Stranger Things is the best thing on Netflix right now, a perfect storm of both nostalgia and of just plain good fiction of the sort we associate with beaten up paperbacks read beneath the covers by flashlight. It’s a good story, and one that would work just fine shifted to the modern day, or back fifty years with little adjustment. The nostalgia isn’t a load-bearing part of the fiction, but for just the right age range of individuals it ignites something more than simple memories of the eighties.
The nostalgia hits hardest not because it imitates the stories of the time (despite doing a stunning job of doing exactly that), but because it serves us a double dose. We remember the stories we read set in the present-day of that time, but we also remember being the kids who lived in that time. We remember endless hours spent on bicycles, wandering the tiny woods that seemed vast and impenetrable, straining to hear through the crackle of walkie-talkies, and playing Dungeons and Dragons in basements aclutter with the detritus of middle America.
And we remember the Demogorgon.
For those who weren’t Dungeons and Dragons nerds (and it’s never too late, go down to your local game shop and they’ll find you a seat and show you how to fall in love with it), the Demogorgon wasn’t just a run of the mill monster, and it certainly wasn’t something just tossed in the show offhand by its creators. It was legendary among players, perhaps second only to the Tarasque. It was nigh on unkillable, a creature that dwelt in the darkness and erupted out of it to cause madness among all who saw it. It was called the Prince of Demons, and was worshipped as a god by the denizens of the abyss.
Its physical description bears little resemblance to the beast in Stranger Things: it had two heads like those of a baboon and stood twenty feet tall. But its meaning remains true. It was a metaphor for the ultimate fight, for the evil that could not be defined it was so powerful. It meant that unimaginable destruction and inevitable death was stalking you. And so when El and the boys call the monster the Demogorgon, it’s not just shorthand, it’s not just D&D fan service, and it’s not just the story’s cute way of labeling its monster. It’s a word that carries with it powerful meaning and metaphor.
The etymology of the Demogorgon outside of roleplaying games is fascinating in its own right. The monster manuals and bestiaries of these games are wondrous things, stuffed full of gorgeous art and descriptions of creatures that draw on all manner of mythology from every culture the world over. And the Demogorgon is an ancient reference, though one traceable only in bare threads and whispers.
The name itself is based on a medieval typo. One of those monks copying texts misread the Greek version of “demiurge” and conflated it with “gorgon” and created the word “demogorgon”. Spellcheck has ruined the accidental invention of ancient monsters. The demiurge is the term for the entity that created the physical universe. But note that this is not necessarily the same as the “creator” in the Christian sense of god. In many ancient spiritual philosophies, god and the demiurge were not only separate entities, but the demiurge was considered evil. Because the physical world was a flawed and evil thing fashioned from raw chaos that held us like a prison and prevented us from touching god. And gorgons of course were the three sisters in Greek mythology, of whom Medusa was the most famous.
The Demogorgon itself has only been mentioned in passing in literature over the millennia. It makes an appearance in Voltaire, and another in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound. It’s used as metaphor in Moby Dick. Edmund Spenser’s seminal The Faerie Queene describes the Demogorgon like so:
Downe in the bottome of the deepe Abysse
Where Demogorgon in dull darknesse pent,
Farre from the view of Gods and heauens blis,
The hideous Chaos keepes, their dreadfull dwelling is.
John Milton’s mention of the beast in Paradise Lost rings a similar bell, describing it not as one of the demons of hell, but as a creature of the realm of chaos that exists between hell and earth, that even Lucifer passes through quickly. That’s a description that should ring true to those who’ve watched Stranger Things.
I’m not one for overreading references as if there is a biblical code in past uses of a word that informs everything an artist is doing with it in their own work. That’s an insultingly reductive thing to do, taking all artistic agency from those who create and assigning all their meanings to just clever shufflings of older ones. Yet there is still value in seeing the patterns, in seeing the way something has worked elsewhere, because it adds richness to your own viewing, it adds layers that resonate. Because art isn’t created in a vacuum, even if it isn’t so vacuous that it can be reduced to a series of referential hidden meanings.
The Demogorgon is an agent of chaos. It is the unstoppable machine of murder that lurks in the darkness that is all around us, deliciously Lovecraftian in the way it dwells in the rooms with too many angles.
Stranger Things tells a story that is familiar from the eighties. It tells the story of the placid small towns we grew up in, with their neat order and hierarchy, everything in its proper place. And it appeals to that particular horror, that the order was but a facade. That evil was with us, invisible and omnipresent, just one step over in a shadow world that mocked our reality. But these tales rarely dipped into the nihilism that could easily have dominated them. Because good triumphed. Children marched into the valley of the shadow of death, and then marched out the other side. Changed, yes, but not defeated.
We tell stories like this, to paraphrase Chesteron, not in order to teach that the monsters exist, for we already know that, but to teach that they can be defeated.