We explore the layers of meaning behind the TV-series-turned-cult phenomenon that ignited our imaginations at a time when keeping an ironical distance can seem a safer bet
When Stranger Things aired this summer, it captured the collective imagination almost overnight and spread like wildfire through social media, leaving a neon-lit trail of title-font memes and gifs of Barb in its beautifully destructive wake. If you didn’t immediately binge-watch the Duffer Brothers’ opus, you might have pinned its appeal on its 80s throwback aesthetic – the kind of flawlessly art-directed universe that fashion worships at the altar of. But the cultural moment that’s been set in motion by the show isn’t simply fuelled by its immersive atmosphere. Through its deft and honest pastiche-y pooling of references – weaving together classic cinematic threads into a rich, compelling tapestry – Stranger Things has (not entirely un-paradoxically) stirred a yearning in us for something real and true. “Friends don’t lie,” the leitmotif goes, and the show doesn’t lie either. It reverently wears its references on its shearling-lined denim jacket sleeve.
By now, the side-by-side videos and lists charting the show’s homage to all things Spielbergian – ET, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Poltergeist – as well as scenes from Stephen King adaptations like It, Stand by Me and Carrie, John Carpenter (They Live, The Thing) and, of course, The Goonies and Alien have circulated ad infinitum. But it’s the way the show uses them that sets it apart from the usual postmodern meta suspects.“Our show never viewed the 80s as subject matter or as irony. We never set out to make a wink-wink, kitschy commentary on the retro setting. The 80s is the womb that our story is set in, but it was never about that time period. It is a love-letter to these cinematic moments that shaped us and which will never leave us,” notes Shawn Levy, the show’s producer, who directed episodes three and four.
“The 80s is the womb that our story is set in, but it was never about that time period. It is a love-letter to these cinematic moments that shaped us and which will never leave us” – Shawn Levy, Stranger Things producer
“The Duffers are smack-dab in the generation of irony and cynical, judgmental distance, but they reject 100 per cent that tone which so much storytelling has in this time,” says Levy. “There is nothing ironic about Stranger Things. It’s clever as hell, but it is sincere. It is non-judgmentally committed to its characters and, certainly, we will never assume a superior stance to them, however foolish or troubled they are.” This shift towards sincerity is, of course, epitomised by the show’s child protagonists, living in simpler times when kids weren’t glued to iPads (or growing up too fast), but went out on magical adventures. And, as Levy notes, “there’s no question that setting a mystery in a pre-internet, pre-cell phone era creates real pockets of the unknown. Whereas in 2016 there are precious few pockets of the unknown left.”
Rather than work with horror and pop culture’s much-mythologised teenager, Stranger Things channels the power inherent in childhood innocence. “There was someone who asked early on, ‘How will we get non-kids to watch a show largely about kids?’ Because the conventional wisdom is that teenagers and 20-somethings don’t want to watch a show with 12-year-olds in it,” says Levy. “And yet there is something about this show that has accessed the innocence in everyone. We’re all out there trying to be so fucking clever and pissy. But we all have that kid in us. It’s just been paved over with so much irony and cynicism. Stranger Things has scraped away that protective shell to access something pure in us as viewers.” Crucial to this oddly wholesome appeal is the show’s stellar young cast, whose character traits ended up finding their way into the Ross and Matt Duffer’s scripts. “These kids are amazing people, with amazing personalities, and we incorporated that into the show,” says Matt. “They were really able to inform their characters.” Ross chimes, “Once we found (the cast), we knew this was our core group. Then we shoved them together and prayed that the chemistry would work. It did, and in a way we never really imagined.”
That’s not to say that Stranger Things isn’t complex or dark, or that the kids are naive. But the show explores disturbing, layered themes in an unaffected way, without disillusionment. And, in a world where things are largely ambiguous and confusing and ultimately not very unifying, that kind of earnest storytelling feels fresh and welcoming – seminal 80s pieces filtered through a modern sensibility or a dark, twisted Wizard of Oz coming-of-age story, as Dr Andrew Scahill puts it. Assistant professor at Salisbury University, Maryland, he is the author of The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema and writes extensively on the genre.
“It’s almost as if you feel like the parts are being made for you specifically. You’re having a private conversation with these filmmakers when it’s so mobilised by nostalgia,” says Scahill. “And I think that it encourages this afterplay where you go online and talk with people and it creates this sort of secondary text of people exchanging references and memories of these original items.” Perhaps that’s also why the show has reverberated through popular culture in such a massive way: it brings people together and invites us to revisit our childhood. “It’s like if I found a box of baseball cards or comic books underneath my bed. And, for me, that’s what nostalgia and rebooting is. It’s not so much about narrative reiteration as it is about a desire to reproduce an emotion. Trying to recreate the moment of first encounter and that kind of joy.”
It’s this genuine, almost tangible excitement that stops the show from ever feeling remotely stale. You’re discovering all these things anew – an IRL extension of Spielberg’s on-screen fascination with childhood awe and wonder that’s being referenced in the show. “The horror genre has always lived on that razor’s-edge of wonder and terror, and certainly (that applies to) Stranger Things. I think children are capable of experiencing both in a very pure way,” Levy explains of the role children play in horror.
“The child’s imaginative capacity is essential to the fantasy genre” – Dr Andrew Scahill, author of The Revolting Child in Horror Cinema
Scahill echoes this: “The child’s imaginative capacity is essential to the fantasy genre. There’s something, too, about childhood as this transitional period of moving from pure unadulterated fantasy to something more conformist and structured – the question always being, what gets lost in that? And I think we get really interested in the power of escapism and the danger of it. Look at a film like (Guillermo del Toro’s) Pan’s Labyrinth, where it’s all about fantasy as a kind of coping mechanism.”
There is definitely something weirdly therapeutic about the show’s warm horror, reminiscent of Twin Peaks and The X-Files, both of which are enjoying a major renaissance with new seasons. It’s the 80s before the decade got Patrick Bateman-cold and unforgiving, excessive and garish – back when branding was still a reassuring, comforting thing, like Eleven’s Eggos, rather than conspicuous consumption. And, in many ways, the 80s themselves were a nostalgic decade, informed by Victorian fashion and a longing for the post-war joyfulness and wholesome idealism of the 40s and 50s – think nuclear families over nuclear bombs.
On a purely era-driven level, the momentum that has built around the show is part of a wider cultural landscape. Nintendo are relaunching the NES (*celebratory Super Mario Bros coin sound*) and LEGO are doing Gremlins and The Goonies-themed sets. Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things is starring in the 2017 remake of It, and there’s Dead of Summer, the guilty-pleasure slasher horror show set in an 80s midwestern summer camp. There’s also Black Mirror’s pastel-hued “San Junipero” instalment, where the dead and dying can be uploaded to a decade of their choice – an episode inspired by nostalgia therapy.
Fashion is similarly looking to the decade, but instead of utilising it as an element of ‘wrong’ and turning it into some knowing version of Tumblr cool, many designers are taking a more earnest approach to the decade. There’s Marc Jacobs’ positive, unashamed Resort 2017 love-letter to MTV iconography, where Jacobs likened the decade to paradise, a word embroidered on the back of jackets. Ashley Williams has built her 80s and 90s-led brand on a similar ethos, and, while she’s particularly interested in the space that the teenager occupies, there’s an air of childhood fun and not overthinking things to her work.
Stuart Vevers’ nostalgic references for Coach perhaps come closest to the Duffer brothers’ philosophy. Fuelled by a celebratory point of view and a homespun, honest vibe, Vevers is an Americana fanboy in the best possible sense, playing with well-established codes (the varsity jacket, SS17’s prairie piecrust collars in the vein of Barb) in a fresh and British-eccentric way that’s still deeply true to the spirit of the material. And, cleverly, he had Winona Ryder and Millie Bobby Brown sitting front row at the show.
Nostalgia in fashion is often accused of refusing to face the world we live in, but, to Vevers, looking back is about optimism. His collections for the American house explore dreamy high-school vibes, elevating the American casual – like AW16’s nod to the 1986 movie Youngblood, starring Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze. “Like most people, I grew up watching American films and was intrigued by American culture generally. I have a nostalgia for the imagery but also for how I felt. A feeling of idealism. The enthusiasm and energy of youth. I look back as a way to tap into those optimistic feelings,” says Vevers. But for all the feelgood vibes, there is of course a much darker thread coursing through Stranger Things, in the shape of bullying, child abuse, monsters (literal and human) and the ‘Upside Down’ – part of a bigger horror wave in fiction that plays heavily on modern anxieties. “I champion the progressive potential for horror. I think it’s the genre of social upheaval. It’s about repression and how those things we constantly repress cannot be fully contained and come to the surface,” says Scahill. “There’s an author, Jack Halberstam, who calls monsters ‘meaning machines’. I like that, because they are in a way symbolically empty. We can fill them with anything, which is why zombies mean one thing in the 1960s, another in the 90s and something else today. They can be filled up with whatever is troubling us in the era.”
“As creepy and spooky and weird as the show can be, there is an innocence to its world that is enviable. Really, really enviable” – Shawn Levy, Stranger Things producer
Now that everybody has a therapist, we are more aware how our youthful experiences shape us, bringing a darker flavour to childhood. This is why Eleven is such a strong and poignant character: we connect with her on a level of feeling her pain, the conflict of being manipulated and not knowing who to trust. Implied in the kids’ mantra of “friends don’t lie” is, of course, that adults lie. There’s an authenticity divide where the children become symbols of honesty: when they complain that Nancy Wheeler is no longer fun, it’s because she’s left behind her childhood and become a moody, self-aware teenager who is now too cool for the realm of Dungeons & Dragons, and, when Jonathan Byers tells Nancy he thought there was more to her than her perfect suburban facade, the subtext is that she’s morphing into another adult phony.
His own mother, of course, is anything but the white picket fence. Portrayed to perfection by Winona Ryder, Joyce Byers strikes a nerve with many for her imperfection and absent-minded but intuitive warmth. In a way, she's the opposite of today’s polished and heavily edited Instagram generation, and doesn’t try to adapt to normative or pleasing suburban behaviour. While her hardship is heartbreaking, she flies a flag for the beauty of not having your shit together. “One hallmark of Spielbergian storytelling, especially from the 80s – and we absolutely borrow this – is young people trying to find themselves in connection, while being raised by very damaged adults,” says Levy. “Hopper and Joyce have not figured life out any better than Mike and his gang.”
Maybe we also love Stranger Things for its normalness and how relatable it is – laced with this longing for places like Hawkins, Indiana. “The truth is, even with the looming threat of the cold war and the paranoia and fear that was in the air – which we touch on by talking about theories about the Russians in the show – it was a more innocent time, compared to the world we’re living in now,” says Levy. “As creepy and spooky and weird as the show can be, there is an innocence to its world that is enviable. Really, really enviable.”