Scripture is quoted twice in the latest season of Stranger Things, a first for the Netflix original that introduced us to the military experiments happening in the small Midwestern town of Hawkins, Eggo-loving Eleven, and the magic of Steve Harrington’s hair. The references to Romans 12:21 are brief, but help the audience to center on the question of how we can understand the world around us, particularly when it’s revealed to be more upside-down than we had previously thought.
The season establishes a rivalry between two groups at the local high school: the basketball team (led by the increasingly self-righteous, Jason) and the role-playing game nerds who make up the Hellfire Club. Things go south when Jason’s girlfriend is murdered, and Hellfire Club leader Eddie is the prime suspect. Jason and the rest of the basketball team transform into vigilantes, certain that Eddie is leading the Hellfire Club in a series of satanic ritual murders. As viewers, we know he’s jumped to the wrong conclusion — there is a supernatural power involved, but Eddie and the rest of the Hellfire Club are fighting against it, not in league with it.
At a meeting of concerned citizens, Jason quotes Romans 12:21 to justify the posse he’s whipping up: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” Jason says while pacing around the room, giving off serious youth-pastor energy. For Jason, this passage interprets itself: There’s good (us) and evil (them), and we just need to keep fighting against the evil.
Unsurprisingly, Jason’s willingness to resort to easy stereotypes — along with his use of sloppy biblical interpretation — leads to all kinds of trouble by the time the season is through. One of the first principles of biblical interpretation is to never use a passage out of context, a practice that’s often referred to as proof texting. Jason uses this verse to support his own program, while ignoring the passage’s surrounding exhortations to ground all behavior in Christian love. Jason might have also paid attention to Paul’s warning against taking vengeance, just two verses before (12:19). At the conclusion of the season, as the town has suffered a catastrophe that sets us up for season five, it seems like many Hawkins residents haven’t learned this lesson: A handwritten sign on the church’s wall reprints this verse, suggesting that the town is still stuck in this unhelpful space of moral panic. It’s an easy place for all of us to get stuck in, especially if we try to use the Bible to support where we’ve already been led by our gut.
Jason should have taken the admonition found earlier in the chapter he quotes to “discern what is the will of God” (12:2), rather than jumping to assumptions about “good” and “evil” that prove to be false. In Jason’s zeal, he succumbs to “Satanic Panic,” a time during the ’80s when people erroneously saw demonic rituals lurking around every corner. Just as in Stranger Things, the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons became another target for this panic; in 1979, a story circulated about a young man who went missing, supposedly lost in the steam tunnels underneath his campus while deeply embroiled in a D&D game. This story led to accusations that the game encouraged violent behavior and seduced young people into a lifestyle of Satan-worship. These turned out to be nothing more than urban legends; the missing young man had actually just run away from home. As many have pointed out, Satanic Panic is coming back in style with the mainstreaming of QAnon and related conspiracy theories. The world of Stranger Things recreates this period of panic and scapegoating, giving readers a front-row seat as Jason quickly blames Eddie for his girlfriend’s murder and assumes Eddie is channeling demonic powers when the murders continue.
In contrast, the Hellfire Club and other affiliated characters demonstrate what it looks like to discern the truth of a situation, as Paul dictates. After the first murder, Nancy uses her journalistic instincts to interview nearby residents who might know something; she learns that a similar set of murders happened in the town 30 years ago — a revelation that proves vital to cracking this season’s overarching mystery and gives the members of the Hellfire Club a chance to discern the kind of evil they’re facing.
But their discernment isn’t just journalistic; it’s also spiritual. In the most iconic episode of the season, Max sits at her brother’s grave, saying what she’s worried will be a farewell to him in advance of her own death (By this point, she’s learned that her name is next on the supernatural killer’s list). “I’m not even sure if you can hear me,” she says to her brother’s grave. “A couple of years ago, I would have thought that was absurd. But that was before I found out about alternate dimensions and monsters, so I’m just going to stop assuming that I know anything.”
In this short speech, Max explains how she’s reevaluating what she knows about the world with humility about her own lack of knowledge. Rather than approaching the world with blind certainty, she leaves room for explanations that previously seemed impossible. All of this is accompanied by Kate Bush’s 1985 single, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” in which Bush sings about making a deal with God to swap lives with another person. At the time of the song’s release, she said that the track is about expanding our empathy for each other. It’s this foundation of empathetic love that Paul is exhorting us to seek in Romans 12.
Stranger Things is often silly, and the silliness sometimes gives way to violence and brutality that doesn’t seem to be handled with as much gravity as it should be. But in spite of this, the show wrestles with some profound themes, often emphasizing the impacts of trauma and moral injury. Like the best horror movies, Stranger Things also questions how we know what we think we know — and whether there might be more to the world than we can immediately grasp. The use of Romans 12:21 points to these deeper themes, presenting a model of engaging with the world that involves discernment and intellectual humility, rather than the dangerous arrogance of moral panics.