No Stranger Thing Than White Supremacy
The racism is coming from inside the house
In 1923, Indiana was home to the largest branch of the Ku Klux Klan in the country: almost a third of all white men in the state called themselves members. The New York Times wrote that Easterners were “surprised” by the KKK’s popularity in a state “which seemed of all our forty-eight the least imperiled by any kind of menace.” As someone born and raised in Indiana, I’ve always been interested in coastal fantasies of Indiana as a place where nothing happens except the corn growing yellow under a blue sky. It is thinking that explains why, almost a hundred years later, the show Stranger Things is set in 1980s Hawkins, a fictional Indiana town. The purpose of Indiana in this show – and in shows like Parks & Recreation and The Middle – is to be “everywhere,” but also be nowhere, really. It functions basically as a synecdoche for “America,” or, more accurately, for an idea of America that isn’t the one anyone working in television lives in.
Metropolitan delusions of wholesomeness aside, Indiana is, like many states, a place where bad things happen (for example, launching the political career of vice-president-elect Mike Pence). In the early 1920s, the KKK in Indiana and several other states was led by a charismatic, blue-eyed white supremacist named D.C. Stephenson. He had undue political influence on Indiana’s governor, famously boasting, “I am the law in Indiana.” In March of 1925, Stephenson abducted and raped a 29-year-old woman named Madge Oberholtzer. “[He] bit my neck and face, chewing my tongue, chewed my breasts until they bled, my back, my legs, my ankles and mutilated me all over my body,” Oberholtzer testified as she died from those wounds. The public furor around the trial is credited for a nationwide drop-off of KKK members; in Indiana membership fell from around half a million to only (only?) four thousand.
Stranger Things does not present a recognizable version of Indiana (it was filmed in Georgia) or even a verisimilitude of Indiana as much as an exercise in explaining why The Middle and Parks & Rec take place in the Hoosier State: it is the place where nothing happens – the ideal location for a post-9/11 feel-good comedy – and therefore the place where the worst possible things happen, not least for the simple fact of their happening. It’s not a geographical and historical fact as much as an idea of normalcy, a heterotopic place that attempts to avoid the question of what America is, now, by showing what America was, then – or what America has fooled itself into thinking it was.