Stranger Things Has Widened the Conversation about Music’s Healing Powers for Trauma - With a Little Help from New Gen Z Icon Kate Bush

Listening to the ‘Running Up That Hill’ chart again has been euphoric.

Stranger Things Has Widened the Conversation about Music’s Healing Powers for Trauma - With a Little Help from New Gen Z Icon Kate Bush
Image credit: Netflix

Access the Audio Read version of this article directly on Spotify for Podcasters.

Warning: Stranger Things season 3 and 4 spoilers ahead

After a three-year hiatus, Season 4 of Stranger Things is finally here - with the two last episodes of the season released only a few days ago. Skyrocketing to the third most streamed season of all time in the English language when it dropped in May, the series is not only hugely successful, it has also notably taken a darker turn. The kids are no longer kids, and this season is closer to horror than its formerly tame, supernatural roots. But it also takes us on a deep, intimate dive into the pain of poor mental health: a literal walk through the complexities of trauma and healing.

When multiple Hawkins High teenagers end up dead in eerily similar circumstances, the Stranger Things crew quickly finds out that the culprit is a demon that seeks out vulnerable people experiencing grief and mental agony, and inhibits their soul before killing them. 

Uncovering symptoms from headaches to strange visions and jarring nightmares, beloved character Max Mayfield realises that she has been corrupted with the demon’s curse. In a final plea to save Max, her friends find the way to break out of its spell is for her to listen to her favourite song. When Max goes into a hypnotic-like trance, the Hawkins gang play Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ on her Walkman, inevitably purging Max of the curse and saving her life - a beautiful metaphor into the healing power of music.

That scene was one of the most moving in Stranger Things’ history. Watching Max fight free, running towards the light as she sees herself dying – all set to the ethereal sound of Kate Bush’s classic – reduced me to tears. Subsequently, Kate Bush’s track has made something of a Renaissance in charting for the first time in almost forty years, even dethroning Harry Styles from his top spot; while flocks of people have been sharing the song that would save them on social media. The concept has opened up the conversation about mental health and trauma again, with teens empathising with Max’s experience. ‘What would be your song’ is now a completely common question to ask, and I have thought long and hard about my personal connection with Kate Bush’s music ever since the new season of the show came out.

I first encountered Kate Bush’s work when I was twelve. The daughter of a musician, one day, my dad declared that he was “rediscovering” the magic of Kate Bush and had been dipping into his old vinyl collection to listen to her back catalogue. Unveiling ‘Hounds Of Love’ and swiftly placing it on the record player, I heard that haunting synth note for the very first time. It was euphoric. Twelve years later and I haven’t tired of that magical feeling; in many ways, I am envious of the teens who are now discovering ‘Hounds Of Love’, wrapping their ears around it for the first time. What a gift; what a joy. 

In many ways, I’ve wondered about the relationship Max might have with ‘Running Up That Hill’. Before she is targeted by that serial killing demon, she is seen waltzing the halls of Hawkins High with her Walkman permanently on display, with the audience able to hear Kate Bush’s high-pitched voice through the headphones and see the light blue, purplish hue of the album cover on her cassette tape. At the beginning of the series, she retreats from her friendship, having broken up with boyfriend Luca and recently lost her brother, Billy, at the end of Season 3. Undoubtedly, she becomes a target on account of this trauma; she visits a therapist, heart-warmingly writing goodbye letters to her friends and family once she learns of the curse. The soundtrack allows viewers to get a glimpse of her distress, to hear the words she can’t speak out. 

Kate Bush’s music is a place for nomads, for misfits. It’s not easy listening. It may be part of the reason why ‘Running Up That Hill’ resonated so much with Max, and by extension, with me. It’s a song about pleading to “make a deal with God” to remove suffering; about wishing that life could be lived “with no problems.” Max is going through a very significant bereavement, that many of us could relate to. Witnessing her visit her brother’s grave after she learns of her fate, I have no doubt that she’s embodying those lyrics: “if I only could, I’d make a deal with God and get him to swap our places.” I, for one, am so glad that Stranger Things has introduced a new generation to the magic that is Kate Bush. It’s a beautiful thing to teach, and even more beautiful that this seminal track saved Max’s life. It certainly saved mine, too.