To say that “Stranger Things” has a lot of 1980s pop culture references would be a massive understatement.
From the John Carpenter-esque synthesizer soundtrack to the glowing red font used for the title (which would look perfectly at home on pretty much any vintage Stephen King paperback), virtually every detail of Netflix’s smash-hit sci-fi/horror series is dripping with nostalgic ’80s references.
The fact that it doesn’t collapse under the weight of all the movies, books, TV shows and comics that it pays homage to is, frankly, a major achievement in its own right.
And even more remarkable? The fact that although "Stranger Things" has been Frankenstein-ed together from so many sources, it is still somehow good enough to stand alongside the best of them.
With all nine episodes of Season 2 becoming available on Netflix this Friday, Oct. 27, just in time for Halloween, now might be the perfect opportunity to brush up on some of “Stranger Things”’ influences — either before or after binging on the new season.
An exhaustive list of all the movies referenced in the first season alone would go on forever and include a lot of very R-rated fare — stuff like “The Thing,” “Scanners,” “It,” “Carrie,” even “Akira. To start out, though, here are a few key movies suitable for most ages that any “Stranger Things” fan has to know in order to fully appreciate the creepy world of Hawkins, Indiana and the Upside Down.
(Warning for anyone who hasn’t watched Season 1: Potential spoilers abound.)
“E.T.: The Extraterrestrial”
Broad similarities between “Stranger Things” and “E.T.” aren’t hard to spot. Both feature stories of a nerdy kid befriending a strange, super-powered entity, moving her/it into his house (unbeknownst to said kid’s parents) and having to escape from sinister government agents dressed in Hazmat suits.
Beyond that basic premise, though, the first season of “Stranger Things” is jam-packed with tons of nods to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic, including, for instance, Eleven’s blonde wig — which, let’s be honest, she wears a lot better than E.T. ever did — and a scene in which she explores Mike’s house while nobody’s home that feels almost identical to a similar one in “E.T.”
And then, of course, there’s the blatant product placement (Eggo Waffles vs. Reese’s Pieces).
All of this culminates with a chase that’s basically the inverse of the iconic bicycle scene in “E.T.” — instead of jumping over the white van headed straight for Mike and the gang, Eleven uses her powers to flip the van over them.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
While Mike and Eleven’s story draws on one Steven Spielberg-directed alien movie, Joyce’s (Winona Ryder) search for her missing son is more influenced by Spielberg’s earlier crack at extraterrestrials, 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Specifically, the ways in which her obsession manifests — i.e. stringing up Christmas lights all around her house and painting the alphabet on her wall like a giant Ouija board — mirror Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) and his mashed potato models of Devils Tower National Monument. Viewed from the outside, both characters can’t help but seem crazy to everyone else — until, that is, they’re suddenly the only ones who seem to know what’s going on.
“The Last Starfighter"
The plot of this 1984 cult movie about a video game junkie who’s recruited to save an alien race thanks to his unparalleled gaming skills captures one of the ultimate geek fantasies: that all those hours spent on something everyone tells you is a waste of time will, someday, prove invaluable. The same idea pops up in “Stranger Things.” This time, it's Mike and his friends’ knowledge of pop culture touchstones like Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars, etc., that help them wrap their heads around and ultimately face off against the new threats that many of the adults in the series are unable to cope with.
“Stand By Me”
Although this list features a disproportionately high number of Spielberg movies, Stephen King’s influence on “Stranger Things” is equally pronounced. So much so that the author himself tweeted that watching the series was like “watching Steve King’s Greatest Hits,” and then adding, “I mean that in a good way.”
A coming-of-age story about four 12-year-olds hunting for the body of a missing boy in the woods near their homes, 1986’s “Stand By Me,” based on King’s novella “The Body,” is just one clear source of inspiration from King’s vast bibliography:
One scene from “Stranger Things,” in particular, showing Eleven, Mike, Dustin and Lucas trekking along train tracks, is a clear visual reference to “Stand By Me.”
(Note: "Stand By Me" is rated R by the MPAA. CommonSenseMedia.org, however, lists it as suitable for ages 14 and above.)
Another movie about a group of kids on an adventure, this Spielberg-produced, Richard Donner-directed classic is another obvious source of inspiration, especially in the way the younger, nerdy kids in both movies have to team up with the older, “cooler” siblings to try to save their towns from destruction. Barb from “Stranger Things” is even a dead ringer (no pun intended) for Martha Plimpton’s Stef in “Goonies.”
And one more reason “The Goonies” is necessary viewing for “Stranger Things” fans is that its star, Sean Astin, is one of a few new cast members in “Stranger Things” Season 2.
“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”
Although this is one of the ’80s staples that features the least in the “Stranger Things” universe, Mike and his friends are Star Wars fans, as any right-minded ’80s kid would have been, and one important detail is brought up on multiple occasions. Namely, when Dustin suspects that Eleven might be withholding important information from the group, he calls her “Lando” — geek shorthand for someone who has betrayed the trust of others, referencing Lando Calrissian’s betrayal of Han and Leia in “Empire.”
Of course, for anyone who had seen “Return of the Jedi,” which came out in 1983 (the same year in which “Stranger Things” is set), Lando does redeem himself, foreshadowing Eleven’s own character arc in a pretty clever way.
Yep, one more movie Spielberg had a hand in, this time as producer (and possibly, if some accounts are to be believed, as de facto director, too).
This 1982 horror classic, which began its life as an early draft for what would eventually become “E.T.,” follows a family terrorized by ghosts after moving into a new house. The similarities to “Stranger Things,” however, become far more apparent in the third act when the spirits living in the house abduct the youngest daughter, sucking her into another dimension where a demon known as “The Beast” refuses to let her go, forcing her mother to go in after her.
Ivan Reitman’s horror-comedy masterpiece doesn’t pop up anywhere in ”Stranger Things,” season 1 for a very simple reason: In the world of the series, it hadn’t been released yet. But it is going to feature in the second season, which takes place almost a year later in 1984 — the same year “Ghostbusters” came out. So for anyone who hasn’t already seen it, now is definitely a good time.
Jeff Peterson studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.