Stranger Things Loses its Mind
  • Stranger Things Loses its Mind

    Stranger Things uses the parallels between a Dungeons & Dragons adventuring party and its core characters to create a narrative about young heroes battling the forces of darkness in both the real and Upside-Down worlds. But when it comes to a particular iconic D&D monster, the Duffer brothers seem to have drawn upon monster lore that came out well after the second season takes place. THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS!

    The Truth About Mind Flayers

    Stranger Things is about an adventuring party of four boys who stumble upon a powerful psychic girl known only as El, short for Eleven. Her psychic powers are tied to an extradimensional plane -- referenced in season two as the Ethereal Plane -- where monsters dwell. In the first season of Stranger Things, that monster was referred to as Demogorgon, although it looked nothing like the two-headed demon lord. In the second season, the gigantic tentacle smoke monster is referred to as a mind flayer. Here's how Dustin describes it:

    Okay, so, the shadow monster's inside everything...The hive mind. A collective consciousness. It's a super-organism. And this is the thing that controls everything. It's the brain. Like the mind flayer. It's a monster from an unknown dimension. It's so ancient that it doesn't even know its true enslaves races of other dimensions by taking over their brains using its highly-developed psionic powers. What does it want? To conquer us, basically. It believes it's the master views other races, like us, as inferior to itself. It wants to spread, take over other dimensions. We are talking about the destruction of our world as we know if this thing is like a brain that's controlling everything, then if we kill it, we kill everything it controls.

    During these scenes, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual entry of the mind flayer is referenced. Here's what the relevant parts of the entry say about mind flayer society:

    Mind flayers are found only in subterranean places, as they detest sunlight. They are greatly evil and consider the bulk of humanity (and its kin) as cattle to feed upon...These monsters speak only their own arcane language and several other weird tongues- purportedly those of terrible races of things which dwell in regions of the subterranean world far deeper than mankind has ever ventured. It is also rumored that these monsters have a city somewhere deep beneath the earth.

    Dustin's description and the sparse entry match up, and his reference to a hive mind applies to a monster related to mind flayers...which hadn't been published yet.

    The Brain Behind it All

    The second season of Stranger Things takes place on October 31, 1984 -- Halloween. So any lore about mind flayers use in the series should have been published before that date. To put the mind flayer in context, Gygax cited the cover art of Brian Lumley's The Burrowers Beneathas inspiration, which later appeared in the Strategic Review #1:

    This is a super-intelligent, man-shaped creature with four tentacles by its mouth which it uses to strike its prey.

    They would enter the Original D&D rules in Eldritch Wizardry, which is similar to the Strategic Review entry:

    These are super-intelligent, man-shaped creatures of great (and lawful) evil...They speak only their own arcane language and several other strange tongues purportedly those of terrible races which inhabit regions far beneath the ground.

    The final two entries about mind flayers that were published before 1984 are the aforementioned Monster Manual entry and Roger E. Moore's article in Dragon Magazine #78, "The Ecology of the Mind Flayer" (1983). It envisions a conversation between Melakar the White-Bearded and a githyanki knight. The knight gives us some of the lore repeated in Stranger Things:

    "Mind flayers are not of your world. They are not of any known world. They have been traveling the planes for so long, not even they know where they come from. From a secure base underground or from a darkened planet they send out projections of themselves to new prime material planes, scouting and searching for a new realm to conquer and enslave. Once a realm is discovered, it is doomed; the mind flayers have one of their number remain projected at the new plane while others use their psionic powers to enter the Silver Realm, that which you call the astral plane. These others then follow the scout's silver cord to the entry point to the new plane, use psionic science to enter that plane, and begin bringing about its downfall."

    Moore's article established that the mind flayers come from an unknown dimension and the mind flayers don't know where they came from. Given that Dustin largely quotes the Dragon Magazine article, not the Monster Manual entry, there's another paragraph the githyanki shares that's of relevance to what happens to Will later in the series:

    "They have a psionic power that especially helps them achieve their evil ends -- a power of domination that they use with pleasure on their victims and those who would attack them. This domination power allows the mind flayer to control and adorn their bodies with the trophies. every movement of a single victim, to an unlimited extreme. Once, on a raid to an illithid lair, I saw a githyanki captain run himself through with his own sword while under the control of one of them. They would have a far easier time doing the same thing to one of you."

    James Croft goes into detail on how mind flayer domination might work In his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University, Free Thinking. He separates them into two types: novice mind flayers (NMF) that can control actions but not thoughts, and ultimate mind flayers (UMF) that can control the victim's actions and thoughts:

    In this scenario, while we would be forced to do things which are against our will, we would know what was going on: our body would be like a robot with someone else at the controls, and we would be trapped inside, looking out in horror at our own actions, unable to stop ourselves...This scenario would certainly be upsetting, but would it make sense to say that a victim of an NMF has lost their mental freedom? After all, they can think whatever they like, even though they can’t put their thoughts into action. They can imagine all the things they might want to do, and even develop strategies by which they might do those things. Their inner mental life would be intact, but they could never enact their will: like a person totally paralyzed in an accident,their body would not respond to mental commands –but the commands could be drafted and issued just as before.

    This is a lot like what happens to Will, who struggles to communicate with his friends while possessed by the mind flayer. The one piece that's missing is the concept of a "hive mind." There's a hint of the idea in the article:

    "The power they have to read minds is used only to communicate among themselves, each illithid reading the passing thoughts of the other and thinking its own thoughts to be read in turn, and so forth."

    But there wouldn't be a true hive mind introduced to mind flayer society until the publication of a product that debuted after the second season of Stranger Things takes place.

    Mind Matters

    Who or what is the "hive mind" that controls the mind flayers? That question wouldn't be answered until a decade after Stranger Things' season two takes place, in The Illithiad(1998):

    The elder brain lies at the center of an illithid community. It is a sentient, disembodied mind that resides at the bottom of a pool filled with briny fluid. The elder brain's cognizance stems from the cast-off brain tissue of recently deceased mind flayers. In effect, an elder brain is a conglomerate of illithid minds mingled and alloyed in united consciousness. It is the right and duty of every illithid one day to join the elder brain in exalted mentality, guiding and shepherding its erstwhile community. While most illithids believe that their personality will survive the transition, the elder brain actually suborns individual egos to the gestalt consciousness that suffuses its mass of tangled, fibrous tissues. The elder brain remains alive despite the deaths of its tissue contributors. It does so via an intricate psionic science it exerts ceaselessly on its own behalf, maintaining itself in the face of entropy. The briny fluid covering the elder brain also serves as a preservative, complementing its psionic efforts of preservation.

    The elder brain entry even references tadpoles, which would later transform into the "demo-dogs" that Dustin names:

    Additionally, the elder brain preys upon the thousands of tadpoles that share its pool, extracting the pre-sentient psionic complexus from each tadpole in order to fuel its own existence. Nothing but drifting brine and oil remains of a tadpole after the elder brain feeds upon it.

    Further down the entry, there's a reference to how the elder brain works:

    The elder brain rules an illithid community—although the role of each elder brain varies between locales. A few particularly despotic elder brains oversee each and every decision that potentially affects its community. However, the majority of elder brains are more passive; they serve as consultants, advisors, and, most importantly, the living repository of the community's technology, history, and psionic expertise. Because it is the center for all lore within its community, an elder brain remains in constant mental contact with its illithid "children" via telepathy.

    The entry even gives a hint about the titanic shadow monster that is the main antagonist of season two:

    Among illithids, a peculiar rumor exists concerning elder brains and their final disposition. The rumor suggests that elder brains are not an end in themselves, but rather serve a purpose that will be realized in the fullness of time. Proponents of this theory regard individual elder brains as single cells. When the total number of elder brains on all planes reaches some as-yet-unrealized critical number, a sudden psychic flare will instantaneously unite every elder brain into a single coherent overmind whose elder-brain neurons connect via the Astral Plane. Such an entity would possess vast powers. It seems unlikely that illithid deities would approve the birth of such a multi-planar being whose prerogatives would almost certainly compete with their own.

    The second season of Stranger Things isn't perfect, but it does manage to capture the essence of what makes mind flayers so scary...even if Dustin quotes sources that were published after 1984.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 14 Comments
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      The true gem within Stranger Things is that the kids use their D&D experience as a foundation upon which to understand the happenings around them. While the adults have trouble rationalizing the goings on, the kids just put a label on it and come up with a course of action. This is the most interesting storytelling device of the series, that children are better able to understand a phenomenon because they have a framework to hang it on while adults are less effective.
    1. belphanor's Avatar
      belphanor -
      who is to say that TSR didn't base their books off of what the kids in ST encountered? Within the mythology of the show, one or more of the lids could have gone on to write D&D books as a way of dealing with the memories of what they went through as kids.
    1. Robert Jacobs's Avatar
      Robert Jacobs -
      Intellect Devourer.

      "Demo-dogs" could totally be Intellect Devourers. They were available in 1983 - and they look similar.
    1. ChampionoftheTriad -
      While I am pretty sure you are correct about the Elder Brain not being known in 1984, I am afraid you are way off on the date of it's introduction. It is clearly explained in the Mind Flayer entry in the Monstrous Manual c1993. While I no longer possess the Monstrous Compendium that preceded it in 1989, I am willing to bet the entry is similar, if not identical.
    1. Brodie's Avatar
      Brodie -
      I'm willing to overlook this minor bit of inaccuracy in the show since the show is awesome. Granted, I have gotten nitpicky about things in the past when it comes to historical accuracy (except with this show) or even accuracy of modern things (like South Park's World of Warcraft episode).

      Plus, like belphanor suggested, maybe the kids in Stranger Things went on to become writers for D&D. There's also the idea that the sparse, original entry for the Mind Flayer wasn't cool enough to the kids and they came up with their own ideas.
    1. Phion's Avatar
      Phion -
      Pretty sure El would have been considered a psion instead of a wizard, but 2nd edition came later
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by belphanor View Post
      who is to say that TSR didn't base their books off of what the kids in ST encountered? Within the mythology of the show, one or more of the lids could have gone on to write D&D books as a way of dealing with the memories of what they went through as kids.
      I'm thinking show is in different dimension from ours anyway, so things are a bit different. After all, premise of show is built on the multi-universe theory floating around physics these days.

      Mostly, this thread is just proving what big geeks we are!
    1. Lost One's Avatar
      Lost One -
      LOL I showed my gf the illithid from monster manual 3rd edition and she was like “it looks so much better!”

      Yep .... sure does.
    1. Wrathamon -
      I just hate when "hive mind" things all go inert when the main thing is defeated or gate closed/severed. It is so overdone.
    1. SharnDM's Avatar
      SharnDM -
      I adore this deep dive by the way. Also love that it isn't presented as super snarky or in a "Gotcha" fashion. Just interesting details. Kudos!
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Bah, Stranger Things definitely made its save.
    1. DerKastellan's Avatar
      DerKastellan -
      Hmmm. Stranger things did so many D&D things right, I'd been glad if it was mentioned at all!

      And the things that the series authors mention are deeper than I would have expected. So the kids start with the BECMI set - if I saw the cover right the book they open in season one is the BECMI Expert rulebook. And this was released in 1983. This would have been a typical introduction for kids into the game. And we mostly hear about how Will is a wizard because that's his archetype of a physically weak and smart boy. It's such a good analogy.

      In season 2 they clearly have switched to AD&D 1e. Not only do they reference the classic Monster Manual, their party roles have been redefined as Paladin (Mike), Cleric (Will), Ranger (Lucas), Bard (Dustin), and Mage (El). They acknowledged the broader selection of classes in 1e right there and used it for more refined character archetypes. I watched an episode of Season 2 with my roomie and she said "Hey, isn't Dustin just such a bard?" and within the same episode they revealed that. That was awesome.

      So, if they skip past the exact history of D&D I don't care. It's an excellent show with strong characters. And it showcases D&D in a way that no actually popular bit of TV and cinema has done before. I'm okay when it uses overused tropes like "Kill the brain and you beat the hive mind." simply because they do it well, you have to acknowledge that there would be almost no other way for a group of civilians to beat a monster invasion, the show just works. I think a show that lampshades its own derivativeness by putting it into the mouth of Max and that simply quotes so expertly things from the 80s till now deserves a break, any time.

      PS - sometimes I catch myself going into how they streamlined D&D. It's apparent to most anyone when it comes to the Fireball in episode 1, season 1. But also things like Dustin being a Bard - if you look at the requirements for playing a bard in 1e you would say no way he could be one without fudging the requirements. But that's just fun nitpicking. Just like the Elder Brain stuff above.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      I just took it as proof that the Duffer Brothers were actual current players, as opposed to mining half-remembered things from childhood.

      Which was confirmed in the Beyond Stranger things after-episode commentaries.
    1. Imaculata's Avatar
      Imaculata -
      I think I noticed an M4 in the last episode that didn't exist until the early 90's.
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