Netflix’s unabashedly nostalgic series Stranger Things has always featured some of the best Easter Eggs and music from the ’80s. Everything from E.T. callouts to legwarmers has been represented. The first half of Season 4, which premiered yesterday, is a dream for the emo teen girl that still lives inside my middle-aged heart. In much the same way that Cruel Summer used ’90s music to set a mood and underscore the scene’s emotion, Stranger Things has always known how and when to apply the melodic screws to make us laugh and feel hopeful or wring a tear. This was never more true than in Stranger Things Season 4, when Max finds herself locked in Vecna’s grasp and the gang has to help her find her way out. Kate Bush’s synth-pop hit Running Up That Hill(A Deal With God) is her guiding light.
Vecna the Big Bad of Season 4 Part 1 is a dream demon similar to Freddy Krueger. Cleverly, Nightmare On Elm Street OG Robert England makes a brilliant cameo. Krueger needed his victims to be asleep, whereas Vecna can force his victims into a trance that is impossible to break from the outside. He preys on insecurities, and trauma like Babadook fed on grief. The two teens we saw him kill earlier started having visions just twenty-four hours before they met the slimy tree textured devil who periodically recharges by hooking up Borg Queen style to the wet, black, branches.
Max is obviously different, and the demon is surprised to find her in a deconstructed house, but she ultimately is no match for his power. What makes Max so special has yet to unfold. Luckily Lucas knows her well and finds her favorite song that she had been listening to throughout Season 4 in the hopes of giving her a lifeline. It works, and Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill plays in her ears, showing her a window to escape. Why is that song so important to Max in Stranger Things Season 4, Part 1? What does that song mean, and what could it hint at for the remainder of the season?
The haunting first single from her 1985 album Hounds of Love was initially titled A Deal With God but was changed after concern that many countries wouldn’t play a song with the word God in the title. After it received critical acclaim and success both in the U.K. and USA, all subsequent releases of the single went under the title Running Up That Hill(A Deal With God). According to Bush, in an interview with the BBC in 1992, the song is an exploration of understanding. She explained that couples often have disagreements because the power of their emotion gets in the way. Insecurities and misunderstandings are inevitable, but if a deal with God could be struck, allowing the partners to switch, they would gain the insight needed to avoid these misconceptions.
And if I only could I'd make a deal with God And I'd get him to swap our places Be running up that road Be running up that hill Be running up that building Say, if I only could, oh
You don't want to hurt me But see how deep the bullet lies Unaware I'm tearing you asunder Ooh, there is thunder in our hearts Is there so much hate for the ones we love? Tell me, we both matter, don't we? Be running up that hill Be running up that building Say, if I only could, oh
She further explained that she thought of a deal with the Devil when she was first conceiving the song. Bush thought making a heavenly deal was more fitting considering the importance and divinity of love itself. This is especially important considering Max finds herself being pursued by a dream demon, and only the love of her friends can bring her back. She and Lucas are no longer a couple because she feels alone and depressed. Watching Billy sacrifice his life and be killed right in front of her has left its mark on her.
Although this has not been in any explanation of the song, the Sisyphean nature of the title fits well in Stranger Things Season 4 Part 1 as well. For that matter, Max and all of the kids feel as if they are fighting once again for their lives and the fate of the world. The trauma of their past is affecting them all. Eleven is being bullied. Will feels left behind by all of his friends and powerless to help El. Jonathon is masking his grief with copious amounts of pot, Lucas is trying to deny everything weird and immerse himself in high school popularity, and Max is a mess. Only Dustin, Steve, and Robin seem to have walked away mostly unscathed.
Max has it the worst, though. Although her former life was not great, it was better than where she is now. Her mother is working two jobs just to keep them in the crappy mobile home they are living in. When she isn’t at work, she is heavily lubricated with alcohol. Her stepfather and brother are gone. Both were bullies, but Billy did redeem himself at the last minute. Max started pulling away from Lucas because it was all too much. Everything is too loud. Her teachers and friends are too concerned, and the pain is too real. Bush’s lyrics dovetail nicely with everything Max is feeling. She feels like Sisyphus struggling up a hill she can’t ever crest. She is pulling away from everyone because it is safer not to have anyone in her life than risk losing someone else.
On a thematic note for Stranger Things Season 4 Part 1, Running Up That Hill works so well because, once again, kids are running towards danger rather than away from it. As fun as the wish-fulfillment aspect of watching a Scooby Gang “goonies” their way out of one apocalyptic caper after another, I watch with a heavy heart after the tragedy in Texas. I’m ready for a calvary of grownups to show up and take this burden off their slim shoulders. A deal with God may be the only thing that can save Max and the kids. This is Stranger Things, though, and those kinds of deals aren’t possible. Once more to the Upside Down we go.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.