A family member captured by a nefarious, mysterious force. A journey required to save them that requires bending the laws of physics as we know them. A showdown that harnesses the powers of love and sacrifice. A celebration of friendship and family; a condemnation of intellect without heart.
So goes Stranger Things, the horror/mystery/80s homage series that became a surprise hit in 2016.
So also goes A Wrinkle in Time, the classic science fiction novel published in 1962 remade this year into a lushly sincere, sweetly sentimental film.
Either way, it’s the formula for saving the world.
You might disagree with the comparison if you’re one of the many who watched Stranger Things’ Demagorgon burst terrifyingly through walls and slugs crawl out of places no slugs should ever be. The show expertly manages to scare the pants off its viewers, judiciously dolling out its bits of horror with drawn-out suspense. That doesn’t exactly mirror the image of a middle school girl page-turning A Wrinkle in Time in her school library.
But really, facing off against a throbbing disembodied brain, as Meg does at the end, is pretty darned horrific too – so much so that the movie chooses to have her go inside IT instead, showing more discreet bundles of nerves.
And Stranger Things can be pretty darned sweet, too. What’s so wonderful about it, besides the scary exhilaration, are the relationships: the incredibly sweet connections made between childhood friends, teenage friends, adult friends, siblings, parents and children. As sappy as it is, just like in A Wrinkle in Time, the love they all share saves the day in so many ways.
Both stories even use a handdrawn line to explain unconventional instantaneous travel.
What’s most important though, and what is key to the popularity of both, I think, is the way they save the world: they show what can happen when you combine mind and heart.
Without that combination, when mind goes rogue and awry, chilling things happen. A Wrinkle in Time’s Camazotz aims to solve all problems at the expense of people’s feelings and freedom. Stranger Things’ evil Hawkins company wants to seek the truth but does so at the expense of a girl’s safety and sanity.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, as our heroes find out. They can explore without exploiting… revealing that science and the humanities are not at all at odds. They go hand in hand, helping us as we explore both the scary and the sweet.
At their heart, both have a message elaborated in the A Wrinkle in Time movie: “Love, unfolded.” This is a simple idea, but a powerful one. It posits that love, or possibly other powerful forces, can exist but not be seen. It says that to harness these forces you simply need to unfold them… an action stunning in its simplicity but also completely reliant on the will to do so. Meg’s origami heart is revealed by just folding paper, but she must choose to do it. Her love for her brother is potent but she must choose to express it to save him.
The characters in Stranger Things care for each other at the outset, as well, but it takes imminent danger to make them realize that fact and express it – to unfold what’s already there. In the end, it’s the affection between characters that have us all in tears and scrambling to press “play” on Season 2 – that, and the ongoing completely relatable search for waffles. Must update the shopping list STAT.
Unfolded powers also take more mystical, magical forms. Gateways lie hidden in plain sight to the “Upside Down,” a bizarre hazy alternate universe – itself a manifestation of the children’s Dungeons and Dragons game. Meg “tessers” through space, traveling instantly with the help of magical guides.
It’s fun fantasy, true. But in our own world just a peek into a science book shows you a seemingly infinitely universe around us, and seemingly infinitely smaller and smaller parts inside of us. Why can’t there be fantastical possibilities just beyond reach, just out of sight, ready to be unfolded? And doesn’t it behoove us to explore them?
And in that spirit, we can get into a forearm hand stand – I do mine supported against the wall. In that pose you can well imagine you are looking at the Upside Down – just add some floating particles and ominous vines in your imagination. But you are also a bit folded, full of the potential to go up or to come down, depending on your point of view.
It’s also just plain exciting to hold that pose, you feel powerful and ready to take on things in a whole new way.
And so go try out your forearm stand. Then get down and explore with empathy. But most of all, eat Eggos.