Spoilers ahead for Stranger Things season 4, volume 2. The terrifying fourth season of Stranger Things premiered May 27, introducing fans to the Upside Down's ultimate villain, Vecna. In the nine episodes of volumes 1 and 2, the skeletal, gravelly-voiced monster definitely met the advanced hype, with David Harbour describing the villain as "a a psychological horror that I don’t think we’ve really seen," in a Variety (opens in new tab) interview.
As you've probably seen on Twitter, episode 7 drop ends with a twist that shakes up the entire trajectory of the series so far. Following the big reveal, episode 9 gave fans answers to long-running questions about the creatures of the Upside Down, evoking details going all the way back to season 1! Read on for our breakdown of who Vecna is and what he wants with Eleven and the unlucky town of Hawkins, Indiana.
Who is Vecna?
The big bad of Stranger Things season 4 is a humanoid monster with black skin and movable vines that protrude from his entire body. While he lives in the Upside Down, Vecna can psychically reach into the human world, kind of like the Mind Flayer's connection with Will. He makes his presence known in Hawkins by murdering the town's teenagers in a truly gruesome fashion, all through mental connections (which is especially terrifying).
Like many other Upside Down monsters, Vecna gets his name (and some of his inspiration) from Dungeons & Dragons. In game lore, the monster is a lich (a.k.a. an undead wizard) who forms an army to help him ascend to godhood, per Digital Spy (opens in new tab). The D&D monster also believes that secrets are the true source of power, and would acquire characters' secrets to gain power over them, similar to the Stranger Things villain's manner of feeding off people's trauma.
While the season 4 marks Vecna's first murder streak in Hawkins, it turns out the monster first emerged in the '50s. Super-sleuth Nancy finds out that the monster previously targeted the Creel family, led by patriarch Victor Creel. Shortly after moving to Hawkins, the family was haunted, with dead animals appearing around their house and terrible visions plaguing them. Eventually the mother, son, and daughter all died, leaving Victor to be falsely imprisoned for their murders. Nancy and Robin even visit the man in a mental asylum, where he tells them that the murders were actually done by a "demon," who also got him too, but he broke its trance (more on that later).
What is Vecna's Curse?
In episode 1, we see the full brunt of Vecna's powers as they affect cheerleader Chrissy Cunningham (opens in new tab). Chrissy, who suffers from an eating disorder prompted by her emotionally abusive mother, becomes affected by headaches, nausea, nightmares, and eventually waking hallucinations related to her personal trauma. The whole curse about a week, and 24 hours after the visions start, Chrissy enters a drawn-out trance and Vecna gruesomely kills her: she levitates, all her bones break, and her eyes are gouged out.
In addition to a student newspaper reporter whose friend died in a car accident and a jock who seemed to have issues with his father, Vecna also targets Max, who is still grieving and feels guilty after her brother Billy's death. Luckily, Nancy gets to Creel before Max enters the final trance, and she learns that it was a song that broke his connection with Vecna, in a sort of music therapy. When Max is on the brink of death, Lucas plays her favorite song (in an excellent use of Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill") and she's able to escape, as the music shows a hole through the vision back into the real world.
Beyond killing people, the deaths also have a grave effect on the barrier between the human dimension and the Upside Down. Every time Vecna kills a person, it opens a new gate to the Upside Down where ever the victim stood. As he keeps going, there will soon be openings to the monster-filled dimension all over Hawkins, and the barrier itself may come in danger of breaking.
How did Vecna come to be?
While the still-in-Hawkins branch of the Hawkins gang is investigating Vecna's origins, Eleven teams up with Dr. Owens to undergo a mysterious experiment to regain her powers. Turns out her "Papa," Dr. Brenner, has hooked up a sensory depravation tank to a computer so he can control what she sees, and makes her relive her training in Hawkins Lab to re-learn how to access her powers (she had suffered something akin to a stroke during the season 3 battle, which made her unlearn them).
During the trips, she befriends an orderly at the lab who secretly supports her while she's being bullied by older kids (a sort-of mirror to her being bullied in California). He befriended her because he recognized that she's the most powerful among the kids, and he eventually tricks her into removing a "tracker" from his skin. He immediately goes on the rampage we saw in the season's very first scene, which Eleven had thought she had caused herself, revealing that he has had powers all along. In fact, he is Number One, Brenner's very first experimental subject for enhancing telekinetic powers.
At this point, all the floating backstories we've learned throughout the season all come together. Number One is actually Henry Creel, Victor Creel's son and assumed victim of Vecna. Henry had psychic powers as a child—we don't learn their origin—and could see into the minds of living things. After practicing on animals (hence all the dead ones around the Creel house), he could see into the minds of humans, including his parents, who had traumatic pasts. He developed a hatred for humanity, believing humans are "a unique type of pest, multiplying and poisoning our world, all while enforcing a [cruel, oppressive] structure of their own." He also found a connection with black widow spiders, who prey on weaker species and keep them from overpopulating.
While Victor thought that the strange things going on in the house were caused by a demon, his wife Virginia knew somehow that it was Henry, and wanted to get him professional help. Henry rebelled, killing her and his sister and attempting to kill his father. After using too much of his power, the boy fell into a coma and woke up under the care of Brenner, whose experiments on Eleven and the kids were actually attempts at recreating him. Eventually, unable to control the child, the scientist implanted a chip to subdue his powers.
How did Vecna get to the Upside Down?
One/Henry Creel asks Eleven to join him after explaining his point of view and his goal to restore balance to the world by wiping out humanity. However, El would never go for that, as she has lived as a human and wants to protect the world. So the two most powerful telekinetic humans face off, and Eleven wins. She subdues One and, in a huge twist, sends him to the Upside Down herself, opening the first ever Gate in Hawkins.
While falling into the dark dimension, One/Henry is struck by lightning, disfiguring him. He's also weakened, and it takes him a while to fully recover. Sometime between being banished ahead of the events of Stranger Things around 1983, and reemerging in Hawkins in January 1986, he also grows extra appendages à la the spiders he respects. The final scene of Volume 1 shows a shot of Vecna, and a close up of the 001 tattoo on his arm, confirming that Henry Creel, a.k.a. Number One, became Vecna.
What were the inspirations for Vecna?
The Duffer Brothers (opens in new tab) and Friendly Orderly/Henry Creel/Number One/Vecna actor Jamie Campbell Bower (opens in new tab) have shared some of their inspirations for the Big Bad, which include iconic '80s villains like Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, Pinhead from Hellraiser, and Pennywise from the original It film.
Also, if Game of Thrones fans saw some inklings of the Night King in Vecna's warped form, that was by design. For the prosthetic look, the Duffers tapped GoT makeup artist Barrie Gower and his prosthetic makeup company BGFX (he's also recently worked on The Witcher, The Green Knight, and Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). Gower told Variety (opens in new tab) that he was approached to make Stranger Things' own version of the Night King, and that the burned look of Freddy Krueger was a major inspiration.
What does Vecna want with El?
In his twisted mind, Vecna believes that he his helping the world by wiping out humans, as a "predator, but for good." When Vecna asks for El to join him, it's because he also sees her as a predator, "better" than humans. He offers her his path as a sort of freedom, as they reshaped the world in their image. When she refuses and casts him away, she becomes not only his enemy, but his only real threat. That's why he didn't begin his mission in Hawkins until she was powerless and gone. And why there's going to be a truly epic showdown when she gets back.
What happens with Vecna in Volume 2?
While Vecna was on offense killing kids and opening portals in Volume 1, his scenes in Volume 2 are reacting to the crew's four-phase plan to kill him. He takes Max's bait in the Creel attic, bringing her into a trance (revealed through a horrifying scene where Lucas digs into Max's worst fears before we realize he's an imitation). Max is able to get away from the villain through her memory of season 2's dance, but eventually he finds her, turning the glitzy high school gym upside down.
Eleven piggybacks into Max's trance and holds Vecna off for a few minutes before he takes control, bringing the girls to his mind palace and restraining them. He also takes the time to launch into a classic villain monologue, where we learn more about what happened to him after landing in the Upside Down. Just when he starts to break Max's bones and it looks like all is lost, Eleven taps into her power to make him stop, while the factions of the Hawkins crew attack the hive mind and Steve, Nancy, and Robin ignite his physical body.
In Vecna's monologue, we see that he wandered the Upside Down after crash-landing, learning more about the dimension, a "realm unspoiled by mankind" (where the demogorgons already existed). We also learn the "huge, great, cool thing" that Bower previously teased to The Hollywood Reporter (opens in new tab), as the flashback confirms that Vecna created the Mind Flayer, to become the predator he always imagined. The hive mind is his mind, and he's been sending his puppets out to Hawkins since season 1.
[Also, here's a super-cool Easter egg: Eddie played the Metallica song "Master of Puppets" in an effort to take down a literal master of puppets.]
We also see flashes of his actions throughout the seasons. The gate Eleven accidentally opened while projecting her consciousness pre-season 1 was how Vecna made it back to the surface. When she kept closing his gates, first in season 1's finale then season 2's, he sought a way to get her power for himself. When El was grabbed by the Mind Flayer in season 3, he somehow took part of her power and figured out how to open the gates through the trances.
Though the Hawkins crew's plan does work, Vecna still wins in the end. He jumps out of the window of the Creel house and disappears, à la Mike Myers. When Max dies for a minute, before Eleven pulls her consciousness back, his four gates are complete, and the portals extend throughout Hawkins, killing dozens and tearing down the boundaries between the Upside Down and the surface.
Will Vecna return in season 5?
Definitely. Now that we know it was Vecna all along, he has to come back and try to finish his plan. As he tells Eleven in his mind palace, he wants Hawkins and the rest of the world "to burn and fall. I will be there to pick up the pieces when it does, and remake it into something beautiful."
Of course, the show's big finale still needs to be mysterious, and the cast and crew are tight-lipped when it comes to next season. In a Variety (opens in new tab) interview, Jamie Campbell Bower said that he "couldn't possibly say" whether he'll be back next season.
"I don’t know. Matt and Ross have their own thing going there. When they want to bring forward it, I’m sure they will. So we’ll see. We’ll wait and see what they’ve got planned for sure," he told the outlet.
Quinci LeGardye is a Contributing Culture Editor who covers TV, movies, Korean entertainment, books, and pop culture. When she isn’t writing or checking Twitter, she’s probably watching the latest K-drama or giving a concert performance in her car.
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