Stranger Things has been dominating Netflix since its July debut. It’s got incredible writing, a terrific cast, a truly weird monster. Most of all, Strange Things has a genuine reverence for the early 80’s in which its story is set. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer have gone to great pains not only to recreate life in a 1983 Indiana town, but to litter its time capsule world with a slew of clever homages to that era’s rich science fiction/horror landscape. Here is a list of Stranger Things’ many shout-outs to films, franchises, and artists who helped make the 80’s a golden era of geekdom.
15) Richard Greenberg
Richard Greenberg is the 80’s icon you never heard of. A veteran graphics designer who has worked on some legendary films and the gorgeous main title sequence of Stranger Things is a clear nod to his creative powers that led to the iconic main title designs for such films as Alien, The Dead Zone, and Altered States. Wait, what’s that? You never heard of that last one? Well…
14) Altered States (1980)
Ken Russell’s grossly underappreciated classic Altered States saw William Hurt as a scientist obsessed with increasingly dangerous mind-altering experiments in a water-filled sensory deprivation tank. Stranger Things sees the mysterious test subject Eleven subjected to identical experiments to unlock her psychic abilities. In both stories, the unsuspecting protagonist comes back from their mental journeys with more than they bargained for.
13) A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
A subtle reference, but it’s certainly there. The original A Nightmare On Elm Street saw teenager Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) pull otherworldly predator Freddy Krueger into the “real” world to battle him after he murders her friends . In Stranger Things we have teenager Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) attempting to pull otherworldly predator Demogorgon into the “real” world to battle him after he murders her friend!
12) Firestarter (1984) /Carrie (1976)
These two classic Stephen King novels-turned-films deserve co-equal mention as their DNA is all over Stranger Things. Their tales of abused adolescent girls whose psychic powers serve as a means to brutal revenge are echoed in Stranger Things’ Eleven. Like Firestarter’s Charlie, Eleven’s abilities are the result of a sinister government experiment involving psychotropic drugs. Like Carrie, she is a sweet, timid girl who, thanks to a lifetime of abuse at the hands of her lone parental figure, has no qualms about using lethal force on adolescent bullies and adult authority figures alike. Eleven (portrayed by Millie Bobbi Brown) emerges from the story with a character that is distinctly her own, but the influence of her predecessors is strong and brilliantly portrayed.
11) Akira (1982-1990)
The events of Stranger Things are set one year after the real-world debut of Katsuhiro Otomo’s groundbreaking cyberpunk manga Akira which became an equally groundbreaking feature film in 1988. Akira’s story – that of a teen motorcycle gang caught up in a military conspiracy involving psychic powers – finds a more innocent reflection in the bicycle-riding preteens of Stranger Things who face an identical crisis. But Eleven’s many gruesome kills and maimings – and the look on her face while doing so – all bear an uncomfortable resemblance to Akira’s psychokinetic villain, Tetsuo.
10) The Shining (1980)
The Shining doesn’t have as strong a hold on Stranger Things as Carrie and Firestarter do, but for a few key scenes Winona Ryder magnificently channels Jack Nicholson from the 1980 film version of Stephen King’s haunted hotel tale. In the film Jack Torrance, who thinks he can communicate with the hotel’s ghosts, goes mad, takes up an axe, and infamously carves his way through a locked door. Ryder’s character Joyce Byers likewise thinks she can communicate with her presumed-dead son and her sanity takes visible damage in the process. When she finally takes up a hatchet to go on the hunt for him, she hacks away in a manner that would make Nicholson proud.
9) The Mist (2007)
There’s one more Stephen King reference that cannot be ignored. King’s 1980 novella The Mist would not see a film adaptation until the far-off year of 2007 but in the 1983 realm of Stranger Things its horrors are alive and well. The Mist saw a town overrun by waves of extradimensional abominations. Stranger Things’ locale of Hawkins, Indiana is terrorized by (possibly) only one such beast. But in both instances top secret experiments into contacting other universes are the cause. Given the Hawkins’ monster’s physiology, it would probably be right at home among the horrors of Frank Darabont’s film.
8) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
No kid in the early 80’s could escape the lure of Star Wars and the three young heroes of Stranger Things are no exception. When they discover that their new friend Eleven has psychic powers they immediately liken her to a Jedi, and any member of the group whose loyalties become uncertain is immediately labeled a “Lando” after The Empire Strikes Back’s infamously duplicitous ruler of Cloud City. Adult geeks may cringe watching Dustin carelessly fling around a vintage Millenium Falcon toy, but if you found yourself caught up in your own Jedi-like adventure would you be any less reckless?
7) Night Of The Creeps (1986)
Like the 1986 zombie/alien invasion film Night Of The Creeps, Stranger Things features a teen outcast who pines for a popular girl, much to the chagrin of her belligerent-yet-perfectly-coiffed boyfriend. In both stories, popular girl and outcast team up into a formidable battle couple who bring the pain to the monsters with a variety of weapons. But the strongest parallel lies with Police Chief Hopper (David Harbour) a hard-living cop with a troubled past who stumbles onto a case no one will believe, exactly like Tom Atkins’ detective hero in Night of the Creeps! The hard-edged lawman Hopper is too forceful a character for just one movie reference, however…
6) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Does the name Police Chief Hopper sound like it should be familiar? You might be recalling Lieutenant Lefty Enright in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 who was played by Dennis Hopper! The shout-out is undeniable because like Lieutenant Enright, Chief Hopper is forced to take the law into his own hands against the villains threatening his town.
5) Dan O’Bannon
One of those villains whom Hopper must contend with is a shady highway patrolman named O’Bannon who is named in tribute to Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon. Like Alien, Stranger Things features a military-industrial complex with sinister designs on an alien creature and O’Bannon is at their beck and call. That’s not the only similarity, however.
4) Alien (1979) / Aliens (1986)
Stealthy, long-limbed creature with no facial features besides a mouth? Check! Big, green eggs? Check! Viscous secretions for immobilizing victims? Check! Tentacular appendages rammed down those victims throats, filling them up with parasites? Big check! Stranger Things wears its Alien influences proudly. Joyce’s conviction that her child is alive against all odds in the clutches of such a beast mirrors Ripley’s desperate search for her surrogate daughter Newt in the final reel of Aliens.
3) The Goonies (1985)
Mike, Lucas, Dustin, and Will of Stranger Things have a bond immediately and deeply familiar to anyone who was a kid in the 80’s, or to anyone who has ever seen the 1985 Richard Donner/Steven Spielberg collaboration The Goonies. In that film, a group of young friends with a deep bond mix childlike enthusiasm and humor with wickedly grown up cunning to outsmart gangsters and find buried pirate treasure. The stakes are higher and deadlier for Mike and his friends in Hawkins, Indiana but their loyalty and “never say die” attitude would make The Goonies (whose leader was also an optimistic, non-athletic kid named Mike) proud.
2) Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) / E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982)
The two films that most clearly established Steven Spielberg as a science fiction visionary deserve coequal mention for their influence on Stranger Things. Like Richard Dreyfuss’s character in Close Encounters who became obsessed with contacting aliens, Joyce’s obsession with reaching her son takes a toll on her house, pushes her remaining family away, and looks to everyone like a descent into madness. When she finally figures out how to communicate with Will using strings of Christmas lights it is very reminiscent of one of Close Encounters’ most iconic scenes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Mike, Dustin, and Lucas are having a very E.T.-like adventure with Eleven. She may not resemble Spielberg’s lumpy alien physically, but thanks to having lived her entire life in a laboratory, she is as clueless as E.T. when it comes to human behavior. The shout-outs are almost too numerous to catalogue, including scenes with Star Wars toys and escapades while wearing a blonde wig. When it comes time to soar in front of the moon on bicycles… Well, let’s just say that’s when the shout-out gets brutally deconstructed and Eleven has a much different plan for dealing with her pursuers than E.T. did with his!
1) John Carpenter
Stranger Things isn’t just about the visuals.It’s the musical score that really sets the retro tone for this series. Through the eight episodes that comprise the first season composers Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein weave a lush narrative of sound that is unmistakably in debt to the movie scores of John Carpenter. The man who directed They Live and Big Trouble In Little China created a style of synthesizer music all his own. Dixon and Stein loyally toil to recreate the sounds of 80’s greatness associated with Carpenter’s music while making Stranger Things wholly its own entity. Carpenter’s magnum opus The Thing is also given its due. A poster for the film is prominent in Mike’s room and in one scene the middle school science teacher gleefully explains the film’s nasty special effects to his squeamish date!
Stranger Things is packed to the gills with references to the stories that inspired it. If you’ve already watched all of it, watch it again. You might find a few that were missed!