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Stranger Things in Real Life

The hit Netfix series drew fans with its near-perfect recreation of life in the U.S., 1980’s style. From haircuts and clothes to furniture and cars, each episode is like peering through a time-shifting window. For those who lived through those years, however, the experience isn’t just a reference-counting nostalgia joyride…

by Kelly Robson

In the summer of 1983, I turned sixteen. It was a significant year for all the usual reasons, and a few unusual ones. I had my first kiss. I got my driver’s license. I bought my first car, a 1973 Mercury Comet with a faulty alternator which often had to be push-started. All summer, I worked full-time at the pancake house along the highway. Early one Sunday I served breakfast to an unexpected busload of British and Canadian soldiers, just me and the fry cook tending to sixty hungry men all by ourselves.

Significant as 1983 was, it was also a horrifying year — a year when all my illusions of security and safety were ripped away. I’d never go back there. In fact, I’m going to give the entire decade a blanket thumbs-down — everything except the movies and the music, both of which were terrific. So good, in fact, that now, thirty years later, you can hardly get away from them. The pop culture of the ’80s is still with us, everywhere — in the original, in ’80s influenced new work, and in unending remakes and reboots.

Since all the best things about the ’80s are still around, there’s no reason feel nostalgia for the era. The Duffer Brothers do, though. Matt and Ross Duffer were born in 1984, and when they created their breakout Netflix series Stranger Things, they chose to fixate on the year before their birth, as though yearning for a time they can’t actually remember. Aside from the movies and the music, they couldn’t possibly have chosen a more banal era, but I’ll admit this right now: I was fascinated by the show’s first season. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen.

Stranger Things is a science fiction horror series set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana — in, yes, 1983. Its first 8-episode season episodes aired over this past summer, and a second 9-episode season will hit Netflix in 2017. Season 1 followed three sets of characters — adults, teenagers, and kids — as they investigated the disturbing disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers.

The 1983 Stranger Things inhabits is eerily, almost perfectly familiar. As I watched, it reflected my 1980s-created psyche right back into my unblinking gaze, as though my sixteen-year-old self were staring out of the screen, begging for rescue from the isolation, the boredom, and the creeping sense of something lurking on the margins, waiting to pick me and my friends off, one by one.

Stranger Things doesn’t recapture 1983 unerringly. It gets a few surface details wrong. For example, the Byers boys have hairstyles from a previous century, Chief Hopper’s grizzly stubble was unknown before Miami Vice premiered in 1984, and several of the women look like they stepped off the 1975 set of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Some of the lingo is off, too. In 1983, we didn’t chill, there were no stalkers, and nobody had anxiety problems or went off their meds. These occasional anachronisms are a little jarring, but they only emphasize what Stranger Things gets right — which is everything else.

It’s an impressive achievement, and the Duffer Brothers accomplished it by borrowing shamelessly. The 1980s were a golden age of cinema, birthing the genres and screen tropes mined today in every movie studio around the world. The Duffer Brothers dug deep into this rich vein and gave every main cast member — the kids, the teenagers, and the adults — their own ’80s movie.

First the kids: Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas. Their story line pivots around the vulnerable and dangerous Eleven, who is living through Firestarter (1984), the classic Stephen King film which stars Drew Barrymore as a girl who, like Eleven, has telekinetic powers. The boys helping her are led by Dungeon Master Mike, and the mysterious Eleven is his own personal E.T.(1982), right down to how he hides her in his basement and dresses her up in a wig. Mike’s two friends don’t get short-changed the way sidekicks usually do — they have their own films: Dustin hovers between The Goonies (1985) and Gremlins (1984), big studio adventures where gormless, adorable kids negotiate close encounters with ruthless counterfeiters and dangerous mini-monsters (respectively), while Lucas lives a version of First Blood (1982) — the movie that first brought us Sylvester Stallone as Vietnam vet John Rambo, and focused on the ex-soldier’s social alienation. Having Lucas’ story give a nod to Rambo is a nice touch, because nobody knows more about being an tormented outsider than a black kid growing up in a white town.

Despite the many differences between these movies — supernatural thriller, classic science fiction, horror comedy, and action adventure — the kids’ stories harmonize perfectly. All four are adventure films at heart, different in tone but thematically compatible.

When the focus of Stranger Things switches to the three teenagers, Nancy, Jonathan, and Steve, the genres of their movies clash instead. Doe-eyed Nancy is the resourceful final girl in a classic slasher flick like Halloween (1978) or Friday the 13th (1980), a genre that cemented itself in pop culture during the 1980s. Lovelorn odd-man-out Jonathan is bumbling though a John Hughes film — Pretty in Pink (1986) or The Breakfast Club (1985) — while high school lothario Steve slimes his way through a teenage sex comedy, maybe Porky’s (1981) or Spring Break (1983). Nancy’s story finally wins out and draws the other two into her orbit, which makes for a tense love triangle resolution that transcends many of the clichés.

The stories of the two main adults, Joyce and Jim, are even more dissonant, and it takes them a lot longer to join forces and become a team. Will’s mom Joyce, drowning in the horror of losing her youngest child, is stuck in Poltergeist (1982), which for all its restless spirits centered on a missing girl, but her behavior leads her family and friends to suspect she’s going the way of Jack in The Shining (1980). (“Here’s Johnny!”) In contrast, bristly police chief Jim is living through a personal tragedy reminiscent of the death-of-a-child drama Ordinary People (1980). When Jim and Joyce finally start working together, they switch movies and fall into the middle of Aliens, exploring a dangerous alien world in hazmat suits.

The only characters who don’t get their own movies are Will and Barb (Nancy’s best friend), which makes sense because they’re off-screen a lot. Their disappearances drive the entire story, though the other characters react very differently to the two cases. When Will disappears, nearly the entire cast is distraught. Joyce, Jonathan, Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas spend the greater part of the eight episodes searching for him, along with Jim and the entire police department. But when Barb disappears, nobody but Nancy seems to notice — not even Barb’s own mother.

And that’s where, for me, Stranger Things became most eerily accurate.

I take Barb’s story to heart because she looks like I did back then — tall, ungainly, with a bad haircut and ugly glasses, but also — more importantly — because her unremarked disappearance is utterly believable to me. It’s a real-life horror that all the girls in my high school lived through in 1983, when one of our classmates vanished.

Like Barb’s, our classmate’s disappearance was barely noticed. The police are certain she was murdered, but her body has never been found. If our parents, teachers, or any other adult was actually bothered by this crime, they certainly didn’t show it. If anyone searched for her, we didn’t hear about it, and if anyone was worried about the killer striking again, nobody said anything to us or asked us to take any precautions. Nothing changed. Life went on as before. A life just like ours was extinguished, and the town’s reaction was lost under the deafening sound of crickets. Just as it was with Barb.

For me and many of my friends, the disappearance of our classmate was the most significant event of the 1980s, and somehow the Duffer Brothers nailed this central fact. In 1983, we learned that if you’re young, female, and unlucky, you can be removed from the face of the earth and nobody will look for you. The stories of people like us — like Barb — don’t matter to the resolution of the plot. There is no funeral, no grave, no assembly in the gymnasium, no memorial page in the yearbook. All that is left behind is a generation of girls haunted by the knowledge of how very little people like them matter.

Stranger Things is a bit of a mutt. Not adventurous enough to be action adventure, not scary enough to be horror, not rigorous enough to be science fiction. But in the end, Stranger Thingspulls all of these influences together, honoring them all and becoming something more, something achingly difficult and subtle — a true portrayal of a decade with a candy-coated pop culture shell over a dark, frightening, and surprisingly complex heart.

The kids of Stranger Things. L-R: Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin) — Courtesy of Netflix
Copyright © 2016 by Kelly Robson and Alpha Cygni, Inc.

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