Plant Monsters Turn Normal Upside Down

Man with flashlight in a field of rotted pumpkins at night.

In the first season of the Netflix series Stranger Things, when Will Byers and other residents of Hawkins go missing, it’s not immediately obvious that the culprit is a plant.

By the time of 12-year-old Will’s disappearance, viewers know the government lab in the small Midwestern town of Hawkins, Indiana, has opened a rift to the Upside Down, an ecological nightmare of epic—and ever growing—proportions. The Upside Down is, as Elizabeth Reich outlines, a space of toxicity, a shadow world in which the show’s predominantly white protagonists are subjected to environmental dangers from which they are usually protected.

The creature stalking in the woods around Hawkins is associated with the Upside Down. But it seems like a human, or an animal. Jonathan (Will’s older brother) and Nancy (the older sister of Will’s best friend) reasonably conclude that the Demogorgon must be an entity that lives in the shadow world, rather than a plantlike outgrowth of the Upside Down itself. It comes as a surprise, then, in Episode 6, when viewers finally get a full-on depiction of the monster and learn that its face is a flower.

The Upside Down’s plant-creature joins a long history of plant monsters in U.S. literature and culture (and British culture too). Monstrous plants often appear in Anglo-colonial and U.S. contexts, as plant life seems by turns productively fecund and terribly uncontrollable. Stranger Things reanimates longstanding ideas about the disruptive power of plant life.

Hungry Plants

Monstrous plants are nothing new. Plant monsters abound in twentieth-century science fiction and popular culture. They also appear in eighteenth- and-nineteenth-century American literature, which paid close attention to the environment as both a resource and a threat.

Illustration of a green plant with 7 leaves that each end in mouth-like structures

Illustration of the Venus flytrap from Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, 1804.

For eighteenth-century English and early U.S. writers, plants could be monstrous in two specific ways that are germane to Stranger Things: they could be predatory, or they could move. In both these respects, plants disrupted traditional European hierarchies of being and infringed on colonial order.

While knowledge about plants could be powerful, both for colonial agents and for those resisting the violence of colonial expansion, plant life itself often troubled the boundaries set out in European and American natural history between kinds of beings, including kinds of human beings. Theresa Kelley argues that certain kinds of plants are especially difficult to organize, and their “categorical fluidity” allows a viewpoint into both colonial ways of knowing and their limits.

The Venus flytrap is the most well-known example of a mobile, carnivorous plant, and a favorite of early American writing. Venus flytraps, which are native to the wetlands of what are now North Carolina and South Carolina, famously eat by closing their jawlike traps around unsuspecting bugs. In his Travels, the American botanist William Bartram marveled at the plant, which he called a “carnivourous vegetable.” As Mary Kuhn notes, Bartram’s account of the “sportive” Venus flytrap described “plants as like humans in some respects,” since both could engage in strategic motion. While the Venus flytrap is extraordinary, Monique Allewaert argues that in the work of Bartram and other writers of the American tropics, even plant life that is not obviously carnivorous sometimes threatens to swallow up the human and the animal.

The Venus flytrap, then, is just the most literal example of an American nature full of potentially predatory plants that disrupt categories of plant, animal, and human being. And any of these moving, munching plants might also be, in some disruptive way, conscious.

The potential consciousness of plants—their ways of knowing and willfully acting— is the site of ongoing scientific investigation. As Elizabeth Chang writes in her analysis of killer plants in late nineteenth-century British literature, there were many, many ways plants consumed persons in popular fiction, and these plots built on earlier scientific and philosophical inquiry. This fiction “explored several horrors at once: first, that the expanding nineteenth-century British natural world opened up new and unexpected plant dangers, second, that a plant could be intentionally dangerous, and third, that a plant could have any kind of intention at all.”

Boy and plant monster in underground tunnel

In Season 2, Dustin peers at a Demodog, a plantlike monster from the shadow world, after attempting (and failing) to domesticate it. Courtesy of Netflix.

This overlap between the categories of plant, animal, and human was thrilling, baffling, and sometimes terrifying for Bartram and the writers Chang describes. And it causes problems for the characters of Stranger Things, too. The actor who so wonderfully portrays the Demogorgon in Season 1 has said the monster is closer to an animal than a plant, but the point, I think, is that in the series, the separation between the two breaks down. After Nancy and Jonathan set an animal trap for the monster, Jonathan claims, “It has to be dead. It has to be.” But of course, as the dripping slime left on the bear trap and the creeping vines and drifting particles of the Upside Down suggest, it’s not dead at all.

It’s understandable that Jonathan, Nancy, and Nancy’s rich-kid boyfriend Steve approach the monster like an animal. After all, it runs around the woods, devours bloody prey, and drops, in this scene, growling through the ceiling. But the monster, as subsequent seasons make clear, isn’t some thing that lives in the Upside Down. It is the Upside Down—one incarnation of the Upside Down’s plant volition that just happens to be more mobile than one might expect.

Stranger Lilies

The Demogorgon acts like a Venus flytrap.  But it looks, to my eye, like a lily. Its face opens into a snarling five-petaled mouth, with row upon row of teeth lining its gums. Early in Season 1, when the missing Will’s mother Joyce and the teenage Nancy are the only ones who’ve caught glimpses of the monster, they both describe it as having no face. As Joyce says in Episode 4, “It was almost human, but it wasn’t….it didn’t have a face.” Nancy repeats this description later in the same episode. The shared suspicion that a humanlike thing with no face is wreaking havoc allows the characters to build a coalition and move towards action against the monster.

Facelessness is its own kind of terror, but the monster does have a face of sorts. When its mouth is closed, its face seems to be folded inward, featureless as a bud before opening. When it screeches, moans, or eats, its face furls open around a radiating mouth.

Humanoid monster with five petal-like flaps that open around its mouth.

The Demogorgon flares its lily face. Courtesy of Netflix.

The Demogorgon’s face is terrifying because it is predatory. It’s also a skewed mirror, a nonface/face reflecting back at the human beings looking for communication, sympathy, or identification. In this way, it’s not so different from the lilies it reminds me of.

Looking at the flailing face of the Demogorgon brings to mind both the predatory plants illustrated by eighteenth-century botanists and the uncanny familiarity of the lilies down the street from my old apartment, situated so they grow to just my height and seem to stare back at me with bunches of featureless faces. I can only imagine my fascination and terror if they began to walk.

Linking the Demogorgon to something as familiar as a lily draws attention to the fact that the town of Hawkins, too, is full of familiar, domesticated florals. The botanical patterns of the Midwestern 1980s—descended from the floral patterns of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—fill the homes and wardrobes of Hawkins-dwellers of every class. With plant monsters in mind, these background flowers themselves seem to bespeak the possibility of some terrifying and omnipresent vegetative power.

The floral patterns of the Stranger Things backgrounds present botanical life as a set of orderly adornments, a nonthreatening backdrop for the more important affairs of human beings. But as they recur, these emblems and the spaces they represent become strange, too.

Alphabet written over floral wallpaper.

Unruly botanicals upend domestic order in 1980s Hawkins. Even this floral wallpaper in the Byers’ living room, where Joyce communicates with her missing son, hints at the omnipresence of vegetal powers. Courtesy of Netflix.

If the Demogorgon and its plantworld upend categories of plant, animal, and human, the Demogorgon’s emergence coincides with a disruption of domestic order. The plant creature decenters the values that define the protagonists’ lives, as looking at a person-sized lily might shake one’s sensibilities on the sidewalk. Viewers witness both the spatial destruction of the Byers’ house and the general renegotiation of social norms among the show’s terrified characters. Jonathan and Nancy, for instance, use monster hunting as an occasion to sharpen their critiques of the normative lives of Hawkins’ families. And the characters more closely entwined with the Demogorgon fail to conform to normative gender roles. Will, who is held captive in the Upside Down, is called “a queer” by bullies at school and by his dad. Eleven, the child coerced into touching the monster and opening the gate to the Upside Down in the first place, is initially described as a boy. After escaping from the government’s lab, she experiences rapid normative gender socialization, donning a wig and a pink babydoll dress in a not-quite-successful attempt to pass as an ordinary girl from Hawkins. The monster shakes up the spaces so casually decorated with plant emblems, calling, it seems, for a wholesale reevaluation of normal life in the contemporary U.S.

As it infringes on domestic order, the monster also reveals and forestalls the ongoing military explorations of the U.S. government. The Demogorgon demands that its human interlocutors attend to the lab at the edge of town and the experiments being conducted there—as well as the government’s attempts to colonize a whole new dimension. As other writers have articulated, in some ways Stranger Things isn’t critical of Hawkins’ domestic and governmental orders, which are inherited from the Anglo-colonial world that precedes them. But the Demogorgon forces human characters to acknowledge some of the violences of the political and governmental system that surround them, while insisting on the persistence of other forms of disruptive power.

Plant Monsters 2.0, 3.0, 4.0?

The Stranger Things monster takes different forms across the seasons. Season 2 plays up the viney overgrowths hinted at in Season 1—the monster reappears, stretching across a pumpkin patch and, eventually, all of Hawkins. Plant faces appear again, too, this time on the much beloved, very terrifying Demodogs. Season 2 ends with a total division between Hawkins and the Upside Down: the incredible Eleven closes the gate. But, like a stray seed, a little bit of the monster remains shut out in the real world.

Three boys sit by plants

Characters Will, Mike, and Lucas regroup in a suburban mall in Season 3. Orderly greenery keeps plants on the scene. Courtesy of Netflix.

Season 3 largely drops the plant logics of Seasons 1 and 2, opting instead for a 1980s bodysnatcher plot. I found this development disappointing, not least because it coincided with a closure of so many of the less normative possibilities earlier seasons of the show seemed to suggest. But I’m holding out hope for the botanical. As the cast crouches amid the cultivated plants of their Midwestern mall celebrating Season 3’s victories, Season 4 lingers on the horizon. Whatever happens to Hawkins and the Upside Down in 2020, I hope plant monsters make a comeback.

 

Featured image: Detail of promotional poster for Season 2 of the Netflix series Stranger Things. Image from Netflix.

Julia Dauer earned a Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Virginia. Julia’s writing has been published at Avidly and Entropy and in Early American Literature. Julia’s last contribution to Edge Effects was “The Environmental Histories of Desire”  (April 2019). Contact.