Halloween 2017

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'Exploited Exceptionals and Stranger Things’s Eleven' by Karen Renner

Karen Renner, author of Evil Children in the Popular Imagination, discusses the role of gifted children in popular culture.

I’ll admit that when I watched the first season of Stranger Things, I felt not only thrilled but also vindicated. I had just finished proofs of Evil Children in the Popular Imagination, and in the chapter on “gifted children,” I had predicted that we would see more narratives about kids just like Eleven. What academic doesn’t love it when popular culture validates her claims?

In the chapter I argued that gifted child narratives had so far taken on three different forms. In the 1950s, the gifted child featured in narratives that functioned as symbolic critiques of permissive parenting. In texts like Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” (1953), later and probably more famously adapted into a Twilight Zone episode in 1961, Ray Bradbury’s “The World The Children Made” (1950), later renamed “The Veldt” (1951), and John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957), later adapted as Village of the Damned (1960), children’s supernatural powers are so threatening that parents are unable to properly discipline their children. Who, after all, would feel comfortable scolding little Anthony in “It’s a Good Life” knowing he could, in retaliation, turn you into a perverse Jack-in-the-Box —as he does to one of his neighbors at the end of the episode?


The children in Bradbury’s story may not have powers, but their masterful control of technology allows them to transform their futuristic nursery—a sort of Holodeck for children—into an African veldt, complete with lions that later devour their parents when they attempt to limit the children’s playtime activities.

Stephen King’s Carrie (1974) and Brian DePalma’s 1976 adaptation of King’s novel spawned another branch of gifted children, whose superpowers symbolize their pent-up rage and psychic energy resulting from a history of abuse. Carrie was followed by at least two imitators, The Spell (1977) and Jennifer (1978), as well as sequels and remakes (The Rage: Carrie 2 [1999], Carrie [2002], and Carrie [2013]). The last remake appeared during a resurgence of traumatized gifted child narratives that include Chronicle (2012) and Dark Touch (2013).

Witchcraft narratives often function in similar ways, too: the girls in The Craft (1996) are all outcasts as is the eponymous star of Tamara (2005).

Eleven in Stranger Things fits a third category, which I call the “exploited exceptional.” This type of gifted child is often the result of experiments conducted by nefarious government agencies who aim to weaponize the child’s special abilities. We can see the beginnings of this narrative pattern appear in the 1980s, initiated by Stephen King’s Firestarter (1980) and the 1984 cinematic adaptation of King’s novel which focused on a girl named Charlie McGee, who can start fires with her mind. The origins of Charlie’s powers are a result of both of her parents having participated in the so-called Lot 6 experiment, through which they gained supernatural powers that they later passed on to their daughter. In the afterword to his novel, King noted that the experiments were based on the “undeniable fact that the U.S. government, or agencies thereof, has indeed administered potentially dangerous drugs to unwitting subjects on more than one occasion.” King was likely referring to the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which in Stranger Things is specifically named. Like Charlie, Eleven is also imprisoned in a government facility, where her powers are repeatedly tested.



And like Charlie’s father, Eleven suffers nosebleeds when she uses her powers too much.

Eleven appears during a flurry of new exploited exceptional narratives including Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010), Midnight Special (2016), Morgan (2016), and Logan (2017). But the exploited exceptional is not just the stuff that films are made of. The video games in the F.E.A.R. series as well as Beyond Two Souls (2013) feature similar characters, as does a series of music videos for the songs “Midnight City,” “Reunion,” and “Wait” by the band M83.



With Stranger Things 2 having been recently released on Netflix, “exploited exceptionals” show no sign of disappearing from our culture soon. These types of narratives, it seems, reflect our anxieties that perhaps our children have been let down by the very institutions and people who were supposed to take care of them. What better metaphor for the guilt we felt about the ravaged economy into which we plunged millennials and the ravaged planet that we will be leaving behind for all the children and those to come?

About the author

Karen J. Renner is Assistant Professor of English at Northern Arizona University, USA. She is the editor of The 'Evil' Child in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture (2012) and the author of articles that have appeared in such journals as Frame: Journal of Literary Studies, Red Feather: An International Journal of Children's Visual Culture, and Film Studies: An International Review. Her book Evil Children in the Popular Imagination is available now.