This article contains Stranger Things season 4 spoilers. We have a spoiler-free review here.
When we catch up with Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Erica in Stranger Things season 4 episode 1, it’s good to see that high school (or junior high, in Erica’s case) hasn’t dulled their enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons. But with Will now living across the country in California, they’ve had to find a new dungeon master, who they have in the charismatic, self-proclaimed “freak” Eddie Munson.
Munson is an ‘80s metalhead, one who revels in the “satanic panic” that surrounds both his chosen music and his favorite hobby. With a sardonic sense of humor, he’s named his D&D group “The Hellfire Club,” an obvious attempt to poke fun at the folks who think his musical taste, appearance, and fondness for D20s make him an agent of the devil. But the name “The Hellfire Club” also has broader historical and pop cultural significance…
THE REAL HELLFIRE CLUB
Believe it or not, Hellfire Clubs were real things back in 18th century Britain. They were social clubs for rich people where they could do roughly anything they wanted outside the bounds of what was considered acceptable to polite society. And while that may sound sinister (Sir Francis Dashwood started a club and gave it the motto “Do What Thou Wilt”), what we know of the clubs’ activities amounts to little more than drinking and whoring. Nowhere near as exciting as the Hellfire Club from the Marvel Universe.
Which of course brings us to…
THE X-MEN’S HELLFIRE CLUB
The X-Men’s Hellfire Club was a product of the historically fertile Uncanny X-Men comics partnership between Chris Claremont and John Byrne. The group was introduced during The Dark Phoenix Saga as antagonists, led by Sebastian Shaw, the Black King, and Emma Frost, the White Queen.
The Club was founded hundreds of years ago as a secret society of the most wealthy and powerful people in the world. The ruling council is named after chess pieces – the Black King, the White Queen, the Black Bishop, etc. It appears on its surface to be a simple themed fetish club with people dressing in Victorian bondage gear and chuckling over stock tips, but its true purpose is more sinister: it’s a means for the 1% of the 1% to control the world.
Or at least it was until its leader, Ned Buckman, threw his weight behind Stephen Lang, one of the creators of the Sentinel Program. When those Sentinels were sent to murder Black Bishop Sebastian Shaw’s lover, Lourdes Chantal, Shaw and Frost had the entire ruling council of the Club killed and claimed power for themselves, installing other mutants in positions of power and…mostly just doing the same thing, minus the overt, violent, anti-mutant bigotry. Shaw installs his friends Harry Leland and Donald Pierce in positions of power, and keeps secret undercover Xavier operative Sage as his chief adviser upon his ascension to the throne.
In real time, the Hellfire Club’s first major act in the pages of the comics was to try and manipulate Jean Grey into joining their side. Unfortunately for them, Jean had either absorbed the Phoenix Force or was a physical manifestation of the Phoenix Force (depending on which retcon you believe), making her immensely powerful. She melts Mastermind’s brain while the X-Men decimate the rest of the Inner Circle, and the Club quickly and ignominiously exits the story for a bit.
Considering all the similarities between Eleven and Jean Grey and her Phoenix arc, the presence of a “Hellfire Club” in Stranger Things season 4 seems far from accidental.
SPEAKING OF EMMAS AND AVENGERS
The famed British spy show The Avengers (not those Avengers) was a heavy influence on the era of X-Men where the Club was born, and in this case, the X-Men owe their lore to the episode “A Touch of Brimstone.” In it, superspies Emma Peel (played by Dame Diana “Tell Cersei” Rigg) and John Steed infiltrate a secret society full of people in bondage gear participating in a variety of debauchery, from excessive drunkenness to planning a coup.
Peel spends much of the episode’s run time in a black corset with a spiked collar, and the rest of the Club hangs out in period costumes. Chris Claremont and John Byrne apparently really dug this, and thus was born the Hellfire Club.
HELLFIRE CLUB MEMBERSHIP PERKS
Some people join because of the opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and powerful. It’s not just mutants who have joined: Marvel Universe luminaries like Howard Stark (Iron Man’s dad), Warren Worthington II (Angel’s dad), and John Braddock (Captain Britain’s dad) have all been counted among club members.
But it’s mostly the power. At one point, Xavier Institute Headmaster Magneto joined the club at Storm’s behest following the Mutant Massacre, in an effort to better protect his students. And he’s just one good(ish) guy who’s been a part of the Club: Sunspot, Phoenix, and even Kate Pryde have all held leadership roles in the club.
Membership has expanded somewhat since the mutants moved to their united island sanctuary, Krakoa. When Krakoa was founded, Emma Frost was brought in by Professor X and Magneto to reconstitute the Club, only with the responsibility of distributing mutant drugs that cured disease and prolonged life to the human world, both legally (through the newly created Hellfire Trading Company) and illicitly (via the mutant rescuing smugglers the Marauders). Emma took her seat as White Queen, while Shaw was given the Black King seat. Kate Pryde was made the Red Queen (a previously nonexistent branch, but an essential one as the boss of the smuggling operation). And the new structure meant new members: Callisto, the leader of the Morlocks, as Emma’s White Knight; Emma’s brother Christian as White Bishop; Lucas Bishop as Kate’s Red…Bishop…that’s a lot of bishops…
Anyway, as the Dawn of the Krakoan Age moved into its next phase, the leaders of the Hellfire Trading Company moved on and opened space for new blood, like Shaw’s (adopted) son Shinobi as the new Black King, and Emma’s (clone) daughters the Stepford Cuckoos as the new White Queen.
It’s a lot more complicated than a D&D club in a 1986 high school, but now you’re armed with pretty much all the knowledge you need to, I dunno, try and decide which Stranger Things kids would be who in the X-Men version of the Hellfire Club.