If season 3 of Stranger Things was A New Hope, Volume one of season 4 is definitely the Empire Strikes Back. The series has shifted into an even darker, ominous, and more horror-based tone. There have been some revelations that transform the legacy of the entire series.
With this Stranger Things season 4 recap, we will look at everything that went down through the first seven episodes of Volume 1. If you want to read an episode-by-episode breakdown, I’ve got you covered right here:
- Chapter 1: “The Hellfire Club”
- Chapter 2: “Vecna’s Curse”
- Chapter 3: “The Monster and the Superhero”
- Chapter 4: “Billy’s Death”
- Chapter 5” “The Nina Project”
- Chapter 6” “The Dive”
- Chapter 7 “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”
*Spoiler warnings for season 4
Stranger Things Season 4 Plot Summary
Season four takes place on the east and west coasts, and in the former Soviet Union. The Hawkins crew has been split throughout the world. Eleven, Joyce, Jonathan, and Will are in California and things haven’t been great for Eleven. She’s lost her powers and high school sucks.
A new entity is killing teenagers around Hawkins, and we learn this to be Vecna, a skeletoid demon from the Dungeons and Dragons world. What has brought him out, and does he control the entire Upside Down as we know it? Speaking of Dungeons and Dragons, we meet the Hellfire game club and their metal-head leader, Eddie.
Meanwhile, Hopper is still stuck in the Russian prison, and Joyce–who believes Hopper is dead–gets a message that he’s alive. This will take her and Murray on a crazy voyage through Russia and all the way to Hopper’s cell. In Russia, the Soviets have been training the Demogorgon to fight as a weapon.
Speaking of weapons, we get flashbacks to Eleven’s earlier days at the lab. We see the other numbers and the training they have gone through. Eleven, Sam, and Brennan train Eleven to go back into her subconscious to see if she can not only regain her powers–but make them come back stronger than ever.
We also learn of Victor Creel. It turns out that in the 1950s; he was the first person to be attacked by Vecna. His entire family perished, but he survived. In the modern-day, he is in a mental hospital and missing his eyes. What allowed him to survive?
The town believes Eddie killed the teens and the Hellfire Club is seen as nothing but a satanic cult spurred on by the evil Dungeons and Dragons board game. Vecna’s victims have been possessed by him, but why does he choose them? Apparently, he goes after victims that have deep-rooted trauma. One of these potential victims is Max. She has not yet come to terms with Billy’s death. The kids are able to thwart Vecna’s attack by playing Max’s favorite song. The part of the brain that embraces music can block the trauma and prevent Vecna from attacking.
In California, the FBI is after Jonathan, Mike, and Will and they get a lead on how to find Eleven. This involves them finding Suzie and dialing into a primitive form of the internet. In Hawkins, the other crew has found one of the gates to the Upside Down and are pulled in. They learn Vecna kills to open multiple gates.
Hopper is able to fend off the Demogorgon and is reunited with Joyce and Murray. The other kids make it from the Upside Down back to the real world, except for Nancy. She still has trauma over the death of Barb, and while in the Upside Down, she learns Vecna is Victor Creel’s son, Henry. He killed his family except for his father, who was saved by some music. Creel’s son was placed in Brenner’s care where he became 001 and was replicated into the other numbers–including Eleven. Victor Creel’s son, or 001, was the orderly in the hospital helping Eleven.
The attack on the lab kids that Eleven believed she had caused was actually 001. It was because she refused to join forces with him, as he knew how powerful she was. The two face off in a very Luke/Vader way and Eleven destroys him, opening a gate to the Upside Down in the process. It is this act that causes him to change in the Upside Down into Vecna.
Looking at the Various Themes of Stranger Things Season 4
There are several overarching themes that cover most of season 4 of Stranger Things. I think the biggest one is the issue of facing our fears. This could be the primary emphasis of the entire series and the Upside Down may represent our worst fears that have to be confronted. In season 4, Eleven and Max specifically have to face theirs.
This trauma inside them (Eleven thinking she murdered all those kids, and Max dealing with Billy’s death) will only continue to eat at them unless they deal with it. When we hold on to this past trauma and pain, it’s like carrying around a lump of hot coal: it’s just going to burn you. Eventually, you just have to put it down to let go of the past.
We’ll cover more about this in Max in the music section.
There are also themes of self-identity and wondering what your role in the world is. Both Steve and Hopper struggle through this. Hopper wonders what value he brings to the world and if there’s any difference between whether he’s dead or alive. Steve has gone from king of high school to nothing more than a babysitter. He is on his own journey of self-discovery and unearthing his true self. Does Vecna represent the anxiety that attacks us and prevents us from moving on?
Vecna is there literally staring us in the face, and Victor Creel represents how people would rather cut their eyes out and pretend it doesn’t exist than to face it head-on. If we don’t see it—it doesn’t exist.
Eleven also struggles with this. Is she the monster or the superhero? She has been in constant conflict with herself throughout this season. And, are we defined by our pasts? Is the past preventing us from moving on? Does it do nothing more than weigh us down?
The episode “The Dive” deals with all of this really well. The characters not only dive into a literal lake but have to take the deep dive to uncover their true feelings and issues. Just like diving into a scary lake in pitch dark, diving into our subconscious can be just as scary, but, also like the characters, we just have to take that plunge. This is where Steve seems to rediscover his true self and he’s emerging as the leader and not just Dustin’s babysitter. We don’t know what’s at the bottom of that lake, but it could be the answer we’ve been looking for. We just had to go in head-first.
There are also the very simple love triumphs over evil themes. Eleven–believing she is a monster–has discovered her true past. Her mother was there and did love her. When she accesses this loving memory, the (Sorry to get all Back to the Future here) Power of love is what enables her to defeat 001. Love has given her more power than all of his evil. In her locked away memories was the truth: she is a superhero and not a monster. She just had to go deep into her soul to discover this.
Hopper also realizes what his value is. He does have a place in the world, and it’s also filled with love- even if it’s just with Joyce. In Russia, he was not only in a physical prison, but a prison in his mind. When he conquered the Demogorgon (which represents our fears) it allowed him to open himself up and accept that there is at least one person out there who values and needs him. He’s escaped that feeling of being trapped in a certain way.
The Nightmare on Elm Street Connection & Other Movie References
Some have said that Stranger Things season 4 seems like a sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The series borrows from many classic 1980s movies–especially in the horror genre. We have seen influence from classics such as The Thing, Halloween, Jaws, Friday the 13th, Fear Street, and Hellraiser, just to name a few.
But A Nightmare on Elm Street seems to take center stage. First, there is the obvious connection between Vecna and Freddy killing the teenagers. The difference is Freddy killed them in their dreams, while Vecna kills them in real life, but in their subconscious.
And then there is the inclusion of Freddy Kruger himself: Robert Englund. Englund plays the modern-day Victor Creel. A Nightmare on Elm Street is a horror classic, and the style and premise of it work well when adapted for the Stranger Things world. The scene where Eddie’s uncle tells of Victor Creel’s origin seems taken right from A Nightmare on Elm Street, where another Nancy asks her mom about Freddy.
Season 4 is a shift to more horror, and A Nightmare on Elm Street is a perfect source material to influence it. I also feel a bit of Pennywise from IT in this season, and of course: Pinhead from Hellraiser.
The bullying scene with Eleven clearly evokes images of Carrie and the scene where Nancy and Robin meet Victor has a definite Silence of the Lamb’s imagery to it. There are also many Lord of the Rings references, as the gang has to travel through the Upside Down, just like it’s Mordor.
My favorite movie reference is to War Games, which is also a massive influence on Ready Player One: The Book. The opening scene of Dustin and Suzie changing his grade is a great homage to the 1983 classic. And then there’s the phone number to the computer where we hear what sounds like an early dial-up internet. In that scene, Will even refers to War Games itself. Mike wonders if “Nina” is like Joshua, Joshua being the computer from War Games.
Movie-wise, I also see a lot of connections to:
- The Wizard of Oz
- Friday the 13th
- The Evil Dead
- Fast Times at Ridgemont High
- Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
- Star Wars (“never tell me the odds…”)
Some of the 1980s Music Used in Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1
Music plays a huge role in season 4. The soundtrack of the show has moved away from the classic 1980s synth-based sound and has brought in more guitar and metal sounds. There is also the use of some original songs, including:
- “Object of my Desire” by Starpoint
- “Fever” by The Cramps
- “Play With Me” by Extreme
- “Detroit Rock City” by KISS
- “You Spin Me Right Round” by Dead or Alive
- “Rock Me, Amadeus” by Falco
- “Tarzan Boy” by Baltimora
- “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads
- “Legless” by Hipbone Slim
- “Hard Feelings” by Al Kerby
- “Pass the Dutchie” by Musical Youth
- “Cutthroat” by Survive
There’s also some great inclusion of Operatic pieces such as Il Mio Ben, Quando Verra, and the stunning “The Window of Appearances” from Act 1 of the opera Akhnaten. This super intense piece was the perfect backdrop to the revelation of 001 and the emergence of Vecna.
This opera comes from the Egyptian Book of the Dead and features a character that is both a corpse and a ghostly figure—basically, Vecna. It’s also about a pharaoh that rises to power and brings together Upper and Lower Egypt. Could this represent eleven? And last, it’s about two lovers coming together, which would have to be Hopper and Joyce.
And then there is the song that seems to define the entire season: “Running up That Hill” by Kate Bush. Thanks to Stranger Things season 4, this song has risen to the top of the iTunes charts despite coming out in 1985. This is the song that saves Max’s life and is about conquering the hill in front of you. Max has to deal with her trauma regarding Billy, and it takes a gigantic effort, kind of like running up a hill. It’s in front of you and eventually, you have to climb it. But once you get to the top, the journey down the other side is much easier.
The lyrics of the song also talk about “And If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get him to swap our places.” Max still feels guilt about Billy and if it maybe should have been her that died. Max even runs through the Upside Down, similarly to how Kate Bush runs in the video for “Running up That Hill.”
Some of the 1980s References & Easter Eggs in Season 4
There’s not a ton of them in this season. But this is because the series has developed into its own entity and has taken its place in the popular zeitgeist. In the first seasons, the show needed to be heavy on nostalgia as a way to hook in viewers both young and old. The past seasons have included more kid-friendly references, such as:
- Star Wars
- The Goonies
- Back to the Future
The horror elements were still there, but this season, the overt nostalgia takes more of a back seat. That’s not to say there aren’t any, though. Dungeons and Dragons–which, to me, is the driving influence of the entire series–is once again a big part of season 4. This time, they’ve referenced how the rest of the world was perceiving the game in 1986.
If you grew up in the 80s, you know it was an era where there was a massive fear of Satanic cults. Eventually, Dungeons and Dragons got linked into all this. A simple board game was seen as being capable of possessing and filling kids with evil. A few articles in magazines like Newsweek seemed to be responsible for this, and they caught on like wildfire. News reports filled the airwaves and parents freaked out. My own mother wouldn’t let me have anything to do with the game and the cartoon series was completely off-limits.
Was all of this backlash so the game could be used as a scapegoat so parents didn’t have to take responsibility for their poor parenting? Should parents have been more proactive and involved in the lives of their kids? No, it’s the game that was in the wrong…
Here are some of the other best 1980s references I caught:
- A Magic 8-Ball
- A Simon game
- Max’s sweet Walkman
- Lite Brite
- Ozzy Osbourne biting the head off a bat from 1982
- A movie poster for Jaws and Endless Summer
- Nintendo and Duck Hunt. I feel like the kids are the ducks being picked off by Vecna
- Does Nancy use the name Rose as a tribute to Rose from the Golden Girls and the late great Betty White?
- The 1986 Masters, which was won by Jack Nicklaus
- A shot of Courtney Cox on TV in what I believe is an episode of Family Ties. I think this may be a deliberate inclusion because season 4 seems to have some homages to the Scream movies in which Courtney Cox starred in.
- The Hulk Hogan card hanging in the taxi
- Eddie and Chrissy seemed to have a Bender/Claire from The Breakfast Club thing going on
- A reference to the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 80s spearheaded by Nancy Reagan.
- The Ewoks cartoon
I also love seeing things like people smoking on an airplane, which was just a normal thing back then. There are references to the very early days of the internet. Not as we know it when Tim Berners Lee began it in 1989, but as a network of computers running on a closed system. I Also loved seeing Nancy and Robin used the closest thing we all had to the internet back then: scrolling through Microfiche at the library.
Final Thoughts on Volume 1 of Stranger Things Season 4
So that’s my complete Stranger Thing season 4 recap of volume 1, and phew, what a journey. Episode 7 ended with a twist I don’t think anyone could have seen coming. For years, everyone has wondered who number one was. Well, now we know, and we see his connection to the Upside Down and everything we know about Stranger Things.
This had a Tom Riddle/Voldemort/Harry Potter feel to it, but we know Vecna/Number one will probably want to stop at nothing to find and destroy Eleven. She is regaining her powers, uncovering her true self, and could possibly be stronger than ever.
Will she be powerful enough to take down both Vecna and the Mind Flayer? To sum up volume 1: we all have to let go of our demons—either real or imagined. Will the characters of Stranger Things be able to? We’ll find out on July 1st….