The year is 1983 and a 12-year-old boy called Will has disappeared. Desperate to find him, his mother, Joyce, believes she can talk to him through a paranormal connection (on the phone, or through Christmas lights arranged like an Ouija board, to denote letters of the alphabet). Meanwhile, a strange girl with paranormal powers turns up, and the Police Chief — conducting his own, somewhat hazard-prone investigation — hits one wall after another: it is obvious there’s a conspiracy, something is being ‘hushed up’. Beyond the incompetence of a shadowy government agency, the characters come face-to-face with a parallel world — the ‘upside down’ — a world of grim decay, perpetual gloom and fear, populated with terrifying monsters intent on escaping into our world. This is the world of Stranger Things (2016) season one.
Stranger Things reads like a sequence of loving homages to 1980s films, and cultural references. It comes across as a knowing celebration of the 80s rather than an uninspired rip-off of the past. The audience is expected to get the references as visual gags, but the story does not depend on this. The narrative fuses monster horror with relationships and the coming of age theme. These are explored through the 12-year-old’s circle of friends who meet to play a Dungeons and Dragons-like game; the missing boys older brother (his relationship with a girl from college); and the wreckage of parental relationships, and dysfunctional adult relationships in general.
There are obvious parallels with a range of films like ET (1982) with many scenes directly referencing the film: the kids on their bikes evading authority figures, men in biohazard suits, and a mysterious girl (who is essentially the ‘extra-terrestrial’ character). The mother’s attempt to communicate with her missing son has many of the elements of Poltergeist (1982) — her house possessed by a paranormal world, and the monster coming through the walls, most obviously when its face presses against the wall (like it’s pressing against an elastic membrane). Her obsession about connecting to something otherworldly has echoes of Close Encounters (1977).
The whole coming of age theme, and their circle of friends (the banter, in-jokes, and name calling) is reminiscent of Stand by Me (1986). There’s even a scene when the kids walk along train tracks, exactly like the film. The pre-teenagers are treated as adults, with real emotional bonding and friendships. Although the season one story has different offshoots, the pre-teenager’s friendship circle remains the emotional core of the story.
The combination of horror and relationships, works well because it intersperses emotional development throughout the storyline with sequences of dramatic violence and physical action. While the monster appears reminiscent of a typical computer game monster, its head opens up into four sections, resembling a toothy Venus flytrap, a Triffid from The Day of the Triffids (1951, film 1962) and Audrey II’s head in The Little shop of horrors (1986). The monster is creepy and frightening.
The scenario can be summarised as retro-1980s (emphasised by the Tangerine Dream-like synth soundtrack, and 1980s rock and pop hits), meets the monster hunting of the X-Files (1993), and embellished with a relationships drama (spanning different friendship circles across multiple age groups). The relationships aspect of the drama enriches the suspense and horror, because the audience gets a deeper understanding of the characters they feel more real, we care about them. And, in the same way, the fantastic ‘upside down’ world, filled with terror and monsters distracts from the mundane relationships, which might otherwise feel like a slacker sitcom. Rather than detracting from one another they counter-balance each other, to create what amounts to a satisfying and entertaining drama.