Like many fans of the X-Files and the early years of Sleepy Hollow, I’ve fallen into the Stranger Things orbit. While I don’t have a Netflix account, I have friends who do and they got me hooked. If you’ve watched it you’ll know why, and if you haven’t I’ll try not to give too many spoilers away. The reason I raise it now, when we’ve gone such a long time without a new season, is that Stranger Things 2 took on shades of The Exorcist, but without any of the attendant religion. Secular exorcists do exist, and possession is a feature of cultures with all different kinds of belief systems. Exorcism works based on the belief system of the possessed, it seems, and if there’s no religion there’s no problem—call a secularcist!
Spoiler alert: Will is possessed by the mind flayer. As the authorities flail around and get eaten by demidogs, his mother figures out how the exorcism has to work. The thing about possession is that nobody really knows what demons are. Dungeons and Dragons, which I confess I’ve never played—my life is too complicated already, thank you—gives the analogy for the possessing entity. No matter what the demon, however, the only way to get it out is through exorcism. Quite apart from sci-fi and fantasy, this is also the case in real life. Part of the appeal to Stranger Things, I suspect, is that it indulges in the mysterious without the burden of religion. While religion makes for good horror, good horror may exist without it. Or can it?
Contrast this with Sleepy Hollow, now defunct. Possession was a trope there as well, but the story had obvious elements of religion embedded in it. As I point out in Holy Horror, religion often drives the fear. That doesn’t mean it’s the only driver. People fear being taken over by something else. Stranger Things knows that if nobody can really figure out what that something else is, it can be scarier still. We know it comes from the upside down. We know it can possess people. And we learn that it can be exorcised. Although the setting is completely secular, there are elements of religious thinking even here. It’s simply part of the human psyche. We can deny it exists. We can try to describe it only by analogy. We can try to exorcise it. It is there nevertheless, even as we eagerly await the advent of the third season.