From the title screen to the clothes to the soundtrack to the set design, Stranger Things captures everything that made the 80s nostalgic.
I am not a bandwagoner. So, when everyone started fawning over Stranger Things, I shrugged and went about my day. When word made it to me that Stranger Things was paying homage to 80s pop culture, my interest piqued. Then, a few weeks into the fervor, I decided to give it a try and was quickly turned off. I am not into scary (I used to read Stephen King books like some kids eat candy bars and I’m still getting over the PTSD), and the first three episodes are by far the scariest. So, I ditched Stranger Things with a heavy heart.
When the second season was announced, I decided to conquer my fear and give Stanger Things another chance. Because so much time had passed, I had to re-watch those first three episodes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take pause before walking past my open closet door, or if I said my heart rate didn’t pick up when my bare feet lingered too long next to the gap between my bed and floor at night. But in the end, my perseverance paid off. I was rewarded with some excellent storytelling, some facepalming fashion reminders, and creeped the hell out, but in a good way.
Here’s why Strangers Things is so great to those who grew up in the 80s.
S-P-O-I-L-E-R-S!!! So many spoilers.
The Master of Horror
Stranger Things gives more than one nod to Stephen King. Firestarter and Silver Bullet (come to mind right off the bat). Firestarter for the overall plot of Stranger Things and Silver Bullet for some key scenes where the kids are hunting the monster. Yet, these are nods that only ardent fans of King might get. Stranger Things makes sure their homage doesn’t go unnoticed by giving the audience two direct references. The first is a character reading Cujo. The second is when Becky Ives pointedly asks Hopper and Joyce, “Read any Stephen King?”
There is so much more than this, but I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. Sam Haysom at Mashable does a great job with his list: 8 Stranger Things references only Stephen King fans will get.
Shadowy Monsters and Classic Horror
Horror movies saw an upswing in viewing with the advent of VHS. Now people didn’t have to trudge to the theatre to see a movie that may have been considered immoral, broadcasting their deranged viewing habits publicly (it was a different time). Now they could rent these films and view them in their dark homes, pausing for pee breaks whenever the urge hit them. But more than that, VHS was highly inferior to what one saw on the big screen. Colors were muted, the picture grainy, and most importantly, shadows were darker. This darker picture led the viewer to never quite know where the monster might be lurking. The overall effect was a much tenser movie experience. Stranger Things brings back the slow burn shadow play VHS gave us in the 80s. Where is the fucking monster?! What does it look like? Someone turn on a goddamn light!
To learn more about the scary movie VHS phenomime, check out HBomberGuy’s video essay on YouTube. You won’t be disappointed.
The 80s is known for its larger than life hairstyles, and Strange Things delivers them mops in full frontal Farrah Fawcett wings and waves. Did you miss the bowl cut? Mohawks? Mullets? Fear not! They’re all here, waiting to make you cringe and reach for the dull as fuck pair of kitchen scissors lost in the junk drawer as a weapon against the nap.
You either knew a Barb or you were a Barb. Fashion was particularly unkind to the Barbs of the 80s. No one looks good in pleated pants, especially Barb, but she worked it as best she could.
If you happened to be friends with a Barb, you knew you could count on her to supply an alibi for nighttime romps with your forbidden boyfriend, lend a hand with your tough science project, eat ice cream and watch sappy flicks when said forbidden boyfriend cheated on you, and if she survived the woods, she’d hold your bouquet at your wedding as you exchanged rings and vows.
Some key characteristics of a Barb are high intelligence, bookishness, unpopularity, nonconform to traditional beauty laws, biting wit, and above average loyalty.
When Dustin says to Will’s dad Ted, “Son of a bitch, you’re no help at all,” he nails the role of most adults in Stranger Things and the 80s movies in general.
As a child of the 80s, I spent most of my free time with my friends exploring. We saw our parents when we came in for food or when it was time to go in for the night. Other than that, we were running wild.
Films like The Goonies, Stand by Me, Monster Squad, and The Lost Boys are kid-centered with very few adults in their casts. Parents tend to be clueless dream killers while most other characters over the age of 30 are bad guys. The first season of Stranger Things introduces five main kids and only two have parental figures on screen. Sure, Mike’s parents are there, but they play very little into the kids’ daily lives. We don’t even meet Lucas’ and Dustan’s moms until season two.
But there are always exceptions, like Joyce. Bad ass Joyce who takes an active role in her kids’ lives. Unlike Mike’s mom, who plays the stereotypical 80s mom, Joyce is there. She listens to her instincts and doesn’t give two shits if you aren’t on board. She’s going to find her son, so either pitch in or get the hell out of her way.
Hopper’s character is similar. While he isn’t directly a father to any of the kids, he serves as a proxy to 11 in season two. Here he plays both a co-conspirator and a barricade for 11 as she tries to live a normal life.
Stephen Spielberg and E.T.
The Duffer Brother make no bones about their influences as filmmakers, and Spielberg in high on the list. I had to smile with 11 pulls out a sheet and tells Hopper she could be a ghost for Halloween and no one would be the wiser to her identity. It worked for Elliott and E.T., right?
I love that the boys are D&D playing nerds. There they are, in the basement diving into the Forgotten Realms. It’s fantastic, especially when they use D&D as an algology to the Upside Down, the world Will has disappeared into.
Tapping into cult classics like the Last Starfighter and Night of the Comet, Stranger Things fits top scores into the storyline to introduce the exotic California transplant, Max. Not only is she sweeping Dustin off the number one spot in Dig Dug, but she skateboards, surfs, has long red hair, and is tough as nails. What’s not to like?
Dig Dug is a clever nod to what the kids will have to battle later in Season 2. As the portal to the Upside Down contusions to leak its darkness into Hawkins, a series of subterranean tunnels spider web out into the farmland outside the town. The kids must now venture into the tunnels to hunt monsters, just like in Dig Dug.
Who doesn’t remember Sean Astin as the asthmatic treasure hunter in Goonies? God, I loved this movie as a kid, and can probably still recite most of the dialogue by rote. Who better to solve the creepy crayon map sketched by Will than Bob? Mikey’s all grown up and still solving puzzles and finding treasure.
What coming of age story would be complete without a teen little angst? All I have to say is thank fucking God teenagers don’t actually have telekinetic powers. In the second season, 11 is one bloody prom away from becoming Carrie White. Just watching Mike talk to another girl puts her into a tizzy, which, when you think about it is pretty spot on for a hormonal teenager.
The Big Dance
So many great 80s flicks either end with a big dance or contain one as a means of setting up character hierarchies; Pretty in Pink, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, Teen Wolf, Back to the Future, etc.
The big dance is a quintessential part of growing up in an 80s movie. I had watched this scene play out so many times I expected my first school dance to be just like it. I was highly disappointed.
Video Killed the Radio Star
Well, not on Strange Things. These kids are all way too busy saving the world to sit around watching MTV. As with the mise-en-scène, the soundtrack to Stranger Things is the icing on the 80s homage cake. So many great pop tunes, the nostalgia poured out of my television, bathing my Ikea living room in Aquanet and Opium perfume.
So, there’s my list of some of the ways Stranger Things’ was a trip down the 80s memory lane. I know I’ve left out a ton, but we can be here forever.
If you liked this, check out my Wonder Woman review.