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Childlikeness and Play in Stranger Things

On paper, Stranger Things shouldn’t work. It’s an atmospheric thriller led by kids with mature themes and monsters. The creators of the series, the Duffer Brothers, were rejected again and again while pitching the show to major networks. They were told, “You cannot put kids in the lead roles of a show that’s not intended for a kid audience.” It had to either be about kids for kids or about adults for adults. Instead, we got Stranger Things, a story about kids and adults facing down the horrors of life and literal monsters. The Duffer Brothers caught lightning in a bottle by believing that growing up doesn’t have to mean abandoning our childlike sensibilities—it could even be what saves the day.

The concept works because the emotional center of the story leans on the childlike virtues of the kids, especially their dedication to playing. It’s easy to move past play and onto greater preoccupations of life. As an adult, play is easily reduced to a utilitarian form of rest, valuable only when it improves overall productivity. Stranger Things instead offers a far more enchanted view of childlike play. Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will (the “Party”) take their games seriously because they know, instinctively, heroes are not confined to character sheets or screens. Playing at being brave doesn’t make someone brave anymore than playing Overcooked! makes me a short-order cook, but it can prime our hearts for the possibility.

This is the world as it really is and it’s a strange one—stranger than we might want to believe.

Through the first two seasons, the Party routinely makes sense of the extraordinary events and dangers around them through the lens of their games, namely Dungeons & Dragons. Their individual personalities and gifts naturally sort them into roles, like Mike’s compassionate leadership and Lucas’ loyal skepticism. Dustin, on the other hand, is particularly good at drawing parallels between the game and the very grown-up dangers the Party faces. In the first season, when Will’s disappearance pulls the friends out of the basement and into their own adventure, they’re ready for it. Their hope, unstained by the very grown-up vice of cynicism, imagines Will lost in the woods. But Stranger Things doesn’t indulge in naive wish-fulfillment. The danger is much worse than the kids initially suppose—it’s danger, danger. Even so, their childlikeness becomes the key to unraveling the grown-up mysteries in Hawkins.

Writing in Christ and Pop Culture, Ian McLoud suggests “children can readily accept [extraordinary] ideas without need of greater proof because they do not yet believe they can or will possess all the world’s knowledge.” All things are possible to children and the childlike. Likewise, G.K. Chesterton, a playful champion of embracing childlikeness, argues God himself is childlike. God is inexhaustible, exulting in the repetition of creation and existence. “[We] have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” When Jesus welcomed little children into his presence, it was a reminder that no one enters the kingdom through grown-up means but rather by being like little children.

Childlike faith believes and hopes all things because all things are possible. Childlike faith acknowledges need, in itself and others, because the world is enchanted. Life is not a clockwork mechanism but a cosmos, teeming with powers and principalities; wonders and horrors; friends and Demogorgons. This is the world as it really is and it’s a strange one—stranger than we might want to believe. Thankfully, even the most grown-up among us can learn to be like little children again; it just takes hope, faith, and a little bit of imagination.

Whenever I’m tempted to be embarrassed for my admiration of the Stranger Things kids, I just tell myself: to such belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. Maybe I can’t help growing up but I can still wonder at the world and my place in it, and I can imagine a world where friends don’t lie and promises cannot break.

Matt Civico writes from Montreal, QC, where he and his wife do their best to prize food and cheer and song above hoarded gold. He blogs at mattcivico.com and hosts Stranger Still : A Stranger Things Podcast, about the wonderful weirdness of being alive.

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