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Stranger Things Wiki
Stranger Things Wiki

This world it... it beats you up again and again until eventually, I... Most people just... they just stop trying. But you’re not like that. You’re a fighter. You always have been.

–Karen Wheeler, July 3, 1985

Karen Wheeler, portrayed by Cara Buono, is a main character in Stranger Things. She is the loving but somewhat clueless mother of Nancy, Mike, and Holly, and the wife of Ted.

In 1983, after her son's friend, Will Byers, goes missing, Karen enforces strict rules that no one goes out late. This causes friction between her children, particularly Nancy. She remains largely unaware of the events around her, especially her son keeping an escaped experiment in her basement and her daughter searching for a monster from another dimension. When a group of agents arrive at their house telling her and her husband that his son and friends might be hiding the experiment, Karen becomes extremely distraught. She eventually tearfully reunites with Mike at the local middle school and goes to the hospital where Will has been recovered.

In 1984, she remains the same, blissfully unaware of what her children are doing after they lie and say they're having a sleepover (when in reality Mike is tending to a possessed Will while Nancy teams up with Jonathan Byers to shut down Hawkins Lab). She does, however, become sexually attracted to Billy Hargrove, the older brother of Max, who reciprocates the feelings.

By the summer of 1985, Karen's desire for Billy has hit the ultimate peak, ogling him along with her friends at the local pool, where Billy works as a lifeguard. When Billy offers Karen "swimming lessons" at the local motel, Karen is about to leave for the night until she discovers Holly sleeping in Ted's lap on the chair. She realizes how selfish she is and ultimately decides to not go. The next day, Karen arrives at the pool to talk to Billy (who's been possessed by The Mind Flayer) and explain why she didn't come, but Billy, restraining himself from hurting her, simply tells her to stay away from him. She soon resides back to being a mother, offering Nancy advice after getting fired from her job, and three months later, comforting Mike after Will and El move out of Hawkins.

By the spring of 1986, the supernatural circumstances that have plagued Hawkins have finally caught Karen's attention, as her and Holly bore witness to their house violently shaking from an unknown force.



Karen is shown to be a stereotypical overbearing mother, heavily concerned about the wellbeing of her children while also frequently butting heads with them. Her overbearing attitude also stems from her husband Ted's lack of parenting towards their kids, therefore Karen is shown to take more responsibility. Despite this, she frequently tries to encourage her children to talk to her about their problems, but Nancy and Mike often lie to her due to the danger they face on a regular occurrence.



Her daughter, Nancy has alluded that Karen mainly married Ted due to being from a well-made family rather than actual love. This has been evident throughout the series, since Karen is shown to be the main caretaker for the kids while Ted simply works, eats, and sleeps. When Will goes missing, Karen, Nancy, and Mike get in an argument during dinner about restricting going out at night. Karen looks for Ted for back-up, only for him to yell at the kids for swearing. When Nancy and Mike storm off in anger, Karen glares at him, takes Holly, says, "I hope you're enjoying your chicken, Ted.", and leaves, causing Ted to yell, "What I'd do?" Despite this, when Will's body is discovered at the quarry, Ted comforts a distraught Karen as they watch the news. When government agents arrive looking for Mike, Ted comforts an angered Karen, believing they should look for him, but Ted says that they should trust the government. One year later, their marriage has been more or less the same. When Dustin arrives at the Wheeler home asking where Nancy and Mike are, Ted asks Karen (while she is on the phone) the same question, while she annoyingly yells back that they're each sleeping over at friend's houses. One night, while Karen has a bubble bath and listening to music, the doorbell rings. She yells for Ted to answer it, but he is asleep in the living room in his chair, much to her anger. But her anger melts when she answers the door to find the handsome Billy. Six months later, Karen's lust for the boy has erupted fully, to the point where she is about to take up Billy's offer for "swimming lessons" at the local motel. But before she leaves for the night, she sees Ted sleeping is his chair with Holly in his lap. Realizing her selfish desires, Karen resists her sexual urges. On the fourth of July, she and Ted take Holly to the local Fun Fair, where they watch the fireworks show on top of the Ferris Wheel. Later on, when they get off Gravitron and see Joyce and Hopper sprinting while holding hands, Karen comments to Ted how they make an odd couple, but Ted says, "You know what they say, someone for everyone." Putting his arm around her, Karen sighs in annoyance.

Nancy is Karen's eldest daughter. Overall, they have a typical mother-daughter relationship that's somewhat strained, due to Nancy's teenage phase of rebellion. When Karen called off Nancy and Mike leaving the house after dark when Will disappears, Nancy lashes out at her and says it's "Bullshit!". The next night, however, Nancy butters up her mother by saying the dinner is delicious and that she and her best friend Barbara Holland were attending a ceremony at the high school for Will, when in reality, they were going to a party at Steve Harrington's house. Karen reminds her she doesn't want her out too late, but Nancy says it would be awkward since everyone is going. Karen reluctantly tells her to be back by 10:00. At Steve's party, Nancy drinks, swims in the pool alongside Steve and his friends, and eventually loses her virginity to him, but ends up missing her curfew. When sneaking into the house, Karen, in her robe, furiously scolds Nancy for disobeying her due to Will disappearing, but Nancy lies and says she lost track of time because she went to get a bite to eat after the ceremony. When Nancy goes upstairs, Karen asks who's jacket Nancy is wearing, to which Nancy says Steve gave it to her. Karen then asks if Steve is her boyfriend, and Nancy says it was cold and Steve gave it to her. Karen, sensing something, says Nancy can talk to her, but Nancy enunciates that nothing happened and quickly leaves. The next day, Nancy can't find Barb, who has mysteriously disappeared, and when investigating Steve's house, she comes across some sort of creature and sprints home. At the Wheelers, Karen is cooking when Nancy arrives in tears, admitting that something terrible happened the other night. When the two are being interviewed by the police, Nancy admits to attending the party at Steve's but lies that they simply just talked in his room. But when arriving back home, Karen yells at Nancy for lying to police and questions her story, causing an enraged Nancy to admit that she slept with Steve but it doesn't matter since it has nothing to due with Barbara being missing and that nobody is listening to her. Karen yanks back Nancy by the arm and says that she's listening, but Nancy says she isn't and tells her to leave her alone, storming off to her room, leaving Karen in tears. The next day, when the Wheelers prepare to attend Will's funeral, Karen helps Nancy get dressed, commenting how nice she looks and offers her shoes to borrow, but Nancy quietly refuses. The next morning, Karen finds Nancy's door locked, and after picking it with a pin, she finds Nancy gone with her window open. She is seen phoning Mrs. Harrington about her and Steve being together. Later on, when government agents arrive searching for Mike, Karen raises concern about whether or not Nancy could be involved as well, but Ted tells her Nancy never hangs around with Mike and she shouldn't worry about her. Outside, a worried Nancy attempts to go to her house to help her parents, but Hopper restrains her. That night, she and Karen reunite, where they and the rest of the gang go to the hospital to see Will, who was rescued. The next month, she is shown to allow Steve to spend Christmas with Nancy. A year later, Nancy's relationship with Karen has improved, although she still has no qualms lying to her, as one morning she lies to her mother that she's sleeping over at a friend's house, when in reality, she was teaming up with Jonathan to shut down Hawkins lab to avenge Barbara. Six months later, Nancy, having been fired from the Hawkins Post after following a story she was told to drop, cries in her room. Karen eventually gets her out and they talk in the kitchen. Karen tells her that while most people give up after being beaten by the world, Nancy isn't like that and that she's always been a fighter. With tears in her eyes, she admits she doesn't know where she gets it from, to which Nancy jokes she gets it from her father, causing the two to laugh. Karen says she thinks she was switched at the hospital, but Nancy sweetly tells her she gets it from her. Karen then says that wherever she gets it from, she's proud of her for standing up to those "shitheads", shocking Nancy. She then tells her that if she believes in this story, then she should finish it and give it a larger newspaper. The two then share a tearful hug.

Mike is Karen's only son. On the night Will goes missing, Karen kicks out Mike's friends after a D&D campaign, much to the opposition of her son. She tells him they can finish the next day, and is shocked when Mike admits they have been playing for ten hours. The next day, after Will is reported missing, Karen and Mike argue at the dinner table about looking for Will. Karen puts an end to it by saying nobody leaves the house after dark. Angered by how emotionally distant the rest of his family, Mike storms off. The following morning, Mike skips school to take care of Eleven, but it comes to a halt when Karen and Holly arrive home with groceries. When she hears footsteps upstairs, Mike says it's him and he'll be downstairs. After hiding Eleven in his closet, Mike lies that he felt sick, but Karen tells him that she's not upset, believing the reason he skipped was because of Will's disappearance. She then comforts her son, saying that she wants him to feel like he can talk to her and never has to feel like he has to hide anything from her. The next day, Will's fake body is discovered at the quarry. Mike, distraught, bikes home. When he arrives through the door, Karen asks him what's wrong. Mike, with tears in his eyes, simply runs into the arms of his mother, and the two embrace silently. Later, as Karen and Ted watch the news, Ted asks her if he should talk to Mike, but Karen says he'll talk to them when he's ready. That morning, Karen checks in on Mike in bed to see how he is. Mike says he doesn't feel like he can go to school. Karen says that's okay and that she has to run a few errands, encouraging him to tag along with her and rent a movie, even R-rated. But Mike says he'd feel better at home. Karen eventually agrees, kisses him, and leaves. When government agents arrives in the neighborhood searching for the kids, Mike notices a Hawkins Power and Light van outside. He sprints to the kitchen, interrupting his mother on the phone, asking if anything needs to be prepared. Dustin and Mike, realizing that the van is from the lab, leave. Karen yells after him, but Mike yells, "If anyone asks where I am, I've left the country!", leaving Karen standing in confusion. After they have left, Karen investigates the basement, coming across a fort made of blankets with strands of blonde hair. But her investigation is cut short when Dr. Martin Brenner arrives alongside agents at the door, wanting to investigate her son's whereabouts. When Connie Frazier says that Mike has been holding an escaped experiment in their basement for the last few days, Karen becomes distraught and in tears. It's not until Brenner tells them they can make sure Mike is safe is she and Ted cooperate. After they leave, Karen says they should be outside looking for Mike, but Ted says they need to trust the government. Despite this, Karen and Ted drive down to the middle school, where they find Mike unharmed but emotional due to El's disappearance. Karen, in tears, grabs him and hugs him tightly, saying he's okay. Later that evening, she takes him to see a rescued Will at the local hospital. A year later, Mike has begun acting out frequently and getting punished. After stealing some money from Nancy for the arcade, Karen tells him he needs to fill two boxes of toys for the yard sale as punishment. While she tells Mike that she and Ted understand he's had a difficult year, but they've grown impatient. On Halloween, Karen excitedly takes pictures of a annoyed Mike in his Ghostbusters costume. Two months later, Karen excitedly takes pictures of a well-dressed but once again annoyed Mike in his outfit for the Snowball Dance. Six months later, Karen eavesdrops on the phone while Mike talks to El. When Mike lies that he can't see El because his Nana is deathly sick, Karen says "WHAT?" into the phone. Mike, realizing his mother is on the phone, yells upstairs for her to get off the phone. She asks if Nana had called, to which Mike repeats his command for her to get off the phone. Karen, annoyed, obeys and disconnects. Three months later, Mike comes home, depressed that Will and Eleven have moved out of Hawkins. Karen, noticing, stops cooking and hugs Mike tightly.

Holly is Karen's second daughter and youngest child. Like her other children, Karen is the primary caretaker for Holly rather than Ted, often seen feeding her, carrying her, holding her, or comforting her. When arguing with her other two children at the dinner table over the curfew, Holly is visibly emotional from the loudness. After Nancy storms off, Karen comforts her daughter and distracts her with her juice. The next day, Karen takes Holly to run some errands and returns home, asking Holly if she'd like pizza and some macaroni for dinner. When surprising Joyce at her house with a casserole, Karen brings Holly with her. As the two mothers talk, Holly follows the flickering Christmas lights leading to Will's room, and witnesses a monster attempting to break through the wall. Joyce, noticing Holly missing, grabs her in time and tells Karen she shouldn't be in there. Karen apologizes, jokingly saying she's quite the explorer these days. When Holly tells her mother and Joyce she saw something in the wall, Karen is unsurprisingly confused.

Nearly two years later in 1985, Karen has grown bored of her marriage and now lusts for Billy at the town community pool alongside her friends, all while Holly plays in the pool. When Billy flirts with Karen and offers her some "free swimming lessons" at the local motel later that night, Karen accepts. Later that evening, after putting on make-up and dressing up, Karen hesitates to leave when she sees Holly and Ted sleeping together on a chair in the living room. Realizing her selfishness, Karen restraints her lustfulness. The next day, when noticing a disheveled Billy stumbling into the pool backroom, Karen asks one of her friends to watch Holly. Karen, believing Billy to be upset for blowing him off, explains that while she understands his anger, she states that she has a family and doesn't want to anything that will hurt them. A few days later, Karen and Ted take Holly to the Fourth of July fair, watching the firework show on top of the carousel. When Holly notices trees rustling mysteriously, Holly nervously tells her mother, but Karen asks why she's staring at the trees when she should look at the firework show.


Due to their children being best friends with one another, Karen and Joyce are on friendly terms. When Will goes missing, Karen shows concern for him and sympathy for Joyce. One day, she brings Holly with her to surprise Joyce with a casserole at her house. When arriving at the Byers, the inside is strewn with Christmas lights all over and Joyce is a distraught mess, but Karen nonetheless treats Joyce kind. As they wait for the casserole to cook, Joyce explains she put the lights up because Will loved Christmas and that she thought it would make him feel closer, saying it's silly, but Karen quickly comforts her and says it's not. She then takes Joyce's hand and tells her that she and Ted are here for her if she and Jonathan need anything, causing Joyce to smile. With the casserole ready, Joyce suddenly notices Holly missing. Discovering Holly in Will's room, Joyce snatches her and brings her to Karen, saying she shouldn't be in there. Holly then says something came out of the wall, causing Joyce to thank Karen for the casserole but that the two of them need to leave. Karen, confused, sighs and obeys her command. That night, when Will's fake body is discovered, Karen is shown to be deeply upset, and later attends the funeral along with her family. After the real Will is rescued, Karen is shown sitting in the waiting room alongside the others. In 1985, Joyce calls Karen while stopping at a 7-Eleven in Illinois, asking if Will is alright. A few days later, at the Fun Fair, Joyce and Hopper, trying to find the kids, see Karen, Ted, and Holly climbing into the fair's Gravitron. Joyce calls for her, where Karen happily greets her and says she looks great. After getting off, Joyce and Hopper soon flee after Russians begin to corner them. Karen, seeing the two run while holding hands, comments to Ted how they make an odd couple.

Despite their limited interactions, Karen treats Jonathan kindly. When picking up Will from a D&D game at the Wheelers, Karen greets him and wishes him and his mother a merry Christmas. A year later, when he arrives at the Wheelers alongside Nancy, Karen greets him and asks how he is. She even allows him to work with Nancy when he says they have to study for a test.

When Dr. Martin Brenner and crew from Hawkins Lab arrive searching for Mike, Karen became extremely distraught. Brenner stepped in and said while her son is in danger, he can alleviate the situation by Karen and Ted's cooperation, to which Karen reluctantly agrees. When they leave, Karen comments that Brenner gives her the creeps.

When Billy arrives at the Wheeler home searching for his stepsister Max, Karen (wearing a robe from taking a bath) gets the door and is stunned by him. His charm and opened shirt causes Karen to become infatuated with the boy, giving him directions to the Byers and cookies. As he leaves, Karen checks out his behind and sighs in relief. Six months later, Karen and her group of friends go to the community pool frequently to check out Billy, who is now a lifeguard and is often flirting with them, particularly Karen, complimenting her bathing suit and ogling at her while she swims in the pool. One afternoon, Billy offers Karen some "swimming lessons" at a nearby hotel, saying it will be "the workout of her life". That night, Karen prepares to leave, putting on makeup and taking off her wedding ring. But before she leaves, she hears Ted snoring and notices him napping in his chair with Holly in his lap, causing Karen to restrain herself. Meanwhile, Billy travels to the hotel in his car, laughing to himself, until he is attacked by an unknown force and becoming possessed. The next morning, Karen sees a sweaty and disheveled Billy heading into the pool closet. She soon follows him and apologizes to him, saying that she understands if he is upset with her, but she has a family and doesn't want to hurt them. Billy, holding back the force wanting to kill Karen, tells her to stay away from him and quickly leaves, leaving Karen startled. It can be assumed she was saddened by his death on the Fourth of July.


Season One appearances
The Vanishing of Will Byers The Weirdo on Maple Street Holly, Jolly The Body
The Flea and the Acrobat The Monster The Bathtub The Upside Down
Season Two appearances
MADMAX Trick or Treat, Freak The Pollywog
Will the Wise Dig Dug The Spy*
The Lost Sister The Mind Flayer The Gate
Season Three appearances
Suzie, Do You Copy? The Mall Rats The Case of the Missing Lifeguard The Sauna Test
The Flayed* E Pluribus Unum The Bite The Battle of Starcourt
Season Four appearances
The Hellfire Club Vecna's Curse The Monster and the Superhero
Dear Billy The Nina Project The Dive
The Massacre at Hawkins Lab Papa The Piggyback

*Marks a voice only appearance.

Video Game Appearances
Stranger Things: Puzzle Tales

Family tree

Ted Wheeler Family Tree icon.png
Ted Wheeler
Karen Wheeler Family Tree icon 001.png
Karen Wheeler
Nancy Wheeler Family Tree icon 002.png
Nancy Wheeler
Screen Shot 2017-07-19 at 6.33.40 AM.png
Mike Wheeler
Holly Wheeler

Memorable Quotes

  • "I hope you're enjoying your chicken, Ted."
  • "I want you to feel like you can talk to me."
  • "You are not crazy."
  • "Well, wherever you get it from, I'm proud of you . . . That you stood up for yourself! That you stood up to those - SHITHEADS!"


View Gallery.png For this subject's gallery, see Karen Wheeler/Gallery.


  • In the Montauk pilot script, Karen was to supposed have blonde hair. In the final version of the first season, she is a brunette. In the second season, she begins have highlights. By the third season, her hair has completely been dyed blonde. In the fourth season, her hair has grown more frizzier and poofy.
  • Season One of Stranger Things is the only season to feature Karen in every episode.
  • In many scenes featuring Karen at the Wheeler house, a glass or bottle of wine is seen not too far out of reach from her. Cara Buono has stated she adds them in to emphasize her failing marriage and why she never wonders where her kids are.[1]
  • Despite being a part of the main cast since the first season, Karen has no knowledge of the Upside Down and its inhabitants.