The brilliant sci-fi series Stranger Things has returned to Netflix Streaming for its second season. As you watch it you might find yourself considering the cultural and generational motifs in the series...while you’re getting your pants scared off. The great thing about throwback references? Many of these classics have a home at DVD.com so you can revisit them in all their glory.
Stranger Things is at its heart a tribute to the culture of the Generation X childhood. Wedged between the Baby Boomers and the Millennials, the kids of Generation X came of age during the 1980s, when Steven Spielberg was our President and Ronald Reagan was our Grandpa.
The music and technology of each generation are iconic, yet quite representative of the eras:
Stranger Things was created by the Duffer Brothers, a pair of identical twins who were born in 1984, making them solidly Millennials. The show is a deeply affectionate portrait of the people who were effectively their older siblings.
The series is most obviously influenced by two Stephen King-related projects: the film Stand by Me (1986) and the TV mini-series version of his horror novel, It (1990). Stand by Me is a dark but ultimately sentimental coming-of-age portrayal of a group of boys in a small town. Sound familiar? The mini-series It also features a group of early adolescent boys, but this time facing off against supernatural predation, like Stranger Things.
On another level, however, Stranger Things is deeply referential to two of Steven Spielberg’s films of that era: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The portrayals of fractured families that course through both of these films are critical elements of Stranger Things.
The abducted child theme in Close Encounters is malevolently reflected in the Netflix series. And take a look again at the general messiness of the house that Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr live in with their kids and compare that to the general messiness and disorder of the houses in Stranger Things. The production design for the series almost directly parallels Close Encounters in this regard.
One of the terms that was in common use in the childhood years of many Gen Xers is “latchkey kids.” These years were the first time that American children faced widespread divorce and came home to empty houses. As a Baby Boomer, I never had a key to my parents’ house until I went off to college, and even then I didn’t need it. There was always someone at home. The latchkey kids of Stranger Things are emblematic of kids coming home, unlocking the door, and knowing no one is there, as is the case in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Want more? Check out the bicycles in both the series and the Spielberg films. Reverential homages, nearly, by the Duffers here.
Other Gen X-era films that are referenced either visually, narratively, or obliquely include the scene in which Hopper comes out of the woods and enters a lonely house, almost shot for shot matched by a similar sequence in The Evil Dead (1981). Speaking of that movie, it’s makes an appearance as a poster on a bedroom wall in the series, as well as John Carpenter’s classic horror film, The Thing (1982).
Oh, and wait. Remember 1985’s classic kids adventure movie The Goonies? Sean Astin was one of the kids in that movie, and he shows up in Season 2 of Stranger Things. Of course. Goonies is one of the most beloved movies for Gen Xers. I have long believed it is their The Wizard of Oz.
And then, of course, there’s the homage to 1979’s chase movie, The Warriors, when the gang ends up in Chicago, being chased on the El in ludicrous gang disguise. El on the El. Get it?
Careful viewers of season 2 will also note similar thematic references to diverse projects such as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), Children of the Corn (1984), Mad Max (1980), and, of course, Gremlins (1984).
Part of the delight of a series as good as Stranger Things is noticing all of these references. No doubt it’s great television, with a crackling tale, lots of suspense, and scary monsters to boot, but the additional layer of being a tribute to the early '80s culture that Gen Xers grew up in—and created, one moonlit bike ride at a time—is a pleasure in and of itself. Tell us what references you found that we may have missed. Queue up these films today at DVD.com and take a trip down memory lane.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is.