About halfway through the second season of Netflix’s smash hit science-fiction/horror/adventure show Stranger Things, one of the new characters – a tomboyish redheaded teen named Max – finally learns the big secret that her friends have been keeping from her. Her school chum Lucas explains how their mutual pal Will Byers spent part of the previous year ensnared by an extra-dimensional monster in a realm called “the Upside Down.” After she patiently listens to the whole tangled yarn, Max shrugs that, while it’s a good story, “It just felt it was a little derivative in parts.”
That line is Stranger Things creators Matt and Ross Duffer’s clever little wink at anyone else who’s ever noted that their work is… well, let’s just say it’s a bit heavy with the homages. Set in the 1980s, this show has, from the first episode onward, borrowed liberally from the pop culture of its chosen era – from Stephen King to Steven Spielberg. Season Two – or Stranger Things 2, as the brothers have dubbed it – repeats and deepens those connections to the Duffer twins’ formative influences, while adding some new nods that’ll delight anyone who pines for the days of synth-driven John Carpenter soundtracks and Flock of Seagulls hairstyles.
For those of you who didn’t just spent the weekend binging Stranger Things 2, be warned: There are spoilers ahead. But for those who did, here’s a guide to some of the cultural signifiers, coded references and blatant steals in this year’s nine episodes.
One of this year’s major plot-lines involves a pack of “Demogorgon” hatchlings – dubbed “DemoDogs” by the adorably geeky Dustin – who have invaded Hawkins through a rift between our world and the Upside Down. When we first see their nest of monster-eggs, the image is clearly meant to resemble the eerie planet in Aliens, where the savage killers known as “Xenomorphs” are born en masse. Continuing the Aliens theme, this season the characters also cope with a creeping supernatural vine taking over Hawkins, Indiana, and which they have to hold back with fire – just like in James Cameron’s movie. To underscore the comparison, the Duffers have cast Paul Reiser in a similar role to the one he played in the 1986 blockbuster: a duplicitous bureaucrat (named Dr. Owens) who may not always have the heroes’ best interests at heart.
Besides Reiser, the other Eighties pop culture refugee who figures significantly in Stranger Things 2 is Sean Astin, who shows up as Joyce Byers’ new boyfriend Bob Newby. Though he initially seems like a hopeless dweeb, her new suitor proves to be an asset – especially when the Hawkins Lab is overrun by DemoDogs, and “Bob the Brain” is able to seize control of the internal systems thanks to his extensive knowledge of BASIC programming language. That’s a useful talent to have, given that an Apple poster on the wall of the junior high’s A/V room hints at the world to come: a day when the Macintosh personal computer (which debuted in 1984) will take programming out of the hands of the everyday user.
Bowie vs. Kenny
To make Will feel better about being treated like a freak at school, his older brother Jonathan reminds him that weirdoes are the coolest, and asks him whether he’d rather be friends with David Bowie or Kenny Rogers. The answer to that seems obvious. But it’s worth noting that their mom’s heroic boyfriend loves Kenny. (He’s seen listening to the Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream” later.) Meanwhile, the ever-sturdy Chief Hopper listens to Seventies singer-songwriter Jim Croce, as well as proving he’s got some seriously bitchin’ meme-friendly dance moves. Liking soft music doesn’t make them soft people. That said, we’re Team Starman all the way.
Children of the Corn
One of the first big indications that something’s going awry again in Hawkins comes when Chief Hopper gets reports of rotting pumpkin patches in the farms outside town. When he investigates, he senses a rustling in a nearby cornfield, and steps inside, which is something that fans of Eighties horror know is nearly always a terrible idea. As it turns out, Hopper only heard a crow, and not “He Who Walks Behind the Rows.” He gets lucky… this time.
There’s scarcely a major early Stephen King novel or movie that doesn’t figure into the first season of Stranger Things – from Firestarter to The Dead Zone to Stand By Me. Nearly all of those influences creep back into ST2, and thanks to the ferocious DemoDogs, the Duffers bring in Cujo as well (see: multiple scenes where characters are cornered by an animal looking to rip out their throats).
De Palma, Brian
You could mount a drinking game in regards to every time the series drops a Carrie-centric reference (though we’d advise against that for health reasons). We’ll argue, however, that the most prevalent De Palma influence in both of Stranger Things‘seasons to date has been the movie The Fury, which is about kids with psychic powers who are co-opted and wired-up by secret government agencies. But while the Duffers and their team of directors haven’t yet gone “full De Palma” by employing split-screens and shallow depth-of-field shots, this year they do borrow more from the modern master of suspense by staging some of their action climaxes with exaggerated slow-motion.
Chief Hopper’s threshold for “things that will never happen” is “I want a date with Bo Derek” – which just goes to show how the ethereal actress/model remained a standard of American beauty for a good long stretch, from her big breakthrough in the 1979 sex comedy 10 to her career-hobbling 1984 bomb Bolero.
Dragon’s Lair and Dig Dug
In one of the first scenes of the new season, the boys scrounge for quarters so they can head out to Hawkins’ awesome-looking arcade. (Seriously, we’d be happy to be locked in there for the rest of our lives.) They’re eager to enjoy one of 1984’s most popular attractions, Dragon’s Lair, an innovative hybrid of choose-your-own-adventure and Disney-quality animation. Like most Reagan-era kids, our heroes quickly discover that the game is hard to control, and has a tendency to burn through your tokens way too quickly. They’d have been better off playing the simpler, cuter, way-more-fun Dig Dug – which they soon learn is their new classmate Max’s favorite. That game’s more relevant to their lives, too, given that within days they’re all going to be tunnelling through the earth, fighting to eradicate the creepy-crawlies wriggling under their town.
The Empire Strikes Back
In the heartbreaking seventh episode “The Lost Sister,” Eleven tracks down a fellow Hawkins Lab escapee named Roman: an older, hard-bitten super-powered female who serves as a kind of reverse-Yoda to her Luke Skywalker. Unlike the wizened Jedi trainer, Ro encourages El to embrace her anger, because that’ll make her telekinesis all the more effective.
The first Stranger Things ripped off E.T. by having Eleven hide out in Mike Wheeler’s house for days, just like Steven Spielberg’s friendly alien laid low in suburbia. The references this year are a lot slyer, but unmistakable to the movie’s fans. Will tells Dr. Owens that his favorite candy is Reese’s Pieces, for example. A scene in which Eleven mouths dialogue from All My Children bears a certain resemblance to the film’s “Quiet Man” sequence. And El asks Chief Hopper if she can go out on Halloween night dressed as a ghost. Meanwhile, after Dustin finds a wormy creature in his trash can that he names “Dart” – who’ll later grow into a DemoDog – he walks inside his house and sees his mom wearing a cat costume, just like Elliot’s mother.
Faberge shampoo and Farrah Fawcett hairspray
One of the more delightful elements in ST2 is the way that Dustin latches onto to the mopey ex-bully Steve Harrington, essentially drafting the upperclassman to be his driver and sidekick. He also asks for coiffure tips, which Steve provides by confessing that he washes with Faberge Organics, followed by a spritz of Farrah Fawcett hairspray. On the surface, this is a joke about how a teenage man’s-man uses women’s cosmetics. But there’s an even better gag here for anyone who remembers 1980s commercials. Faberge’s ads featured women who insisted that they loved their shampoo so much that they told two friends, “and they told two friends, and so on, and so on.” Now Dustin’s become another link in that chain.
Taking advantage of being set around Halloween, the new season puts the boys into nifty-looking homemade Ghostbusters costumes for the second episode, “Trick or Treat, Freak.” It’s the perfect attire for these demon-fighting youngsters, and leads to one of ST2‘s funniest moments, when the white kids assume that Lucas will want to be Winston, while he insists he’s Venkman.
In the pulse-pounding final moments of Episode Five (“Dig Dug”), Eleven psychically ventures far enough into her past to see how the government tortured her mom. Memories and flashbacks come rushing into her head as a flurry of images. As for the music on the soundtrack, it apes the surging minimalist orchestral score that avant-garde composer Philip Glass provided for the 1982 art-film Koyaanisqatsi – which similarly assembles film clips together into an overwhelming visual tide.
Season One was pretty Goonies-riffic, with its eclectic band of socially awkward adolescent adventurers, descents into glowing caverns and multiple point-of-view shots looking up from deep within a hole. The second season repeats all of the above, but also leans even harder into one of Stranger Things‘ most obvious influences by hiring Astin, that movie’s beloved star.
So far, we’ve compared the DemoDogs to Aliens‘ Xenomorphs and Cujo‘s rabid pooch. But during Dart’s early stages of development, the creature also has some of the characteristics of Gremlins. He mutates after he’s fed, for starters; once the little monster is joined his fellow beasties, they proceed to wreak havoc in ways that the well-meaning Dustin never prepared for.
This iconic Stephen King novel only comes up fleetingly (if you don’t count the fact that the show owes this book about a diverse group of preteens banding together to combat evil the most massive of debts overall). At one point, however, Bob tries to give Will some advice about overcoming his fears. As a case-in-point, he mentions the scary clown who used to visit him every night in his dreams. Mr. Newby’s tormenter was named “Mr. Baldo”… surely a close associate of Pennywise.
Jason and Michael
On Halloween night, the boys in their Ghostbusters costumes are no match for the bigger kids on the block, one of whom dresses as Friday the 13th‘s hockey-masked killer Jason Voorhees; meanwhile, Halloween‘s hulking Michael Myers is new girl Max’s slasher costume du jour (nice jump scare there, guys). Beyond tipping a cap to two movie franchises whose aesthetics are very much a part of Stranger Things‘ visual grammar, the appearance of these two characters is a reminder of the grown-up nightmares that our pint-sized protagonists are about to face.
“The party” – the boys’ Dungeons & Dragons-inspired name for their clique – becomes aware of Max for the first time when they see her amazing Dig Dug score registered under the initials MADMAX. Not only is this a reference to a badass Mel Gibson character, but it speaks to advanced maturity of the character that she’d take her sobriquet from an R-rated drive-in favorite.
Metal vs. Punk
For the most part, the vintage songs on the Stranger Things 2 soundtrack take their cues from the punk and New Wave-loving Jonathan, who’s inclined to listen to the likes of Devo and the Psychedelic Furs. But when Max’s evil older brother Billy comes rolling into town, one way that we know he’s bad news is that he’s blasting the Scorpions out of his muscle car. He’s all Ted Nugent and Ratt, a counterpoint to our heroes’ Clash and Oingo Boingo cuts. (By the way, that booming anthem over the closing credits of “The Lost Sister,” which is about to be your new favorite tune? That’s the Icicle Works’ “Whisper to a Scream (Birds Fly).” You’re welcome.)
Speaking of punk, Roman and her band of outlaws are made-up to look like the hardcore street toughs from any number of Eighties urban action movies. But they’re also a lot like the Morlocks, the society of defiantly outcast mutants who first appeared in The Uncanny X-Men #169 in 1983. (And judging by the “King Mob” graffiti in Roman’s headquarters, the Duffer brothers may have also been thinking about The Invisibles, writer Grant Morrison’s 1990s comic book series about anarchist anti-heroes.)
“Moving to Maine”
At one point, Bob suggests that if weird stuff is going to keep happening in Hawkins, he’ll have to leave town and go somewhere more normal. The location he chooses is Maine – which is likely another inside joke, since that’s the state where most of Stephen King’s stories are set.
Here’s another one for the “Bob’s an unapologetic dork” file: On the Byers family movie night, he votes to watch this innocuous Michael Keaton comedy, which he then proceeds to laugh at like a loon while Will and Jonathan roll their eyes. Not good, Bob.
Struggling for a point of reference when Eleven returns from her road trip to Roman’s looking like goth punker, Chief Hopper describes her new style as “slicked-back MTV hair.” But lest she think he’s being critical, he quickly adds that he kind of likes it.
There are many methods that people who’ve journeyed into the Upside Down employ to receive messages from the ether. One way is to stare into TV static, just like the doomed little girl in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg hit 1982 fright-flick.
Pretty in Pink
Countless 1980s high school movies featured a scene at “the big dance,” but the ending of Stranger Things 2 recalls two of them in particular, both written by the era’s cinematic bard of adolescence, John Hughes. Dustin’s endearingly awkward quest to find someone who’ll sway around the gymnasium floor with him has shades of Anthony Michael Hall’s floppy-haired, nerdy would-be seducer in Sixteen Candles. But the triumphant final arrival of a spiffed-up Eleven – followed by all the good guys finding dance partners – is pure Pretty in Pink. As this series moves ahead into these characters’ high school years, expect even more Hughes-ian moments. Heck, now that Max is in the mix, the gender balance is just right to reenact The Breakfast Club.
It’s dispiriting in a way to think that Radio Shack has tumbled so far in the culture that the mere mention of it in a TV series is automatically dated. So let’s focus instead on Bob Newby happily puttering away in his little franchise outlet, surrounded by gadgetry that’s state of the art for ’84.
Reagan vs. Mondale
Because the bulk of Season Two takes place just a few days before the 1984 presidential election, it makes sense that this middle-class Indiana small town would have a few Reagan/Bush yard signs scattered about. The notable exception? Dustin’s house, which sports a Mondale/Ferraro placard… an apt character touch for such a funky family.
The Red Scare
Our era has no monopoly on Russophobia. Following up on the Reagan theme, one of this year’s big new characters in conspiratorial investigative reporter Murray Bauman (played by a hilarious Brett Gelman), who’s certain that the government’s covering up the disappearance of Barb Holland due to the involvement of the Soviets. Bauman and the few people in town who’ve encountered Eleven often refer to her as “some Russian girl,” because that automatically makes her seem more dangerous.
It’s probably not coincidental that the first time Stranger Things ventures out of Hawkins and hits the big city, it pops up in Pittsburgh, the home of horror classics Martin and Dawn of the Dead. But that location isn’t this season’s only Romero connection. The rotting, tendril-like vines spreading beneath the lab and its environs resembles the evil flora in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” a segment of the 1982 anthology film Creepshow that the director made with Stephen King.
The Sure Thing
As Nancy Wheeler heads off on a secret mission to find out what happened to Barb, she lies and tells her parents that she’s staying with a friend, and that they’re just going to stay up late and watch romantic comedies. In reality, when she and Jonathan go on their road trip, they’re following the path of one of the Eighties’ greatest rom-coms. Like John Cusack and Daphne Zuniga in The Sure Thing, Jonathan and Nancy draw closer to each other in spite of themselves, thanks to nights spent together in shabby motel rooms, and setbacks that become bonding experiences. (If only they’d thought to bring along some beers to shotgun.)
Poor Steve has to grapple this season with no longer being the most powerful or desirable kid at Hawkins High. When he gets challenged at basketball by Billy (the new bully in town), their dynamic of dominance and humiliation is akin to what Michael J. Fox’s Scott Howard goes through on the court in the original 1985 movie version of Teen Wolf. It’s just too bad that Steve lacks a genetic disposition for lycanthropy. (Although there is a third ST season on the way … so who knows?)
As a way of gently making fun of the California transplant Max, Dustin drops some Valley Girl-speak in her presence. Not because his new friend actually talks like that, mind you, but because the popular culture of 1984 assumed that everyone from the west coast was supposed to sound like Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
As a technophile, Bob introduces cool new devices into the Byers’ lives, including a portable video camera that the family’s resident shutterbug Jonathan quickly adopts. Joyce, on the other hand, is stymied when she wants to watch something important that her kids have taped, and can’t figure out how to make the tiny VHS-C cassettes work with her regular-sized VCR.
When flashing back to how Eleven returned to Hawkins, the Duffers show her pushing through into our reality, in an image that looks disturbingly like the distended inter-dimensional fabrics in director David Cronenberg’s visionary “body horror” classic.
Did we give this Ghostbusters reference its own entry so that we could have a “Z” on this list? Busted. But to be fair, it’s true that one of the many big-screen creatures that the DemoDogs resemble is the gatekeeper demigod who possesses Sigourney Weaver’s Dana in that movie. There is no Dart… only Zuul.