a simpler time raises goosebumps in netflix’s stranger things
The 80s have never truly left the American pop culture bloodstream. The period echoes everywhere from denim cuts to synth undercurrents in Top 40 songs. So in July, when Netflix dropped sci-fi horror phenomenon Stranger Things, a TV series set in 1983, it presented a world steeped in a recent past familiar even to those who did not come of age in the 80s zeitgeist.
The series’ setting draws heavily from its classic sci-fi predecessors: a small Spielbergian town — wholesome suburb, kids on bikes — and the shady government research facility in the neighboring woods. When a young boy, Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears, his friends, three precocious middle-school misfits, venture into the woods to find him. Instead, they find and befriend a mysterious barefoot girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Soon enough, townspeople become entangled in a conspiracy involving nefarious scientists and a sinewy monster with no face.
Stranger Things’s aesthetic immediately evokes Alien, E.T., and The Goonies, among others. But one would be mistaken to write off the series as unoriginal nostalgia-pandering. Stranger Things distinguishes itself in part because of its tightly-written suspense and satisfying plants-and-payoffs that give viewers a stake in the unraveling. But it’s the Duffer Brothers’ deft use of the 80s, particularly 80s material culture, that gives the first season its bone-deep chills.
At first glance, the objects that “belong” iconically to the decade (walkie-talkies, board games) seem merely interwoven into the setting—vivid and evocative props, but otherwise inconsequential. However, these materials quickly come to bear on the decisions made and fates dealt. We meet preteen Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard) and his friends at the climax of an imaginative game of Dungeons & Dragons. Mrs. Wheeler announces bedtime, and Mike’s friends bike back home alone. Through the woods. In the dark.
With no cell phones.
An obvious remark, but in a contemporary age saturated with rapid technological advances, the lack of means to account for a kid’s location on the way home is shockingly conspicuous, and also somehow refreshing. There is a joy, a buoyancy to their freedom. The show’s depictions of family life do away with today’s helicopter-parenting and allow for good ol’ unsupervised kid-quests. The screenless D&D gameplay and boys taking to their bikes ring as halcyon remembrances of a more innocent age.
Or so it would seem. What follows when Mike’s friend Will (Noah Schnapp) gets derailed in the woods introduces the horrific consequences these simpler times permit.
Such is the contradiction between the idealized and the not-so-innocent that fuels the show’s excitement: Stranger Things exploits the 80s to simultaneously celebrate and subvert an era that has become rosy-colored. This is no mere mimicry; rather, by steeping their setting in the nostalgic artifacts so ingrained in the time period, the Duffer Brothers are acutely aware that revisitation of the 80s warrants a meditation on the material disparities relative to 2016.
In another instance, Will’s teenage brother, Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) inadvertently snaps a photograph of a looming silhouette in the woods. Enlarging the figure to identify the creature requires process and patience in a red-bathed darkroom. He and an unlikely ally hold their breaths in this moment of development—of plot, character, and literal film—that is exploited for all of its slow, ominous suspense.
The visual and material aspects of the show are meant to invoke both affection and a kind of suffocation. The most advanced technology that figures into the show are the fond objects of an American childhood, long since obsolete: a HAM radio, a film camera, a boombox, flashlights, and bear traps. Compared with young people today, Mike and his friends have fewer options for solving problems. Greater chances of being discovered when the bad guys are at their tail. Fewer escape routes.
Even so, despite these supposed limitations, the ways in which “relics” are exploited, combined, and recombined by the characters are artful and often manifest in plot-pivoting surprises. These can be aesthetically ingenious: In a haunting scene, the missing boy’s mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) devises a way to use Christmas lights to communicate with her son. These moments— chilling, yet filled with twinkling wonder—succeed in joining raw fear with visual delight.
The show’s science fiction elements are equally uncomplicated; all of the science in the show can be explained by the boys’ affable middle school teacher. The brand of sci-fi taken on by Stranger Things does not encumber itself with overly explanatory origin stories, but rather accepts a straightforward backstory, taking off with it like a child running with scissors.
The show’s emphasis on simplicity invites reexamination of other aspects of paranormal horror and our relationships to the past. Scruffy rogue police chief Hop (David Harbour) deals sarcastic zingers on small-town life: The worst thing that’s ever happened in the town of Hawkins, Illinois, he tells Joyce, “was when an owl attacked Eleanor Gillespie’s head because it thought her hair was a nest.” But Hop, too, was made steely by a long-ago loss, and he becomes an ally to Joyce.
And here is where Stranger Things shines. Beyond clever use of 80s artifacts, the Duffer Brothers’ stripped-down approach to spooky sci-fi allows the show to bare real-life monsters: childhood trauma, parental grief, guilt for having failed to protect loved ones. At some point, each of the characters, children and teenagers and their harried parents alike, are forced to confront the monsters of everyday tragedies. The school bullies. The fraying friendships. The fear that no one is listening to you.
In fact, the most horrific moments in Stranger Things are the ones where the paranormal encounters the painful mundane. In a memorable scene from the pilot episode, Joyce and Jonathan are choosing a photo to use on Will’s “missing child” posters. The shot lingers on their tender dialogue, and just before it reaches the point of mawkishness, the landline rings. Joyce picks up to a parent’s nightmare: the sounds of her son’s breathing against a monster’s rippling growl.
By inviting modern viewers to reflect on a storied past, Stranger Things addresses the trepidation below the romance. Its formula for creating 80s horror with continued relevance is simple: Speak to the fears that never truly left us.