From Will Byers' flashbacks to the "anniversary effect," a trauma specialist weighs in on how well the hit Netflix series portrays post-traumatic stress disorder.
Ever since Stranger Things 2 hit Netflix on October 27, the internet has been buzzing about the Upside Down. For the uninitiated, the sci-fi series is set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana during the 1980s. It centers on a group of teens navigating an alternate universe called the Upside Down—where one character, Will Byers, gets trapped during season 1.
As fans anticipated, the second season is full of Eggo waffles, weird creatures, and love triangles. But we also couldn't help noticing the way post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is handled on screen.
Throughout season 2, doctors and friends try to convince Will's mother, Joyce Byers, that her son is recovering from PTSD, and that’s why he's consumed by strange visions a year after his near-death experience in the Upside Down. Viewers know that Will’s PTSD diagnosis is a way for researchers to cover up their occult lab experiment. Nevertheless, Stranger Things 2 offers insight into how real-life humans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder—a mental health condition not very well understood by the general public, and not always depicted accurately in pop culture.
To find out how well the series portrays a person with PTSD, we reached out to Rachel Yehuda, PhD, director of the traumatic stress studies division at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, for her take on what the show gets right—and what it gets wrong about the disorder.
The anniversary effect
Stranger Things 2 commences a year after Will Byers was trapped the Upside Down, where he had his near-death experience. Will is experiencing hallucinations based on his time there, but doctors tell Joyce that her son is experiencing "the anniversary effect."
What's that—and how does it relate to PTSD? The anniversary effect is when a trauma survivor has an increase in PTSD symptoms or more severe symptoms at the time of year when the traumatic incident took place. It can occur on the first anniversary, as it did for Will, says Yehuda. Or it can happen every year following the original incident, as it does for many trauma survivors.
"I first encountered this phenomenon when I began working with veterans and saw that January/February seemed to be a time when veterans were very symptomatic," Yehuda tells Health via email. She later learned that it was during these months when soldiers participated in an offensive during the Vietnam War. While it's not clear why anniversaries are so triggering, Yehuda says environmental cues—like the weather, or odors—tend to prompt a recurrence of symptoms.
Will's hallucinations are actually caused by the Shadow Monster in the Upside Down. But the ways he experiences them is very similar to the way PTSD sufferers experience flashbacks. Whenever a hallucination comes on, Will is frozen in place and unable to move until a friend or family member snaps him out of it.
Yehuda says flashbacks are indeed a symptom of PTSD, but they don't happen as often in the real world as Hollywood seems to think they do. "Flashbacks are among the more rare symptoms of PTSD, but they are often used in movies and TV because they represent hallmark symptoms of PTSD," she says. "Flashbacks are not symptoms of other mental health disorders—and are very amenable to being portrayed in the visual arts," she explains.
Overall, the accuracy of Will's hallucinations is a toss up. Yehuda says trauma survivors can indeed have such vivid flashbacks, they may think the memory is happening in real time. However Will being frozen in place doesn't ring true. "Being frozen in place sounds more like a dissociative episode where one loses track of one’s surroundings and is somewhere else," she says. Dissociative episodes are symptoms of amnesia and dissociative identity disorder, not PTSD.
The way Will often looks sad and distressed
Scenes of Will looking fearful, depressed, and distraught are spot-on and resemble the way PTSD sufferers often look. Yehuda says people with PTSD often experience these emotions, or even emotional numbness, as they come to grips with the traumatic event. These reactions are normal because "trauma effects can last for a long time." Therapy can help trauma survivors address and cope with these feelings.
Will reacts violently to his family
Once the Shadow Monster inhabits Will, he has episodes where he acts unlike himself. He tells his mother that the Shadow Monster likes to stay cold, and he even tries to physically attack her and his older brother, Jonathan. He almost acts like he's possessed or has a second personality.
Yehuda says Will's acting so unlike his usual self is not characteristic of people with PTSD. A person living with PTSD may act like they did at the time of the original traumatic event if they are having a flashback, but they wouldn't act violently or lash out if they didn't act this way when the trauma occurred. "One would, for example, choke someone if they are reenacting being threatened [in a flashback]," says Yehuda. "One would not choke one’s mother if the trauma was a car accident."
Heat is used to "cure" Will
To rid Will of the Shadow Monster inhabiting his body, Joyce uses heat lamps and a fireplace, since the creature hates heat. The scene is reminiscent of an exorcism, and it's way farfetched—so no surprise, it has zero to do with real-life PTSD treatment. Therapy is the best treatment someone with PTSD, says Dr. Yehuda, because therapists help a patient become desensitized to the most distressing parts of their traumatic event.
"This usually involves having the person talk about the memory or relive it in their imagination in the safety of a therapeutic environment, where the therapist can work with the patient to reduce the distress associated with the memory," she explains. The exorcism scene from Stranger Things 2 could be using the Shadow Monster as a symbol for emotional distress. But that's one of the things that is so compelling about the show—it's left for you and your own imagination to decide.