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Stranger Things' template for tackling teen trauma, dissociation and derealisation

Updated: Mar 12




Truth be told, I'm a total Stranger Things fan. Yes there's lure of the colours, the clothes and the overall aesthetic that pulls all the nostalgia-strings of someone who was a kid in the 80s. And too much has already been said about the dangers of nostalgia. Nostalgia is like a drug. It can numb us out to reality, as we pine for the 'good old days' when everything was rosy and simple and less complex. Nostalgia can set us on a path that's quite hard to climb out of and that certainly fears the new and strange things of the world. But what I love about Stranger Things - particularly season 4 - is that is really leans into teen anxieties and obsessions, offering strategies to deal with these. The world is a stranger thing that is full of unexplainables, and these can genuinely appear monstrous. In schools, when we tell young people to stop being silly, or grow up, that's just the way the world works, or marvel at the level of drama, we inadvertently erase the actual lived reality of teen experience.


I'm a fan of Donna Haraway, and when it comes to teen experience in schools and colleges, I like to quote her when speaking to other teachers and education researchers: 'we need to learn to stay with the trouble'. Then we all gulp, because the drama is often overwhelming at the best of times! In one particular scene (you can watch below) Max is experiencing grief at the death of her step brother Billy. The experience of shame, guilt, rage and fear is so overwhelming to her growing body that she finds herself leaving it behind in what psychologists might call moments of dissociation and derealisation. But that's academic. Max's experience goes something like this: a monster from another world attacks me in my world and each time I see him I step into his. I can't break out. I'm right here, but here is not quite the same 'here' any more. My consciousness is split off and I am both here and there at the same time.


I've always wanted to create an approach to psychology that factors in quantum physics, because this sounds like 'spooky action at a distance' if ever I heard it! What I love about this scene is that we get to actually feel the reality of her experience. And so we can create strategies that are consistent with that reality. In artistic research we call this 'situated knowledge'. It's taking the reality described as it is rather than translating it into something abstract that (ironically) dissociates it from the lived experience. There are a lot of ways this approach can be used - not least in decolonial practices that trouble the problem of translating all ways of living into white western ways of living, creating a blueprint where we explain all experiences according to one culture's particular way of being in the world at the expense of the other's (a scholar called Savransky discusses this nicely in his book 'Around the Day in 80 Worlds').


Watch Max's scene here:






In 2019 before all the lockdowns, I had the honour of chairing a talk with artists who experienced what the DSM calls 'derealisation'. https://london.sciencegallery.com/blog/new-season-explores-living-in-an-age-of-anxiety

The artworks were fascinating because so many of them were split objects - not unlike the split objects we see in the Upside Down in Max's scene. Consciousness is all over the place. The body exists in a stranger kind of distribution. And its equal parts beautiful and terrifying (to me at least) because as I always say - we get to do different things with our thinking when we examine the felt sense of experience and how rich it shows us the actual world really is. Here the strategy put forth in the scene is listening to music. Max's friends see her disappear/dissociate and they bring her back not with words or hugs or calls to snap out of it, but with her favourite song (of course the lyrics are really clever and speak directly to dissociation, but that's the joy of film making, you get to layer storytelling with so much meaning!). They've cottoned on to the fact that music does something differently to the brain, speaking to different parts of us that are more powerful than we might imagine.



Music is an exceptionally powerful tool in managing the affective, sensorial, emotional landscape we live our lives inside of everyday. In this scene the template for recovery is told like this:

  • music (your favourite song),

  • memories (good ones that remind you of moments of safety and goodness),

  • friendship (the desire to touch, be in contact or proximity with those we love - another form of distribution, but that's for another blogpost!).

  • most importantly: telling the monster it's not real does not work

In 2019 I wrote an article on Stranger Things for the Journal Performance Research https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13528165.2020.1868844

where I examined the previous seasons' strategies of touch to explore Nobel prize winner Richard Feymann's discoveries about the electron. But what season 4 does is work mostly with music as a strategy for everyday life. And it does it so well! We get to feel the reality of teen experience in Western schooling as well as attend to strategies to deal with its traumas. Making contact from a very real position of situated knowledge, listening to teens who are developing their own wise strategies and helping them with this, is I think a very vital part of working with young people, let alone a strategy for us all in all the world's wild complexity.

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