How Stranger Things S4 Tackles Mental Health with Music Therapy

Issue # 
June 21, 2022

Spoiler alert warning: This article contains spoilers for Stranger Things Season 4

Volume 1 of the highly anticipated 4th season of Stranger Things hit Netflix on May 27th, 2022, just as Mental Health Awareness month wrapped up. And no one could predict the emotional journey this season would take fans on. 

While the wildly popular Netflix show is a sci-fi tale set in the 1980s, Stranger Things has shined a light on current mental health issues that feel all too real, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and therapy options for these disorders. 

Perhaps the most talked about, thrilling, and scary episode so far is Chapter 4's Dear Billy. Fans get more insight into this season's creature in correlation with the characters' mental health struggles and the role music plays in conquering “the evil monster,” laying out a powerful allegory of how music, in this case the 80s Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill,” plays a critical role in saving Max's life, played by Sadie Sink

Recap of Chapters 1-3 

In the past three seasons, Stranger Things has introduced us to terrifying creatures like the Demogorgon, Mind Flayer, and the Spider Monster, who would kill anyone in their way. However, season 4 brought us arguably the most horrifying kind of evil yet: Vecna

Vecna preys on Hawkins' teens, who are suffering psychologically by torturing, capturing, and killing its victims in The Upside Down. In the first three chapters (episodes) of season 4, he claims the lives of two Hawkins high school students dealing with hidden trauma. Chrissy Cunningham, head cheerleader with a verbally abusive mother, intense anxiety, and an eating disorder, is the first to be killed, followed by Fred Benson, who is living with the guilt of killing someone in a hit-and-run.

While most of the town of Hawkins believes a serial killer is loose, Max, Dustin, Steve, Robin, and Nancy quickly figure out that these murders are caused by something more sinister and powerful than man - an evil wizard demon they have come to know from the popular 80s game, Dungeons and Dragons

Max does a little research by breaking into the school psychologist's office and soon finds out that Vecna's first two victims experienced similar symptoms leading up to their death; nosebleeds, bad headaches, nightmares, hallucinations, and visions from the past. All symptoms she, too, is currently experiencing. 

More than a Monster

Vecna represents more than a scary-looking creature from another dimension; he symbolizes the effects Depression, PTSD, and trauma can have on people. 

A Dark Place 

While Vecna may not know exactly what secrets its victims are hiding at first, it can get into their vulnerable minds and use their trauma and pain against them to take them to a place they can't escape. That deep dark hole is also familiar to those with depression and other psychotic disorders

Vecna tortured its victims till they felt overwhelmed, helpless, and broken down, much like mental illness does. 

Perception vs. Reality 

In chapter 4, Max visits her stepbrother Billy's grave (killed by The Mind Flayer in season 3), where she opens up about suffering from survivor's guilt and the pain of being unable to share her feelings with anyone. 

While there, Max enters a trance where Vecna appears as Billy and says to her, "Follow me into death. That is why I'm here, Max. To end your suffering once and for all." This is Vecna inside her head, convincing her death is the way to release herself from the pain. 

Max finds herself struggling to distinguish what's real and what's not, a deception those with mental illness are also often faced with. 

The Importance of Music in S4 Ep4

Nancy and Robin go to great lengths in Episode 4 of Stranger Things to speak with Victor Creel, a man convicted of killing his family in the 50s and sentenced to living at Pennhurst Mental Hospital after his tale of Satan murdering his family. The girls are convinced Vecna is behind the murders and must find out how Creel survived to save Max's life.

Creel (cameo by Robert Englund, famously known as Freddy Krueger) recalls life with his wife, son, and daughter, with one memory of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" playing during a family dinner. Vecna kills Victor's wife in the same fashion as his current victims, then emotionally torments Victor by making him relive his most traumatic memory when he was away at war. 

He then tells Nancy and Robin that the "voice of an angel" brought him out of the darkness. And when they inquire whose voice it might be, he just hums what sounds like Dream A Little Dream of Me. 

Robin recalls to Nancy something Dr. Hatch said earlier on their tour of the hospital “music can reach parts of the brain that words can't. So maybe that's the key, a lifeline. A lifeline back to reality."

At that moment, Nancy and Robin know precisely how to save Max, playing her favorite song for her. 

How Music Saved Max

Nancy and Robin relay their newfound information to Dustin. With the help of Lucas and Scott, they spring into action to get her favorite song into her Walkman cassette player. 

As soon as Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill" gets through to Max, an opening into reality appears, showing her friends trying to save her and turning her trauma memories into good memories of the past. 

"Running Up That Hill" literally helps Max defeat Vecna. And now the song is striking memories with both original music fans from its 1980’s release and regaining popularity among the younger generation because of its powerful and unexpected role in the Stranger Things storyline.  Kate Bush's 37-year-old song is breaking records on playlists like Apple Music and Spotify and has quickly run up to the #1 hit in the UK.

Much like music pulled Max out of a very dark place, the right music can also promote relaxation, elevate mood, manage stress, relieve symptoms of depression and PTSD, and ease pain. In a similar fashion to how Kate Bush’s 40 year old song experienced a resurgence in popularity after Season 4 Episode 4 of Stranger Things, so too is the clinical world of music therapy experiencing a resurgence in interest and popularity.

Music Therapy in the 1980s

When Dr. Hatch gives Nancy and Robin a tour of Pennhurst, he takes them through the Listening Room, where he explains, "we found that music has a particularly calming effect on the broken mind. The right song, particularly one which holds some personal meaning, can prove a salient stimulus."

While not much was revealed about the effects of music therapy on the brain and cognitive health in the viewing of the Stranger Things episode, it would seem Dr. Hatch was on to something. Numerous studies indicate the impact music listening and music therapy have on mental health. 

Final Thoughts

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can often make people feel like they are fighting against a supernatural being like Vecna. However, as Stranger Things vividly shows fans this season, mental health is not a battle that must be faced alone, nor is it something that must be hidden away. 

Moving away from sci-fi thrillers and back to the real world, we here at Spiritune are passionate about helping people live happier, healthier lives with the help of music, specifically focused on the scientific and clinical aspects of music for reliable health outcomes. Signup online for your free trial and start listening today!

Stranger Things Season 4 Volume 1 (Episodes 1-7) is now streaming on Netflix. Volume 2 (Episodes 8 &9) is set to release in the US on July 1, 2022. 

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