At this point it’s redundant to go over the influences that Ross and Matt Duffer internalized while making the first season of Stranger Things. The ’80s movie references spill out of every frame of the show—from the childlike wonder of the teenage faces of the main characters and the Stephen King–esque plot that looks at an evil in the heart of a small town to the ’80s horror movie nods, found in both the font design of the title sequence and musical score. The debt the show has toward the pop culture of the early ’80s is at once one of the main things it has going for it and the cudgel critics use to take it down a peg.
So let’s think about this a little differently. With the second season premiering on Netflix on Friday at midnight, let’s forget the Duffers. What must it have been like for the characters on the show to be living in America in 1984? What did they hear on the radio, see at the movies, and read in the news? What was pop culture trying to tell them? And how would it shape the way they understood the world around them, even as it was turning upside down?
If you were a teenager who went to the movies in 1984, more likely than not you’d leave the theater thinking you were the center of the universe. Granted, most teenagers think they are the center of the universe, with or without a movie to affirm that belief. No one has ever experienced the emotions they are feeling before, right? It’s all happening to them, all the time. But in 1984, Hollywood captured that romantic sense of self-importance by presenting a series of outcasts, new kids, savants, and nerds, all charged with missions impossible.
In Red Dawn, a group of kids (Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen) tried to repel a Soviet invasion, forming their own militia in the mountains when the red menace landed, improbably, in Calumet, Colorado. And if Red Dawn was too low-stakes, there was the never-ending story of a bookworm who saved a princess, or a preternaturally gifted gamer who saved the universe.
The voice-over narration from The Last Starfighter trailer says, “Alex didn’t find his dream; his dream found him.” This is a recurring theme in the films of 1984—ordinary young lives turned extraordinary when an undiscovered inner strength is tapped. And it didn’t need to be national or intergalactic security on the line; winning a karate tournament or landing prince charming was fine. Hell, teaching a town to dance would work, in a pinch.
In 1984, teenagers didn’t have to look for themselves in older characters; they were the characters. Perhaps because of that, teens were forced to confront an adult world of consequences, sometimes violent ones. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark and a film the Duffer brothers have cited as a chief influence on the second season of Stranger Things, made Indiana Jones’s sidekick a teenager—Jonathan Ke Quan’s Short Round. For a kid in the ’80s, being Indiana Jones’s sidekick was the coolest thing that could possibly happen to you, short of having the actual Force. But there was a catch: Kids were also the primary victims of Temple of Doom. They got their hearts ripped out. Literally! Who thought Mola Ram was a good idea?!
Look, it was a scary time, and the movies tapped into that. And I’m not just talking about the deranged goalies and slashers in fedoras. Stranger things were coming to terminate us from the future or arriving from stars. Ghosts emerged from another dimension. Dogs and cats were living together.
In response to these threats, institutions were at best bystanders and at worst coconspirators. Everywhere you looked, the government was putting teens in secret programs (Dreamscape) and corporations were covering up toxic-waste monsters (C.H.U.D.). This uneasy relationship with authority, especially government authority, informs the dramatic tension between the teenage protagonists, the experiments being performed at the Hawkins National Laboratory, and the police and parents trying to make sense of it all.
The things that take place in Stranger Things are fantastical, but they wouldn’t seem so far-fetched to a kid in 1984. Everywhere they looked, they were seeing signs of their own importance and being told that they could matter and that they were in danger. And I’m not just talking about the movies.
Stranger Things is set during a time in America when wonder and innocence collided with horror and fear. There was a feeling that we were relentlessly pushing into the future, while being reminded of what that drive might cost us. The Macintosh computer was introduced during the 1984 Super Bowl. It was a user-friendly, revolutionary device that would make computing attractive to millions. And it was advertised as a tool to bring down a fascistic regime.
In February 1984, Americans watched the Challenger take off, in awe. Almost two years later, they watched it explode in horror. We were obsessed with space, while fully aware that President Ronald Reagan, who would be reelected in a landslide in November of that year, wanted to launch a missile-defense system named after a beloved science-fiction franchise.
Even the more terrestrial advances seemed to come with attendant setbacks and tragedies.
The 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles produced Carl Lewis and Mary Lou Retton, but took place without the participation of the Soviet Union, which was paying back the U.S. for boycotting the 1980 Summer Games. Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, from the best-selling album of all time of the same name, was released in December 1983 and stayed lodged in the collective consciousness of anyone between the ages of 6 and 60 for the totality of 1984. But a few weeks later, in January, Jackson suffered second-degree burns while filming a Pepsi commercial.
I remember hearing about Jackson. And I emphasize hearing. I was 7 when it happened. It’s hard to overstate Jackson’s approval rating at the time. You enjoyed Michael Jackson the same way you enjoyed the sun being out. He felt constant and necessary. But it’s important to remember that even something like an accident involving Jackson—the biggest pop star on the planet and probably the biggest cultural sensation since the Beatles—was something you might have heard about secondhand. The newspaper came in the morning, the evening news came on at night, and you could listen to the radio during the day. But information was not as readily available, and only big stories warranted networks cutting into their scheduled programming to report breaking news. In that vacuum, we talked. I don’t remember seeing the footage of Jackson’s accident, nor do I remember televised news coverage of its aftermath. But I have a crystal-clear memory of thinking he might be dead. That was the rumor, albeit one passed around a group of children, but it was one I believed.
The replacement of information with rumor was not uncommon back then, especially among young people who probably had little or no interest in spending their precious time reading anything beyond comics and box scores. Which is all to say that I am interested to see how the characters in Stranger Things deal with the whole “a teenager got sucked into an alternate dimension called the Upside Down that is accessible through a tree in the woods. Also, there’s a weaponized teenage girl wandering around said dimension, but also eating Eggos in the woods. Also: Demogorgon. Also: Have you guys seen Ghostbusters?”
People will talk. Imagine if they had this to talk about. So much of the first season was about characters trying to get one another to believe that what was happening was actually happening. So, how will Will Byers’s disappearance and reappearance get disseminated?
Stranger Things’ first season featured an eclectic mix of romantic new wave and post-punk (Echo & the Bunnymen, Modern English, New Order, Joy Division) and Kyle Dixon’s John Carpenter–esque theme music.
Jonathan Byers played his brother some Clash. Jefferson Airplane and the Seeds were played for psychedelic enhancement. But things are about to jump up a notch.
How could they not? Season 2 is set in what some consider to be the greatest year in the history of pop music. It was dominated by Thriller, released in late ’83, and the holy trinity of ’84 albums: Prince’s Purple Rain, Madonna’s Like a Virgin, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.
You could not escape this music. And you can’t possibly overestimate how much Jackson, Madonna, and Prince changed how people thought about sexuality and expression for a mass audience. Imagine seeing something like this on TV, when you’re a kid in Indiana, in 1984:
This would inevitably have a huge impact on the lives of teenagers like those in Hawkins.
For as much as I hope Mike, Will, Dustin, and Lucas start a Hüsker Dü tribute band, it’s more likely that they will go wild to “When Doves Cry,” because literally everyone in the country at that time went wild to “When Doves Cry.” Based on the presence of “Thriller” in the trailer for the second season, it seems like Netflix has been willing to throw down for the popular music of the era. I don’t know if the DJ is taking requests, but can we get a Jonathan and Nancy scene with this?