Stranger Things Isn’t ’80s Nostalgia — It’s ’90s Nostalgia (and it’s all about 2016)

Jul 19 · 5 min read

Like every other Netflix customer, I’ve spent the past two weeks sucking down Season 3 of its hit show Stranger Things like the Mind Flayer feasting on a face. Or, to be more accurate, Netflix has become the Mind Flayer, and it’s spent the last two weeks feasting on my face.

Like most successful popular entertainment, the show has layers; it’s got something for everyone. If you’re a horror fan, it’s got more blood, gore, and goo than George A. Romero’s darkest nightmares. If you like romance, it’s got a townful of star-crossed lovers (no LGBTQ relationships yet, but — spoiler alert — one and possibly two principal characters inched out of the closet this season). And, if you’re a Generation Xer like myself, you get more 1980s nostalgia than a John Hughes retrospective, minus all the casual racism and rapiness.

The show has always worn the ’80s on its sleeve. It’s not merely set smack dab in the middle of the Vapid Decade, it goes out of its way to immerse its viewers in the music, politics, and fashion of the time. For those of us who experienced the era firsthand, watching Stranger Things can be a roller coaster ride between the heights of wistful nostalgia (I danced to that song at my prom!) and the depths of cringey self-recognition (Like, omigod. Did I talk like that? Did I look like that? Gag me with a spoon!). And, of course, this only amplifies the plot’s vertiginous lurches between sentiment and horror. What’s scarier than seeing yourself rendered in painstakingly accurate detail from the distance of a couple decades? Has any grownup ever been proud of their own high school yearbook photo? Hell, as Sartre so elegantly put it, is other people.

Although it wouldn’t have seemed possible, this season ratchets up the ’80s nostalgia to new levels. Russian spies and paramilitary run amok through small town America. Battles emerge between New Coke enthusiasts and classic formula stalwarts. The Hawkins kids see Back to the Future while high off their asses, and have to puzzle through its convoluted plot. Yet, this is where the show tips its hand; in pivoting from a plain old period piece to postmodern pastiche, Stranger Things has actually become nostalgia for the 1990s.

Yes, the subject matter of Stranger Things itself might be vintage Late Cold War, but the style of storytelling is classic Early Internet. In its self-conscious cut-and-paste appropriation of classic filmic tropes from E.T. to Aliens to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the show owes far more to Quentin Tarantino than to John Hughes. Not only are countless shots from classic films lovingly recreated and seamlessly stitched together by the Duffer Brothers and their editors, they go so far as to rub our faces in it — not merely staging an action sequence at a movie theater where Back to the Future is playing, but prominently listing five other period films from which they’ve borrowed heavily on the theater’s marquee: Cocoon, Daryl, Fletch, Return to Oz, and, most significantly, The Stuff.

Consequently, the further I got into the show this season, the less I found myself waxing nostalgic for acid-washed jeans and hair spray, and the more I started missing the good old days of Wu Tang, GeoCities, and the “information superhighway.”

There was a brief, wondrous moment, wedged between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Twin Towers, when the world seemed poised on the brink of something wonderful. Red Dawn-style anticommunist paranoia had receded into parody, and our new boogeymen were White Men in Suits, money-grubbing polluters, and reactionary racists who didn’t dig the “think global” vibe of the World Wide Web. Postmodern pastiche, hip-hop and CTRL-V were the aesthetic hallmarks of this new beginning; by stitching together the broken pieces of the past, we could reconnect with ourselves, with one another. Pulp Fiction riffing on Kiss Me Deadly was the same as Wu riffing on the JB’s, and everyone with a PC and a modem could be part of the fun, and share their own riffs with the world at large.

The Duffer Brothers aren’t in their late 40s like me; they’re in their mid-30s, and by the time they were in first grade, the ’80s were already over. The ’90s, however, is their home territory. It’s when they went to high school, when they got their cultural education. It’s when they saw all their favorite films for the first time. So of course this is the era for which they would feel the strongest nostalgia, and from which they would draw their greatest inspiration.

So what’s with all the ’80s references in Stranger Things? The answer is actually pretty simple, if you interpret the show metaphorically. This entire season centers around a secret Russian plot to open a hole between worlds, allowing the monstrous Mind Flayer to enter small-town America, buried deep beneath a shopping mall. It might be set 30 years ago, but the story is terrifyingly contemporary: Replace the mall with Facebook, the Mind Flayer with Pepe the Frog, and Kalashnikovs with computer keyboards, and you’ve pretty much got the plot of the Mueller Report.

The Duffers are using the ’80s to tell a horror story about the present that America doesn’t want to hear (have you actually read the Mueller Report? I didn’t think so), and the revival of our old arch-enemies the Russkies is the perfect way to cement the connection. But by telling it in a ’90s style, they’re hinting at something. Yes, this sucks. Yes, it seems like a nightmare we can’t wake up from, a world turned Upside Down, a confusing jumble of plot twists nobody could hope to follow in real time. But there’s a future in which we can heal again, a future in which Russian invasions might once again be the punchline instead of the punch to the gut, a future we can stitch together if we find the right ingredients, and build the right tools.

Who knows? Maybe decades from now, someone will make a big splash with a campy send-up of the 2010s. But if they do, few of us old folks will be likely to miss the Trump years. Instead, we’ll be nostalgic for what comes next.

Aram Sinnreich

Written by

Professor at American University’ School of Communication. Book author (sinnreich.com/books). Bassist and composer (sinnreich.com/music).

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