Warning! Here be spoilers for Stranger Things 3!
In the months leading up to Stranger Things’ Season 3 debut, a full-blown marketing bonanza took over… well, pretty much everything: Stores, brands, the internet, you name it. As time went on, however, it became clear that the marketing bonanza wasn’t all just fluff. In late June, some exceptionally clever people began to find some curious details hidden in some of the show’s more creative advertisements — details which, when analyzed and decoded correctly, seemed to yield phone numbers. In early July, more curious details forming another phone number emerged, this time hidden on actual products tied in with the marketing blast. Yet another phone number entered the playing field when Stranger Things 3 finally premiered on Netflix on July 4. And by July 5, it became clear that these phone numbers — 800-737-4154, 888-273-9152, and 618-625-8313 — were all much more than just Easter eggs. They were part of something bigger: A Stranger Things alternate reality game, or ARG, taking place in the aftermath of the show’s third season finale.
…Or were they? Two them were, certainly — but what was up with the last one? The 618-625-8313 number? The one which, it seemed, connected you with the answering service of Murray Bauman (Brett Gelman), current private investigator, former investigative journalist, and extreme misanthrope? It didn’t seem to be part of the ARG — but it’s possible that there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Or ear, as the case may be.
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For narrative purposes, the short version of the ARG’s plot is that portals or gates like the one that’s been opened and closed several times in Hawkins are opening up all over the world — gates which the American and Russian governments are in a race to find so they can harness their energy. (The ARG takes place in 1985, just as Season 3 of Stranger Things does, so basically, the ARG’s plot is a riff on the 1985-to-1991 period of the Cold War.) A “collective” going by the name Operation Scoop Snoop has been working to find and close those gates before they fall into the hands of anyone else — and when you join the ARG, you join Operation Scoop Snoop’s ranks. Although it’s likely that familiarity with the events of the ARG won’t be required for viewers to understand whatever happens in a potential Season 4 of Stranger Things, it is likely that the ARG will serve as a sort of bridge between Seasons 3 and 4 — even if it’s just an optional one.
But I’m not going to spend this investigation talking about the ARG’s plot or solution. Lots of other people who are much smarter than I am are already on it, so for the blow-by-blow account of the solution to each piece of the puzzle, I’m going to send you here and here. The plot points addressed in what we believe is the final mission can be found here. (Spoilers at all links, obviously.)
What I do want to talk about, though, is the 618-625-8313 phone number. It’s a number which many players have dismissed as a fun Easter egg unconnected to the ARG itself — but I think it’s possible that it might be more important in the grand scheme of things than a lot of folks realize, particularly with regards to a potential fourth season of the show.
Let’s take a look.
You Know My Name, Look Up The Number
There are a lot of phone numbers involved in the Season 3 ARG, many of which have played different recordings as the game progressed. A log of all of the phone numbers and their various recordings can be found here, but for the curious (per the Stranger Things 3 ARG Discord server), the first number — 800-737-4154 — was found on June 20, 2019 at the end of a Baskin-Robbins/Stranger Things commercial masquerading as an add for the Scoops Ahoy! ice cream shop Steve and Robin work at in the Starcourt Mall during Season 3. Meanwhile, the second number — 888-273-9152 — was identified on July 3, drawn from a piece of Morse code found on the label of a USS Butterscotch treat sold in real life at Baskin-Robbins as part of the frozen dessert chain’s Stranger Things promotional campaign. Prior to Stranger Things 3’s release on July 4, both of those numbers yielded incomplete messages and instructions to call back on July 5 for more. When players did as they were instructed, the game launched in full: The phone numbers directed players to an SSH server on which the rest of the ARG would unfold.
Meanwhile, when the entire third season of Stranger Things dropped at once on Netflix on July 4, another phone number was immediately revealed: Murray Bauman’s. Viewers didn’t even need to work that hard to find it; it’s clearly visible in a close-up of Murray’s actual telephone in the sixth episode of the season, “E Pluribus Unum.” Hopper also reads it aloud to the “Philadelphia Public Library” operative a minute or two later. Watch the scene that begins at about the 42:50 mark; you can’t miss it.
About a week after the season dropped, it was also discovered that actor David Harbour, who plays Jim Hopper, had been doing some interesting things with his Instagram profile picture: Each day, his profile picture began displaying different, single-digit (It’s not totally clear exactly when he started this stunt, but for whatever it’s worth, BuzzFeed noted on July 11 that it was “a few days after Season 3 premiered.”) Not too long thereafter, folks deduced that when you string each of these digits together, you also get Bauman’s number.
That number is 618-625-8313 — and when you call it on an actual, real world telephone, you hear the following recording:
To step outside of the Stranger Things universe for a moment, a reverse phone lookup reveals that Murray Bauman’s number is actually a non-fixed VoIP — that is, a Voice-over Internet Protocol number tied only to a geographic region, not to a physical address, likely set up with Google Voice, Skype, or another similar service. Within the Stranger Things universe, though, the number confirms Bauman’s city of residence — the region to which this specific number is tied is Sesser, Illinois — and puts us squarely back into 1985 (it’s pretty clear the answerphone message takes place after the Battle of Starcourt).
But what’s the point of the message? Is it just a funny little thing for fans to find? I think it’s more than that. I think it serves a purpose — one of which actually is connected to the ARG.
Marking The Trail
Now, it’s true the number doesn’t do anything to put you directly on the track of the ARG. Nor does it factor at all into the solutions to the various puzzles that have made up the ARG. What’s more, the phone numbers that are essential for the ARG were launched into the world long before we found out what Bauman’s number was. But in case you didn’t know about the ARG before watching Season 3, then you’d almost certainly know about it after watching Season 3 — largely because Bauman’s number ended up in front of the eyeballs and in the earholes of literally every person who watched it. And because it’s so easy to find, people started talking about it across the internet almost immediately — even more so once it was determined that David Harbour was hinting that we should call it, as well. It alerted us to the fact that at least one in-universe phone number exists in the real world, and that calling it yields something of interest for fans. From there, it’s only a proverbial hop, skip, and a jump to wonder whether there might be any other phone numbers associated with the show — and from there, your average Googler will almost certainly figure out in the course of some pretty preliminary searching that an ARG involving phone numbers and Stranger Things has been going on this whole time.
And that, my friends, is a trailhead: An entry point into an ARG — a clue that tips you off that there’s something more to find. The clue leads you to the game, and to a choice: Do move along, going no further? Or do you go down the path you’ve found, immersing yourself in the game? Do you, in short, choose to play?
As Mashable noted, ARGs “generally [start] slow… making the barrier to entry very low so as many people as possible get involved initially.” Ayogo’s piece on the ABCs of ARGs underlines this point as well, stating not only that “for marketing and media brand ARGs, lots of [trailhead] clues are typically provided to attract as many players as possible.” As the puzzles become more and more demanding to solve, fewer people are likely to stick with the game (theoretically, at least) — but the goal, initially, is to get the whole thing in front of as many potential players as you can. And that’s exactly what hiding Bauman’s number in plain sight achieved.
However, I also think it would be a mistake to dismiss the contents of Bauman’s phone message as “just a fun Easter egg”; that, too, has a purpose.
As a reminder, what you hear when you dial the number:
“Hi. You have reached the residence of Murray Bauman. Mom, if this is you, please hang up and call me between the hours of 5 and 6pm as previously discussed! Okay?! And if this is Joyce — Joyce, thank you for calling. I’ve been trying to reach you. I have an update. It’s about, well, it’s uh… it’s probably best if we speak in person. It’s not good or bad, but it’s… something. And if this is anyone but my mother or Joyce, well, you think you’re real clever getting my number, don’t you? Well here’s some breaking news for you: You’re not clever. You’re not special. You are simply one of the many, many nimwits to call here, and the closest you will ever get to me is this pre-recorded message! So, after the beep, do me a favor. Hang up! And never call here again! You are a parasite! Thank you, and good day!”
I mean, sure, the beginning bit about Bauman’s mom is obviously a joke; however, the message for Joyce is clearly substantial. Many believe it bolsters a popular theory about the mid-credits scene of Stranger Things 3’s final episode: That “the American” being held in the unnamed Russian prison facility could be Hopper. The fact that Harbour himself posted the number to his Instagram account in a spookily oblique manner lends even more credence to this theory; that tidbit connects the message directly to Hopper in a way that the words alone do not. It might, in fact, suggest what role Hopper might play in Season 4 — if any. (Harbour’s contract covers his involvement with a potential fourth season, but as IndieWire notes, just because he’s contracted for Season 4 doesn’t necessarily mean that the writers will pick up that option.)
The peculiar form of the message also prompts several other questions — questions which might take the whole thing deeper than it at first appears to go. What those questions ultimately boil down to are these: Where is Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), and where is Murray Bauman?
Concerning Joyce: Bauman notes that he’s been trying to reach Joyce, with the implication being that he hasn’t been able to. Why is that? The simplest answers in what could ultimately turn out to be an Occam’s razor situation are that he doesn’t know the Byers family moved away from Hawkins, he doesn’t know where they ended up moving to, or that he simply doesn’t have their new number. But at the same time, that seems uncharacteristic; if anyone would be able to track down someone’s contact information after they’ve moved, it would be Murray Bauman.
It’s also possible that Joyce might just be refusing to answer or return Bauman’s calls — that she’s trying to make a clean break from an old life full of painful memories, both for herself and for her family (including Eleven). This theory I find to be more believable; they’ve all been through a lot, and coping with the apparent loss of Hopper specifically is no doubt going to be a struggle for Joyce and Eleven in particular.
Or, she could be somewhere… else. At this juncture, we don’t know exactly what might be going on. But no matter the answer ultimately ends up being, I think it’s significant that Bauman hasn’t be able to get a hold of Joyce.
This next thought is a bit of a stretch, but when it comes to where Bauman is, I would argue that setting his answerphone message to this recording might even imply that Bauman isn’t just temporarily away from the phone or screening his calls (although honestly, he’s probably likely to engage in both of those behaviors with a pretty high degree of frequency). Rather, it might imply that he’s away from his… uh… I guess I’d call it a bunker for a somewhat extended period of time — a sort of, “Joyce, I haven’t been able to get a hold of you, and it might be hard for you to get a hold of me for a while, but we should meet up as soon as we’re able to because I have something important to tell you” kind of message. This may ultimately not be the case — maybe he just thought that, having failed to reach Joyce himself, the best way to get in touch with her was to wait for her to call him and let the answerphone clue her into the fact that he has something important to discuss with her — but it’s a possibility.
And if that is fact the case, then where has Murray gone? What’s he up to? Will he serve a role of increasing responsibility in Season 4? Only time will tell… but maybe.
I even think there’s something to the very end of the message — the bit addressed to “anyone who isn’t [Bauman’s] mother or Joyce.” That portion of the recording is directed squarely at us. The viewers. The Stranger Things audience. And while it’s certainly possible that on the one hand, it might just be a piece of meta-style humor — something that both acknowledges that there are lots of us calling the number and pokes fun at us for thinking we’re especially clever for doing so — it could also be sending another sort of message: That you’re not clever for finding this number, but that you might be clever if you can find the other numbers associated with the third season of the show — the numbers that factor into the ARG. In this interpretation, Bauman’s number is at once a booby prize or red herring, and a hint that there’s something more to find.
That is, it points back to the idea of Bauman’s number as a trailhead for the ARG. It even tells us what we need to be looking for: Phone numbers.
Stranger Things Yet To Come
Is it possible that I’m way off base with all of this? Of course. Heck, it wouldn’t be surprising if absolutely none of my theories ultimately panned out when Season 4 premiers. But we know that the Duffer Brothers like to plant seeds for future seasons long before those seasons premiere: For example, according to the Stranger Things 3 ARG Discord, the Russian code Robin, Dustin, and Steve decode in Season 3 — “The week is long. The silver cat feeds. When blue and yellow meet. In the west. A trip to China sounds nice. If you tread lightly” — first appeared in the Stranger Things companion book, Worlds Turned Upside Down. The book was published in October of 2018 — several months after the season began filming — but knowing what I now know about traditional publishing, the manuscript would have been finalized long before the book’s publication date.
The Duffer Brothers are nothing if not thorough when it comes to plotting out their stories.
In the meantime, though, we’re left waiting to find out whether there’s more to Murray’s phone number, or the ARG, or any of the other little tidbits we may not have found yet. We could be waiting for quite some time, too; nearly two years elapsed between the releases of Stranger Things 2 and 3, so who knows how long it’ll take Stranger Things 4 to see the light of day — if it ever does. (As of this writing, it still hasn’t been confirmed.)
But I’ll be here. And eventually, we’ll see whether it was all just fun and games or not.
I just hope no one tries to open or harness anymore gates before then.
[Photos via screenshots/Netflix]