Stranger Things is the newest binge-worthy series on Netflix. Set during the winter of 1983 in the fictional township of Hawkins, Indiana, its eight episodes tell the story of a boy’s disappearance and the subsequent investigation, which coincides with the arrival of a mysterious girl sporting a lab-rat buzzcut and telekinetic superpowers.
The narrative, which shuttles between adolescent adventure, sci-fi conspiracy, and balls-to-the-wall horror, features an ensemble cast of Hollywood veterans (Winona Ryder, Matthew Modine) and brilliantly charismatic newcomers (meet Millie Bobby Brown, Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin, your new favourite actors).
Gurgling away in the background to all of this is the geopolitical antipathy between American capitalism and Soviet communism. This plays out in Reagan era paranoia, with espionage manoeuvres against Moscow, multiple references to the Strategic Defence Initiative (aka Star Wars), and a whole subplot dedicated to Project MKUltra, the CIA’s mind control programme.
In cultural reach if not critical reception, Stranger Things seems to have outshone its competitors in televisual horror. These include numerous remakes of much-loved films and just as many adaptations from gothic literature and penny dreadfuls.
While not a remake or an adaptation as such, Stranger Things is absolutely a throwback, borrowing shamelessly from the crowned masters of horror: it recreates scenes and sets and tableaux from the likes of Tobe Hooper, Ridley Scott, Stephen Spielberg, John Carpenter, Sam Raimi and Wes Craven.
Easter eggs abound, frequently referencing the classics of horror. And yet, whether you can pick the citations or not, it would be harder still to miss the loving nostalgia of the visual style, which takes us back to the manifold horrors of a particular decade in film history: the 1980s. That is to say, Stranger Things taps into the 80s not just with the story it tells, but also in the way that it looks and feels. Here, retrograde design is coupled with a pulsating synth score.
When it comes to cinematic horror, the 80s are distinct from the decades on either side. Nowhere near as vicious as the 1970s, and yet to sell out for the self-reflexive cynicism of the 1990s, it was during the 80s that horror fully melded with sci-fi, allowing for fantastical narratives in which humankind could face off against the unimaginable evils of an expanded cosmos.
To cite only the least obscure iteration of this, and the one that really popularised sci-fi horror, think of the freshly hatched xenomorph bursting from John Hurt’s chest in the spring of 1979, in Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Perhaps more important than the melding and mutation of genres, however, is that during the 1980s, horror also found the technological medium on which it would ultimately thrive — namely VHS.
Video allowed for the wide distribution of films that enjoyed little screen time at the cinema and became the format through which cheap productions could recuperate their funding.
Video also shaped the way horror was experienced by countless viewers. In the words of Matt Duffer, one of the two brothers that created Stranger Things:
So many of our greatest moviegoing experiences were actually experienced in our house, on VHS. These were the films that were on our shelves, that we would watch. When you’re a kid, you don’t watch a movie one time. You watch it 10, 20 times. These were the movies we grew up on. It became a part of us.
With a visual palette so obviously indebted to the 1980s, it comes as no surprise that fan-made mock-ups of VHS dust jackets for Stranger Things are already doing the rounds.
Hail the King
Infused into the bloodline of Stranger Things is the DNA of Stephen King, who accurately and without irony hails it as “Steve King’s Greatest Hits”.
Foremost here is King’s 1986 novel It, an intergenerational epic about an extraterrestrial being that takes the human form of a clown so as to prey upon the town of Derry, Maine.
Even though Stranger Things does not dwell in the same coulrophobia, the influence of King’s Derry is spread across Hawkins like the web of some great spider.
There are concrete reasons why, of all King’s books, this one should enjoy prominence. It, too, is a work of nostalgia, hearkening back to 1950s monster films. Its screen adaptation of the same name, from 1990, was not for a feature film but rather a TV miniseries that was edited together for video release.
And, while that adaptation is presently being remade, Stranger Things had to compete with its producers to cast the same actors, one of whom — the excellent Finn Wolfhard — is shared between the two productions.
Or perhaps all of this is just my own nostalgia clouding vision, delighting a little too much in the shared affection for an adaptation that I loved as a child and which I can probably recite line-for-line, and whose iconic VHS cover has seared itself into memory as the objective realisation of horror itself. That is to say, the nostalgia belongs to me just as much as it does to the series in question.
Of course, we should be vigilant against certain kinds of wistful thinking.
Some of the sharpest minds in social theory have cautioned us against indulging “formal nostalgia”, an uncritical attachment to bygone tropes, techniques and formulae. We have been rightly told to disabuse ourselves of visual fetishism.
Many moons ago now, Fredric Jameson argued that Hollywood’s refusal to leave the 1940s betrayed a “nostalgia for the present”, by which he meant an apparent inability to create cinematic forms adequate to contemporary experience.
More recently, theorist Mark Fisher has suggested that our formal obsession with the past is symptomatic of “the slow cancellation of the future”, in that we are unable to conceive a reality that is significantly different to the neoliberal dystopia of our present.
Should we submit Stranger Things, which is so manifestly a product of the nostalgia industry, to the same kind of scepticism? Is it, to put things bluntly, a product of cultural nihilism?
My sense is that, in this instance, the nostalgia runs deeper than form. Stranger Things is nostalgic for a certain kind of filmmaking, certainly, but it is just as attached to something at the very heart of 80s horror: the communal ethos that comes when social outcasts join forces to face off against cosmic evil — the primitive communism of childhood friendship.
King’s It, as both book and adaptation, is profoundly invested in the power of collective identities. By sharing in this, the nostalgia of Stranger Things is also a profound longing for the old conflict between communal vitality and capitalist alienation.
That longing is expressed via a compelling narrative about friendship but it’s also anchored to geopolitical history, not least of all in the stubborn persistence of the USSR.
The nostalgia of Stranger Things is made doubly poignant by the coincidence of its release — on a digital streaming service — with the official death of VHS, whose last unit was manufactured this month.
As such, the anachronistic rebirth of 80s horror wins our affection with its visual style and its form. But it also repays that affection with the commitment to a worldview thought to have been as obsolescent as the video cassettes on which it nevertheless endures. What’s not to love?
- Mark Steven is research fellow, UNSW Australia
- This article was originally published on The Conversation