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Researcher isn't in the Upside Down. But she is studying 'Stranger Things'

Researcher isn't in the Upside Down. But she is studying 'Stranger Things'

November 4, 2022 at 3:00pm

Emily Messina, a die-hard “Stranger Things” fan, finished the first episode of season four with one thing on her mind. Turning to her husband, she said, “Wow, that would make an amazing study!”

He was a little confused. Sure, it had been amazing, but what did it have to do with research?

Well, actually, a lot. Messina is a leisure researcher. The FIU recreational therapy associate professor in the School of Education and Human Development saw a spectacular episode, of course. But also a fun way to explore concepts within her work, like how recreational activities are closely intertwined with self-identity (and she didn't have to go to the Upside Down to do it!)

Spoiler alert for fans who haven’t binge-watched season four of “Stranger Things" — the first episode, “The Hellfire Club,” features an epic, edge-of-your-seat scene featuring two activities that seem worlds apart: High school basketball and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). “Detroit Rock City” by Kiss plays while some of the characters are in a darkened classroom playing the role-playing game D&D, and at the same time, a championship basketball game is going down in the brightly lit gym.

“I don’t play basketball or D&D and I walked away from that scene with goosebumps,” Messina said. “I kept wondering what people who do play basketball or D&D might think about that scene, and what would they think about the opposite?”

Within the field of leisure research, basketball and D&D have something in common. They're both categorized as serious leisure — an activity that contains elements of perseverance and significant personal effort based on knowledge and training.

An interesting part about the scene, Messina says, is there are visual differences, but also major parallels playing out, showing commonalities between the two activities. That’s why she wants to tap into how people who either play basketball or D&D view how their own leisure activity and identity are represented, and if they identify with the portrayal, as well as what they think about the other activity they don’t play.

Messina’s idea to study “Stranger Things” is really the tip of the iceberg when it comes to leisure research. But it does provide a good introduction to what she does — something that's not always easy to describe.

“People don’t always understand what this work involves,” Messina said. “It’s common to equate overall health with a routine fitness activity that you may not even enjoy, but I look at how leisure goes beyond that and checks important boxes for our physical, emotional, social, cognitive and spiritual wellbeing.”

When Messina teaches her students about leisure and recreation, she usually focuses on one question. What do you do?

For most people, that’s how they spend their free time. How one person chooses to spend that time may drastically differ from another. However, what matters is they have a leisure activity in the first place. Messina has seen firsthand the life-changing impact leisure has on someone’s life.  

At Mercy Hospital, she interned in a rehabilitation unit, adapting games for men recovering from injury and stroke. Their favorite was dominos. She still remembers how they’d light up while playing — a welcome reprieve from the day-to-day routines of hospital life.

Then, at the North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center, Messina introduced oil pastel drawing to adult men with criminal charges and a history of mental illness. At first, they dismissed the whole idea as silly, only later admitting the activity made it easier to share what was on their mind.

This experience impacted her deeply, inspiring her to conduct research on the benefit of recreation for marginalized groups — such as those within the criminal justice system, as well as people experiencing housing insecurity — as a doctoral student at Temple University. During her studies, Messina met a woman who loved to walk. She journeyed 80 blocks — to and from the Delaware River — every day to keep herself busy. That walk wasn’t just a walk. It was a path to building self-determination and self-efficacy.

“Leisure allows you to build yourself in positive ways that no other activity does, especially for people who are trying to figure out those next steps in life,” Messina said. “Leisure is not for the privileged few. The data shows we all need it to give us those wins we really need from time to time when life isn’t giving us wins in other ways.”

Messina looks forward to continuing to examine how leisure impacts homeless populations, and how leisure can be used as a coping tool during stressful times. She’s also interested in creating a leisure education elective class for students.

“The “Stranger Things” study is the fun part of being a leisure researcher, and it is really one of the things I love about studying leisure. There’s so much that it’s tied to, other concepts like psychology, identity, intrinsic motivation and self-determination. Leisure looks at how those elements connect and tie to what we do for fun."


Emily Messina is an FIU recreational therapy associate professor studying "Stranger Things," as a part of her work looking at how recreational activities are tied to self-identity.