All three seasons of the Stranger Things series have been good thus far, but even so, I, and a lot of people, will remember the series for one moment in particular. THE defining moment of the series. And I will go out on a sturdy limb and say that season four will also not contain a moment as panic-inducing as the moment in season one where Joyce Byers strings her Christmas lights against the wall in order to communicate with her child in the Upside Down.
Here is why that scene is so good…
Winona Ryder brought the heat and the crazy when playing Joyce Byers. The grief of a mother who lost their child is not easily captured or conveyed, but her descent into hysteria, her adoption of her mission to find her child, and her certitude in what appears crazy to everyone else, comes to a boiling point in this moment.
To the viewers, her character always walks a thin line. We cheer and root for her, encouraging her to pull the right thread in order to uncover what only we know to be true. But we also are ashamed of her more public implosions, wishing she would tug on the thread, but maybe not so hard, and maybe not in that way…
So when the light finally goes on (pun intended so hard) in the privacy of her own home in a way that could lead her to the truth we desperately want her to know, it is hard not to invest all the way, to lean in. This moment is going to be significant.
But as with a lot of great horror scenes, there is a dissonance involved. Like the possessed child or the murderous clown, we see lights turning on (as beautiful piano music tinkles in the background), and we are triggered by the hopefulness of the Holiday season, the beauty of a house lit by Christmas decorations. And we have to consciously recall that which lies underneath, a missing child, a netherworld filled with horrors and monsters, a holiday season with a family separate, not together.
But when those lights first rhythmically twinkle on and off and that hopelessly entangled strand of C7/C9 bulbs ignites in Joyce’s hands… we wonder if this could be a beautiful moment. Then Joyce asks, “Are you safe?” and those beautiful lights blink twice, and we know it could never have been beautiful.
Even though we know this will not be a happy moment, as Joyce paints letters on the wall, it dawns on us that this could be a helpful moment. She can finally talk to Will. She has tugged on the right thread, we can begin the journey to reconciliation.
And as Will lights up that first answer R-I-G-H-T-H-E-R-E, everything is working out unexpectedly well. It is easy to view this scene, unsettling though it is, with hope.
We have wanted Joyce to succeed all along. We wanted these lights to represent the epiphany they so often symbolize. The scene intellectually trends in the direction of a positive breakthrough.
But the brilliance of Stranger Things, in the time it represents, and the nostalgia we view it with now- all fashion and technological dreams, D&D and absent parents- is that it focuses on the Upside Down, that which we do not see, or choose not to see, or are incapable of seeing. And this scene does that to us. So when Will finally lights up his final word R-U-N, and the bass hits behind each letter, and those once beautiful lights flicker on and off in some bizarre language of panic, we feel that dread and doom like never before.
Every horror movie should strive to include a good “RUN” scene. Any time one character, borne out of knowing and pressed for time, tells another character to RUN, my adrenaline surges. My personal favorite is Minority Report, where Agatha screams RUN at Anderton right before it cuts to a shot of his pursuers descending on the house via helicopters and repel lines. It will never not chill me to the bone.
Put this moment right up there. In the midst of calm and peace, being so close to a breakthrough, the RUN pierces our perception, creating chaos and confusion when we were the most physically and intellectually settled.
And because of the themes of Stranger Things, and the acting of Winona Ryder, and the cognitive dissonance in the scene, this moment hits harder than most. It is beautifully done, and not likely to be outdone in the series, as good as Stranger Things has been since then.
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