What do the villains from Netflix’s Stranger Things, Stephen King’s IT, and Marvel’s Dr. Strange all have in common? Besides being bound by the word “strange” or the young actor Finn Wolfhard himself, I mean.
I’ll give you a hint: they’re all about the Love.
Lovecraft, that is. One H.P. Lovecraft, the OG of cosmic horror and creator of the Cthulhu mythos, first published in 1928.
Cthulhu is an ancient monster who dwells beneath the ocean until he rises from his great slumber to destroy the world. With an unfathomable massive size and slick tentacles for a face, just the sight of him will drive a man to madness.
Oh yeah, he’s also a cosmic villain.
A cosmic villain just like the Mind Flayer of Stranger Things, Pennywise the clown from Stephen King’s IT, and Dr. Strange’s nemesis, Dormammu.
“They had come from the stars, and had brought Their images with Them” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Season two of Stranger Things picks up in the down, with Will Byers experiencing nightmarish visions which appear to be glimpses into the eery realm where he was recently trapped, The Upside Down. While encountering this dark dimension, Will sees — and is later infected by — a gigantic, shadowy monster from a dimension beyond our own, coming to destroy our world.
Once again using Dungeons and Dragons lore as their guide, Will’s friends liken this Shadow Monster to a Mind Flayer, which is said to be so ancient that it has forgotten where its home is, so it infects other dimensions it encounters and turns those infected places into its own.
Not only does the Shadow Monster/Mind Flayer look like a Cthulhu descendent, or some sort of Lovecraftian creature, but we see in its interaction with Will Byers that it possesses telepathic qualities akin to Lovecraft’s monster.
“The youth’s febrile mind, apparently, was dwelling on strange things; and the doctor shuddered now and then as he spoke of them. They included not only a repetition of what he had formerly dreamed, but touched wildly on a gigantic thing ‘miles high’ which walked or lumbered about.” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Similarly, the true nature of Pennywise, the shapeshifting clown from Stephen King’s IT, is that of a cosmic entity and known “eater of worlds.” For King fans that remember the original novel and subsequent 90s miniseries, Pennywise even takes the form of a giant spider — complete with comatose victims wrapped with webbing — in the final battle with “The Loser’s Club.”
IT feeds on human fear, and because of its said childish and sadistic nature, IT prefers to prey on the fears of children, as their’s are less complex than the fears of adults.
I mean, I get it… My student loan collectors would be a lot scarier if they were suddenly harassing me from the drain of my bathroom sink.
And like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, IT makes its appearances on Earth periodically — with no trace of its presence until each rendezvous with humanity.
“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
Another aspect of the Lovecraft’s mythos is the fictional cult following of the cosmic being, which is also the case in Marvel’s Dr. Strange.
Neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange seeks the healing power of a Nepalese guru he believes can fix his injured hands, and is subsequently introduced to the dimensional qualities of our reality — qualities which he is taught to manipulate through the mystical arts and modern practicing of “spells.” Well, that and a bit of chakra flexing.
Dr. Strange soon engages in battle with Kaecilius, a former pupil of Strange’s guru. Kaecilius is the leader of a group determined to unleash the cosmic wrath of Dormammu, a being from the darkest dimension. The former pupil now subscribes to Dormammu doctrine, as he sees this cosmic being as a way to exist beyond time — a key to immortality.
Dormammu’s cult will have to wait their turn, though, as Cthulhu appears to have the whole “time” thing on lockdown. Followers have worshipped his cosmic presence since men have walked the earth, and it’s said that Cthulhu will continue to reign long after such men are gone.
“They worshipped, so they said the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway.” — H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu
But for those who are not immediately lining up to join a cosmic cult, how exactly does one go about defeating such a cosmic being? While that’s not exactly clear, it’s certainly not by physical force alone.
In season two’s final episode of Stranger Things, we are witness to Eleven’s impressive display of levitation, telepathy, and energy-manipulation as she overpowers the Mind Flayer, using her psychic ability to close the dimensional gate where the cosmic creature threatens to enter our world. But Eleven doesn’t actually destroy the monstrous entity, and in the last shot of the episode we see a much larger version of the Mind Flayer looming ominously over the town of Hawkins, presumably preparing to wreak a new havoc in the next season.
Likewise, the cosmic battles fought with Pennywise and Dormammu are not fought with weapons or violence, and the jury’s still out on whether or not these villains, like the Mind Flayer, are even defeated at all.
Though they injure the cosmic clown and save themselves from the grisly fates of his other victims, the Losers Club doesn’t truly defeat Pennywise in their adolescent encounter with him, and per usual, the fear-feasting monster returns 27 years later. In order to truly contend with the cosmic villain, the Losers Club must engage him in a series of riddles, also known as The Ritual of Chud. The secret to defeating Pennywise is given to The Losers Club by another cosmic being, a benevolent turtle named Maturin, in a portion of the story only found in the novel.
But are the Losers actually successful in their adult battle with the dancing clown? Only time will tell…
Unless you read the novel, I guess. The novel will tell.
Similarly, Dr. Strange doesn’t “defeat” Dormammu in a physical sense, but simply tricks the cosmic being into fleeing our dimension. Through his manipulation of the very space and time surrounding himself and Dormammu, Dr. Strange torments the dark being on a seemingly infinite loop of existence, no matter how many times Dormammu kills the former doctor.
When it is clear that there is no end in sight to the repeated pestering, Dormammu agrees to leave our dimension, desperate to escape Dr. Strange’s metaphysical grip.
As for Cthulhu… Well, I don’t think he’s going away anytime soon. He doesn’t have an entire culture and mythos of his own for nothing, and his presence continues to act as the inspiration for countless fictional characters, musical albums, games, and stories.
In fact, with such a continued presence found in our entertainment culture today, you might think he’s already woken from his slumber beneath the sea. And really, Lovecraft’s words in his fictional short story ring true in today’s reality — Cthulhu has reached cult-like status.
Even though he means to destroy mankind…
But hey, what cosmic villain doesn’t?
So if you’re scared out of your pants at the prospect of an unfathomably large sea monster ready to rip your face off, or if the thought of ancient, inter-dimensional beings visiting Earth makes you uneasy, you can thank H.P. Lovecraft for exacerbating — if not downright creating — that terror.
And for all of the reasons you love the Stranger Things series, enjoy the works of Stephen King, are loyal to comic book superheroes, or simply appreciate a good story — do yourself a favor and read some H.P. Lovecraft.
You too might develop a cosmic love for the cosmic horror.
In the meantime, remember: In his house at R’lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.