Even without confirmed queer characters, Stranger Things (2016 - ) is full of queer implications and coding, if one simply remembers to “see queerly.”1 These characters exist on the edge of normalcy, challenging the typical heterosexual American nature of the town Hawkins, Indiana during the 1980s.
Watching these queercoded characters continuously fall victim to trauma, punishment, and death reminded me of the queer undercurrents of horror, and the common trope of killing queer characters on television also known as “bury your gays.” I argue that Stranger Things exists within the larger tradition of the horror genre’s practice of equating queerness with monstrosity and the “Other.” Similarly, to how most horror movies end with the death or punishment of the monster, Stranger Things punishes its queercoded characters through their association with the Upside Down, ending in death for two characters – Barb and Billy, and trauma for another other two – Will and Eleven. (Due to the limited space here I cannot go into each character in-depth and will only touch on Will Byers. For the complete paper feel free to contact me.)
Will Byers is not only the most heavily queercoded character in the show but also the favorite target of the Upside Down’s evil. In the first season, Will spends most of it scared and alone in the Upside Down. This can be seen as an allusion to the alienation many queer youth feel, alone and afraid in a harsh world that seems to be out for your blood. Later, he struggles with the experience of being possessed by the Mind Flayer. And while discovering your queer identity is obviously not the exact same as being possessed by an other-worldly entity bent on the destruction of your town, the experience of feeling afraid of what’s happening inside your body is something every queer person can relate to.
And realizing your queerness during the 1980s, a time when the overwhelming narrative about being queer was shaped by the discussion of AIDS as a “gay plague,” painted a realization of queerness as a death sentence. One can draw a line between these experiences, similar to how many people at the time saw AIDS as a punishment for being queer, the Mind Flayer can be interpreted as a way to punish Will for being different, a queer other. Furthermore, while Will doesn’t die from this punishment, another highly queer coded character Billy Hargrove does. As Harry Benshoff notes, most horror films end with the villain or monster being destroyed, thus returning life back to normal (heterosexual patriarchy).2 Billy’s death as a queer outlier at the end of Season 3 is notable, as it reestablishes normalcy for Hawkins in a way we haven’t seen before in.
My hopes for the future of Stranger Things with the new lesbian character Robin Buckley are cautiously optimistic, keeping my fingers crossed that she will end the show’s tradition of othering queercoded characters and punishing them with run-ins with the Upside Down, resulting in trauma and death.
1. Melanie Kohnen, "The adventures of a repressed farm boy and the billionaire who loves him: Queer spectatorship in Smallville fandom," in Teen television: Essays on programming and fandom, eds. Sharon Marie Ross and Louisa Stein (Jefferson: McFarland, 2008), 211.
2. Harry M. Benshoff, Monsters in the closet: Homosexuality and the horror film, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 37.