Back in my day, children were allowed to spend a day wandering unsupervised through the woods. In fact, it was expected, because that’s how us little rascals entertained ourselves.
I grew up in West Virginia, so I could find deep woods by walking out my back door. As a jr. high kid, I’d shout, “Mom, I’m going to go play in the woods!” and be greeted with, “OK, be back before dark!”
I had so much fun in the woods, particularly because I’d choose the area behind the junkyard that allowed for a little serendipitous salvage. There was also an abandoned house that my friends and I could wander through. Other woodsy activities included building lean-tos out of fallen trees, damming up streams to build little hydroelectric experiments, catching salamanders, and practicing throwing ninja stars into trees.
Later, BB guns were involved, but those are stories for other posts. The point is that it was no big deal for kids to wander the woods in the 80s and there were no cell phones to check in on them all the time anyway. Just ask the kids from Stranger Things.
But our story takes a twist, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now. Not everyone was comfortable with children exploring the woods. In fact, there were millions of people in the 80s who were absolutely convinced that the woods were brimming with demons and satanists and all the sorts of evil things that you’d expect to inhabit the Upside Down.
Let’s talk about what was happening culturally at the time. I’ve written previously about the 1970s anxiety about cults, driven largely by Charles Manson murders. That was part of it, but changes in the Unites States economy played a huge factor as well.
In the 1980s the economic reality was that both parents were entering the workforce in record numbers. Whereas the mother may have previously stayed at home to greet the kids after school, it was increasingly a culture of “latchkey” kids who’d let themselves in the house, then be expected to entertain themselves for a few hours. Some–like me–would wander off to play in the woods.
Parents had unexpressed guilt about this and their worries about their kids being unattended would often come out sideways, driven by irrational fears. We’ve established that Charles Manson stoked a cultural anxiety that kids were being scooped up by crazy cults. But soon another anxiety would layer on top of that.
The late 1970s also featured a cultural rise of the Religious Right, organized by televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the 700 Club. Remember, there were only a few television stations at that time and no Internet, which meant YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix were out of the question. So shows like the 700 Club had tens of millions of viewers, who even if they weren’t into it, didn’t have anything else to watch.
These televangelists from the Religious Right would consistently book fringe voices and conspiracy theorists and plug them over and over, normalizing them, much like Fox News does today. Suddenly, an isolated crazy like Charles Manson felt like there was a crazy under every bush and around every corner.
And the Religious Right kept tossing chum out into those waters, hoping to bloody them up even more. It was as if anxiety was taking shape, starting to feel a little more tangible. Indeed, folks started to believe that literal demonic forces were swirling around them.
Says Religious Studies professor Joseph Laycock, “Many Americans truly did feel the corrupting presence of an invisible force that seemed to be all around them, corrupting their children and undermining the values of the family. This anxiety was expressed in symbolic terms, and these symbols were mistaken for reality.”
I love that the kids on Stranger Things play D&D, in part because that’s exactly what I was doing when I was their exact age at those exact years in American cultural history. But OG D&D players know that the anxieties we’ve been talking about were thick in the culture at that time.
D&D fans remember it being called the “Satanic Panic” and thousands of kids had their D&D books confiscated by anxious parents or educators. Already nerdy, the Satanic Panic pushed D&D players deeper “underground” for fear that they’d be ostracized for playing “the devil’s game.” Of course, this simply further deepened the misunderstanding and mystery of the game.
I should know, the 80s tried to beat into my head that my beloved D&D was a direct shot to Satan. Lo and behold, most of my career I have been a pastor. I must have failed a saving throw along the way.
The demogorgon was just a monster in a book, yet millions of Americans truly felt like it was lurking in the woods, eager to steal the innocence of our nation’s children. This is what the writers of Stranger Things have captured so perfectly.
Stranger Things is a brilliant show that portrays a moment in American culture pitch perfectly, and is darned entertaining to boot. Nowadays, our nation’s symbolic fears have a new face and you might actually see someone wearing a D&D t-shirt in public, but Stranger Things reminds us that cultural anxieties have been around a long time.