When I was very young, growing up in rural Nebraska, my friends and I had a game that was never quite a game. I had a friend who told us wild stories about seeing a ghostly disembodied hand that would scurry around his backyard with sinister intentions. Whether he truly believed this or not, I can’t say, but I was young enough to believe him at the time. So one night, the two of us, his sister and my brother armed ourselves with old farm equipment and wandered around the woods outside his house, looking to kill the creature. I was frightened, but I was also desperately in love with his sister, so I put my bravest face on.
She kissed me that night while everyone else was looking for some monstrous hand from another reality, and my own world picked up a little spark. A good fantasy can lead to a brighter reality, and healthy escapism makes the return journey all the more welcome because we’ve learned something about the value of our own. No matter how rewarding an imaginative trip to another reality is, it’s only truly worthwhile if it gives you something to take home.
This concept is nearly as old as literature itself, but it’s brought into sharp focus in very different ways by two iterations currently in the cultural zeitgeist. Netflix’s new, spooky Spielberg homage Stranger Things and Harry Potter, which is getting yet another jolt of energy from the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Both stories are worthwhile in their own right, but they also showcase starkly different takes on what fantasy is.
Let’s start with Stranger Things, and I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. In episode four, a group of eager-beaverish 11-year-old boys are trying to smuggle their mysterious new friend El into school so that she can work her otherworldly voodoo on an old radio set in an attempt to reach their friend Will who seems to have gotten himself trapped in an alternate reality. If you’ve seen the show, you remember the scene. If you haven’t, just stick with me, because this will make more sense as we go along.
The boys are stopped by their favorite teacher who asks El a few doting questions about where she’s from. The problem is, she’s from a government lab that was sending her on reconnaissance missions into that alternate reality, inhabited by a fleshy, faceless predator. So she responds: “a bad place.” The boys hastily explain that she means “Sweden.”
There are two worlds in Stranger Things, and they are grafted on top of each other. There is our world (specifically Hawkins, Indiana ) and then there is “the bad place,” or as it comes to be called: “The Upside Down.” It’s a world just on the other side of our own, in which all our structures exist in dilapidated form; a constant rain of ash cuts visibility down to a few feet in front of your face; and a webby, xenomorph-esque sludge oozes over every surface. “Bad place” is a pretty apt description. It’s not truly an alternate reality, as it so closely mirrors our own. It’s more like a sub-reality or maybe a parallel one.
This concept of another world, like our world but not, is not a new one. More than one person has pointed out how indebted Stranger Things is to the Silent Hill franchise, and the current run of Marvel’s Moon Knight by Jeff Lemire features some improbably similar tropes. Even Pokemon Go attempts a similar feat, championing the idea that there are whimsical creatures hiding just behind any conceivable corner.
The most famous recent example of this phenomenon is, of course, Harry Potter. I was 12 when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone released, and loved it as much as any 12-year-old. At the time, I was a dreamy-eyed kid who spent inordinate amounts of time wandering around my family’s Nebraska acreage imagining fanciful universes like our own, but where I was a hero. It was a far cry from the cornfields I grew up around, but I was imbued with the idea that there was a place where I could be special.
Harry Potter fed that fantasy. It fed a lot of fantasies. Poor Harry, a luckless child in a loveless home who discovers suddenly that he’s, through purest chance, a hero. He’s pulled into a magical realm just barely apart from our own, but it’s one in which he’s singularly magnificent. The Boy Who Lived. The world he left behind is drafty, lifeless England full of muggles. Hogwarts is full of beauty, magic and purpose. “You’re a wizard, Harry,” is more than just a revelation about Harry’s true identity. It’s his ticket out of this dump. His new world is frequently perilous, of course, but more importantly, it’s purposeful.
When you’re young, the world of Harry Potter is appealing because it provides a positive answer to the ultimate question: Am I special? Harry’s answer is a resounding yes, and all he has to sacrifice to claim his special-ness is a dull existence under the Dursleys’ staircase. In this vision, our parallel realities keep what makes us important just out of reach.
But Stranger Things takes a different route. Will’s normal life isn’t appreciably better than Harry Potter’s. His deadbeat father left his mother for a younger woman. His mom is nervy and harried. He’s tormented by bullies. But when he’s whisked away from this existence, his new parallel universe is not one of enchantment, but terror. He has sacrificed his own difficult existence for one of horror. In Stranger Things, the goal is not to escape reality, but to return to it.
So, we have two types of fantasy. One in which the fantasy is preferable to our own. Another in which the fantasy makes our own world that much sweeter and safer. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia attempted to have it both ways. The children who tumbled through the wardrobe turned out to be kings and queens in their new reality, but Lewis was famously injecting some life and imagination into his musty Anglican theology, trusting that his talking lions and fauns could inspire a devotion in children that dry Sunday School lessons could not. In his mind, the fantasy enhanced the reality, not the other way around. As he once wrote, a boy who reads fantasy “does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”
I never found any disembodied hand that night. Never kissed that girl again either. But for a few moments, my own reality was a little lighter, and the woods were a little more enchanted. There is value in a fantasy that expands on our own world. There is immeasurable value in reading the Harry Potter series, which probably was more formative to my own character growth than I’ve ever fully appreciated.
But there’s also value in fantasy that reinforces the worth of our own world, our own family (however fractured) and our own small town of normal things. Because whatever lessons may be gained from reading about fantastical realities, the best one of all might just be contentment.