, this is something to fear. The question is, do we run from the fear or embrace it? Should we stay, or should we go?