Cold War, Colder World (Part 1)

[Spoiler warning: these posts will look closely at two recent Netflix shows, Stranger Things (seasons one and two) and Dark. If you don’t want them spoiling, come back another time.]


The Candyman always had some new kind of acid. That month I had already sampled Window Pane and Sunshine. I didn’t know if my system could handle another extended flight to the far reaches. But this Czech acid was different. For one thing, it revealed to me that the entire molecular and submolecular structure of the universe was in fact composed of tiny sickles and hammers. Billions and billions of tiny sickles and hammers shimmered in the beauteous symmetry of the material world. I always thought of this particular “commie trip” as a rather private experience brought about by my having been born and raised in Communist Romania, where sickles and hammers were ubiquitous and unavoidable.

I did not doubt what I had seen, but I did doubt whether there was such a thing as Czech acid from the simple reason that Czechoslovakia, like Romania, was a monochromatic world. It seemed clear that if acid had existed in Eastern Europe it would have brought about the collapse of communism there, just as it was bringing about the downfall of a certain kind of dour-faced, simple-minded America. And at that time it didn’t look like communism was anywhere near collapse. [1]

The return of Stranger Things to Netflix in October meant the return of its version of the Outside to Western pop-consciousness. The show boils down various popular instantiations of the Outside to a median view of the noumenal other-worlds common to so much science fiction—an Outside that is always present but unseen by us; a shadow dimension that is referred to in the show as the “Upside Down”.

In the first season’s backstory, a woman given LSD whilst pregnant—as part of the infamous CIA project MKUltra, which sought to explore new potentials of the human mind through the use of psychedelics—gives birth to a child that displays special mental abilities, including telepathy and telekinesis. The baby is taken from her and subjected to a childhood of experimentation and institutionalisation as a ward of the United States’ clandestine Department of Energy. The child, (code)named Eleven, is trained as a tool for espionage by the US government as it looks for new ways to spy on the Russians at the height of the Cold War.

Eleven escapes from the facility after being told to use her powers of astral projection to locate and listen in on a conversation being had in Russia. This unprecedented use of her powers—mentally travelling further into the political Outside than she ever has before—inadvertently rips a hole in our dimension and let’s loose a horrific, faceless creature which ravages the laboratory, escapes and begins to prey on the small town of Hawkins where the Department of Energy’s lab is located.

As a true 1980s cultural pastiche, heavily reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s ET (1982) amongst other things, the first season’s focus is on a small group of unassuming local kids who become embroiled in the government’s shady experiments when they meet the fugitive Eleven whilst looking for their friend, Will Byers, who has been trapped in the Upside Down by the monster.

In one noteworthy scene, Eleven attempts to explain (with her very limited vocabulary) where Will is hiding by literally flipping “upside down” a Dungeons & Dragons game board—a game the children were playing on the night of Will’s disappearance. Will is trapped in a place where the normal rules of the game do not apply. Here the Outside is a frightening and horrific place that visually mirrors the world we know but is otherwise drenched in a toxic, irradiated atmosphere. More exact details of its content and composition are slowly being teased as the show progresses.

Stranger-Things-Eleven-DD-Board.jpg

The Russian connection, however, should not be understated and it has been made all the more explicit in the show’s second season. The fear of the Communist Other is dramatised as a horrific other world—a cold, monochromatic world—that exists alongside our own; home to monstrous threats that are both accessed and combated with new technologies. In an unusual turn away from the more classical use of the Outside in weird fiction, the Upside Down seems to act as a graspable, visual referent for an otherwise incomprehensible and invisible political Otherness. LSD itself can be seen as the latent catalyst for this rupture—expand your mind too far and all hell will break loose. Acid Communism and the Red Scare collide.

With its late Cold War narrative, the threat of the Upside Down in the show is intrinsically tied to America’s paranoia and fear of “Communism”. The effect of this social phenomenon on science fiction is considerable and is seen as a major influence on the surge of “stories and themes of the infiltration, subversion, invasion, and destruction of American society by un–American thought and inhuman beings” that became (and have remained) commonplace for most of the 20th century.

This Communist Other is embodied, in the first season of Stranger Things, by the faceless Demagorgon. Named after the Prince of Demons from the boys’ latest Dungeons & Dragons adventure, it is a solitary being, like Jaws, seen by only a few and tackled with secrecy, perhaps not unlike the Russians themselves—that is to say, it is handled with great seriousness by the government but is not yet the subject of epidemic paranoia and moral panic. The second season, however, has scaled things up considerably.

Trailers for the second season, released periodically throughout 2017, teased a much darker presence in the Upside Down—a cthulhic leviathan rising up above the small town of Hawkins. The Other now bears down on everything and this dread is palpable, with “The Russians” mentioned constantly as an abstract threat that the townspeople think is everywhere.

Will Byers, having been rescued at the end of season one, is now back running around with the rest of his friends. However, he is plagued by dissociative episodes in which he sees the Upside Down where he saw the normal world only a moment before. The first season’s portals seem redundant. The distinction between this and that side has blurred as the Outside has, unknown to (almost) everyone, regathered its strength. The Upside Down is seeping through, no longer just mirroring the “real world” but folded within it, dramatised in this season as a rhizomatic living cave system that spreads directly underneath the “real” Hawkins.

Whilst Will’s visions are unique to him, Eleven—the original bridge to the Outside who is now in hiding from the Department of Energy in a cabin in the woods—continues to be the most concrete embodiment of the Outside lurking within the town. She is seen by people on two occasions after sneaking out of her safe house, against the instructions of her new guardian, Hopper, the Sheriff of Hawkins. Both times she raises suspicions, prompting phone calls to the police in which concerned citizens refer to her as “a Russian girl” for no discernible reason other than she doesn’t seem to be from round here.

It’s worth noting that the show’s creators, the Duffer Brothers, have openly cited H.P. Lovecraft as an influence on their second series, and this narrative coupling of an incomprehensibly bigger monster with a more entrenched xenophobia amongst Hawkins’ inhabitants couldn’t make that clearer.


In line with the cultural pastiche of the 1980s, Stranger Things echoes the further entrenchment of that era’s version of the Red Scare. It reads, politically, like the long-form equivalent of Apple’s infamous 1984 advert:

I’m reminded here—as is a constant occurrence on Xenogoth but, forgive me, that is a result of the events of this past year—by one of Mark Fisher’s last lectures at Goldsmiths,  on the question of “What is postcapitalism?”

What this [advert] did, really, was seed the idea of many of the tropes that are now standard in our imagining… the idea of top-down, bureaucratic control systems versus the dynamism of a kind of networked individual mindset. […] All this does, if you look at the imagery, is it condenses Cold War imagery … associated with the Soviet Union in particular, negative imagery to do with dreariness, bureaucratic submission of individuals—if you look at the film … these grey drones trudge around being subjected to the ultimately top-down commands coming from the talking head, clearly referencing 1984 of Orwell … It conflates that imagery, that has long been associated with the Soviet bloc, with imagery… to do with big computer corporations such as IBM … which then dominated the computer world.

Apple is positioning itself as an upstart; as colour intervening into this grey, dreary, bureaucratic world. Apple is new. It’s female, interestingly. It’s colour … intervening in this grey world of bureaucratic monoliths where IBM becomes, in the advertising dreamwork, equated with the Soviet Union. This then is the new world that is about to break out of this monolithic, dreary, grey, boring control system. And that’s what happened!… In its own way. It was prophetic… It was more than prophetic—you could say it was hyperstitional—it helped to bring about the very thing which it was describing.

From my point of view, what I think is interesting about this then is the way in which it suggests… there is a problem of desire in terms of capital. The thing about the Cold War imagery—what it’s suggesting is there is… only desire for capitalism. The Communist world, like IBM, and the then dominant corporate capitalist world is boring and dreary, and that’s an objection to it! The new capitalist world won’t be like that. The new capitalist world will be about desire in a way that the Communist world won’t be. [2]

Fisher juxtaposed the Apple ad with a Levi’s ad from the same year.

…a copy of The Face, then the leading Style Bible… style culture in London… here he is in his dreary Soviet world. It’s all black and white. Look at his miserable flat that he’s going to. Oh, but look! His life is redeemed because he’s managed to smuggle the Levi’s into the Soviet Union. This wasn’t just something made up for the commercial. Levi’s did have that super-fetishised quality in the Soviet Union. So, again, what is this pointing to?… It’s not only that the Soviet bloc was repressive—politically repressive—it also inhibits desire and blocks desire.

Aligned with these pop-cultural moments, what is Stranger Things saying about desire with its neon, communicative-Christmas-light Right Side Up juxtaposed with the monochrome Upside Down, and the misidentified figure of The Russian hopping between the two?

It doesn’t seem like a coincidence, in this context, that it is Barb who becomes the first fatal victim of the monster—the shy, repressed nerd who doesn’t want to party—whilst it is Nancy, Jonathan and Steve who bring the fight to the monster most successfully amongst the townsfolk—the trio whose complex relationship is born out of the frequent collisions of their overflowing, stereotypically reckless, rapturously teenage, libidinal desires

jonancy

However, Eleven is ultimately the only one capable of defeating the monster, not only because she has superhuman powers, but perhaps because she is the only one who can honestly look upon herself and her role within the grander narrative. Given the show’s entrenched xenophobia, if knowledge of the Department of Energy’s investigations and experiments became public, I feel like the American public of the 1980s would be somewhat understanding, knowing it was all to aid their nation and bolster its position within the Cold War.

Having been raised in captivity, without the cultural baggage of the people of Hawkins, perhaps Eleven is best suited to battle the monster because she recognises that it is a part of her. Not only did she make the monster, but she is the monster. This realisation is fairly obvious within the show itself but its political implications are buried underneath too much loving pastiche and nostalgia to have any critical weight. Eleven is not just the monster in abstract, she is America without its rose-tinted spectacles and delusions of grandeur. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe wrote of the horror of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

The myth of the West, which this narrative recapitulates (but only in order to signify that the West is a myth), is, literally, the thought of the West, is that which the West ‘narrates’ about what it must necessarily think of itself, namely . . . that the West is the horror. [3]

Eleven is the centre of the show’s coiled political structure. With no real conception of the politics she is forced to fight on the side of, she sees without prejudice and bias that it is necessary for herself—and, by extension, for Hawkins; for America—to see itself as the horror that it is, an act which is in itself horrific. What hope do the people of Hawkins have when their only hope of redemption is so unrecognisable that they cannot distinguish it from the Other that they fear so obsessively?

Thankfully, the quite incredible success of the show has led to a number of copycat shows being produced which echo many of Stranger Things‘ fundamental plot points, whilst adding their own twists which improve on the show’s weaknesses, weaving them into evermore complex plots. For instance, whereas Stranger Things focuses explicitly on the mutability of spatial dimensions (time only really comes into play superficially and through the show’s near-sickening nostalgia), Germany’s take on the show, Dark, considers the mutability of space-time more evenly with a narrative templexity that does not fear itself, taking place against an otherwise familiar backdrop of missing children and clandestine governmental energy projects.


In the next post, I want to explore just what makes Dark a success and how preferable its entangled potentials are to the stunted politics of Stranger Things. Given the super complex nature of the show—its references to quantum physics, time travel, numerology, the Occult, geotrauma, et al.—this may take a while. That’s also why it seems best to split this post in two.

It also gives you time to binge-watch it over Christmas and I can’t recommend doing that enough…

To Be Continued…



[1] Andrei Codrescu, “Introduction: Whose Worlds Are These?” in Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain, Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, The Sixties, and Beyond (New York: Grove Press, 1992), pg. xiii

[2] Mark Fisher, “What is Postcapitalism?”, Postcapitalist Desire. Lecture, Goldsmiths, University of London. 7 November 2016: https://egressac.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/postcapitalist-desire-recordings/

[3] Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, “The Horror of the West” in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Contemporary Thought: Revisiting the Horror with Lacoue-Labarthe, ed. Nidesh Lawtoo (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2012)

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