There are easily a thousand amazing things in the Netflix series Stranger Things, from the literary and film references to the scientific concepts behind the “Upside Down”. The music is classic 80s’, the tone wonderfully nostalgic, and the story a great mix of humor, drama, and tense, sci-fy, horror. The characters are classic 80s’ cliches, but also deep, complex, creations with unique personalities, distinct faults, and, in certain cases, possible psychological disorders…specifically PTSD. Two specific characters on the show exhibit symptoms even prior to having to battle a Demogorgon — Eleven (aka El) and Chief Hopper (aka Hop).
— Please note there will be many, many, spoilers for the show coming up. —
The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) lists the qualifications for PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) as such:
Criterion A: Stressor
The person was exposed to: death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence, as follows: (one required)
- Direct exposure.
- Witnessing, in person.
- Indirectly, by learning that a close relative or close friend was exposed to trauma. If the event involved actual or threatened death, it must have been violent or accidental.
- Repeated or extreme indirect exposure to aversive details of the event(s), usually in the course of professional duties (e.g., first responders, collecting body parts; professionals repeatedly exposed to details of child abuse). This does not include indirect non-professional exposure through electronic media, television, movies, or pictures.
Criterion B: Intrusion Symptoms
The traumatic event is persistently re-experienced in the following way(s): (one required)
- Recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive memories. Note: Children older than six may express this symptom in repetitive play.
- Traumatic nightmares. Note: Children may have frightening dreams without content related to the trauma(s).
- Dissociative reactions (e.g., flashbacks) which may occur on a continuum from brief episodes to complete loss of consciousness. Note: Children may reenact the event in play.
- Intense or prolonged distress after exposure to traumatic reminders.
- Marked physiologic reactivity after exposure to trauma-related stimuli.
Criterion C: Avoidance
Persistent effortful avoidance of distressing trauma-related stimuli after the event: (one required)
- Trauma-related thoughts or feelings.
- Trauma-related external reminders (e.g., people, places, conversations, activities, objects, or situations).
Criterion D: Negative Alterations in Cognitions and Mood
Negative alterations in cognitions and mood that began or worsened after the traumatic event: (two required)
- Inability to recall key features of the traumatic event (usually dissociative amnesia; not due to head injury, alcohol, or drugs).
- Persistent (and often distorted) negative beliefs and expectations about oneself or the world (e.g., “I am bad,” “The world is completely dangerous”).
- Persistent distorted blame of self or others for causing the traumatic event or for resulting consequences.
- Persistent negative trauma-related emotions (e.g., fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame).
- Markedly diminished interest in (pre-traumatic) significant activities.
- Feeling alienated from others (e.g., detachment or estrangement).
- Constricted affect: persistent inability to experience positive emotions.
Criterion E: Alterations in Arousal and Reactivity
Trauma-related alterations in arousal and reactivity that began or worsened after the traumatic event: (two required)
- Irritable or aggressive behavior
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior
- Exaggerated startle response
- Problems in concentration
- Sleep disturbance
Criterion F: Duration
Persistence of symptoms (in Criteria B, C, D, and E) for more than one month.
Criterion G: Functional Significance
Significant symptom-related distress or functional impairment (e.g., social, occupational).
Criterion H: Exclusion
Disturbance is not due to medication, substance use, or other illness.
So let’s break it down and see where Eleven and Chief Hopper land…
Eleven’s whole life seems to be a series of traumatic events from being locked in a small cell to dropped in a sensory-deprivation tank to contact the Demogorgon and everything in between. All are direct exposures and many are repeated so there’s no doubt El hits this criteria. With Hopper it’s possible that he already qualified with his initial big-city cop profession – there are suggestions he dealt with serious crime – but it seems it was the direct witnessing of his daughter’s slow death due to cancer that officially caused him to hit this requirement.
Throughout the series El is shown having unwanted, intrusive, memories. While watching a Coca-Cola commercial images of her having to mentally crush a Coke can enter her mind and she has to turn off the TV. When she comes across an angry cat she flashes back to when “Papa” (a.k.a. Dr Brenner) tried to make her kill a cat with her mind. She’s so lost in the memory – which resulted in her killing two men – that it isn’t until she hears Mike calling that she returns to the present. The most severe instance, which results in her hyperventilating in a heap on the floor, is when Mike shoves her into his closet in attempts to hide her from his parents. The flashback is full blown and it isn’t until Mike opens the door once more that El even seems able to breathe. …While there’s no clear indication that she has nightmares it wouldn’t be farfetched to presume it given memories of her traumas already haunt her waking hours.
While there’s no direct evidence that Chief Hopper suffers from nightmares, there’s clear evidence sleep is a real problem for him. From use of booze and pills to others noticing his rough shape in the mornings the man clearly can’t get a good night’s sleep. Intrusive memories and flashbacks come into play closer to him solving the Will Byers case. When someone describes El as “a girl with a shaved head…like a cancer patient” he’s instantly flooded with memories of his daughter in the hospital, bald due to chemo. After finding Will with strange tubing (or a tentacle?) in his mouth Hop experiences a flashback of his intubated daughter and he quickly has another of her dying when he and Joyce preform CPR on Will. This second incident causes him to panic enough he actually punches Will in the chest repeatedly — thankfully the act saves the boy, but it’s clearly an emotional reaction.
El frequently attempts to avoid various, literal, reminders of what she experienced at Hawkins Lab. When brought to the bathroom to change she refuses to allow the door to be shut – as it’s an enclosed space like her cell – and she has to turn off the Coca-Cola commercial due to upsetting memories. While searching for the gate to the Upside-Down with Mike, Dustin, and Lucas Eleven manipulates their compasses to keep them away from Hawkins Laboratory. (In fairness, the risk to herself and them in being found is real, but clearly they aren’t the only thing El avoids).
After the death of his daughter Hopper moves from a big city to the small town of Hawkins to (presumably) get away from the memories of his loss. It’s implied that he avoids calling his ex wife as well given he’s surprised to hear a baby’s cry on her end of the line when he does. Yet, even in a new location, he needs to anesthetize himself with pills, booze, and women. Anything not to remember, relive, or feel those negative feelings.
El proclaims “I am the monster”…a clear indication of how she sees herself as a result of her experiences at the lab. She also blames herself for the arrival of the Demogorgon, thus the disappearance of Will (and presumably Barb’s death). Fear and horror concerning both the “bad men” and herself are a constant, as is her guilt over what’s happening to those around her. The few times she does experience happiness her facial expression is brief and always mixed with signs of hesitation, like she doesn’t fully trust what she’s feeling…or doesn’t fully experience it to begin with.
Hopper similarly seems unable to fully experience positive emotions. While jovial to most, true happiness forever seems to elude him. A man who consistently alters his state of mind via sex, drugs, and alcohol is not a truly happy person. It wouldn’t be far-fetched to presume that he may have blamed himself (or his ex-wife) and doctors for his daughter’s illness and death even if there was no way to save her. There’s no mention of his feelings about his job prior, but in flashback scenes he appears happy, so let’s assume he enjoyed it…that qualifies him for having a “markedly diminished interest in (pre-traumatic) significant activities” given his clear disinterest in a missing child’s case at the start of the series.
Increased arousal and reactivity are immediately apparent when it comes to Eleven. There’s consistent tension in her body while her eyes alternate between deep focus and darting in search of potential threats. When faced with something triggering she shows exaggerated reactions in hyperventilation, sweating, crying, and wide, panic-stricken, gazes. During a fight between Mike and Lucas (over her intentions) El grows so upset and on-edge she loses control of her powers and sends Lucas flying into a structure, knocking him out. …Issues with concentration and sleep could be presumed given her other symptoms.
Hopper exhibits multiple self-destructive and reckless behaviors; he drinks to excess, exhibits promiscuous tendencies, and seemingly abuses his prescriptions. His inability to sleep through the night (without substances) also falls under the concept of “alterations in arousal and reactivity”. While his tendency towards sarcasm and task-specific violence could’ve always been part of his personality I find it unlikely he punched-out every other uncooperative witness he came across prior to his daughter’s death, making these qualities worse post-trauma.
Hopper lost his daughter four years prior to the events of Stranger Things, so clearly his symptoms have persisted longer than a month. Eleven only spends approximately a week away from the constant traumas of being under Dr Brenner’s care…That being said it’s extremely unlikely any of her symptoms would subside in a month, year, or possibly ever.
Both characters suffer significant distress and issues functioning due to their various symptoms. True, Hop functions better than El, but he still has trouble…Note the awkward run-in with the librarian and his coworker’s reaction that implies it’s not the first time something like that’s happened.
While El’s psychic abilities are a factor in some of her symptoms, they are not the cause of them. Also her powers are not an illness. All of her problems steam from what happened to her while at Hawkins Lab. Hopper is clearly abusing substances, but there’s no signs he ever did prior to the loss of her daughter making it a symptom, not a cause of his other issues.
It would obviously take more than a quick comparison between a person’s emotions and behaviors and the DSM-5’s definition of a disorder to diagnose anyone…but it’s a good start. The possibility either or both of these characters have trauma-related issues, that they may benefit from seeing a therapist, is made clear. It also shows that both Eleven and Chief Hopper are well-written- well-rounded, psychologically complex characters that go beyond their surface 80s’ cliches of “weirdo” and “small-town cop”.