Since the beginning of “Stranger Things” way back in 2016, one of the biggest questions that has loomed virtually everything else has been: What is the Upside Down? And with the conclusion of “Stranger Things 4,” we have gotten some of those answers. The mysterious, monster-filled universe that has been a constant threat to Hawkins, Indiana, and the world at large since the start, has become slightly less mysterious. Or has it?
Let’s look at how the Upside Down has been presented thus far and how what we’ve learned in the finale of Season 4 can change all of that.
Major spoilers for “Stranger Things 4” follow. Don’t read until you’ve watched this latest season!
First Contact with the Upside Down
In Season 1 of “Stranger Things,” we meet the young Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), a girl with special powers who has been utilized by the United States government to conduct “remote viewing,” a real-life practice of disassociating your spiritual self from your physical self and “astral projecting” across a tremendous amount of space. Ostensibly, Eleven was trying to spy on the Russians. Instead, her spiritual journey landed her someplace else entirely: the Upside Down, a parallel dimension populated by menacing, murderous creatures. It’s Eleven’s contact with the Upside Down that allowed for some of those creatures (chiefly the Demogorgon) to slip through into our world.
At this point, the Upside Down seemed to be full of monsters that don’t have much sentience; they’re just mindless killing machines. But as the seasons wore on, an Upside Down architecture developed. In Season 2, we were introduced to the creature that the kids refer to as the Mind Flayer; it’s a giant, ghostly creature that lords over the Upside Down and communicates – and later possesses – Will (Noah Schnapp). We also get to know more about the Demogorgon lifecycle when Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) befriends and names a little creature he names Dardanian (or Dart for short), who grows into what they refer to as a Demo-dog, which will later become a Demogorgon. (This season we were introduced to the very nasty Demo-bats, as well.)
By Season 3, the Mind Flayer, or something like it, infiltrated our world, mostly by murdering people (and rats) and turning into a big goopy monster that the kids had to fight and kill at the newly opened Starcourt Mall. That season’s creature also possessed people, like the dearly departed Billy (Dacre Montgomery). The big monster was thwarted, but the desire for the Upside Down to infiltrate our world remained. Plus, we learned that the Hawkins National Lab wasn’t the only place that was investigating this spooky parallel dimension.
By 1984, the Russians had become interested in the Upside Down. They attempted to create a machine that could “crack” open a gateway to this alternate world. (This machine was known as “the Key.”) Because they had known that there was a gate underneath Hawkins, they went to try and keep it open. They built the new Key underneath the Starcourt Mall, the construction of which they paid for. The exact nature of this operation isn’t totally known, but their interest in the Upside Down remained. What we learn in Season 4 is that they had the ability to transport several live Demogorgons to a secret lab and prison in snowy Russia. What they were up to with these specimens, how they got them to Russia and what they were ultimately trying to accomplish remains to be seen. It’s safe to say, though, that having a bunch of crazy monsters would have certainly added some excitement to the Cold War.
Season 4 of “Stranger Things” was chiefly concerned with Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower), an evil sorcerer from the Upside Down. Vecna started off human, as Henry Creel, a gifted boy in Hawkins who had supernatural powers not unlike Eleven. After murdering his family, he was recruited by Brenner (Matthew Modine) and the Hawkins National Lab and became One. Later, Brenner had him work at the lab; he was handily controlled via a small electrode in his neck. After tricking a young Eleven into freeing him, he murdered the rest of the test subjects at HNL and framed Eleven for the damage done. Eleven, in a fit of rage, sent him to the Upside Down. It was there that he turned into an inhuman monster.
Years later, during the course of “Stranger Things 4,” Vecna has returned with an evil scheme: He starts murdering the children and teens of Hawkins. Each time he murders them, draining the energy from their bodies, he opens up a portal to the Upside Down. With his fourth and final victim, Max (Sadie Sink), his four portals will open up and consume Hawkins whole.
During the second-to-last episode of “Stranger Things” Season 4, we learn that Brenner’s entire operation and his reason for sending Eleven into the void was that he was looking for Henry/One/Vecna. Vecna was Brenner’s biggest failure, and he wanted him back. That was the true reason behind his experiments. Yet somehow, this wasn’t the biggest reveal of the final two episodes.
Before Vecna claimed his final victim (get well soon, Max!), he revealed to Eleven what happened to him after she sent him to the Upside Down. According to Vecna, the Upside Down was a world without order. He saw monsters running around, but no real structure. Then he came upon a giant cloud of particles, what the kids would refer to as the Mind Flayer and what one of the Russians at the prison called “the Shadow.” He communed with this intelligence and became his final form: an inhuman, murderous monster who wants to take over the world.
Whether or not Vecna is a foot soldier for the Mind Flayer or the big bad remains to be seen. Also left unspoken is why the Upside Down is frozen in 1982, at the exact moment Will was abducted, which we learned when Nancy (Natalia Dyer) and some of the gang were exploring the Upside Down earlier in Season 4. One thing is clear, though: the Upside Down wouldn’t be what it was without Vecna and, by extension, without Eleven. Without Eleven, Henry would have never become Vecna, and his evil plan would never be set into motion. The Upside Down that we’ve known since the beginning, of a parallel Hawkins cloaked in darkness, only came from her meddling. And that might be more haunting than any gooey creature.