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‘Stranger Things’: How Netflix’s Retro Hit Resurrects the Eighties

From Spielberg movie references to wood-panelled station wagons, a guide to show’s many nods to the Reagan Era.

From Spielberg movie references to wood-panelled station wagons, a guide to show's many nods to the Reagan Era.

It’s one thing to set a TV series in the 1980s; it’s a whole other thing, however, to make it feel like it was actually shot during the Reagan-and-Rubik’s-Cube era. Matt and Ross Duffer’s new Netflix series Stranger Things is full of nostalgic nods to the decade and its pop-cultural products, but it’s also uncommonly rigorous about getting the details just right — whether it’s the many pitch-perfect music cues, the hat-tipping nods and homages to Eighties movies, or simply nailing the cringeworthy fashion statements of the day (those Mom jeans!).

Here are 32 of the cultural touchstones that make the show, which has quickly become one of the streaming service’s buzziest new hits, feel so authentic, as well as some of the contemporary classics that inspired it.

Laugh if you want over our inclusion of this adolescent affliction, but between advances in skin-care technology and the easy fixes of digital post-production, it’s become increasingly rare to see film or TV characters with skin that’s anything than flawless. The underage heroes in Stranger Things, however are mottled and occasionally blemished, which is one of the things that keeps the show from feeling like it’s populated by 21st-century actors playing 1980s dress-up.

If you grew up in the Eighties, Toto’s insufferably catchy song was a part of your childhood, whether you liked it or not. Like many of the prominent music cues here, the lyrics of “Africa” deal with love and separation, with the singer proclaiming, “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you.” Released on the supergroup’s Toto IV, the breakout single went to the top of the charts in February of 1983, nine months before the show’s plot begins.

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References to Ridley Scott’s 1979 original and James Cameron’s 1986 sequel run the length of Stranger Things: See the the first sequence of the first episode, in which a man who’s fearfully eying an industrial corridor is snatched up through the ceiling of an elevator, just like the colonial Marines in Aliens. And [spolier alert] in the final episode, we find out that, just like the Alien universe’s xenomorphs, the show’s many-toothed monster uses organic tendrils to deposit slug-like larvae in people’s stomachs, although they tend to escape by slithering out of the victims’ mouths rather than tearing open their chests from the inside.

All the Right Moves
Notwithstanding what Steve Harrington’s meathead pal spray-paints on a movie theater marquee, this 1983 movie about a small-town football star starred not “Nancy the Slut Wheeler” but budding movie star Tom Cruise. In the VHS era, a rumor spread that if you freeze-framed the video at just the right moment, you could see Cruise in all his full-frontal glory — an urban legend that Rose McGowan’s character in Scream namechecks shortly before she meets her slasher-flick fate.

Anne of Green Gables
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s book about a plucky orphan was published in 1908; the famed TV miniseries which helped spur prepubescent interest in the novel wasn’t released until 1985. But it’s worth noting a copy appears in the hospital room belonging to police chief Jim Hopper’s daughter in the series’ final episode.

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A poster for the director’s 1982 movie The Thing hangs prominently in Mike and Nancy Wheeler’s basement, and the horror master’s influence is prominent all throughout the show. There’s the prolonged fistfight in an alley, patterned after a celebrated sequence in They Live (1988), and the monsters-in-the-mist vibe of The Fog (1980). But it’s as a composer that the horror-movie maestro made the biggest mark here, given that Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein’s burbling synthesiser-driven score is essentially one long Carpenter homage. The man himself, incidentally, recently released an album called Lost Themes II, and is currently performing excerpts from his scores live in concert.

The Dark Crystal
A poster for Jim Henson and Frank Oz’s 1982 muppeteering fantasy film hangs in Mike Wheeler’s room, dovetailing with his interest in Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings. Oz, of course, also performed the role of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (see below).

Self-proclaimed Prince of Demons and major villain in Dungeons & Dragons (see below). Also used to refer to Stranger Things‘ otherwise unnamed monster.

Dungeons & Dragons
Gary Gygax and and Dave Arneson’s role-playing game enjoyed enormously popularity in the Seventies and Eighties. (The show’s central family, the Wheelers also own the board-game version, Dungeon!) Mike Wheeler, who will become the group’s leader, naturally plays the role of dungeon master, whose job it is to create and shape the other players’ quest. Depending on the DM’s whims, games could last for a few hours or several months, which explains why Mike’s friends complain in the final episode that “the campaign was too short” — also a sly nod to Stranger Things‘ compact eight-episode season.

The Empire Strikes Back
Although Return of the Jedi was released in May of 1983 and the series kicks off in November, the series’ characters somehow seem blissfully unaware of the Star Wars’ franchise’s lackluster third installment. Instead, it’s 1980 sequel that’s their main jam. Mike shows Eleven his Yoda figurine, explaining “He can move things with his mind,” and when Dustin suspects that Sheriff Hopper may be working for the bad guys, he uses Lando Calrissian’s Episode V betrayal as proof.Stranger Things is fairly scrupulous about its period detail, but if you can live in a world where Empire was the last Star Wars movie, why wouldn’t you?

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Steven Spielberg (see below) is the show’s patron saint, but the influence of his 1982 hit is so pronounced it merits an entry of its own. From gun-wielding government thugs in environmental suits to the shots of tousled-haired kids riding their bikes through suburban streets to a strange outsider’s fondness for junk food, the show rarely goes more than a few minutes without drawing on E.T. in one way or another.

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Another poster reference, this one hanging — inappropriately, according to his father — in Jonathan Byers’ bedroom. The characters in Sam Raimi’s 1981 cabin-in-the-woods classic inadvertently open a portal to another realm, allowing an evil presence to stalk them through the woods. Sound familiar?

Yes, The Goonies is the most obvious template for Stranger Things‘ band of preteen adventurers, but so is Joe Dante’s 1985 movie, in which Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix build a functioning spaceship from junkyard scraps.

Farrah Fawcett
Although the Charlie’s Angels star was at the peak of her popularity in the 1970s, her influence lingered into the 1980s, especially in the realm of hair. For proof, look no farther than Karen Wheeler’s voluminously curly ‘do.

Ham Radio
The Internet has pretty much killed this once-popular fad, but in the pre-wired world, enthusiasts would stay up late into the night hoping to catch signals from the other side of the world. In Stranger Things, the devices reach even farther, allowing the characters to communicate with the Upside-Down.

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He-Man and the Masters of the Universe
Eleven catches a quizzical glimpse of this short-lived cartoon, which premiered in September of 1983. Proof that 1980s nostalgia rules popular culture? A new live-action version is now in development.

Stephen King
Spielberg aside, there’s no bigger influence on the Duffer brothers than the decade’s premiere poet of small-town creepiness. Even the series’ title font is inspired by King’s novels. The young girl with telekinetic powers exploited by the government hearkens back to King’s Firestarter, the kids banding together to fight an evil menace their parents don’t understand is straight out of It, and the shots of a group of boys walking through the woods and down train tracks recall Stand By Me, Rob Reiner’s 1986 movie version of King’s novella, “The Body” — which, not incidentally, is also the title of Stranger Things‘ fourth episode. That’s also the one where Sheriff Hopper tries to break the ice with a morgue guard by saying, “I love that book. It’s a nasty mutt,” the book in question being King’s 1981 novel Cujo.

Little Shop of Horrors
The Upside-Down’s terrifying monster can’t be traced to a single source, but its petal-like jaws are strongly reminiscent of the carnivorous alien planet in Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s darkly funny musical, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1982. Like the monster, Little Shop‘s Audrey II became ravenous at the scent of human blood.

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Matthew Modine
Given that they’re apparently film buffs, you think Stranger Things‘ characters might recognise Matthew Modine as the series’ white-haired villain. But cut them some slack: In 1983, his biggest screen credit was Robert Altman’s Streamers, although he’d go on to star in the coming-of-age touchstone Vision quest, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob before the decade was done.

Mom Jeans
Nothing says “1980s” like an pair of high-waisted jeans, as worn in Stranger Things by Nancy’s dowdy, doomed friend, Barb. Rest in peace, Barb, and hopefully in something a little more flattering.

As Will recovers in the hospital, older brother Jonathan lifts his spirits with the gift of a mixtape, an arcane storage format in which songs were committed to magnetic tape in a fixed order. (Crazy, right millennials?) The cassette also serves as an in-series metaphor for Stranger Things itself, which often plays like a collection of previously recorded scenes recombined to new and sometimes inspired effect.

“Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll”
Steve tries to lure Nancy to the movie theatre to see All The Right Moves by singing her Bob Seger’s theme song from Tom Cruise’s previous hit, Risky Business. (He also tells her some people say he looks like Tom Cruise, which sorry, no.) Nancy turns him down, and some ugly slut-shaming follows.

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Rabbit Ears
Stranger Things goes out of its way to showcase obsolete technology in its first episode, including the sight of the Mike and Nancy’s dad fiddling with the antenna on top of their television. In the next episode, Mike brags about their whopping 22-inch set, which will elicit a chuckle from anyone watching the show on their 65-inch flatscreen.

Winona Ryder
Any actor in their 40s is likely to have credits stretching back to the 1980s, but few can claim as iconic an association with the decade as Winona Ryder. She wouldn’t become a breakout star until 1988’s Beetlejuice, but by the time Heathers came out later that year, she was the face of a generation. Casting her as Stranger Things‘ Joyce Byers gives the series a solid connection to the period in which it’s set, and allows Ryder to show how much she’s grown as a performer in the intervening years.

“Should I Stay or Should I Go”
The Clash’s stop-start anthem wouldn’t become the then-defunct band’s only number one hit until it was featured in a 1991 Levi’s commercial, but Jonathan Byers has enough small-town cool to be hip to the Only Band That Matters, and he lets his little brother in on it, too. The song becomes a recurring motif in the series, although when it comes to the Upside-Down, there’s not much question whether Will wants to hang around or GTFO.

Steven Spielberg
You could probably fill longer than the show’s complete eight-hour running time enumerating all the ways the Duffers borrow from Spielberg, an influence they explicitly acknowledge by hanging a Jaws poster in Will Byers’ bedroom. The early scene in which Winona Ryder’s harried single mom serves breakfast to her young sons is straight out of E.T.; the scenes of her trashing her own home as she tries to decipher strange messages from another place lift from Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the list goes on. No wonder Joyce buys Will tickets to the Spielberg-produced — and, rumour has it, -directed —Poltergeist. If you’re already living in a Spielberg movie, why not see one, too?

Star Wars
Not the movie (see The Empire Strikes Back, above) but the colloquial name for Ronald Regan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI, which was purported to be a defence system capable of shooting enemy nuclear missiles out of the sky. (It turned out to be largely a fiction, propagated to intimidate the Soviet Union.) Hopper’s clueless deputies discuss rumours that the Department of Energy building is really home to building “space weapons,” not suspecting that the actual anti-Communist arsenal is composed of one powerful and frightened little girl.

Telephone Cords
Gather ’round, children, and hear us speak of a time when telephones were neither mobile nor cordless, but chained to the wall like a medieval prisoner. After Will’s first message from the Upside-Down fries her phone, Joyce picks up a new one and nearly blows a gasket when she can’t walk more than a few feet away with it. We remember that feeling all too well.

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The Uncanny X-Men
One of the key superhero comic books of the 1980s, Professor X’s band of mutants got a new team, a new look and a new writer — the peerless Chris Claremont — back in the Seventies. But it was the Eighties in which the title became a bona fide bestseller thanks to Claremont’s ability to balance soap operatics and epic storylines, notably in the “Dark Phoenix Saga” run that helped establish The Uncanny X-Men as a groundbreaking fan favourite and one of the most popular comics of decade. The boys’ running banter about Issue No. 134 is especially telling, given that it focuses on a telekinetic young women who transforms “power incarnate” and threatens to destroy the world — and then the boys meet the mysterious Eleven.

These pint-sized submachine guns still exist, but they’ve largely been supplanted on movie screens. In Eighties movies, though, every Communist agent or cartel thug seemed to carry one, ready to whip it out and spray a hail of gunfire at the slightest provocation. It’s a nice touch to have Stranger Things‘ government agents carry them as well.

Wood Panelling
Living through the 1980s meant being surrounded with the kind of dark, wood-panelled walls that seem to be everywhere in the show. It’s an efficient way to evoke the period, and given that role that walls will play in signifying the barrier between dimensions, a subtle reminder that what appears to be solid may be much thinner than it seems.