Joshua Rothman writes about the references to 1980s horror and adventure genres in Netflix's standout new series Stranger Things. He writes that although the show's references stem mainly from the '80s, you can see some that reach all the way back to H.P. Lovecraft. Rothman is in partial below, in full via the New Yorker.
Last month brought sad news in the ongoing story of the passage of time: Funai, a Japanese electronics firm, announced the shutdown of the world’s only remaining VCR production line. For those of us on the threshold of middle age, this was a cruel blow. The VCR was our smartphone; it gave rhythm and texture to our childhoods. Luckily, we’ve received a compensatory gift: “Stranger Things,” the new sci-fi series on Netflix (which my colleague Emily Nussbaum has reviewed, enthusiastically, in this week’s magazine). The show is a love letter to the VCR era—a satisfying mash-up of all the scary and speculative movies you loved when you were twelve. You watched them over and over again, on VHS. Now you can stream them to your laptop in condensed, purified form.
“Stranger Things” is set in 1983, in a Spielbergian small town called Hawkins, Indiana. It follows a group of ordinary people who discover that a gateway to another dimension has opened in the woods, and that a terrifying creature has crawled through it and abducted a little boy. The people of Hawkins respond to this development in age-appropriate ways. The kids glide around the neighborhood on bikes and befriend a girl who turns out to have telekinetic powers (as in “E.T.” or “The Goonies”); the teen-agers throw parties, make out, and are hunted by the monster (as in “A Nightmare on Elm Street”); the adults uncover a government conspiracy—the inter-dimensional gateway was part of a Cold War experiment—before venturing, space-suited, into the terrifying alternate world (as in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” or “Alien”). Strictly speaking, nothing in “Stranger Things” is all that strange. You really have seen it all before; the scares are so familiar as to be comforting. All the same, the show is so absorbing that you’ll have no trouble watching all of it in a single feigned sick day (and, afterward, dancing to DJ Yoda’s “Stranger Things” party mix).
The show succeeds, in part, because of its spot-on look and feel. If “The Americans” captures the way nineteen-eighties suburbia really was, then “Stranger Things” captures the way it appeared onscreen: Hawkins, Indiana, comes across as an enchanted and uncanny pocket universe in which barely supervised children enjoy freedoms (and confront terrors) from which they’d be insulated in our helicopter-parenting age. The show’s gifted and charismatic young actors convincingly embody eighties kids who, having never seen an iPhone, are accustomed to using their imaginations; once they join forces with the show’s older stars (including Winona Ryder, as the mother of the missing boy, and David Harbour, as the town’s open-minded sheriff), they form a satisfying “Breakfast Club”-style team of emboldened misfits.
Like the movies that inspire it, moreover, “Stranger Things” hails from the slightly drunk, “just roll with it” school of nineteen-eighties speculative screenwriting. Today, we expect speculative tales to at least gesture toward rationality; we fetishize the “origin story.” But, in “Stranger Things,” the psychic girl—her name is Eleven, and she’s played by a show-stealing Millie Bobby Brown—explains where the missing boy has gone by grabbing a handy Dungeons & Dragons game board, flipping it over, and pointing to its all-black reverse side, where, she says, he is “hiding.” From that point on, the kids and adults simply refer to the alternate dimension as “the Upside Down”—that’s all they know, and all they need to know. The show careens onward, happily unburdened by detailed explanations.
Even the scares have an eighties flavor. In many of today’s horror stories, human nature is the source of terror—unleashed, perhaps, by a zombie virus, or by the latitudes afforded by wealth, as in “Hostel” or “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” In “Stranger Things,” by contrast, it’s the non-human that’s scary, and, when evil reveals itself, it does so through displays of senseless, alien incongruity. In one of the best scenes in this first season, the voice of the missing boy seems to be coming from within the walls of his house. When his mother pulls away the wallpaper, she uncovers only a gelatinous membrane of cartilage and muscle where the wall should be. The membrane looks sticky, warm, and biological, and yet her son, whose face is barely visible on its other side, screams that “it’s dark and it’s cold!” This madcap, counterintuitive mixing of biological and physical metaphors is reminiscent of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”; a poster for that film hangs on one kid’s wall. Not since “Poltergeist” has a house been so artfully deranged.