How Stranger Things and Eleven spawned from the upside-down anime Elfen Lied

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Stranger Things was inspired by something even stranger. What would go viral on Netflix as a half-asleep suburbia turned upside down started in a top-secret Japanese lab. The altverse where Eleven would emerge from, along with the whirlwind of strange phenomena that followed her, is a research facility where scientists perform unthinkable experiments on a human subspecies otherwise known as the Diclonius.

You would never think that an obscure manga later turned into an anime was the paranormal force behind the Duffer Brothers' neon love song to scary '80s movies, but the duo credited gore-splattered sci-fi body horror fantasia Elfen Lied as one of their monstrous inspirations — particularly for the girl who first escaped Hawkins Lab as a number in a hospital gown.

She's basically a wizard

Eleven is the mage of Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will's misfit group in the Dungeons & Dragons sense, but her psychokinetic powers reach far beyond the magic spells of an RPG. Provoke her and you will try to convince yourself you didn't just see lightbulbs mysteriously flashing and random things crashing to the floor if you make it out alive. Horned humanoid Lucy of Lynn Okamoto's Elfen Lied is her Diclonius reflection, who is also a potentially homicidal test subject born under a different name, assigned a number, and confined in something much worse than a straitjacket.

Diclonii come into being from the "vector virus" and can kill when their psionic abilities manifest. Their numerous vectors, which appear as ghostly hands in the anime and manga, can make it appear as if limbs dismember themselves or human heads spontaneously explode off their bodies. Lucy can actually reach inside someone's brain with her vectors and damage the right blood vessels to make it look as if the victim died of an aneurysm. Whether Eleven can break blood vessels just by using the power of thought is debatable, but she can break plenty of other things. It doesn't really matter that you can't use an invisible appendage to reach through someone's skull when you can just kill them by smashing them against a wall.

Eleven acquired her powers in utero when her mother volunteered for the highly controversial MKUltra study, which used bizarre and brutal methods to train subjects in mind control (Eleven's mother was unaware that she was pregnant). The baby was born with shocking biokinetic abilities. After her powers were detected, she was snatched away to be used as a test subject, and her mother sued ... only to be electro-shocked into submission.

Meanwhile, Lucy was born of a human infected with the vector virus and abandoned by her father. Her desperate mother sought her out until she was seized by the Diclonius Research Institute and committed suicide after being raped to birth another half-breed.

Yes, yes, it's your Papa.

With powers that could easily crumble an entire lab to its foundations, why would Eleven allow herself to be tormented by the sadistic Dr. Brenner? She sees him as a father figure she will go to any length for even if that means having nodes attached her head, enduring a sensory deprivation tank, or being dragged down the hallway screaming and locked up in solitary confinement. From that moment in Season 1 of Stranger Things that Eleven calls Brenner "Papa," anyone who has read or watched Elfen Lied should make the connection to another Diclonius, Nana, and her tormentor-slash-surrogate-father Kurama.

Nana endures even worse tortures at the hands of Kurama. Think being shot with a barrage of bullets or being mutilated while completely naked. Diclonii heal faster than humans, so it's only a matter of time before "Papa" starts encouraging her to go through with the next round of gunshots or knives, just as Eleven remains convinced she must impress Brenner by crushing soda cans or remotely spying on Russian agents. Neither of these men has a shred of empathy. Both are sociopathic, power-starved sadists who just want to keep their specimens under control for their own selfish purposes.

The irony here is that the experimentation Nana and Eleven are imprisoned by unexpectedly frees them. When Kurama is foaming at the mouth to find Lucy, who has since escaped, he puts Nana through a series of even more grueling tests that prove she is the ultimate heat-seeking missile that will find Lucy and return her to the lab. Nana takes advantage.

Meanwhile, Eleven is in the sensory deprivation tank, which has become as much a part of her life as boys and school dances are for other girls her age, when she encounters a monster from another dimension. When Brenner pushes her to connect with the Demogorgon, she accidentally opens a portal to the Upside Down that unleashes it into the lab. Chaos erupts and she escapes unnoticed.  

I'm the monster

It's easy to be misunderstood when you're a 12-year-old girl wandering around in just a hospital gown and unexplained phenomena happen around you. It's even easier when you're a girl with horns. Lucy, Nana, and Eleven are all seen as threats to society that should be either locked up or exterminated. They are also seen as less than alive but more than inanimate, not sentient beings but weapons of mass destruction at the government's disposal. Some DCI personnel would literally die to kill Lucy, while others seek to use her to spread the vector virus and annihilate humankind. Nana is used as a hunting and killing machine. Eleven was supposed to be a weapon.

Elfen Lied and Stranger Things both pulse with the humanity that still runs through these girls' veins. Lucy has been branded as a thrill killer who gets off on creating corpses. She and Nana often wander the streets alone, fearing they can never really coexist with humans. They struggle with self-doubt even after befriending humans who risk their lives to defend them as they are stalked by merciless agents of the DCI. Eleven's human DNA does nothing in a world swarming with local authorities who spread propaganda and "bad people" from the lab who lost their freak. There is one especially wrenching moment in Stranger Things 2 when Eleven is standing at a window out in the cold, watching Mike being interrogated as the authorities try to convince him that she's extremely dangerous.

These characters can hardly even feel safe among their own kind. Lucy dismembers Nana in self-defense and combats other Diclonii sent out to incapacitate or destroy her. Nana develops a vengeance against Lucy. Eleven is unable to keep robbing convenience stores and levitating trains with her psychic "sister" from the lab when she realizes she needs to be with her friends in Hawkins more than a Chicago rebel gang.   

Behind the graphic violence of both stories is the question of what defines humanity. Do horns make someone subhuman? Do psychokinetic powers make them inhuman? Can you really convince a being who can feel physical and psychological pain that she is nothing but a number? Individuals like Eleven or Lucy may not exist in this universe, but they are metaphors for anyone who has ever been mistreated for having proverbial horns. Society may have to rethink who's really the monster.