(A version of this article was published on RELEVANT magazine’s website on August 2, 2019.)
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It is the fall of 1984, and “Purple Rain” is the #1 song. Transformers has just debuted, Will Byers has had his first glimpse of the Mind Flayer, and on the campus of a Jesuit university in Chicago, the Enneagram is first becoming publicly known in America.
You may (or may not) have heard of the Enneagram, but at this point in history, it had yet to become the international phenomenon it has since. Its basic elements show up in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist wisdom traditions, with possible origins in ancient Egypt, Korea, or Greece. But the 1980s — in addition to being the era of big hair, teen movies, and, of course, Stranger Things — were among the first decades when these traditions crystalized into the modern form we know today: a system of human character structure divided into nine types, with fractal-like divisions into triads and subtypes. Enneagram expert Chris Heuertz likens it to a color wheel, each type blending into adjacent types (wings) to a greater or lesser degree, and with an infinite variety of shades within each type.
Its basic elements show up in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist wisdom traditions, with possible origins in ancient Egypt, Korea, or Greece. But the 1980s — in addition to being the era of big hair, teen movies, and, of course, Stranger Things — were among the first decades when these traditions crystalized into the modern form we know today: a system of human character structure divided into nine types, with fractal-like divisions into triads and subtypes. Enneagram expert Chris Heuertz likens it to a color wheel, each type blending into adjacent types (wings) to a greater or lesser degree, and with an infinite variety of shades within each type.
Though often treated merely as yet another personality test, the Enneagram does not claim to show us nine different forms the self can take. Instead it shows nine ways that people become disconnected from their true selves: nine ways the ego constructs a false self — a mask or defensive strategy against our fears. The knowledge that comes from learning about these masks can help us to begin to dismantle them, and in so doing, grow into fuller versions of our true selves.
Our true self, our essence, often feels far away, but in reality it is incredibly near, like Will in the Upside Down looking out at his mother through the walls of his own house.
The walls that separate ourselves from our essence, though, are incredibly thin — so thin that all we must do to pass through them is realize they’re not really there. Often we have to do nothing more than realize, aided through contemplative practices like rest, consent, and engagement, that the things we strive for are unnecessary, and that everything needed has already been given to us. The Enneagram sheds light on nine unique paths toward just such a realization.
It can often help to learn about these nine types by seeing examples of them in fictional characters, like the many colorful personalities in Stranger Things.
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The Body Triad
Jim Hopper. One of the most human depictions of an Eight in recent pop culture, Hopper embodies nearly every trait of this type: its preference for force and intimidation, its fear of vulnerability, its anger issues, and its protectiveness of the weak. The sheriff of Hawkins, Indiana, Hopper faces the world without fear of confrontation, demanding what he needs even when not in a position of advantage. He enjoys conflict, and even revels in it at times, whether physical or merely verbal, and feels a strong need to extend control over his life and his surroundings. Yet, as is true of all Eights, the tough exterior is a mask used to guard against experiencing pain. As he learns Eleven’s story, it brings back memories of his daughter, who he lost years ago, which drives him to make sure a similar tragedy is not repeated with El. Protective of her against both the Hawkins National Lab and against boys like Mike, he goes too far in guarding against risk, to the extent that he restricts El’s freedom, and is unable to healthily express his fears due to the Eight’s fear of vulnerability. Yet the letter he writes in season 3 shows that he has grown enough to look at his own issues honestly, and admit that living is worth facing risks, and that pain — even pain that echoes past trauma — isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Max Mayfield. Though she joins the party in season 2, Max shows a visceral independence and a resistance to the opinions of others. She is bold and outspoken, calling out the party for being creepy and stalking her, and resisting Mike’s overbearing worry over Eleven in season 3. Max values autonomy highly, insisting that she and El can make their own rules. She urges El to break up with Mike in retaliation for his comparably innocent lie, and to take a small form of revenge (the Eight’s fixation) by spying on the boys. Like most Eights, Max thrives in confrontation; yet she realizes and admits her anger issues, and her desire to avoid becoming like her brother, Billy (also an Eight), pushes her to be vulnerable and open with Lucas: always a healthy, if difficult, place for Eights to be.
Billy Hargrove. Max’s older step-brother is a bully, a racist, and a bit of a narcissist, who embodies many of the more toxic levels of type Eight. He is aggressive with the party, especially toward Max who he blames for being stuck in the town of Hawkins, and orders her to stay away from Lucas in season 2, using physical intimidation and threats to compel her. Billy only begins to respect his step-sister when she in turn confronts him, demanding he leave her and the rest of the party alone. This reflects the Eight’s tendency to connect with others through mutual confrontation. In season 3, we see glimpses of what made Billy this way: he was abused and humiliated by his father, who also beat his birth mother, and as a result has come to embody the same toxic masculinity his father imposed on him. Typical of Eights, Billy hides behind this mask of force and control to avoid having to experience those painful losses of control ever again. Yet his final moments, when Eleven’s empathy remind him who he really is, show growth: his sacrifice at the hands of the Mind Flayer not only enables him to regain control over himself, but also protects the now powerless Eleven, his sister, and the others.
Erica Sinclair. Though we don’t get to know her very well until season 3, when she becomes involved in “Operation Child Endangerment,” Erica’s outspoken, precocious demeanor bears clear marks of type Eight. She tends to use the force of her personality to get what she wants, and resists being taken advantage of. Her reluctance to be called a nerd is a form of a protective shield, as is her insistence that she has no phobias. Her scorn for nerdiness may soften in the future, though, due to her time with Dustin, who sees through her defenses and suggests it’s okay to like things enthusiastically without putting up a shield.
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Will Byers. A quiet, sweet, and mellow kid, Will attaches to the desires and preferences of others, going with the flow of the party and drawing comfort from its stability as a group. It is only when the party’s cohesion begins to weaken, in season 3, that he becomes vocal and critical of his friends, threatened by the breakdown of his comfort zone and feeling, as Nines tend to do, that his needs are a lower priority than the others’. Because of this, Will often has trouble discerning what he really wants, as for Nines, needs are only a liability in their quest to maintain harmony. Will generally keeps his fears to himself, initially hiding his traumatic experiences from others so they don’t cause others to worry. In season 2, Will develops “true sight,” the ability to sometimes see into the Upside Down, reflecting Nines’ spiritual capacity and tendency to see the bigger picture. When stressed, he retreats to the solitude of Castle Byers where he can find peace and refuge — even if only fragile and temporary — from the conflicts and tensions of the world, which is what Nines ultimately seek.
Sam Owens. The director of the Hawkins National Lab after Brenner’s downfall in season 1, Dr. Owens is a much humbler, more amiable and easygoing man. He often mediates between the government scientists and their need to respond to the threats of the Upside Down, and the more personal, everyday concerns of Hopper and the Byerses, reflecting the Nine’s ability to see conflicts from all sides. Owens is able to disarm Will’s reticence and shyness, and is even understanding of Joyce’s traumatic suspicion of him and the lab. Though positive, Owens’ desire to maintain good will between the lab and the town results in a resistance to Hopper’s claims in season 2 that the Upside Down’s influence is spreading, reflecting the stubborn Nine tendency to avoid sources of tension. Owens’ resentment of Hopper giving him orders also suggests a slight Eight wing.
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Lucas Sinclair. Often the party’s compass, Lucas tends to redirect the group’s focus toward what he feels should be their primary objective. In other words, true to type One, his attention is drawn to what is wrong in a given situation. Ones fear that they will never be good enough and as a result are driven to always do the right thing. When the party first meets Eleven in season 1, Lucas is impatient and critical of her, feeling she is another problem to distract them from finding the lost Will Byers. He also criticizes Mike for lying to El in season 3, insisting there is a right and wrong way to handle such situations. Lucas is the most vocal about the party’s rules, “the most important [of which] is friends don’t lie,” as he often reminds them. Though he himself breaks a party rule when he tells Max about Eleven without the others’ permission, he is no less disapproving of Dustin when the latter secretly keeps a baby Demogorgon in his house. Ultimately, Lucas is a fairly healthy One. He does not hold onto resentment for long, and his high standards and convictions do not keep him from enjoying spontaneity and adventure, and even, at times, a little innocent rule-breaking.
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The Heart Triad
Mike Wheeler. It’s fitting that Mike’s basement often serves as the center of the party’s activities, as type Two is characteristically generous, hospitable, nurturing, and others-oriented. Mike shelters Eleven when she first escapes from the Hawkins Lab, and is quick to believe in her and stick up for her even before the two of them become close friends. He willingly sacrifices himself to save Dustin at the quarry and is supportive and optimistic with Will when the latter is possessed by the Mind Flayer, reassuring him that everything that has happened has a bright side. Type Two’s core desire is to be loved for who they are, though they are seldom direct about their own needs, fearing they will only be loved for what they give and how they serve. Mike has trouble articulating his feelings for El in words, but fluently demonstrates them through kind and helpful acts. Like many Twos, Mike has problems with possessiveness — especially protective of El in season 3, he sometimes believes that he knows what is best for the ones he loves more than they do themselves. Ultimately, he is able to let go and trust her, though. Mike also shows a One wing in his resistance to including Max in the party at first, believing she is unfairly replacing Eleven, and in the value he places in the rule that “friends don’t lie.”
Bob Newby. Nearly everything Bob does in his short stint in Stranger Things seems to be about helping and taking care of the people he loves and those around them. Bob offers to take the family out of Hawkins, hoping to remove them from their bad memories there, and attempts — though with dire consequences — to help Will overcome his fear of his visions of the Mind Flayer. He brings Will games and brain teasers when he believes Will is ill, is delighted to help them solve the tunnel maps, and readily volunteers to reset the computer system at the lab when it loses power, knowing he is the only one who can do it. His often-helpful advice and encouragement is the communication style of Twos, epitomized in his catch phrase, “Easy peasy.” Bob’s focus on others’ needs reflect the Two’s core desire for love and connection, and his death, while a noble sacrifice, also suggests the Two’s tendency to overgive to the exclusion of their own health.
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Martin Brenner. An example of an unhealthy Three, Dr. Brenner chases success at all costs as the head of Hawkins National Laboratory. A scientist, he pursues achievement through research and sees the development and training of Eleven as his greatest feat. While he may or may not have genuine affection for her, Brenner essentially sees her as a means to an end, reflecting a more negative tendency of this type to prioritize accomplishments over others, including those they love. Similarly, Brenner discards Terry Ives — Eleven’s mother — once he has what he needs from her. Like many Threes, Brenner shows a chameleon-like ability to adopt different personas as the situation requires. He is cold and ruthless among fellow scientists and government operatives but appears sympathetic and conscientious to the citizens of Hawkins, although Joyce Byers and Mrs. Wheeler see right through his mask. Brenner is ultimately driven by the need to demonstrate his worth and ability to others, even in the midst of disaster.
Nancy Wheeler. The type most disconnected from their emotions, Threes’ concern with how others perceive them results in a difficulty knowing what they really want in life. Nancy changes a lot in the course of Stranger Things, but her journey often follows her struggle with balancing personas: the image of a good student and daughter vs. the image of a popular high school girl. Validated by attracting the eye of Steve, her school’s prom king, she adopts a partying persona as she begins to be accepted by the in crowd even though, as Barb observes, it isn’t really her. The role this search for acceptance and affirmation — a Three’s greatest desire — plays in Barb’s death, and Jonathan’s observation that she is trying to be someone else, ultimately help her detach from her search for value from others and seek truth instead. While working for the Hawkins Post, Nancy strives to be seen as capable and to have her instincts vindicated, driving her investigations in season 3. She is adaptable and pragmatic, successfully tricking the lab into revealing their culpability in Barb’s death, and projects confidence even when afraid.
Steve Harrington. Like Nancy, Steve’s arc surrounds his preoccupation with image. At the beginning of the story he is a bully, matching the expectations of the other popular high school kids, but this behavior begins to soften when he starts to date Nancy. This shift comes from a struggle to balance two personas: the popular yet shallow prom king, and the perfect boyfriend. Neither of these masks really fits him, though, and both end up failing him. Steve ends up losing his place among the in crowd, while Nancy drifts away from him toward the mystery of the Demogorgon. It is then that Steve — like many Threes, when their masks stop working — begins to question what he really wants in life, and begins to discover his true strengths and a truer version of himself as he helps Dustin with relationship advice, serving now as a source of, rather than a lure for, affirmation. Even in his advice to Dustin, though, he sees relationships as playing roles (acting disinterested toward girls), and persists in caring a lot about his looks even after high school when he begins his first job at the Starcourt Mall. There he is taken down several more pegs, and eventually shows growth in his acceptance of and friendship with Robin despite her giving him nothing that he wants, neither validation nor romantic affection.
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Jonathan Byers. Fours are known for their emotional honesty, melancholy, moodiness, and heightened sense of individuality, all qualities Jonathan exhibits. He shows an artistic bent in photography, using his camera as a window to relate to the world and others from the quintessential Four vantage point: from the outside looking in. As he gets to know Nancy, he is drawn to what is real in her and shows disdain for what he perceives as falseness. Reflecting the Four’s desire for significance and meaning in their lives and their selves, Jonathan looks down on high school conformity and small-town suburban lifestyle, instead reveling in what is beautifully unique in people around him. He shows pride in his brother’s difference from others and their belief that Will is a freak, insisting that no one normal ever did anything meaningful. Though they desire personal connection above all else, Fours often withdraw in disappointment, feeling excluded and misunderstood, when reality does not meet their yearning fantasies — a tendency Joyce recognizes in Jonathan when she tells her son, “You act like you’re all alone in the world, but you’re not.”
Eleven. Confined to isolation and experimentation for most of her life, Eleven has born more than her share of trauma. As a Four, she uses her powerful emotions as a fulcrum for her unique telepathic and telekinetic abilities, transforming her suffering into something new. When first found by the party in the woods, El hides her role in Will’s disappearance out of shame and fear of rejection — a Four’s deepest fear — by her new friends. She wears her heart on her sleeve, visibly showing her feelings, whether fear, anguish, relief, or anger, and insists on emotional realness from Mike when he minimizes how he feels about school bullies. Fours tend to feel they are missing something that everyone else has, or are uniquely defective, which Eleven expresses when she tells Mike “I’m the monster” in season 1, and which a vision of Dr. Brenner reinforces when it tells her she has “a terrible wound.” Part of her arc, especially in season 3, is discovering that it’s okay for her to be happy and at home in the world, and finding ways to fully express who she really is, not merely as Hopper or Mike see her. Well acquainted with sorrow, Fours can see and value the emotional wounds in others, which El does when she looks into Billy’s past: an empathy that ultimately saves both her and him in “The Battle of Starcourt.”
Robin Buckley. Though her extroversion may not look much like Jonathan’s moodiness, or the intensity of Eleven’s emotions, the obsessive envy of Steve that Robin felt in high school marks her as a Four, as does her feeling that her life has been “one big error,” and most significantly, her belief that if Steve ever really knew who she was, he wouldn’t want to be her friend anymore. Each Enneagram type has three further divisions based on dominant instincts, or subtypes, and Robin’s distinction from other Fours is due to the fact that her subtype — self-preservation — is the countertype of Four. Self-preservation Fours work hard to externally counterbalance their sense of missing something and are often mistaken for Sevens or Threes. They do not like to display their envy openly, but instead suffer without complaint and hope that others will notice. Robin shows this drive to compensate for her longing in the energy she brings to cracking the Russian code and making fun of Steve.
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The Mind Triad
Dustin Henderson. Often the party’s problem-solver, Dustin delights in sharing his knowledge and explaining new theories he develops about threats from the Upside Down. Like all Fives, he is a keen observer, even down to relationship dynamics between other people, to the extent that he is able to detach from his feelings for Max when he sees the chemistry between her and Lucas. Dustin is always opening a “curiosity door” or going on a “curiosity voyage,” reflecting Fives’ preoccupation with learning, understanding, and gaining insights; primarily because their core issue is a fear that they are less capable or competent than others. This is seen in Dustin’s curiosity about Steve’s relationship advice, an area Dustin feels helpless and overwhelmed by for a long time…until he finally connects with Suzie, a girl as bright and astute as he is. Dustin is gripped by a scientific interest in Dart (before learning it is actually a baby Demogorgon), and insists on staking his claim on the creature as a significant scientific breakthrough. His obsession with discovery is also seen in his focused need to decipher the Russian code in season 3.
Scott Clark. The party’s source of wisdom and knowledge, Clarke is dry, philosophical, and loves to explain and lecture — the primary communication style of a Five. He comes up with the metaphor of the flea and the acrobat in season one, and uses an AC transformer to demonstrate electromagnetic fields to Joyce in season 3. He is visibly excited when sharing information, and delights in the sense of mastery and security his knowledge gives him, and is generous in sharing it with others.
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Joyce Byers. A vivid example of type Six, Joyce experiences life as a constant suite of perpetual threats and worse case scenarios. When Will goes missing, rather than being reassured by Hopper’s statistics, she seizes on the 1% of times when missing children are lost, showing the Six’s fearful preoccupation with whatever could go wrong. Sixes are known for their loyalty to family and groups, from which they derive a sense of stability and safety, a dynamic Joyce embodies in her tendency to panic while on her own but become calm and reassuring when her family is in danger or pain. Her relationship with Hopper reflects the Six tendency to both attach to authority figures when they provide security and stability, and to rail against them when they fail to take threats seriously or leave them or others open to vulnerabilities. Joyce’s insecurity also manifests in her bouncing between opposing poles: fleeing from and confronting sources of fear, self-confident and self-doubting, jittery and calm. Her Five wing is seen in the openmindedness she shows at the strange events that unfold as she searches for answers.
Murray Bauman. Paranoid and given to conspiracy theories, Murray is continually on the lookout for any hint of a threat, believing that rumors of Eleven might suggest a Russian invasion. Though often called Loyalists, Sixes can just as easily be counter-authority, especially when they see it as untrustworthy or unpredictable, as Murray clearly sees the U.S. government (not entirely without warrant). He clearly occupies the counterphobic (challenging sources of fear) side of Sixes, as he delights in helping to shut down the Hawkins Lab, lives off the grid, and expresses thorough skepticism and disgust at American culture and materialism while at the fair with Alexei. Murray also shows a strong Five wing in his piercing insight into others and their relationships (Jonathan and Nancy, Joyce and Hopper) and in his need to look “behind the curtain” when others won’t; probably because it confirms his suspicions about the world being an unsafe and untrustworthy place. Murray finds a strange and ultimately unhealthy sort of security in knowing he isn’t wrong about the many things he worries about.
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Alexei. For an adventure show set in the ‘80s, it’s odd that one would have to reach for a minor character in the third season to find an example of a Seven, the most adventurous and fun-loving type. We barely knew Alexei, but in his short, glorious stint on Stranger Things he displays the Seven’s hunger for freedom and opportunity, believing he has found it in the American Dream. His resistance to Murray’s more realistic view of American society mirrors the tendency of Sevens to compulsively avoid anything negative and dwell almost exclusively on what is positive, entertaining, and satisfying. The Seven’s boundless joy is seen in his love for cartoons and Slurpees and in his longing to “join in the fun” of the Hawkins fair. He ultimately cooperates with the Americans out of fear of punishment by his superiors, typical of Sevens’ desire to outrun and escape painful experiences at any cost. Though at times naïve and shallow, Alexei’s charm is so genuine and infectious that even the suspicious, Russian-hating Murray grows to like him.
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The type summaries in this article are based on my close observations while watching Stranger Things fanatically and repeatedly, though they may be wrong, especially where there isn’t enough known about characters’ basic fears, desires, motivations and unconscious / subconscious lives. It’s important to note that behavior does not determine type, and can easily be misleading. An article of this scope is also by necessity only a very broad overview of a very intricate and dynamic wisdom tradition.
For more information on the Enneagram in general, or about the nine types, there are several amazing books on the subject; I personally recommend those by Beatrice Chestnut, Ian Morgan Cron, Chris Heuertz, and Richard Rohr. For a quick Internet reference, the Enneagram Institute’s website is the most in-depth and reliable, and the podcast Typology is fun, accessible, and full of wisdom and insight.