Covid impacted the way we live in our homes: Some of us realized that we craved outdoor space and redid our patios or searched for houses with backyards. Some of us realized we needed more square footage and made the hike out to the suburbs. Some of us realized our houses weren’t set up for WFH and turned guest bedrooms into offices stocked with ergonomic chairs. And some of us? Well, some of us spent the first year-and-a-half of the pandemic living in a reproduction of the Stranger Things set.
And by some of us, we mean Michele Cordero and Erik Schroeder.
Let’s rewind back to February 2020: The now-52-year-old Alexandria librarian was hosting her 50th birthday party, which was, yes, Stranger Things themed. Cordero and husband Schroeder are ardent fans of the show, and she also happens to be a big Halloween and cosplay person, so she had to go all-out for the party.
The couple started building the props for the party in fall 2019, which they were hosting in the Woodbridge condo they lived in at the time. When the party rolled around, their house was tricked out like a ride at Universal Studios. “It was one of those things that just sort of snowballed,” says Cordero. “I had a small idea, and then it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Every room in the condo—except their bedroom—was turned into a Hawkins location. In the entryway, a play tent covered in contact paper became Castle Byers. The kitchen became the Scoops Ahoy ice cream parlor, the hallway became the Starcourt Mall, and the living room was transformed into Joyce Byers’s living room, complete with the string lights and alphabet wall. Meanwhile, the former dining room became a mish-mash of Stranger Things moments: part Startcourt Mall’s secret Russian base (with a signature green glowing drink), part Hawkins Middle School AV room (boxes, contact paper, and stickers were converted into ham radios), part Snow Ball dance, and part Palace Arcade. Cordero even made the Dig-Dug arcade game herself out of Amazon boxes and print-outs.
And, of course, no ode to Stranger Things would be complete without the Upside Down, aka the sunroom, which Cordero spookified with draped curtains, red lights, a fog machine, a six-foot-tall mannequin outfitted in a Demogorgon costume, and, of course, a mannequin head dressed up like Barb (RIP, Barb).
The guests played a game in which they had to complete various Stranger Things-inspired tasks: translate a Russian sentence or take a glamour shot a la Eleven and Max, all of which were outlined in the ’80s-style Trapper Keepers given to attendees. Needless to say, Cordero’s party shocked and awed: “People were sort of stunned when they came in,” she says. “ I tried to explain it to people, but I don’t think that they realized the magnitude of how far I had actually gone.”
It was a fitting all-out sendoff for what would turn out to be Cordero’s last social function for a very, very long time. Like Will Byers in Season 1, we were all about to disappear into an alternate reality.
Originally, Cordero kept the decorations up because she was planning to have another Stranger Things shindig. Who knew how long Covid would last? And, well, she already had a life-sized Demogorgon. Might as well keep partying!
It also proved hard to let go of something she’d spent months carefully crafting. “It had taken so long to put this thing together,” she says. “It was such an elaborate scheme that part of me just had a really hard time letting go of it.”
So that’s how she and her husband ended up living in a Stranger Things simulation for a year-and-a-half. No, really. For a legitimate year-and-a-half, they lived amongst the decorations, save for the entrance to the Upside Down. They eventually disassembled the otherworldly dimension because it was getting a little depressing—not because of the six-foot-tall Demogorgon and decapitated mannequin head, but because it blocked the natural light from filtering into Joyce Byers’s (aka their) living room.
In fact, Cordero developed something of a Covid bond with said Demagorgon: “He became like a weird, creepy friend that just lived in our condo, like a third roommate or something.” The couple dressed the figurine up in a chef’s outfit for Thanksgiving (Barb got a pilgrim costume), put bunny ears on him for Easter, and zoomed him around the condo for little adventures on a wheeled plant stand.
Thankfully, neither of them had to go on Zoom calls for work, but Cordero did have to take a few virtual doctor’s appointments and made sure to tell the physicians that, yes, she was aware there was a six-foot-tall supernatural creature lurking behind her and, no, there was no need for alarm.
The irony isn’t lost on Cordero that she turned her apartment into a parallel universe only for the outside world to swiftly morph into something unrecognizable itself. “It was like, typical me,” she says. “It was kind of hilarious that I got stuck in a pandemic living in the Upside Down.”
The duo moved out of their Woodbridge condo in August 2021, and disassembled most of the Hawkins decor when Cordero’s sister-in-law moved into the spot. (Fear not: The kitchen is still outfitted as Scoops.) Today, the Demagorgon and all its counterparts live in a closet, patiently awaiting Round Two.
Cordero loved Season 4 of Stranger Things, which came out this summer, and is both eagerly anticipating and already growing sad about Season 5, which will be the series finale. Thankfully, she has a potential watch gathering to look forward to. “In an ideal world, everything will get put back up, and I will have another party,” she says, “and then we will probably have to call in painters.”