1984 Upside Down, or, Use Your Allusions

van-halen-1984
Stranger Things is so blatantly, aggressively an homage to the early 1980s that it’s amazing it works at all. There’s hardly a single shot or character or situation that doesn’t in some way reference something from pop culture during the age when Amblin Entertainment Ruled the Earth.

On Vulture, Scott Tobias made a list of film references in the series. (If you haven’t yet watched all eight episodes, be forewarned it’s full of spoilers even from the first entry). Vimeo user Ulysse Thevenon made a compilation video with even more references in a side-by-side comparison.

With all of that referencing going on, it could’ve ended up like nothing more than a dramatic adaptation of a VH-1 I Love the 80s special: a bunch of callbacks that amount to nothing more than vacuous nostalgia. But somehow Stranger Things doesn’t just strike the right balance between “inspiration” and “slavish recreation;” I genuinely think it synthesizes everything into a uniquely 21st century kind of storytelling.

It’s the pop culture equivalent of the Higgs boson: proof of something that had previously been purely theoretical. In this case, a piece of art that’s both aggressively meta-textual and completely earnest.

Since I started writing this, there’ve been dozens of hot takes, explanations, recaps, and analyses written of the series. Instead of rehashing all of that, I’ll try to keep it (relatively) simple and just focus on how I think the references worked, and how they made the series resonate so much with me.

Super 8 Upside Down

Still from Super 8 from Dan North's Spectacular Attractions site
I’ve seen several people compare it to Super 8, which I liked a lot, and which is another extended love letter to early 80s Steven Spielberg. It makes sense, since they have so much in common. But essentially, I think Super 8 and Stranger Things are conceptual opposites.

Super 8 is a modern filmmaker’s attempt to reproduce the feel of late 70s to early 80s Spielberg. It’s like JJ Abrams’s American Graffiti, except he grew up loving filmmaking more than cars. It’s 2011 in “cinematic language” — the images are too sharp, and just look at those lens flares! — but it’s trying to tell a story that’s around 1984 in spirit.

Stranger Things, on the other hand, uses the “cinematic language” of the late 70s and early 80s to tell a modern story. I don’t think the nostalgia is the end goal; it’s a stylistic flourish, or (less charitably) a really effective gimmick. The story, though, is not the kind of thing they were making in 1984.

Calling it just a pastiche of scenes from 1980s movies ignores the fact that those scenes wouldn’t survive in 2016 unaltered. Salem’s Lot scared the pants off me as a kid, but the scene that frightened me the most when I was eight years old seems pretty silly now. And it only took a few years for E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to ripen from “spellbinding” and “uplifting” into “nauseatingly maudlin” and “difficult to watch.”

Super 8 seemed like it wanted me to appreciate 80s Spielberg from a respectful distance. As a result, it made me feel like a guy in his 40s reminiscing about the movies he loved as a kid. But Stranger Things made me feel like I was that kid again, completely wrapped up in the story and eager to find out what happened next, the same way I watched TV and movies in those innocent days before I took cinema studies classes and started a blog.

Indiana Jones and the Curse of the Jaded Eye

I was completely on board for the whole thing, without that one-level-removed detachment I usually maintain when watching a movie or TV show. The last time I can remember being so engrossed in something was — not that long ago, actually, since it was while watching The Force Awakens. That movie was criticized for being too much of a retread of the originals, or being too much of an exercise in nostalgia to become a classic in its own right. I say that using so much of the “language” of the original movies is a crucial part of why Force Awakens was able to make a 45-year-old feel like a 6-year-old again. It stops being conscious reference and starts to work subliminally.

Stranger Things does something similar. It’s constantly making references but rarely drawing attention to them. Since the Amblin influence is almost never explicit, the series isn’t making any kind of commentary on it. It’s set in the early 80s, but it’s not making any explicit commentary on the time period, either. (Apart from Firestarter-style government conspiracy paranoia, but that’s been pretty much a constant since the 70s). Phones and huge walkie-talkies feature heavily in the plot, but there’s really not a whole lot that would have to change to accommodate cell phones and the internet.

I think that’s worth pointing out because the main influences — Stephen King and Steven Spielberg — were both so focused on being contemporary. King’s entire schtick with his blockbuster novels was taking classic monsters and horror stories and giving them a modern (for the late 70s) update. And Spielberg was so dedicated to putting fantastic stories into completely mundane settings that it almost seemed like he fetishized suburbia. I think in both cases, the goal was to make the subject less distant and more relatable: vampire attacks, telekinetic teen witches, and alien encounters may just as well be happening to you in your very neighborhood!

So Stranger Things is neither contemporary nor a traditional period piece. It isn’t really like Super 8, because it’s not really making any explicit commentary on the 1980s or the love of filmmaking or the naive enthusiasm of youth. And it’s not exactly like E.T. because it’s not trying to be contemporary. In terms of period references, the Steven Spielberg movie it most resembles is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Raiders isn’t trying to depict the real 1936; it’s a fantasy version that exists only in the movies. It borrowed character archetypes and situations from old movies not in the hope that the audience would recognize them as references, but because the imagery immediately evokes “high adventure.” And Raiders has about as much to say about Nazism as Stranger Things does about post-Watergate paranoia over government-sponsored shadow programs: nothing, except that they make great villains.

Nothing’s specific enough to become parody or reference; it all just blends together into a pleasant melange of K-cars, mix tapes, big phones, bad clothes, and kids who still spent most of the day riding their bikes. As somebody who was around the same age as the kids in Stranger Things in 1984, it’s extremely unsettling seeing my childhood turned into gauzy days-gone-by Happy Days-style nostalgia. Especially since we were a generation so self-obsessed that we didn’t even wait until the end of the decade before we started deconstructing it and trying to define the zeitgeist. It feels like all the significant details getting sandblasted away in favor of a pair of Foster Grants and a Walkman, just like how I know nothing of the 1920s apart from flappers and prohibition.

It also means that your brain isn’t looking for specific flashes of recognition so much as taking it all in sub-verbally as the tone and mood of 1984-ish. It was a distant, simpler time, when pre-teens were always getting into fantastic adventures, and the little sister from E.T. grew up to develop pyrokinetic powers and went on adventures with The Goonies and the teens from Some Kind of Sixteen Pretty In Pink Candles to go look at a dead body that was left by the Alien.

The Epic of Lando

Although I think the “cinematic language” of Stranger Things is supposed to work silently and subconsciously, the show does make a lot of explicit references, too.

That in itself makes it weird: even today but especially in the 80s, movie and TV stories all existed in their own distinct parallel universes, each complete with fake brands, fake celebrities, and fake popular culture. Whether it was because of licensing issues, fear of being labeled a “sell out” with product placement, fear of being too topical or dated, or fear of being too unimaginative, productions almost never made mention of identifiable aspects of the real world.

Scott Tobias’s article mentions how Stranger Things explicitly mentions Poltergeist, and then creates a “hall of mirrors” as the characters go on to experience much of the same events as in Poltergeist. There’s an actual 1980s song in every episode, even if they weren’t 100% accurate to the year. (And they’re good songs, too! The Bangles’ version of “Hazy Shade of Winter” has always been severely underrated). Eleven watches a Coca-Cola commercial, and she’s nuts for Eggo waffles instead of Reese’s Pieces. There are movie posters for The Evil Dead and The Thing prominently visible hanging on walls in the background.

I don’t think they’re supposed to be just period details (apart from the Coke ad), but thematic. It’s significant that Joyce is the one who mentions Poltergeist, since the memory foreshadows the fact that the rest of the her story mirrors that of the lead character in Poltergeist. (If you don’t think Jobeth Williams was the star of that movie, you saw a very different movie from the one I did).

The other characters have references that reflect their character arcs, to a lesser degree. It’s Jonathan who has the (inappropriate) Evil Dead poster, and his “major” moment is setting up traps in a small house to try and kill a rampaging monster. Mike has the poster for The Thing in his basement, and he’ll go on to discover something alien that causes his whole group to be suspicious of each other and makes him wonder who he can trust.

It suggests that they’re using 80s references similarly to how ancient poems use allusions: they place the characters in a lineage of archetypal heroes. I don’t think that’s an entirely BS too-many-cinema-studies-classes read on it, either, since the show is even more explicit with it.

The three pop culture institutions that get the most direct references in Stranger Things are The Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons, X-Men, and Star Wars. One interesting aspect of that is that all of those properties were still fringe nerd-markers in the early 1980s, which had a big resurgence into the mainstream by 2016. (Even as ubiquitous as Star Wars was, there was always the idea that it was silly and you were supposed to be at least a little embarrassed for liking it).

The more interesting aspect — and possibly something that’s only possible because of their renewed popularity and status as “cultural institutions” — is that the references are used as shorthand. They mention “Mirkwood” as the scary place where the first attack took place. They describe the alternate dimension as “The Vale of Shadows” to immediately understand what it is. They understand Eleven’s powers by comparing her to Professor X or Jean Grey.

Most directly of all, they compare Eleven alternately to Yoda (as an unassuming figure who turns out to have great power) and Lando (as a traitor). To drive the idea home, they have Eleven levitating the Millennium Falcon with her mind when she’s trying to find out what she can do. For audiences in 2016 — and for nerdy kids in 1984 — the characters and story of Star Wars are so well-recognized that just the name of a character can tell you everything you need to know.

Digress Much?

Since I made the claim that Stranger Things is “uniquely 21st century storytelling,” I’ve got to compare it to how they did it in the 1990s. The best example I can think of is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the TV series.

It was also an attempt to take classic stories about monsters and update them to make them relatable to a contemporary audience. And like the Stephen King novels, it tried to turn its monsters into metaphors. But it took the idea and did something completely — even tragically — 1990s in spirit: it made the characters self-aware. King’s early novels and short stories still showed affection for the classic monsters; the psychological interpretations and metaphors expanded on traditional horror stories.

But starting with the premise (and obviously, the title) of the movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer wanted us to know that the monsters were old-fashioned and silly, and that it was in on the joke. The TV series was more earnest and much less gimmicky, but the inherently 1990s part of the tone remained: vampires and werewolves are fun, but it’s the metaphors for young adulthood that are really important.

So when the characters in Buffy call themselves “The Scooby Gang,” the show’s acknowledging that sure, the concept of a bunch of mystery-solving teens fighting monsters is corny and silly, but they’re aware of it, and they’re doing it for a reason. Stick around for the good stuff, and you might just learn a thing or two about growing up. When they call their enemy the “Big Bad,” they’re acknowledging that the format of their season-long story arcs is formulaic, but don’t worry about it because they’re in on the joke.

Stranger Things doesn’t feel the need to be that defensive. And it’s really no longer necessary: back in the 90s when I was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I absolutely loved the self-aware references, since they felt like the makers of the show were talking directly to me. But when the kids in Stranger Things make reference to Lando or Yoda or Professor X, it’s a point of cultural reference that the writers, the audience, and the characters all have in common.

No “Spielberg Stares”

The “Spielberg Stare” is the one thing that makes me keep forgetting what a brilliant director Steven Spielberg is. It makes me forget that The Lost World had one of the best extended action sequences of any film ever with the van teetering over the edge of a cliff, and remember that movie only for the scene in which a teenaged gymnast uses a conveniently-placed set of parallel bars to drop-kick a velociraptor.

The stare is when he has the camera linger on a character looking wide-eyed and open-mouthed at something unbelievable just off-screen. It’s meant to drive home that we in the audience are about to see something absolutely wondrous AF and if we aren’t as blown away by it as the characters in the movie, then what the hell is wrong with us anyway? Around 25-30% of the time — double that if the movie is E.T. — the stare ends with a sudden, rehearsed-a-billion-times-to-try-and-make-it-not-look-so-rehearsed burst of laughter, to let us know that we just can’t contain our delight at what we’re seeing.

If it’s not clear, I hate it. I think it’s maudlin and manipulative, and it didn’t even survive until the mid-1980s before it became completely insufferable. (He kept it up through the 1990s, and it’s one of my least favorite aspects of Jurassic Park).

And there’s none of it in Stranger Things. The closest I can think of would be the scene where the kid is suspended in mid-air over a cliff, or the scene where the utility truck does a back flip over the kids on bikes. Apart from that, though, the characters aren’t allowed to be stunned by anything for too long.

It’s part of the idea that the story doesn’t take place in its own separate universe. The characters aren’t seeing something completely mind-blowing, because they have a frame of reference for most of it: this is like that D&D monster, that’s like that comic book character. So much of science fiction, horror, or action TV is spent establishing how the universe works, showing characters being exposed to the unbelievable for the first time, and repeating the key “rules” in long expository sequences.

And dealing with characters’ skepticism! It’s so common in these stories to have much of the plot revolve around the fact our characters have seen something fantastic and no one else will believe them. There’s certainly some of that in Stranger Things, but it’s usually relegated to the background instead of made the focus of the conflict. Instead, characters who are exposed to the weirdness are quick to get on board and start formulating a plan of what to do next. Even Steve jumps right in to help!

It gives the whole thing a kind of forward momentum that’s so unusual in episodic television that it’s almost jarring.

The cold open has a cold open

Finally, an example of how all of this stuff works together. The still below is from the first scene in the entire series. I don’t believe I’m spoiling anything when I tell you not to get too attached to this guy:
Stranger Things Still
Everyone in the target audience for this series has seen this scene, hundreds of times. Dozens of those times were in The X-Files alone.

It’s the monster’s first victim, the incident that brings our main characters into the story. It sets up a bit of intrigue, giving us some clues as to how the monster works — lights go out when it’s around — but leaving the details for us to figure out — how did it move around so quickly, is it invisible? It sets the tone for the series: how scary is it going to be? How gory? Do they show the attack or leave it to the imagination?

The scene’s always followed by one that introduces our heroes in their natural habitat. We get a few moments of character development, and then something happens that pulls into the story, tying them to the monster from the cold open. Maybe there’s a close call that our hero just barely survives. Maybe there’s a brief flash of the monster, showing us a bit more of what form it takes. Maybe the hero will see something that no one else believes.

I’ll tell you what’s not supposed to happen: the monster isn’t supposed to appear in full view in the second scene of the series. When a kid gets safely into his house and locks the door, that’s supposed to be the end of the scene. The monster shouldn’t still be outside, and the monster sure as hell shouldn’t be able to follow him inside. And on top of everything else, you’re not supposed to lose one of your main characters before the credits even start.

I think the main reason that Stranger Things so effectively scared me, without gore or violence, is that it kept that forward momentum and kept changing up the “rules.” (“We just saw the monster kill someone. Why are we seeing it again so soon after?”) I believe that they were using the same gimmick as in Psycho, but more subtly: using the audience’s expectations of how the story’s “supposed” to work against them. In retrospect, so much of the series’s story was easily explainable and full of standard, formulaic story structure.

But going into the show knowing almost nothing about it, I found myself surprised over and over again. Both by how quickly some parts of the story were moving, and by how scenes would escalate in intensity past what I’d expected them to. (I absolutely did not expect Joyce to see the monster trying to push itself through the wall of her house, for instance). Surprising for a series that’s essentially Frankensteined together from the pieces of movies and TV I’ve already seen: for the bulk of the series up until the final episode, I really had no idea what was going to happen next.

Meta-textual Earnestness

So when I say that Stranger Things is a uniquely 21st century form of storytelling, it has nothing to do with the Netflix distribution and binge-watching. It’s because it’s a synthesis of the kinds of stories we’ve been telling in popular media for the last four decades.

It’s got the fascination with the mundane and realism that I consider to be the hallmark of the 70s cinema, along with the Firestarter elements of paranoia about the government that have just gotten taken more for granted in the decades since.

It’s obviously an homage to the 80s, but I think the main thing it gets from there is sense of a return to fantasy and wonder, plus the kind of genuine earnestness you get when a writer or director isn’t afraid of being too maudlin.

From the 90s, it gets the fascination with references and being self-referential, plus the attempt to assert shared modern pop culture as a type of mythology.

From the 2000s, it gets the fascination with mash-ups and meta-text, along with the decade’s lesson learned by over-saturating cinema and TV with CGI, then scaling back to over-correct.

And the result is something that’s simultaneously meta-textual and earnest, referential without winking. It’s a story focused more on forward momentum and formulating a plan of action that showing an action scene followed by multiple scenes of actors dealing with the consequences. Its scares are earned and they’re old-fashioned, and it’s surprising just how well they work. It recreates a fantasy version of 1984 that somehow feels more “real” than Spielberg’s attempts to be contemporary.

I’ve got no idea whether it can work again as well as it did the first run, or whether you could achieve the same effect without the 1980s homage being an essential part of the whole project. As it stands, though, it does a fantastic job establishing and maintaining a tone of referential sincerity that doesn’t just pay honor to the originals, but in so many ways, surpasses them.