Warning! Contains major spoilers for Stranger Things season 4.
Stranger Things has left a lot of questions unanswered over the years, and one of the most vexing was: why did the Demogorgon not kill Will when Barb met her fate at its hands back in season 1? Debuting to rave reviews in 2016, Stranger Things has since become a runaway success for creators the Duffer brothers and a massive franchise for Netflix. With a strong multi-generational cast, an involving central mystery, and a truckload of 80s nostalgia, it’s no surprise viewers have grown to love the show so much, with Stranger Things season 4 ending in a horrifying, cinematic bang in part 2.
The show follows the ill-fated adults and teenagers in Hawkins Indiana, a seemingly quiet small town where all manner of sci-fi horror shenanigans are taking place beneath the picturesque surface. Across the show’s four seasons, various characters are killed by entities from the Upside Down, the Silent Hill-esque parallel dimension from which the monsters terrorizing Hawkins emerge. From season 3’s Mind Flayer to season 4’s Vecna, the meticulously crafted Lovecraftian antagonists are among the many reasons Stranger Things struck a chord with viewers and critics alike. However, despite the abject terror and subsequent critical praise monstrosities like the Demogorgon generate, they have also created problematic plot holes.
For example, some viewers have noted that the inciting incident of Stranger Things season 1, the titular “vanishing of Will Byers,” hasn’t been properly explained. The show hasn’t really cleared up why the Demogorgon tracked down and trapped Will. If Will was spared, why did the Demogorgon take Barb? One popular theory that emerged online before season 4 hit Netflix in 2022 was that the Demogorgons are telepathically controlled servants. According to the theory, they are being controlled by the Mind Flayer. Season 4 put the kibosh on these fan explanations, as the Mind Flayer is dead but the Demogorgons in the show are still incredibly hostile. The questions around the different fates of Barb and Will still remain, so here’s why their run-ins with the Demogorgon had different outcomes.
The Mind Flayer’s Demogorgon Control Theory Explained
In Stranger Things season 1, Will is attacked and captured by the Demogorgon. His vanishing kicks off the plot of the whole show and he survives for a long, lonely week in the mysterious Upside-Down after being snatched by the toothy-mawed monster. Will eventually escapes with the help of his friends, but when Nancy’s short-lived friend Barb is snatched by the same monster, she is brutally and instantly killed. This is a moment many fans still find upsetting, even years after season 1 debuted. Barb wasn’t around for long in Stranger Things, but her short stint struck a chord with fans. Many demanded justice for Barb or, at the very least, answers. Why did the Demogorgon take Barb but spare Will? According to one Stranger Things fan theory, the creature that captured Will was being controlled by future baddie the Mind Flayer. This (literally) more cerebral monster was looking for a human host, whereas the Demogorgon that grabbed Barb was just looking for food or may have screwed up his attempt at appeasing the Mind Flayer.
How Demogorgons Could Be Controlled by the Mind Flayer
According to some Stranger Things followers, the monstrous villain/bane of Hawkins Lab isn’t just a mindless monster eating his way through the younger inhabitants of the town. Instead, this fan theory posits that the Demogorgon’s actions throughout season 1 prove the Stranger Things antagonist is instead a puppet of seasons 2 and 3’s Mind Flayer. The proof of this comes in the form not only of Will’s unlikely survival throughout a week in the Upside-Down but also the monster’s inconsistent behavior. Although the Demogorgon’s attack on Barb remains unseen, her screams indicated the monster may have more than merely drag her away and consume her. When viewers later see her body she’s long dead but doesn’t appear to have been eaten, even partially. If the Demogorgon that killed Barb was hunting for food, there would be much less Barb remaining. However, if the Demogorgon was acting under the guidance of the Mind Flayer, and its goal was just to kill Barb and spread fear, the theory holds up as an explanation.
The Demogorgon Tried (& Failed) To Use Barb
If Stranger Things viewers assume – judging by the creepy slug that emerges from the mouth of Barb’s corpse – that the Demogorgon attacking her is the same monster that kidnapped Will in the first place, the villain’s plan starts to make sense. Since the same sort of slug is later seen slipping out of Will’s mouth at the end of Stranger Things season 1, fans postulated it could be proof the Flayer tried to control her mind and behavior the same way it successfully took over Will’s body and mind during season 2. The slugs, the theory claimed, were a side-effect of the Mind Flayer’s powers and possession – a moment that would eventually have an in-show explanation and provided more of the nightmare-inducing imagery that makes Stranger Things great. Barb’s death implied that whatever the slug does didn’t take, so the Mind Flayer reached out to Will instead. It could be that the Mind Flayer needed a younger host, or Barb may have simply died while the Demogorgon was attempting to infect her.
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Why The Demogorgon/Mind Flayer Theory Isn’t True
However, as satisfyingly clear as this theory is, there are some holes in the explanation of Stranger Things’ villain hierarchy. Subsequent seasons have pretty much proved that the Mind Flayer wasn’t using Demogorgons to terrorize Hawkins – Demogorgons just do that. In Stranger Things season 2, the slug that Will coughed up turns into Dart, the Demodog, who grows into a Demogorgon. Dart the Demogorgon is a mindless killing machine that eats a cat and attempts to kill numerous humans, acting without direct instruction from the Mind Flayer’s hive-mind. The slugs aren’t a by-product of Mind Flayer influence, they’re larval Demogorgons. Season 4 confirmed that Demogorgon’s violent tendencies are natural, as there is one in Kamchatka that’s just as aggressive to humans, even with the Mind Flayer’s influence nowhere to be found.
As such, there may be no connection between the Demogorgon’s use of Will and Barb as human incubators and the overall machinations of the Mind Flayer. Vecna in season 4 also uses corpses as incubators, although for openings between Hawkins and the Upside Down rather than reproduction. Vecna and The Mind Flayer are different, separate, and may even be at odds (the Mind Flayer still exists somewhere in the Upside Down). Multiple eldritch beings in the show use human bodies to create what they need, which means that doing so isn’t a signpost to the Mind Flayer’s grand machinations – it’s just something Upside-Down monsters do.
The Mind Flayer also wouldn’t need to use Demogorgons as proxies. The Stranger Things Big Bad is more than capable of reaching out and controlling humans directly, as the show proves when it does just that. In season 3 of Stranger Things, the Mind Flayer successfully uses the brain and body of Billy as a conduit for taking over Hawkins’ human population. While it’s possible the monster simply gave up on relying on Demogorgons and – after being expelled by Will – took over another human directly instead, it seems unlikely this is the case.
Barb’s Corpse Appears In Season 4
All this theorizing may clear up the events of Stranger Things season 1, but how does it pay off later in the show’s continuity? In season 3, a Mind Flayer attack saw something slip underneath Eleven’s skin during the chaos of a brutal battle. In a wince-inducing moment, Jonathan Byers managed to peel back the heroine’s skin and tear this tiny parasite from her leg. Before season 4, some speculated it was another mind-controlling slug that would eventually turn El into a Mind Flayer-controlled antagonist. This twist would have revealed El to be the villain of Stranger Things 4, giving her plausible deniability as she couldn’t control her behavior during the possession. However, season 4 again proved these theories moot. Much to the relief of many fans, Stranger Things didn’t have El turn heel and brought in new antagonist Vecna instead.
There is a Stranger Things season 4 Barb appearance, just not the one anyone wanted. In episode 7, “The Massacre at Hawkins Lab”, Vecna taunts Nancy with visions of her own guilt and grief. For viewers, this experience translates to (among other things) a brief glimpse of Barb rotting in the Upside Down. Many fans latched onto the Mind Flayer theory because it at least provided some justification. It would mean the beloved character didn’t callously meet her end because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Barb’s death remains collateral damage from monsters like Vecna and the Mind Flayer trying to achieve their ends, but she wasn’t singled out for a higher purpose by either villain. Her death was a narrative device to illustrate the danger and cruelty of the Upside Down and the fate of characters who end up there. Even though fans have wanted justice for Barb in the form of giving her death meaning, Stranger Things season 4 still hasn’t explained why Will was spared by the Demogorgon.
More: The Simpsons Spoofed Stranger Things Twice (And Neither Worked)
Stranger Things season 4, vol 2 releases on Netflix 07/01/22 at 3AM EST.
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