Posted on November 10, 2017

Eighties Nostalgia in Stranger Things

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In recent horror, eighties nostalgia has seemingly reached a fever pitch. The cinematic remake of the 90’s television miniseries based on the Steven King novel It (2017) noticeably shifts the timeframe of the original story from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. In fact, the film goes out of its way to remind viewers of 80’s sights and sounds, particularly the decade’s movies. In one scene, the camera passes over the lone movie theatre of the small town whose marquee promotes:  Lethal Weapon 2, Batman, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child. However, the binge-worthy Netflix series, Stranger Things, takes its love of 80’s film even further. A poster for the decade’s remake of The Thing (1982) appears on a wall in a character’s home, and in the second season, the boys all dress up as characters from the Ghostbusters movies. But more than that, the series employs elements of 80’s movies so much so that they become crucial to the series’ plot. Is this just lazy script writing or is something else at work here?

Horror allows audiences to confront their fears, particularly repressed childhood terrors. Target viewing audiences of 2017 were born and raised in the 1980’s and 1990’s, and so recent horror engaging with eighties nostalgia not only allows for a return to idyllic days of childhood fantasy but also allows audiences to confront early traumas. And what if the audience’s childhood fears stem from 80’s movies themselves? Perhaps the reason why It and Stranger Things go out of their way to remind viewers of 80’s classics is as much to connect audiences back to their childhoods as it is to allow viewers to put to bed their fears of 1980’s classics. Who as a kid growing up in the 80’s wasn’t terrified of Freddy Krueger, a supernatural killer who stalked children in their dreams? And isn’t Pennywise, who also stalks and murders children, just as frightening? Can we read 2017 Pennywise as an updated version of 1980’s Freddy?

Drew Barrymore as Charlie in Firestarter and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven

In Stranger Things, the references to 1980’s horror and sci-fi classics abound. In episode eight of season one, audiences learn that the creature uses people as incubators, not unlike the extraterrestrials in the Alien franchise. The character Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), meanwhile, owes much of her genesis to Charlie (Drew Barrymore) in Firestarter (1984). Although both characters are far from as unsettling as the monsters in Aliens (1986), surely the lab from Firestarter is pretty scary. There, scientists experiment on Charlie, forcing her to wear brain sensors similar to that worn by El. The Duffer brothers also borrow heavily from Firestarter’s link of psychic powers to nose bleeds. And finally, Stranger Things mirrors E.T. (1982). In the film as in the series, a group of young boys escape big brother on their bicycles while transporting a telekinetic being. At certain points, Eleven even wears a wig and dress vaguely reminiscent of those worn by E.T. in the Steven Spielberg film.

ET and Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven

Interestingly, most of these references are to 80’s films that are themselves sequels, a part of a larger franchise, or are rumored to be remade shortly. Firestarter is set to be remade by Blumhouse, for example. And would anyone really be surprised if a sequel to E.T. ever came out? As mentioned earlier, It is a remake of a 90’s miniseries, itself an adaptation of a 1986 novel. Also, given the amount of allusions to 80’s classics  in Stranger Things, and its aesthetic tendency to recall 80’s genre fiction—each episode is demarcated as a chapter with 80’s style font—can we think of Stranger Things as a sequel of sorts? A remake? Could the Netflix series be what film buffs like to call “spirit successor” of 80’s horror and sci-fi genres as a whole?

The second season of the series goes so far as to refer to itself as a sequel: Stranger Things 2. And in many ways, the second season (like many sequels) is just a rehashing of all the same plotlines as before. Nothing has really changed. Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) might not be in the Upside Down, but he might as well be since he is again cast aside. The same love triangles persist between the same teenagers, the town is still dealing with the same monsters (albeit slightly mutated from their original form), and Eleven once again uses her powers to cast out figures from the Upside Down that plague the town. Yet, despite being the grievance of many a movie critic, perhaps this repetition of basic plotlines is the essential nature of all classic movie sequels? Stranger Things just makes this fact very obvious.

Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin, Max (Sadie Sink), and Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo)

Quite possibly, these examples in recent horror, by calling attention to themselves as remakes and sequels, make plain a hallmark of horror: its constant retelling and revision of scary stories. Perhaps they draw attention to the fact that they are riffing on 80’s horror tropes and storylines because horror as a genre likes to repeat itself. Besides, the 1980’s, in addition to being a cornucopia of childhood fantasies and fears, was a time of sequels and remakes as well. Perhaps the genius of Stranger Things is its willingness to repeat. Because, after all, that’s what horror does.


Michelle Mastro is a graduate student at Indiana University, Bloomington’s English PhD program. She studies the development of the novel (loves the Gothic) and never tires of reading Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins—believe it or not. But most of all, she adores horror films!

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