Stranger Things: How The Barb Phenomenon Still Haunts the Show

Even all these years later, Stranger Things fans can't quit Barb.

Barb (Shannon Purser) in Stranger Things.
Photo: Netflix

Stranger Things rabid internet fandom leads to some fascinating places. People connect different parts of the series in novel ways, often leading to intense discourse about storylines and characters that some choose to forget. But one Stranger Things character from season 1 has had an uncommon staying power in the fandom. A quick look at the show’s Reddit board or trending hashtags on social media will lead to the more-than-periodic mention of Nancy Wheeler’s (Natalia Dyer) first-season best friend, Barbara “Barb” Holland (Shannon Purser). 

The reserved teenage girl who became one of the Upside Down’s first victims in Hawkins symbolized the Netflix series’ habit of crafting interesting, likable guest characters only for them to be erased within a few episodes – Bob Newby (Sean Astin) from season 2 and Eddie Munson (Joseph Quinn) from season 4 being the other prominent examples. Despite nearly a decade passing since the character was killed off early in season 1, fans still come up with new meanings for Barb’s life and desperately hope that the Duffer Brothers will weave her back into the final season to provide concrete justice for her.

Why is this benign, barely visible side character a vital part of the show’s legacy? How does her death still impact the remaining Hawkins residents all these years later? To get to the bottom of these questions, one must look at Barb’s life through multiple literary angles. 

Barb Represents Nancy’s Loss of Innocence

We get a clear picture of the type of person Barb is through her brief appearances in the first season. She stands by Nancy no matter what, looks out for her when others won’t, and even sticks around when Nancy would prefer to focus on her love life with Steve (Joe Keery). These decisions doom her when she is sucked into the Upside Down through Steve’s swimming pool while everyone else parties it up inside. 

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She wouldn’t have died had Nancy been more attentive, and this guilt shapes Nancy’s decisions throughout the series. Nancy always seeks justice for the ones she loves, and her insistence on uncovering the truth no matter what type of danger it places her in makes her story one of the most inspiring in the series. Barb’s death makes Nancy want to become a better friend and family member, but it doesn’t hinder her progress the way trauma often can. Barb is a human memento of Nancy’s potential. 

Stranger Things never lets its characters or audience members lose sight of the traumas or past indiscretions that affect the current episodes. This is why the Duffers cleverly sneak a cameo into the midseason finale in season four when Vecna invades Nancy’s psyche and reminds her of what happened to Barb. 

This scene clarifies that Barb was most likely killed by Vecna, and it will propel Nancy’s narrative in the final season. Barb gets the honor of being one of the puzzle pieces that connects the show’s overarching antagonist to everything that has happened in Hawkins since the beginning. But this still doesn’t explain why fans desire this bit character to be something more than what the Duffers made her: a plot mechanism. 

Barb Is a Plot Device More Than a Character

The writers and Purser excel at making Barb a symbol of good in just two episodes of screen time. While a flat character, Barb represents hope and morality in a world overrun by evil and morbidity. She is an ingenious plot device more than a character. Still, the fandom that keeps her spirit alive sprouts from the desire to humanize people in literature and media, even when they are more tools for commentary than anything else. 

Stranger Things may be overloaded with horror, special effects, monsters, and 1980s musical bangers, but the people are the core of the story. Unlike series like Breaking Bad, Succession, or The Boys, where most of the protagonists are antiheroes or even villains, Stranger Things depicts all of its main characters as pure, more or less.The lack of a moral gray creates a thirst to root for and fall in love with even the most sparse characters. 

While the Duffers used Barb as a catalyst for the first season’s story and the rest of Nancy’s journey, the viewers have refused to let her spirit die because doing so would directly contradict the show’s relationship between fans and characters. Forgetting about her would mean that Hawkins’ residents aren’t actually valued. Just because Barb’s life wasn’t written or shown like Nancy’s doesn’t mean it’s any less vital to the town’s everlasting goodness. Hawkins is a beacon of human nature over horror. Barb won’t go away because that would mean the beloved Indiana settlement would cease to own its true meaning. 

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When our beloved heroes defeat the despicable villainy underneath the surface in the final season, all of Vecna’s wrath’s victims can be released from prison. Barb’s character development had to be sacrificed, but what she represented will be redeemed through the fandom, living vicariously through her principles.