Like many of us, I spent Halloween weekend binging on the new season of Stranger Things on Netflix. But perhaps unlike many of the critics out there decrying Episode 7, “The Lost Sister” for derailing the story, I was completely enjoying this 80s punk group of outcast freedom fighters. And why not? Most of Season 1, after all, was a lovable minefield of references to other iconic 80s media (Stephen King, Spielberg, etc.) and other urban legends spun together into a wonderful, heart wrenching drama. Despite being set in Indiana, Stranger Things was originally going to take place on Long Island, inspired by the infamous Montauk Experiment.
I digress, but my point is this: the whole show is a kind of digital resurrection of the 80s—everything from its hairstyles, music and film to what J.F. Martel describes in his excellent essay, “Reality is Analog; The Philosophy of Stranger Things”, as its “lifeworld”. Perhaps only retrospectively we can claim the 80s as a liminal decade. Caught between the virtual and the actual, right before computers and the internet really took off, and swelling with the feverish optimism of techno-utopian horizons. It was also the decade when many adults who are now in the “professional” world—myself included—were born.
Now we’re the ones telling stories, so we’re telling them about our origins: about how the imperfections of analogy technology permits tears in the fabric mundane reality. To reference another 80s idea, it’s all about slipstream. “This kind of writing simply makes you feel very strange,” Bruce Sterling writes. This literary genre is a perfect fit for Stranger Things which, like a good 80s scifi film, takes mundane reality and flips it, revealing the Upside Down world hidden behind our own.
So we come to episode 7, “The Lost Sister”
11 (Jane) runs away from her Sheriff Hopper’s cabin hideaway to finally reconnect with her mother. A big moment for the story. But her mother is tragically trapped in a mental loop after receiving electro-shock therapy. 11 shares a psychic moment with her mother and discovers that she had a friend in the government facility: Kali (8). So she sets out on a journey—by coach bus, appropriately—to find her.
“The Lost Sister”, Kali, lives with a ragtag band of punks in an area of abandoned Chicago. They’re freedom fighters of sorts, here to seek revenge for the terrible experiments performed on Kali and countless others. 11 must make a moral choice in this episode between taking their route—actively hunting down and killing those who were involved with hurting her mother—or returning to the innocent town of Hawkins and using her powers to aid her friends.
Fans are divided about this stand-alone episode. They calling it—to quote Mad Max from another episode—“derivative.” So why are we mentioning it here?
First of all — of course Kali’s team are a fairly overdone trope. No doubt about that. But they’re also a nod to the 1994 comic about punkish, gnostic, archon-smashing freedom fighters: Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles. Smack dab in the middle of a shot in Kali’s den the graffiti on the wall states, boldly: BAREBELITH. Then, again, in another shot: “BARBELITH” is written above the window. Also written on the window are the names “O’BEDLAM” and “KING MOB”.
King Mob is the leader of the Invisibles. A horror writer turned freedom fighter who dons a shamanic mask as he mercilessly crushes archonic henchmen.
O’Bedlam is an important, wise-mentor character for the Invisibles’ youngest member, Dane.
And Barebelith? Well, Barbelith is more difficult to explain.
First it’s good if we mention a few things about The Invisibles outright. Grant Morrison wrote the comic with every intention that it would become a comic grimoire of sorts, a magical text (see his magical fan ‘wankathon’ he hoped would boost sales). He wrote himself into the character of King Mob—you might see a resemblance—and used the story as an experiment with Chaos Magic. Morrison considers The Invisibles an occult, literary psychoactive tossed into the beating heart of the 1990s zeitgeist. A “hyper-sigil” designed to affect, influence, and induce the kind of visionary encounter in the reader that he had experienced at Kathmandu. But, you’ll have to read about that in my article, “Grant Morrison’s Superhuman Mysticism: Comic Books and Writing the Real”.
So what is Barbelith? In The Invisibles, Barebelith is a planetary version of Emerson’s oversoul—an intelligent, hyper-dimensional satellite in orbit on the dark side of the moon. It is a celestial station, calling to mind the heavenly spheres of Hermeticism. Morrison calls it as a “placenta” for human consciousness, a membrane, guiding the birth of a species into cosmic consciousness. For the Invisibles, Barbelith functions as a shamanic guide into their personal hero’s journeys. Especially for Dane.
Morrison was also deeply inspired by the modern religious experiences of Philip K. Dick. In The Exegesis, Dick writes about his encounter with a beam of pink, gnostic light—he dubbed it “VALIS”, or “vast, active living intelligence system.” This living light was the beginning in a series of life altering encounters that began on February 3rd, 1974 (2-3-74). This visionary experience would later get written into the autobiographical meta-novel VALIS. Talk about writing yourself into the story.
So, back to Stranger Things, Season 2. This all may amount to fun, occult Easter eggs buried into a single episode of a hugely popular TV show watched by millions. Even that is impressive.
But if the Duffer Brothers know anything about Grant Morrison’s take on literary mysticism—they have effectively written Stranger Things right into the hypersigil that is The Invisibles.
Things just might get even stranger.
I look forward to Season 3.