Otherworldly Passengers in Stranger Things and Clay’s Ark

The Duffer Brothers, the creative duo behind the hit Netflix Series, Stranger Things, have spoken openly about their major influences, the many movies of the 1980s, namely Stephen Spielberg and John Carpenter titles, as well as Stephen King’s fiction. These influences come through clearly with the synth-heavy soundtrack reminding viewers of Carpenter’s horror, the dialogue and spectacle of Spielberg films such as E.T. and the small-town vibe and characters reminiscent of King’s It. The second season of Stranger Things expands the sci-fi mythos, and apparently draws from even more influences of the genre. In particular, there is a character who is inhabited by an organism from another world, which alters his compulsions, much like in Octavia Butler’s 1984 work Clay’s Ark.

In Stranger Things season two, a character named Will Byers, a young boy becomes somehow connected with a shadowy presence from another dimension. The thing inside Will compels him to act differently, changes his physiological needs, and does not allow him to disobey these needs. In Butler’s novel, Clay’s Ark, there is an extraterrestrial microorganism which bonds with the cells of its host, changing their biology as well as their needs and compulsions. These compulsions are described to be as strong as human’s compulsions to breath or drink water (458). An example of the changed biological needs of Will in Stranger Things, is that the presence inside him requires his body temperature be kept much lower than average for any human. When his mother runs a hot bath for him, we see Will, petrified, refuse to enter the hot bath. At the same time as Will avoids the hot water, there is voice-over narration of Will’s science teacher:

All living things, from complex mammals to single-celled organisms, instinctively respond to danger. Expose a bacterium to a toxic chemical, and it will flee or deploy some other defense mechanism. We’re very much the same. When we encounter danger, our hearts start pounding. Our palms start to sweat. These are the signs of the physical and emotional state we call fear.”

This narration articulately describes the relationship between Will and what the passenger within him, and its need to self-preserve at all cost. In Clay’s Ark, the same need is addressed just as overtly when discussing Eli’s desire to kill himself: “It had driven him to want to die, to try to die himself. He had tried, but he could not deliberately kill himself. He had an unconscious will to survive that transcended any conscious desire (469-70).” Whether it is a sentient darkness or a microorganism that is not self-aware, both hosts of these living things are compelled to avoid danger and preserve the life within them.

In a later episode, the shadowy presence inside Will compels him to lead a team of doctors who had been trying to defeat the shadow with controlled burns, to a certain area of town where, Will suggests, they may be able to defeat it once and for all. This turns out to be a trap. As the doctors are about to enter certain death, Will reveals this to his mother from the safety of a hospital bed. “I’m sorry… it made me do it….I told you, they upset him. They shouldn’t have done that. They shouldn’t have upset him.” Will begins crying, he clearly had no desire to lead these doctors into certain death, but the will of the shadow inside him took over, compelling him to do this for its own self-preservation.

The living thing inside Will seems to have some motives and thoughts of its own, unlike the microorganism inside Eli in Clay’s Ark, which he repeatedly describes as lacking sentience. In spite of this difference, both characters are compelled, against their own wishes, to commit terrible acts. Eli is drawn to reinfect human beings with his microorganism against their will. When confronted with the idea of rebelling, offering himself to a hospital for research, Eli offers, “To give himself up would be an act of self-destruction. He would be confined, isolated. He would be prevented from doing the one thing he must do: seeking new hosts (481).” This reinfection is clearly a non-consensual horror that Eli would prefer not to commit, much like Will would prefer not to lure the doctors who are trying to help him into a trap of violent death. Both characters are at the will of the organism within them, compelled to do whatever it needs them to do for its own self-preservation.

Altogether, I think that both of these pieces of fiction use this device as an interesting way to make a good character commit horrible evils. In Stranger Things, the audience has spent a lot of time getting to know Will as an innocent, nice young boy. In season one, the entire show revolved around saving him. Now, the device of an otherworldly organism taking over his body, compelling him to do terrible things against his own will is an extremely interesting way to juxtapose the benevolent character we know with the actions of a villain. In the same way, readers of Clay’s Ark get to experience much of the novel from the point of view of Eli, who is both a kidnapper who infects people with an extraterrestrial virus, and an ethical man trying his best to maintain his humanity as he is compelled to commit inhumane acts. I would be really interested to see an interview in which the Duffer Brothers referenced Octavia Butler as an influence or inspiration, considering all the similarities between these two characters.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.