For the most part, Stranger Things seasons have felt largely self-contained. Season 1: The Hawkins gang fights the Demogorgon and rescues Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) from the Upside Down. Season 2: The group frees Will from the control of the Mind Flayer and closes the gate at Hawkins National Laboratory that keeps letting Demogorgons out. Season 3: They stop the Mind Flayer from possessing Billy Hargrove (Dacre Montgomery) and other Hawkins townsfolk (and, uh, rats), and keep Soviet Russia from reopening a gate to the Upside Down in a lab beneath the Starcourt Mall.
Season 4 takes a different tact. While the seven episodes that Netflix dropped last Friday feature a stand-alone plot and a fresh new big bad in Vecna, they also represent an explicit attempt to weave together the show’s existing stories into a single cohesive mythology. Previous chapters have done relatively little to answer the biggest questions underpinning Stranger Things, from why Hawkins is the epicenter of the Upside Down, to what the portals to the Upside Down are and how they came to be, to why Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) was trained with superpowers in the first place. Now, finally, the series is offering some answers.
“That was incomprehensible,” Erica Sinclair (Priah Ferguson) snaps at Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Stranger Things’ explainer-in-chief, after he tries to describe the mythology haunting Hawkins this season. “Please be kind, rewind.”
Erica—and everyone who has questions after watching the latest batch of episodes (spoilers abound!)—I’m happy to help.
What Has Season 4 Taught Us About the Upside Down?
“You know how people say Hawkins is cursed?” Dustin says this season. “They’re not way off. There’s another world hidden beneath Hawkins. Sometimes it bleeds into ours.”
On a basic level, the Upside Down is a parallel universe that exists more or less in tandem with the town of Hawkins, Indiana. The roads, buildings, lakes, and pools in Hawkins also exist there, and—at least until this season, when Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) discovers that time in the Upside Down appears to be frozen on November 6, 1983, the date that Will first disappeared—the physicality of the dimension seems to have kept abreast with reality. Will built a shack he dubbed Castle Byers in the woods behind his real Hawkins home, and it’s there that he hides out when he finds himself on the other side in Season 1.
The big difference between real Hawkins and Upside Down Hawkins, apart from the grayscale coloration and a perpetual crackling red thunderstorm, is that none of the living creatures of Hawkins are present in the Upside Down. Instead, we meet a menagerie of nasties, from sentient vines to flesh-eating bats. They seem to be connected, as Nancy points out this season when she cautions Eddie “The Freak” Munson (Joseph Quinn, one of Season 4’s new cast members) to avoid stepping on any vines. “It’s all a hive mind,” she says.
“All the creepy crawlies around here, dude, they’re like one, or something,” Steve Harrington (Joe Keery) adds. “You step on a vine, you’re stepping on a bat, you’re stepping on Vecna.”
We still don’t know how the Upside Down came to be, or indeed if it’s Hawkins-specific. (Would crossing the Hawkins border send you right back into Hawkins, à la Pleasantville? Maybe!) But the kids don’t seem to think it’s new. “As far as we know, Eleven didn’t create the Upside Down,” Dustin says. “She opened a gate to it. The Upside Down has probably been around for thousands of years. Millions! I wouldn’t be surprised if it predated the dinosaurs.”
So What’s the Connection to Hawkins, Indiana?
Season 4 introduces us to Victor Creel (Robert Englund), a heretofore unmentioned bogeyman that Robin Buckley (Maya Hawke) recalls first hearing of at summer camp in 1978, reducing a fellow camper—little Petey McHew—to tears. Admittedly, Robin, along with Nancy, is posing as a Notre Dame psychology student who, per her doctored CV, is studying “the criminal mind” when she tells this story, so it might have been a fib. But Creel, and his long-abandoned mansion, nonetheless loom large in the Stranger Things mythology.
After Eddie is implicated in the death of Chrissy Cunningham (Grace Van Dien), the cheerleading queen of Hawkins High, Eddie’s uncle, Wayne (Joel Stoffer), immediately floats another potential culprit for the murder: Creel, whom he likens to Michael Myers in Halloween. “Back when I was a kid, everybody knew the name Victor Creel,” he tells Nancy. There’s just one problem: Creel has been confined to Pennhurst Mental Hospital since his family was killed in the 1950s.
Eager to explore the connection, Robin and Nancy adopt their psych student guises and visit Creel, who tells his side of the story. (Pennhurst Mental Hospital is presumably a stand-in for Pennhurst Asylum—a real facility with a dark history that was shut down in 1987 after years of neglect and abuse. Curiously, the real facility is located in Pennsylvania, making Robin and Nancy’s road trip a little less feasible: It’s a 10-hour drive due east from Notre Dame.)
Creel’s tale begins in the 1950s, “some 14 years,” he says, after he returned from fighting in France in World War II. (Let’s call it 1959, which is 14 years after V-J Day. More on the significance of that year in a moment.) After his wife, Virginia (Tyner Rushing), was left “a small fortune” following the death of her great-uncle, the couple bought a stately new Hawkins home in which to raise their two young children, Alice (Livi Birch) and Henry (Jamie Campbell Bower). Just a month later, Creel says, the family found itself haunted by a spectral presence, which tormented them with sinister hallucinations: spiders pouring from the faucet of the bathtub for Virginia; nightmares for Alice; and a flashback to Victor’s darkest day in France, when he was inadvertently responsible for the death of a baby.
The Creels’ saga ended one fateful night when the family’s dinner was violently interrupted: Virginia and Alice levitated and were crushed in midair in exactly the gruesome fashion that Vecna would kill Chrissy Cunningham three decades later. Meanwhile, Henry slipped into a coma and, the boy’s father somberly recalls, died a week later. Victor was blamed for the three deaths and has been behind bars ever since.
Gradually, we learn that this isn’t the whole story. In Episode 7, Nancy is possessed by Vecna while attempting to flee the Upside Down with Eddie, Robin, and Steve. Vecna shows her a vision of the past, as a young Henry takes a turn for both the supernatural and sadistic. Having discovered that he possesses the power of telekinesis, he uses it to torture and kill animals. His powers apparently include telepathy, too: He is the one who plumbs Victor’s traumatic wartime memories and then resurfaces them. It was Henry who killed his mother and sister, framing his father in the process.
Henry, it turns out, didn’t succumb to his coma. Instead, he awoke in the care of Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine), the doctor who—with his eventual white coiffure—would come to preside over El and the other Hawkins Lab wards as “Papa.” In time, Henry changed his name to Peter Ballard, serving first as Brenner’s inaugural telekinesis guinea pig, a.k.a. 001. Years later, Ballard became Brenner’s adult lab assistant and helped train the other children, including Eleven, who were brought to the lab to develop their supernatural abilities—though the kids are unaware of his abilities or former trainee status. (This group also included Eight, better known as Kali [Linnea Berthelsen] from Season 2, whom Ballard briefly mentions; Kali, like Creel, has also been shown casting illusions of spiders to frighten those around her, though she has yet to appear in Season 4.)
Why Hawkins, though? Brenner was desperate to re-create Creel’s gifts, Creel (by then known as Ballard) tells El in a memory she recovers in a sensory deprivation chamber she works in to regain the powers she lost fending off the Mind Flayer at the end of Season 3. For Brenner, this quest meant staying in Hawkins. In short: While the Upside Down might not be Hawkins-specific, its collisions with the real world, from the Demogorgon to the Mind Flayer to Vecna and the creepy crawlies’ many appearances around town, seem to happen for the simple reason that Virginia Creel’s great-uncle up and died, and her husband found a house he liked in Hawkins. (One shudders to think what horrors the pandemic housing crunch and rise of Zillow surfing have unleashed in Hawkins.)
As The Weekly Watcher, the Elvis- and alien-obsessed rag that Robin shows to Nancy that proves that something supernatural was afoot in the 1950s, put it: “Whomever you believe, the strange case of the Creel family has put the heretofore sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana, on the map. ‘It is safe to say that the entire region will never be the same again,’ District Attorney Philip Bradley said of the ordeal.”
El is inadvertently the final piece of the puzzle in why all the gloom and doom has come to Hawkins. It’s revealed in Episode 7 that Ballard duped her into removing a chip he had embedded in his neck. “Your papa calls it Soteria,” he told her. “It weakens me. It tracks me.”
After its removal, Ballard regained—to El’s great surprise—his original supernatural abilities, which he promptly used to slaughter nearly everyone in the Hawkins Lab, including all the other telekinetic children. Horrified, El struck back. But she didn’t simply kill him: We see him disintegrate, forming what seems to be the very first gate—what Steve separately calls “the mama gate”—to the Upside Down. Ballard falls through, where he swiftly transforms into Vecna, taking up residence in the Upside Down version of his family’s abandoned home. (As with the other Stranger Things monsters, Vecna is a real character from Dungeons & Dragons whose name the kids append to a similar Upside Down foe. A powerful dark wizard who curses people? Makes sense.)
Why Is 1959 So Important?
While researching Creel, Nancy goes to the library and pulls up an old—and obviously fictionalized—issue of the Indianapolis Gazette featuring the headline “3 Dead as Police Probe Grisly Scene.” Just below that story is another one: “President Packs Shotgun, Putter.”
The latter headline is real, detailing Dwight D. Eisenhower’s golf and quail-hunting vacation in the February 3, 1959, issue of the Los Angeles Mirror. That date is known for a very different reason: It’s when a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, as well as pilot Roger Peterson. The date is now widely known by another name, thanks to lyrics from Don McLean’s “American Pie”: The Day the Music Died.
Victor Creel tells Robin and Nancy that he believes he survived the supernatural attack on his family because his own violent hallucination (Vecna’s preferred murder device) was interrupted by “an angel,” which the pair deduces refers to Creel having heard music that brought him back to himself—specifically, Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” And indeed, it’s a Walkman blasting Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” that brings Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) from the precipice of death at Vecna’s hands.
“Hatch said that music can reach parts of the brain that words can’t,” Robin surmises of Pennhurst’s stodgy, but decorated, director. “So maybe that’s the key. A lifeline.”
Is it a coincidence that music seems to be the only way to survive Vecna’s curse and that the fictional newspaper page recounting the Creels’ grisly murders includes a real headline from the The Day the Music Died? Is it a coincidence that McLean’s song includes the following lyrics?
… Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in hell
Could break that Satan’s spell
… And as the flames climbed high into the night
To light the sacrificial rite
I saw Satan laughing with delight
The day the music died
And is it a coincidence that the Season 3, Episode 3 scene in which Billy Hargrove and Heather Holloway (Francesca Reale) attack Heather’s parents while possessed by the Mind Flayer is soundtracked by—you guessed it—“American Pie”? (The clip for this scene was available on YouTube as recently as last week; curiously, it has since been taken down.)
Of course, even if there is significance here (which feels possible if not probable), any connection between Vecna and the plane crash remains a mystery. Did the Creels have a relationship with Buddy Holly? How did they hear about the tragic crash? Was the loss of The Big Bopper simply too much for little Henry Creel to withstand, whose snap was responsible first for the construction of Hawkins Lab (as Brenner attempted to recreate his abilities) and second for Hawkins’s connection to the Upside Down and all the horrors that have resulted from it (after El opened the first gate while killing Creel-Ballard after his Hawkins Lab rampage)?
Wait, What Is the Deal With the Hawkins National Laboratory?
The very first shot of the Stranger Things series premiere in 2016 showed us a spooky Hawkins National Laboratory (actually the shuttered Georgia Mental Health Institute on Emory’s campus), which we’re told falls under the Department of Energy, as is the case for the United States’s 17 real national laboratories. At the series’ outset, the fictional Hawkins outpost’s activities are unknown to the townspeople of Hawkins. “Heard they make space weapons in there,” Hawkins police officer Phil Callahan (John Reynolds) says. “You know, like Reagan’s Star Wars. I guess we’re going to blow the Russkies to smithereens.” And indeed, the lab pursues—sigh—stranger things.
Hawkins Lab seems to fall entirely under the purview of Brenner. Years ago, we learn in Season 1, Brenner worked on Project MKUltra, a (very real!) CIA program dedicated to mind control, which conducted extensive testing on usage of drugs including LSD. That season, we learned that Eleven’s mother, Terry Ives (Aimee Mullins), was taking part in government tests with LSD when she learned she was pregnant with El (whom she named Jane). This may have led to the creation of El’s abilities. Brenner seems to have long had carte blanche at Hawkins Lab, up to and including using shock treatment to leave Terry permanently disabled after she attempted to rescue a young El, as we learned in Season 2.
Through seven episodes in Season 4, we don’t know who’s directing Hawkins Lab in 1986 (not Brenner or Owens!), or to what end.
What Does the U.S. Government Have to Do With Everything?
In the second episode of Season 4, we see a U.S. army helicopter touch down in Hawkins, where Lieutenant Colonel Jack Sullivan (Sherman Augustus, another new cast addition) is taken to see Chrissy’s remains. Apparently, he saw enough: From there, Sullivan takes the chopper to Ruth, Nevada, where he lands at the home of Sam Owens (Paul Reiser), the former director of operations at Hawkins Lab who was fired after the lab’s invasion by Russians under his watch.
A schism has opened between different factions of the government. Owens is secretly hiding Eleven with the Byers family in the fictionalized town of Lenora Hills, California; when he refuses to give her up to Sullivan, his team raids Owens’s house for clues. It’s an FBI team operating under Owens that rescues El—sorry, Jane Hopper—from her trouble with the Lenora Hills Police Department. (He promises to make an incident in which she hit a bully in the face with a roller skate go away.) And it’s Owens who takes Eleven to the refurbished ICBM silo, also in Ruth, Nevada, to get her powers back—and where she learns that he is in cahoots with a very much alive Brenner.
(Quick note to Owens: If you’re going to build a top-secret research center with the specific goal of hiding it from a rival faction of the government, you might not want to put it in the same town—Ruth, Nevada—where said rival faction is so certain you live that they land a helicopter on your lawn. Just a thought!)
“There are factions within our government who are working directly against Eleven,” an FBI agent working with Owens explains. “Who are in fact searching for her as we speak. We can’t risk contact. If they learn about any of this, it will jeopardize Eleven, and if Eleven is jeopardized, so are your friends and so is your family.”
Indeed, Sullivan seems to lead the opposing faction: He spearheads the team that attacks the Owens-friendly FBI agents stationed at the Byers home, killing one and setting Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Will, and Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) off on a quest to find El on their own (with a little help from Dustin’s hacker lady love, Suzie [Gabriella Pizzolo]).
How Is All of This Tied to the Demogorgon and the Mind Flayer?
At long last, Season 4 has established a hierarchy within the Upside Down.
Early on in Season 4, Dustin tries to make sense of how Vecna fits into the bigger picture. “Whether or not he’s doing the bidding of the Mind Flayer or just loves killing teens, we don’t know,” he says.
“There is one thing we’ve never understood, which is why Vecna’s killing people,” he continues in Episode 7. “What’s his motive? Killing teens? It just always seemed too random, too prosaic. On top of that, how does the Mind Flayer figure into all this? Maybe this is it—this is the answer.”
Dustin posits that with each of Vecna’s psychically controlled murders, he is generating “a connection powerful enough to rip a hole in the fabric of time and space.” Those connections, then, open their own small gates.
“Why would he be opening gates?” Dustin asks.
“To take over the world,” Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin) says.
“Who do we know that wants to take over the world?” Dustin says.
“The Mind Flayer,” Lucas says.
From this, and from the knowledge that everything in the Upside Down is essentially connected, the gang finally riddles out an explanation: It’s the Mind Flayer who has been calling the shots all along.
“So if the Demogorgon was just his foot soldier, Vecna’s his five-star general,” Dustin says. “A five-star general with the power to open gates.”
What Do We Know About the Gates?
“So far as we know, only two gates have opened up: one by El, one by the Commies. It’s not the Commies or El this time,” Dustin says this season.
Indeed, El did open a gate between the Upside Down and the real one: the very first one, a.k.a. the mama gate, a fact that she tearfully confessed to Mike way back in Season 1. “The gate—I opened it,” she says. “I’m the monster.” The gates radiate a powerful electromagnetic field, allowing the transit-curious to track them down with suddenly wonky compasses.
But it’s not quite as straightforward as Dustin seems to believe. We’ve seen a number of additional, smaller gates (a “snack-size gate,” as Steve dubs one), not all of which have a grander explanation than one of the Upside Down’s monsters decided to pop through there. That was the case with the Demogorgon forging a gate in one of the walls at Hawkins Middle School (which El uses to get back to the real world after killing that Demogorgon transported her into the Upside Down in the Season 1 finale) and with the stump of a tree in the forest around Hawkins (which Nancy briefly climbs through in Season 1 while hunting the Demogorgon with Jonathan).
Do those gates eventually close on their own? On the one hand: presumably, particularly in the case of the one at the school. On the other: Closing gates seems extremely hard to do. In the Season 2 finale, it takes just about everything El has to stitch the one at Hawkins Lab shut.
All those spontaneous Demogorgon journeys, meanwhile, haven’t always opened up gates. When our faceless friend snatched Will from the shed behind his house and Barb—remember Barb (Shannon Purser)?—from the pool at Steve’s home, both found themselves in the Upside Down, but no gate was left behind. (When Hawkins Lab techs searched the shed with their not-quite-Geiger counters, they did find evidence that something went down—just not anything that left behind a red goo tunnel.)
In Season 4, the kids deduce that whenever Vecna murders someone, the site of their death becomes a fresh portal to the Upside Down. They end up using two of those to transit between realities: First the one beneath the lake in Hawkins (alias Watergate; must credit Dustin) where Hawkins High basketball star Patrick McKinney (Myles Truitt) meets his demise, and then the one opened by poor Chrissy on the ceiling of Eddie’s uncle’s trailer. In the midseason finale, we see one form on the wall immediately after El vaporizes Ballard against it in her recovered memory—presumably the mama gate, though the next time we see it chronologically, i.e. at the beginning of the first season, which picks up shortly thereafter, the onetime Rainbow Room has been transformed into a government laboratory.
In the Season 4 premiere, we see a flashback of Brenner racing to the wreckage of the Rainbow Room and discovering a bloodied Eleven. “What did you do?” he asks her—a question that on first viewing appears to refer to the gruesome demise of her fellow telekinesis students. By the end of Season 4, Episode 7, however, we learn that this was Ballard’s doing, not Eleven’s. Assuming Brenner knows that, “What did you do?” could refer to Eleven opening a portal to the Upside Down right there in the laboratory. (There’s a slight continuity problem here: That first depiction of the scene in the season’s premiere shows only a mundane crack against the wall—not the glowing red fissure we’d see six episodes later, which we know formed before Brenner walked into the room.)
Why did Eleven dispatching Peter Ballard/Henry Creel open the mama gate in the first place? Why did this allow the apparently preexisting Upside Down to interact with Hawkins? And how does this all tie to The Day the Music Died? Friends don’t lie, so: We’ll have to wait until the final episodes of the season drop on July 1 to find out!