On #StrangerThings4, Kate Bush, mental pain, and the monsters of the mind
Sometimes I write on my research. Sometimes on topics I am politically passionate about.
Sometimes on things that happen to me. And sometimes a scene from a tv series affects me so much that writing about it is the only way for me to understand why.
Welcome to my attempt to emotionally and cinematographically dissect the famous scene “Max’s favourite song/Running Up That Hill” in #StrangerThings4, Chapter 4.
Spoiler alert: if you have not seen this chapter, or indeed the series, come back here after you have done so.
Let me do the “professor thing” first. I don’t want to claim that #StrangerThings4’s writers are particularly knowledgeable in mental health topics. The depiction of the asylum (also in Chapter 4) is a mix-and-match of the worst movie tropes depicting psychiatry and psychiatrists, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to The Silence of the Lambs.
And the whole narrative of the final #StrangerThings4 chapters is based on the discredited theory of repressed memories — let alone the unbelievable premise that you can re-live part of your life by simply floating in a dark bathtub with your eyes closed while videos of your childhood play on the ceiling. There is no attempt to be scientifically accurate here.
Someone among the writers who delivered the “Max’s favourite song/Running Up That Hill” scene must have had profound personal knowledge of what mental pain truly is. And how the monsters of the mind feed on shame and guilt.
This scene has excited viewers, has been discussed in the news, and has projected the song at its centre, Kate Bush’s 1985 song Running Up That Hill, at the top of the charts again.
For those who don’t know the main story underpinning the tv series Stranger Things, Max is part of a group of friends that fight against dark supernatural forces killing people in the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana, in the early-to-mid 1980s.
Within the horror/sci-fi/teen drama genres, the series explores themes such as the transition from childhood to adulthood and the true horror of “not fitting in” in high school.
But the main theme of Season 4 is mental pain.
The new monster, Vecna, kills adolescents that suffer from mental pain.
Chrissy, who is killed in Chapter 1, has an abusive mother. Fred, who is killed in Chapter 2, has caused a girl’s death in a car crash. Patrick, killed in Chapter 5, has a violent father. Nancy, whom we leave at the end of Chapter 7 possessed by Vecna, is haunted by the death of her friend Barb at the hands of the Demogorgon, another monster, in Season 1.
And Max suffers from unbearable guilt for her brother’s death. We know from Season 3 that Max’s brother, Billy, is killed while fighting the dark forces, and in doing so he saves Max and her friends.
Max herself talks about her guilt in the lead up to the scene, reading a letter to Billy sitting by his gravestone.
Max: “I play that moment back in my head all the time… I imagine myself running to you, pulling you away… but that’s not what happened… I stood there, and I watched… for a while I tried to be happy, normal, but I think that maybe a part of me died that day too… and I haven’t told anyone this, I just can’t…”.
And this is when Vecna arrives. Because Max’s inability to connect to her friends is what truly feeds the monsters of her mind — the monsters that Vecna symbolises.
Max has shut everybody out. She has broken up with her boyfriend, Lucas, and has pushed her friends away. Lucas tells her this in the lead-up to the scene.
Lucas: “Just talk to me, to your friends, we are right here, I am right here… I am here”.
But Max does not connect. She is not here.
This is the central and painful symptom of mental anguish. This feeling of shame. The inability to share the pain we feel with the people who are closer to us.
Instead, the monsters. Call these monsters depression, workaholism, or just fear. The monsters feed on loneliness and shame.
This is when Vecna arrives, and the scene starts. You can watch it all here and then look at the stills below.
The scene starts when Vecna kidnaps Max from the real world, traps her in a different dimension (the “Upside Down”), and ties her up with his tentacles on a sacrificial pole.
Max’s emotional detachment now becomes a physical one. Now she really is not here anymore. People who are in mental pain describe this as a feeling of numbness, or as being behind a glass wall. The scriptwriters put a real inter-dimensional wall between Max and the people she loves, and who love her.
In the real world, Max is in a state of trance. Max’s friends’ only hope to reconnect with her across the two dimensions is by using music. They decide to use Max’s favourite song — Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill.
They start the music, and Max and Vecna can hear it. The music opens a passage, through which they can both see her friends on the other side calling her.
The cinematographic dance between their dialogue, the song’s lyrics, and what Max sees in her mind, is just astonishingly beautiful and powerful.
Friends: “Max, wake up. We are right here.”
Lyrics: You don’t want to hurt me, But see how deep the bullet lies. Unaware I’m tearing you asunder. Ooh, there is thunder in our hearts.
Vecna: “They can’t help you Max. There is a reason you hide from them. You belong here with me.”
Lyrics: It doesn’t hurt me. Do you want to feel how it feels?
In the real world, Max starts to levitate. We know — and her friends know — it means she is going to die imminently.
Lyrics: If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, And I’d get him to swap our places.
The scene continues to cut between a montage of Max’s memories, her fight with Vecna in the Upside Down, and her trance state in the real world.
Because this is what mental pain feels like. You are both with your monsters and with your friends. In your nightmares and in the real world. All the time.
In Max’s mind: multiple memories of her and her friends. Lucas telling her again “I am here”. And scenes from her past. Laughing with Eleven. Dressed up as Ghostbusters with Dustin and Lucas. Skating with Mike. Shopping. At the cinema. Hugging. Kissing. High-fiving.
Lyrics: C’mon, baby, c’mon darling, Let me steal this moment from you now. C’mon, angel, c’mon, c’mon, darling, Let’s exchange the experience, oh
Through the energy that she gathers by acknowledging that her friends love her, Max manages to rip off the tentacles and she runs toward the opening.
But it is not finished. Recovery is not so easy. The monsters will throw everything they can at you. They don’t want to let you go.
And so Vecna starts shelling Max with big rocks that fall from the red skies. She is running and running. She falls, she gets up, she runs again.
Lyrics: And if I only could, I’d make a deal with God, And I’d get him to swap our places, Be running up that road, Be running up that hill, With no problems.
Now I become tearful.
She is not going to make it, I say desperately to my wife, who is also tearful by then (I talk in Italian, actually: Non ce la fa, non ce la fa!)
Max is running and running, toward her friends.
Cut to black and to silence.
I really thought she would die. That the monsters would have taken her back.
But she makes it. She reaches the opening. She returns to real life, back with her friends.
Lucas: “I thought we lost you.”
Max: “I am still here.”
I know from my clinical experience as a psychiatrist, and from my personal psychotherapy, that recovery from a mental health problem is strengthened by sharing our pain with others.
Of course, it’s not enough to run to your friends just once. And each step that Max takes toward the people she loves — in the mud, under a shower of boulders — is weeks and months of recovery in real life.
But the scene works because it touches our hearts. The right message. The right symbols. The right conclusion.
We can escape our monsters, but only by sharing our pain with others.