This is absolutely full of spoilers. If you haven’t watched Stranger Things there is no reason to read this post. You’ve been warned. I’m probably going to keep writing about this show, thus the #1 in the title. This first post is going to be a bit of a brain dump.
My friend Paul sold me on Stranger Things when he described it as X-Files meets the Wonder Years, but written by Stephen King. It’s all of those things and all of the other things from the 1980s that latch-key kids obsessed with the strange and unusual obsess over and adore.
At first, I was very suspicious of this show. I thought the nostalgic elements of Guardians of the Galaxy were pandering and childish. That so many artists spend their time making exquisite mashups of other people’s intellectual property (Robocop with C3-PO gold armor!) has always kind of bothered me. I mean, I like that shit, but I always feel like I would’ve rather seen something new, something original.
This is the territory explored in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist. He basically absolves artists of any guilt if they lean heavy into their sources. His claim, which is certainly supportable, is that everyone steals from somewhere, it’s all about how you process it, how you make it original. If you are borrowing directly from something, homage is always an option. The problem with this sort of thing is that it seems to embolden laziness.
However, the more I watched Stranger Things, the less guarded I became. This show is made for me. Why hate on it? It would be like if someone cooked all of your favorite food for you and made everything perfect. You wouldn’t want to have all your favorite things all the time, because you might grow tired of them, but how awesome would it be to have just one meal with In N Out burgers and fancy cheeses from France and small batch root beer and strawberry sorbet and deep dish pizza and a cheesesteak from Clove & Hoof? It would rule.
Stranger Things is the equivalent of a perfectly dressed Japanese rockabilly guy. Every detail is dialed in. Even better than anyone rocked it in real life. It’s a compulsively detailed love letter to kids who were left alone a little too much by their parents during the Cold War.
It doesn’t always work out for homage though. Even though American Horror Story has its enjoyable moments, its brand of nostalgia is a hot mess. It’s like a shitty mall punk that loves Good Charlotte and has never heard of Minor Threat. It’s Kirsten Stewart’s Black Flag tattoo. It learned the three chords it needed and stopped caring after the chorus was written.
The ideal audience for Stranger Things is a mid 30s pop-culture obsessive from a broken home. Someone who was able to binge watch VHS tapes of Hammer Films in their room because no adults had the time to stop them. A kid who grew up with battered Stephen King books and Dungeon Master’s Guides.
But here’s the thing with Stephen King and D&D. They’re both completely referential. Without Tales from the Crypt, there would be no King. Without Lord of the Rings, there would be no D&D.
The first episode, Chapter One: The Vanishing of Will Beyers, opens with a classic containment situation. The audience sees a lab, a scientist on the run, and the hint of something terrible approaching. Though there will be supernatural elements introduced in the film, this setting immediately places the show in the realm of weird science fiction.
Though the show certainly introduces supernatural elements, they are rooted in the idea that there is, no matter how deep, some explanation for what’s going on. This is a key feature of horror in the 80s. No matter how weird, the creatures seem to always obey rules. This is explored thoroughly in the 1987 horror comedy, Monster Squad. Lots of people who’ve written about 80s horror point out that it was the beginning of a boom in teen focused horror.
When the main cast of kids is introduced in Stranger Things, they are playing Dungeons & Dragons. This seems to me like an obvious nod to E.T., which starts almost identically. The kids are arguing about how to defeat a monster called a demigorgon, when they are interrupted from playing the game. Will Beyers, who’s disappearance will largely drive the plot, makes a dice roll as everyone is getting up from the table. He tells his friend Mike Wheeler he failed the roll. This does two things: it establishes Will as an honest person and foreshadows something bad to come.
Opening with D&D also gives me sure footing for my own pet theory about the show: it’s all about the rules. Rules of genre. Rules of television. Rules of monster fighting. This show doesn’t just follow its own logic, it follows the logic of everything it’s based on.
80s horror obeyed rules because it was a response to the anxiety of the time. Sure, you might get vaporized in a nuclear forces, but Freddy can only get you if you sleep. Vampires can’t come in unless you invite them in. Horror was ultimately quite safe, until the 90s, when randomness and cruelty became the style.
Bio-horror is a big genre influence on the show. Riffs on Alien are peppered throughout the show, especially in the shadow world: there’s an egg that looks straight out off the original Alien poster. Will is attached to the wall with some sort of alien jazz just like the colonists were in Aliens. He has an alien snake in his throat, which is later revealed to have laid some sort of worm creature in him.
The creature itself is basically a greatest hits of things that go bump in the night. The gangly humanoid form and facelessness of the “demigorgon” is all H.R. Giger. To me, this is the most original creature design in all of horror. You’ve seen it copied everywhere from 1988’s Pumpkinhead to the Silent Hill video game franchise.
One of the most delightful characters on the show is Eleven, the young telekinetic escapee of the Hawkins Lab. The show gives genre superfans a few clues as to what she is supposed to be. Most obviously, she sort of functions as E.T.
She’s chased after by scientists, has a limited command of the English language at first, and even has her own junk food fetish (her Eggos are basically E.T.’s Reece’s Pieces). The scene where she’s ambling around the house when no one is home are right out of E.T. as well.
If you’re really deep into nerd stuff, you might have noticed the kids mention X-Men #134 when they’re racing their bikes. This is an important issue in the classic early 80s, Chris Claremont penned, Dark Phoenix Saga. If you’re unfamiliar, this was the story arc where one of the original X-Men, Jean Grey, became a super powered godlike creature.
Jean Grey, like Eleven, has telekinetic and telepathic powers. The limits of both of their powers aren’t really well known, but they become more powerful when they are stressed out or need to defend their friends. Issue #134 is a turning point for Phoenix. It’s where she gets nudged towards her eventual fate, which leads to her destruction (though she reincarnates in later story arcs, which we may see happen to Eleven).
Another weird little idea I had involves the etymology of Eleven’s name. They call her “El” for short. In Hebre, El is a word that means “god” or “deity.” When Phoenix becomes Dark Phoenix in the X-Men comics, she essentially becomes a god. Comic books are deeply rooted in Jewish mysticism, so it’s not too much of a stretch, but I can’t really back this theory up, so I’ll just leave it as a curiosity.
Another fun aspect of this show is all the genre artifacts you can spot on screen. The cop in the photo above is reading Cujo. There are posters for Evil Dead, The Thing, and The Dark Crystal visible in the kids’ rooms. Eleven makes a Millennium Falcon fly.
There are all kinds of dialog Easter eggs as well. One of the kid’s moms makes reference to the absurd length of time the kids are playing D&D (“ten hours??”). When the principal of the high school is discussing the AV Club’s equipment he makes what is quite possibly the most unintentionally significant statement of the show, revealing a grand-unifying theory of the nerdiness at the heart of everything: “Apparently, some of the less athletic types go nuts for this stuff.”