Stranger Times | Opening September 8 at the Museum of Durham History

One afternoon at Jordan High School in September 2021, Michelle Needham could’ve sworn she was in the middle of a zombie apocalypse.

Needham, curator at the Museum of Durham History (MODH) and mother of two Jordan students, was dropping something off at the school’s office when she noticed a few high schoolers coming out from behind a building for their lunch period. In-person learning had just started back up, but things were as strange as ever, Needham says.

“They were all in masks and came out very slowly—I think it was their lunch period,” Needham says. “They [sat by themselves] and then they went straight to their phones and ate their lunch. It was just so non-teen; they all sat separately and it was so quiet and surreal.”

This moment stuck out to Needham, like a particularly unsettling thriller you can’t shake off. But not just any thriller: it reminded her of Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers’ sci-fi television show that was strongly inspired by their childhood in Durham—and their time as students at Jordan High School. Suddenly, the two things—COVID-19 and Stranger Things—were inextricably linked in Needham’s mind. She pitched an idea to the MODH’s director, and an exhibit was born.

Stranger Times will open on September 8 at the MODH, exploring the Duffer brothers’ childhood in Durham and foray into filmmaking, as well as the similarities between the show and aspects of the pandemic, paying particular attention to the latter experience from a teenager’s point of view.  

The exhibit will share students’ narratives through a variety of media, including video, audio, and written records. The museum staff and students have brainstormed ways to utilize the building’s small space to the fullest, even extending some of the exhibit outside under a gazebo and using walls to separate parts of the exhibit.

The beginning of quarantine in 2020 may not feel that long ago, but history doesn’t have to be ancient to be valuable, Patrick Mucklow, executive director of the MODH, emphasizes.

“A lot of times people have a misconception that history is all just old and ancient and from decades, hundreds of years past, but there is a lot of history being made right now, and recent history is also important,” Mucklow says.

In curating the exhibition, museum staff didn’t consider just one teenage voice: Needham interviewed eight high school students with different identities and backgrounds, asking them questions about their personal experiences throughout COVID-19, about observations they made within Durham’s teenage community, and how the pandemic has affected their education, specifically regarding social dynamics, intersectionality, and racial and class divides in school.

One of those students, Gretchen Poore, spoke with Needham about being in seventh grade at the beginning of the pandemic and losing formative experiences like school band and in-person class.

“Having online classes actually took away some of the social stresses of middle school, which is really good,” Poore says. “But I also lost a lot that year. I just didn’t have that many close friends anymore because I didn’t see people, and in order to maintain relationships with people, you’d have to put in a lot more effort to be able to safely see them.”

During this time, Poore says she learned a lot about privilege and the way that race and class can advantage certain groups while harming others.

“The first kid to die in North Carolina from COVID in 2020 was a girl that was at my elementary school,” Poore says. “It was this Hispanic girl in third grade and it just put things into perspective about how a lot of people from middle or upper middle class who are white didn’t really worry about COVID as much, but for some people, it really was right here in Southwest Durham.”

These realizations, among others, made some kids like Poore grow up a little faster. But Poore also noticed that the pandemic has slowed the maturity of some of her peers who may not have gotten the support at home that they needed to build on their social skills. This stagnation also contributed to a rise in mental health issues like anxiety and depression among adolescents, with one study showing that, between 2018 and 2020, there was a 25 percent spike in the number of youth experiencing mental health problems. During the first couple years of the pandemic, there was more of a spotlight on the plight of teenagers and youth. Since then, it’s faded away from the public eye.

Interviewing students for Stranger Times was one small way to bring awareness to what young people have gone through, Mucklow says.

“A lot of times we look at historic records for what young people or kids were thinking a long, long time ago when they were going through, you know, the Spanish flu or something like that,” Mucklow goes on. “But there isn’t a lot documented, because no one ever thought to ask the kids how they felt. And we wanted to change that—we wanted to make sure that they were on the record and they did have a voice.”

And as September approaches and school begins, nothing feels more reminiscent of fall than Stranger Things. Needham says that ’80s music will be playing on the exhibit’s opening day on September 8 and that visitors are invited to dress accordingly, whether they layer a classic Eleven flannel or pop on a Dustin snapback.

But no matter how the exhibit turns out, Poore hopes that Stranger Times will encourage more dialogue and understanding between youth and older generations.

“I hope that people in older generations realize that the experiences of teenagers shouldn’t be shoved to the side and that every generation has something they experience that is difficult,” Poore says. “And for teens, I want them to know that we’re all in this together. It was a traumatic time for so many people, but it was a traumatic time together.”

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