There is an increasing tendency amongst modern audiences to place great value upon their nostalgia for certain things. How often is a reboot/remake/whatever met not with criticism of the work from an artistic viewpoint, but rather from very visceral and emotional standpoint? Because nostalgia is a tricky and weird thing. Very easily, an artistic creation that is meant to cause us to look back fondly upon something and evoke some kind of pleasant feelings can fall into the realm of the cheesy and insincere. Something beautiful becomes something tacky. Something sweet becomes something saccharine and artificial. All too often, something cherished that is viewed through the lens of nostalgia can soon become unwatchable and ruined and polluted. We welcome nostalgia,practically worship it even, but it really ought to be viewed with suspicion, because it might be cynical to say but oftentimes the easiest way to sell something is to pull at the heartstrings of an audience.
I’m going to ramble for a bit, but I want you to stay with me, because I want to talk about Stranger Things, the Netflix original series that was released last week and took audiences by storm. It is a trip down memory lane in the best way and a tribute to the decade of the 80s, when the cross pollination of the horrific and the fantastic led to a sweet blossoming of absolutely amazing fiction. When it comes to capturing the feeling of ‘80s filmmaking, it doesn’t merely hit it out of the park: whatever ball was pitched at Stranger Things was sent into orbit.
At the forefront of the glorious revolution this show owes so much to were two men who aren’t often spoken of in the same sentence but could not be more alike when it comes to influencing that golden decade of horror and wonder. There are a lot of influences on the show. A lot of tributes. It really is a veritable smorgasbord of nerddom that makes nods in a thousand different directions. But the longest shadows casted by that perfect decade that Stranger Things stands in are those of the wordsmith and the cinematic warlock. The two Stephens. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
When I was thirteen years old, my mom’s best friend, who till this day I refer to endearingly as Aunt Lu, was a librarian at the local library. I had discovered Stephen King when I read The Tommyknockers for school earlier in the year. Maybe I was too young to read that book. In fact, I’m almost positive I was. But it didn’t matter: I had to read more. I read Thinner shortly thereafter (the one King book my mom has read, might I add) and then I think I got Skeleton Crew for Christmas that year. Truly, I absolutely could not stop reading the works of this literary wizard from Bangor, Maine. I thought I was cool, reading Stephen King. He was for adults. He was mature. To me, at that time, he was the pinnacle of literature. Keep your Hemingways and your Kerouacs…I had King on my side. Plus, the hardcover version of Insomnia was just the right size for hiding inconvenient and sneaky boners while rushing to get to my next class.
Anyway, after months of reading the standard King fare of books that were about 350-400 pages in length, I decided to take a stab at reading It, which topped out at almost 1100 pages and was King’s longest work at the time. Mind you, I had never seen the movie (this was only a few years after it had come out) and only knew that somehow a clown was involved. So, I figured why the hell not. I remember taking it up to the front desk and my Aunt Lu looking for the first time somewhat disapprovingly at it, and then telling me that if my mom got pissed at me for being scared it wasn’t her (Aunt Lu’s) fault. Now, to a teenage boy who thinks he’s the greatest badass to ever strut across the face of the planet because he knows “Here’s Johnny!” wasn’t in the book The Shining, someone basically saying “you shouldn’t read this because it’s too scary” was a ringing endorsement to read that book. So I checked the book out and took it home because I was an idiot who was about to blunder into one of the sweet and rare actual life changing moments, like kissing someone for the first time outside a game of Spin The Bottle or hearing Master Of Puppets for the first time.
It was absolutely pants shittingly sleep robbing nightmare inducing fucking terrifying. I am thirty-three years old at the time of this writing. I have spent nearly two thirds of my life post reading It. And I say truthfully at least once a year I still have nightmares about this book. Not the sub par TV movie, with it’s over the top Tim Curry, it’s pre Can’t Hardly Wait Seth Green, and it’s post Night Court Harry Anderson. I’m talking about the book full of sequences that are so vividly described that right now I can describe to you like I’m watching them in a movie. The book that changed my life because for the first time I wasn’t seeing something scary, but I was being told about something scary and that was so much more frightening because my mind was churning out it’s own production of what I was reading. It was the first book where the blurbs on the cover (“spine chilling!” “Nightmarish!” “You’ll be so scared you’ll piss in your own hair!”) actually didn’t do the book justice. Pet Semetary was amazing. It was creepy. It was sad. But it wasn’t nearly as frightening as It. Not by a sight. The blurbs on the cover of It were “mesmerizing!” and some other woefully ineffective adjective that fell laughably short of describing this piece of magic made into word. There were so many moments that are genius at evoking terror: not just the now classic scene of the sad and untimely death of George Denbrough at the hands of It, but the interludes from the diary of Mike Hanlon where he talks about the sordid history of It’s reign over Derry. The reports of children turning up mutilated after going missing or simply disappearing and never being seen again (and, something that the TV adaption leaves out, being partially or totally devoured by It). The unexpectedly sad death of Patrick Hockstetter where he is abducted by It and wakes up “only once: when in some dark smelly drippy hell where no light shone, no light at all, It began to feed.” Literally dozens of other moments that are just perfectly ripe with fear. And it is the book, not the lackluster TV adaption that is bafflingly defended by nerds across the earth that has the heaviest influence on Stranger Things. But again…I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jump back a bit from teenaged Justin to 5 or 6-year-old Justin. He loves E.T. He’s scared of Jaws. He’s also scared of Poltergeist but he’s about a decade away from grasping the widely held theory/open secret that Stephen Spielberg was the actual director of Poltergeist and not, as the credits officially state, an assistant producer/director to Tobe Hooper. Even as a kid that young I had already come to associate Spielberg’s name with the wondrous and the fantastic. I was still a few years out from seeing Jurassic Park, so the defining Spielberg piece of my generations childhood had yet to be made, but I knew enough about him to know he was something more than just another filmmaker. I was too young to appreciate his work from a technical viewpoint. Cinematography was alien to me. All I knew was that something looked magical, and that’s how Spielberg’s films made me feel. At some point in that nebulous period of my childhood, when I was still getting used to being a big brother, my beloved dog Nicki was still alive, and I was possessed by the baseless certainty that a jolly black skeleton named Doody Doo lived in my parents attic at 632 Valley Street, my mom and I watched Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Again: this was all before I started to ease into the things that would come to define me later in life. One of those things was a fascination (read: obsession) with the paranormal. Sure I knew about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, but the term ‘close encounter’ meant as much to me as ‘ faux grois’ or ‘ Charles Coughlin’s racist diatribes’ meant at the time. I knew nothing about this movie. I watch that movie now and I see a beloved if not slightly idealistic portrayal of mankind’s first contact with aliens. But imagine seeing the scene where the little boy is abducted for the first time. Imagine knowing nothing about later developments when we find out the aliens come in peace and mean us no harm and watching that shit go down. Melinda Dillon running around the house begging something to leave her and her son alone, struggling to make sure the house is secure, listening in terror as something scurries across the roof, all while her son (who as a kid myself I hated because how could you be so fucking dumb?) does a bunch of stupid kid shit like opening doors and whatnot. And then he gets pulled out the doggy door into the light and she runs outside screaming her sons name as weird lights ascend into the heavens. Are you shitting me?! I was terrified. I felt no sense of wonder or astonishment; I felt real fear seeing that the first time. Coupled with the rest of movie which features a confused Richard Dreyfuss slowly checking out of reality and throwing garbage in through a kitchen window and building sculptures with food while his family looks on aghast and helpless. Yes, Spielberg was trying to establish that he had bore witness to something so transcendent it had basically driven him to the brink of madness. Lovely. I get it now. But to a child, born in 1983, seeing this at the ripe age of maybe six, all of that meant nothing to me watching that scene. The ending comforted me, with the image of the smiling alien doing sign language and presumably whisking Richard Dreyfuss off to some utopia (other in retrospect I’ve always wondered why the aliens dropped off the other humans and ignored the people who had signed up to be taken and instead just took that one guy) but even then when the lead alien first steps out of the ship, the music takes on that ominous and eerie note before they start signing and smiling and everything is okay.
Still with me? Okay good. So I first read about Stranger Things back in May and upon reading the description and seeing the font of the title immediately opened up the Netflix app on my phone to add this show to my list of things to watch as soon as I got home from work. Imagine my disappointment to see I had to wait almost two months to watch it. Hype began to build around it. Not necessarily the good hype either. The phrase “old school”, which is a phrase I detest with my entire being, was often used to describe the look and feel of the show. “Retro” was another term used, and similarly I hate anything described as retro. The very obvious King/Spielberg tones were not lost on the world of the Internet, and many people were clearly excited about it. And then finally, back in mid July, the entire first season was released upon us. And we the people did exactly what Netflix was made for and eagerly devoured that season and found it not just good or even great but mind-blowingly and freakishly perfect.
So…what was Stranger Things? A brief recap: opening up in the town of Hawkins, Indiana in November of 1983, we meet four pre-teen boys playing Dungeons & Dragons one night and concluding a campaign. On his way home one of the boys, Will, meets something otherworldly and is pursued back to his house where he confronts this menace but ultimately disappears. His friends, in typical ‘80s kids fashion, decide that adults aren’t doing a good enough job finding Will and begin looking for him themselves and in the process encounter Eleven, or “Elle”, a young girl they find in the woods in the middle of a nocturnal rainstorm, shivering and wearing nothing but a hospital gown. As the story unfolds, the gang find themselves falling deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole involving shadowy government officials, witless adults, a sinister presence in town, and Elle’s increasingly weird behavior. If all of that sounds familiar, congratulations: you’re vaguely aware of the best works of (ding!) Stephen King and Stephen Spielberg. I could have very easily been describing It, Firestarter, The Stand, “The Body” (the short story Stand By Me was based on) or The Tommyknockers on the King end, or Poltergeist, ET, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind on the Spielberg end. And I’m aware that the tributes don’t end with those two men. Not even close. But we’re not going to focus on the nod to Altered States, with its creepy sensory deprivation tank, or the Nightmare On Elm Street-esque scene where the creature begins to phase through the wall. Or the other Nightmare tribute where the characters lay down various traps for the monster. Nope. Not going to focus on that. The character of Barb basically being a clone of Stef from The Goonies? We don’t have time for that! Nor will we dissect the small nod to the 80s sci fi classic Explorers, which starred a young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. The similarities to Alien? Go somewhere else, bucko! We’re here to talk about the references to the Stephens. And yes…Poltergeist, despite being directed by Tobe Hooper, will be included in this discussion. I know, I know…it’s never been proven that Spielberg directed that film. By all accounts Hooper had at least a large hand in directing. But the film undeniably has some of the classic Spielbergian touches to it. I don’t want to go into the subject any deeper, but if you’re truly curious on the matter you can read some fascinating stuff on that debate here.
Now let me clearly state that Stephen Spielberg and Stephen King are not two sides of the same coin but merely two extremes of one brilliant concept. Stephen King made his fortune on fear. He is one third of the holy trinity of American horror, surpassed only by men like H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe. His name is synomous with horror fiction, and he is responsible for literally millions of people being afraid of clowns, 1958 Plymouth Furys, and St. Bernards. He made “ayuh” known outside of New England and his Dark Tower saga may one day be spoken of with the same revered tones currently reserved for Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings. His work has been translated to the silver screen into some of the greatest horror films of all time. His impact on American literature will only fully be realized decades from now when the scope of his work is finally able to be examined as complete. Meanwhile, Stephen Spielberg is responsible for some of the most incredible pieces of cinema in the history of the medium. In a time when aliens were portrayed as invasive and hostile, he portrayed them as friendly and wise with E.T. and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, inspiring awe and wonder instead of fear and panic. He took a thinly veiled morality tale of scientific arrogance (Jurassic Park) and made into a pop culture phenomenon. He pioneered the concept the summer blockbuster and will very likely go down in history as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. But let us not think that these two men are wholly different. While doubtlessly responsible for nightmares throughout the years, it should be noted that Stephen King wrote “Rita Hayworth And The Shawshank Redemption”, the film adaption of which is often considered one of the greatest films of all time. He wrote the short story that Stand By Me is based on. Even in his more horrific works, such as the one that will be focal point of this piece (It) he is capable of presenting very poignant and powerful visions of childhood. He is very capable of creating art that pulls at the heartstrings rather than shredding the nerves. On the other side of things, Stephen Spielberg is equally capable of making the skin crawl. He made entire generations (including yours truly) terrified to set foot in the ocean with his clumsy yet effective and powerful Jaws. Close Encounters, despite in the end being a sort of modern day fairy tale, contains the previously discussed sequence where a mother frantically tries to secure her home against alien invaders. And speaking of aliens lets not forget that E.T. started out as a horror film and his version of War Of The Worlds is not without some truly horrific and dark imagery. Jurassic Park has several sequences that make the bowels eager to vacate; I challenge you to watch it and not get nervous when the camera zooms in slowly on the cup of water showing the impact tremor from the approaching tyrannosaur. And again…for better or worse, he is in no small part responsible for Poltergeist, a film considered by many to be one of the scariest of all time. So, I think it’s fair to say that both men contain within themselves the ability to inspire fear and awe, terror and wonder. Both are familiar with the light and the dark, and both have based their legacies on crafting stories about these concepts.
I think the first nod to King is the opening scene of the first episode. The show opens up at a government installation, full of flickering lights and darkened corridors. A scientist comes rushing out down a hallway while alarms blare ominously elsewhere in the organization and futilely attempts to get an elevator to work only to be attacked by an unseen something from above. Perfect. Short, sweet and classic. I was immediately reminded of the ill-fated soldier Charlie Campion from King’s uncut version of The Stand. Charlie is the first character we meet, and we meet him as he is waking up his wife and daughter because something has gone horribly wrong at the government installation Charlie works at. That mishap is, of course, the release of Project Blue, aka Captain Trips, the manmade superflu that wipes out 99.9999 percent of the human population and paves the way for the showdown between Mother Abigail and Randall Flagg. Charlie barely escapes the installation as it goes into shutdown mode, and spends most of the sequence panicking on how far he can get his family away from the base before the shit hits the fan. The scientist in Stranger Things is cut down much sooner than Charlie as he doesn’t even make it off the base, but the concept of someone on the inside being so freaked out by something going wrong they’re saying ‘fuck it’ to protocol and trying to get the fuck out Dodge is, in these circumstances anyway, all King.
The entire subplot of Elle’s origin (as Eleven, not as an actual person) takes heavily from one of King’s lesser known novels, one that, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, exists almost entirely in the shadow of it’s theatrical adaption: 1980s Firestarter. In Firestarter, a young girl is born with psychic powers as a result of her parents participating in a government experiment with various psychotropic drugs. The book opens up with her and father already on the run from agents of a mysterious government organization known only as “The Shop” who are trying to capture the girl and weaponize her abilities. Aside from the obvious “girl with psychic abilities on the run from the government” comparison, the scene in Stranger Things where Elle crushes a can with her mind is similar to a scene in the film adaption of Firestarter in which Charlie, the young girl in the film/novel, is made to demonstrate her powers in a lab at the insistence of the government powers that be.
I know there’s someone out there who’s going to say ‘yeah but what about Carrie? Why isn’t Lore talking about Carrie? Carrie has a girl in it with telekinetic powers so why isn’t Lore talking about that? ‘ Simply put, because Carrie White didn’t get her powers from government meddling and drugs, and while the telekinesis definitely ties it to Eleven and her powers, the difference is that Firestarter, like Stranger Things, is about a child imbued with supernatural abilities as a result of purposeful experimentation, not just from some random event that gifted her with them.
The first of the It tributes comes in the second scene of the entire series, when we are introduced to several of the main characters: Will, Mike, Lucas, and Dustin. The four boys are about to conclude a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and Mike is describing a monster they are about to face. At one point he exclaims, ‘It…is almost here.’ Now, ‘it’ is something of a generic pronoun (arguably the most generic) but I think this was purposeful on the creator’s part. Indeed, part of King’s masterpiece is how the scariest thing in the world to a child is something nameless and formless, some horrid ‘It’ that exists as the archetype for scaring children. Similarly to It is the make up of the group: they’re all losers in some way. Dustin is fat with a speech impediment, Lucas is black in a small Midwest town in the 80s, Will is poor from a family many see as bad, and Mike is the neglected middle child who is frequently picked on at school. A few episodes in when Will’s older brother joins the group and they find Elle, you essentially have the Losers of King’s novel. Dustin is a combination of Ben Hanscom, a lonely overweight kid, Bill Denbrough, who suffers from a horrible stutter, and Richie Tozier, the loudmouth class clown who doesn’t know when to shut up; Lucas, as an African American, represents Mike Hanlon, an African American boy who finds himself in the ranks of the Losers after they defend him from bullies who are picking on him because of his skin color. Mike could also represent Bill Denbrough in that his relationship with his parents is barely there due to their fretting over his siblings; Will represents Beverly Marsh, the girl from the wrong side of the tracks, as well as George Denbrough, Bill’s younger brother whose death at the hands of It sparks off the narrative of the novel; Elle, unfortunately due only to her gender, also represents Beverly Marsh, the sole girl of the Losers; and finally Will’s older brother Jonathan represents Bill again as the character with the most personal investment in the event that sets the plot in motion: it was his little brother who disappeared, and it is his mother that is falling apart as a result of it all just as Bill’s parents are collapsing under the weight of having lost a child. Will Byers’ abduction isn’t nearly as heartbreaking as George’s death, but the basic concept of a child being stalked and taken by some unknowable and horrific thing remains the same.
Even outside of those very specific instances, the fact that the action revolves around children is very classic Stephen King. Stranger Things takes a look at childhood that, despite being rooted in the 80s, remains timeless. Details aside, it presents a vision of childhood that just about everyone can relate to. King’s fiction (again, It and “The Body”) use this idealized and Platonic sense of childhood as a central plot point. Indeed, many have said that what It is actually about is the corruption of childhood innocence by some external if not entirely natural force: the simple progression of time. Take away the monsters and both Stranger Things and It are, at their most basic levels, stories about a group of friends struggling to maintain a sense of unity and cohesion in the face of some great and seemingly inevitable force bent not necessarily on their individual destruction but the destruction of that cohesion. Pennywise the Clown, the most straightforward face and personality of It, ruminates to itself (Itself?) that the reason It is struggling with defeating the Losers is their very powerful bond with one another. And not to spoil the ending of that book but the Losers find out the hard way that their lives depend upon that primal contract with one another. Even after defeating It (kind of) they still must overcome the dissolution of the bond that allowed them to overcome the monster. Mike and Lucas and Dustin and Eleven aren’t up against anything nearly as conniving and motivated as Pennywise and It’s many faces, nor is their relationship with one another instrumental in overcoming the Demogorgon, but again…the heart of the story is that their friend is not with them anymore. A piece of their very unique and beautiful puzzle has been taken away and they spend much of the first season struggling to find it. And just like It, it is the removal of a puzzle piece that sparks the action: George Denbrough’s strange death causes his parents to isolate themselves from their surviving son Bill, which in turn drives Bill into a deeper friendship with Eddie, Ben, Richie, Stan, Mike, and Beverly, where Will Byer’s abduction by the Demogorgon cause Mike and Lucas and Dustin to begin a search for their friend which leads them to find Eleven. Likewise, Will’s older brother Jonathan, in his search for the truth about his brother’s disappearance, encounters the Demogorgon and engages in his own battle with the denizen of the Upside Down. It is ultimately loss that drives the narrative and shapes these characters in both works. Loss of a friend or family member, but more frightening a loss of innocence. This ultimately is the true terror of King’s masterpiece and of Stranger Things: the inevitable and sad destruction of the most beloved time in our lives by the simple knowledge of not simply death, but also the knowledge of the cessation of innocence and the onset of responsibility and anxiety and all of the other myriad hells of adulthood.
In both works, despite “winning”, no character is going to walk away from the experience unscarred. In Stranger Things it remains to be seen what shape ultimately the characters are left in, but the season finale was anything but optimistic. Eleven is dead, or at least gone for now, and Hopper and Mike are clearly both riddled with guilt over this. Will is back with his family, sure…but he’s also coughing up slugs and apparently drifting in and out of a waking nightmare. And it’s not like he’s just going to forget what it was like being in the Upside Down. His childhood is destroyed. Nor will his friends forget what they had seen. After defeating It in 1958, the Losers go on to lead apparently successful lives but are all inwardly at best merely unhappy and at worst literally suicidal, and most of them can barely remember their childhoods. It is a very real reaction to facing something unspeakable in that there would be no real happy ending. You don’t face something that horrific and unexplainable and just walk away after defeating it. Even if you win, even if you ultimately conquer and slay the beast you will still wonder what other weird and terrible things are out there in the dark. And again, we still have to see how the gang is affected in further seasons of Stranger Things after facing down the Demogorgon, but the Losers all know on some primitive level that yes, there are terrible terrible things in the world and sometimes those terrible things destroy good things. There is no definite happy ending to It: the defeat of the titular creature at the end of the novel comes at the cost of one of the Losers’ lives, and King makes it very clear that the characters will again forget about one another and go about their separate lives, which is something they are all very clearly terrified of doing.
My final point on the similarities on Stranger Things and It is on the way the characters arrive at the knowledge on how to defeat their enemy. In It, it is Ben Hanscom, a chubby bookworm with an innate understanding of how things worked who would become a successful architect later in life, who inadvertently discovers how to defeat It. And while It’s nature of being a creature who’s strengths, weaknesses, and very appearance depended on the person perceiving it could make Ben’s knowledge a moot point in that the weakness Ben discovered only became “real” once the rest of the Loser’s believed it to be real, nonetheless the children came across this knowledge on their own without the help of adults. In Stranger Things, the gang receives a little help from Eleven on the nature of the creature and it’s place of origin, and while their teacher unknowingly provides them with the theoretical knowledge on how to get into the Upside Down (or at least how to contact Will), they, on their own, arrive at the point where the realize they have at least the basis for making a move against the creature. It’s not cut and dry, and it’s not even guaranteed to work, but it’s the best shot they have at making sense of something that makes no sense. And in perhaps the subtlest nod to King, what weapon does Mike choose to use against the Demogorgon? The same one the Losers decide to use against Pennywise in It: a simple slingshot, a weapon they simply believe will be sufficient because why wouldn’t it be? Oh, and did I mention that Finn Wolfhard, the actor who played Mike, is slated to play Richie Tozier in Andy Muschietti’s upcoming adaption of It? The cosmic ballet continues…
I want to take a minute and briefly talk about the title sequence. The font used for the logo reminded me of the font for the hardcover edition of Needful Things, and I want to say Christine used the same font as well. (Update: go here for a great breakdown of the relation of this font to King’s work) Perhaps most fittingly given Will’s older brother’s choice in music is that the font used in the title is the same font used on the cover of The Smiths 1987 classic Strangeways, Here We Come. The way the title assembles itself, red letters floating through a black void, was more The Terminator and Altered States than anything King related, but even that still ties into the overall theme of paying tribute to the 80s. And the music…ohhhhhhh the music. Written and performed by the Austin, Texas group Survive, the theme music is something that would make John Carpenter do a slow smile, then nod approvingly, then mouth ‘fuck yeah’. It’s all him, and Brad Fiedel, and Alan Howarth rolled into a glorious tribute to the synth soaked scores of the ‘80s. It has all the best qualities of scores from that period: dark, brooding, haunting, and yet slightly sad and beautiful. Like Fiedel’s score for The Terminator, it is something synthetic and machinelike, yet strangely organic and warm. As someone who was just old enough to appreciate the ‘80s as the decade closed out and gave way to the bullshit mediocrity of the ‘90s, it instantly transported me to a place I often strive to find through music and movies: that perfect sweet spot of nostalgia for a childhood that is increasingly distant and blurry. And that is exactly where this show wants you to be.
When it comes to the Spielbergian influence on the show we’ll start with E.T., a movie that is beloved by most and generally seen as one of the ultimate tales of boy meets whatever and friendship ensues. I’ll spare you the plot details because you should know what E.T. is about by now. There’s been talk about how some of the shots in Stranger Things mirror those in E.T., but the most obvious nod to Spielberg’s tale (aside from the time period) is that at the heart of it it’s a story about a boy who encounters something beyond his everyday existence that transforms his life in some way. Elliot meets E.T. and adventures ensue. Mike meets Eleven and adventures ensue. Both Mike and Elliot are dealing with some kind of loss; Mike is looking for his friend whilst Elliot is dealing with losing his father. Both E.T. and Eleven are pursued by some vaguely defined branch of the government, with both works largely defining them as shadowy faceless agents with some unsavory motive, and while in the end of E.T. it becomes apparent that the government agents, while being menacing, had Elliot’s best interest in mind, at no point does such compassion enter the picture when it comes to Eleven’s situation with the government. She may refer to Matthew Modine’s character as ‘Papa’, and there is some vague caricature of fatherly tenderness on his end, but ultimately it is merely a caricature, as he views her as little more than an experiment. Both Eleven and E.T. display abilities beyond that of a normal human, and in the case of Stranger Things there’s the very blatant nod to E.T. in the chase scene, when Mike and Lucas and Dustin are escaping with Eleven. Much like Elliot and his friends, they are apparently trapped by the pursuing government agents, but also like Elliot and his friends they have an ace up their sleeves. Now, instead of what I thought was going to happen (Eleven’s levitates them all over the oncoming truck just as E.T. levitates Elliot and his friends over a police blockade), Eleven flips the truck over with her mind in another example of how the show takes something from Spielberg’s tale of benevolent extraterrestrials and uses it in a much less optimistic way. And, most importantly, despite having abilities beyond human, both E.T. and Eleven are lost. E.T. has been abandoned on an alien planet while Eleven has no idea of how the outside world. Both are struggling to make sense of a foreign environment and both rely heavily on their “normal” companions to help them make their way through the insanity that is their perception of our world.
I think the character of Will’s mother Joyce exemplifies a feature in some of Spielberg’s works that is extremely well done: the panicked parent and they who have witnessed the inexplicable and are forever changed by it. Both can be found in Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Poltergeist. In Close Encounters, we meet is Roy Neary, an electrical lineman portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in another awesome performance for Spielberg. One night while out in the country investigating a power outage, Roy bears witness to something he cannot comprehend, something so amazing it soon threatens to drive him to madness. His life begins falling apart at the seams, and he is barely aware of it. Only when it’s too late does he snap out of it but for a second as his wife takes their children away, and then he is back into obsession when he sees a news report on a chemical spill near the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and realizes that is the image he has been fervently sculpting and drawing. The famous scene at the dinner table where he fashions a rough version of the Tower out of mashed potatoes as his family looks on is often parodied, and while on the surface it is quite comedic one doesn’t have to delve far to uncover what it truly represents: a man whose mind is coming loose at the moorings and is unable to stop that madness from manifesting itself. Soon he is dumping garbage in through his window to make bigger sculptures of the Tower and eventually he embarks on a cross-country trip to a place he is drawn to for reasons he cannot comprehend. Along the way he meets Jillian Guiler, a woman whose young son was apparently kidnapped by the aliens in the sequence I discussed earlier. The two of them make their way to the Tower in an attempt to understand what unearthly insanity has forced it’s away into their lives, and eventually they find peace and clarity and Richard Dreyfuss for whatever reason decides it’s a good idea to go with the aliens. “How To Serve Man”, anyone? Anyway, these two characters are represented in Stranger Things by Joyce Byers, Will’s mother played incredibly by Winona Ryder in what may be the greatest performance of her career. Joyce knows, somehow, that her son didn’t run away. She knows that no amount of cops looking for him is going to find him. She is convinced that something paranormal and evil is at work, and is increasingly frustrated by her fellow citizens inability to understand what she is going through. Much like Dreyfuss’ character in Close Encounters, her fervent desire to get to the bottom of things is perceived by others merely as some kind of insanity, but unlike Dreyfuss’ character, who very may well be on the brink of lunacy, Ryder’s character is right all along. Her son was taken by something not of this dimension. His death was faked and covered up by the government. He was attempting to contact her through the Christmas lights she had set up. Not to say Dreyfuss’ character was wrong per se, but he was definitely actually going crazy whilst Ryder was most certainly not. On the panicked mother note, I don’t think I really need to delve too far into that to see the similarities between Ryder and Melinda Dillon’s character: both are mothers who have lost their sons to something they can’t explain, and while it’s never explicitly shown I doubt Dillon’s character had any better luck getting help from authorities that Ryder’s character did.
One last little comparison between Joyce Byer’s and the characters in Close Encounters is how they communicate with that which is beyond conventional means of communication: in Joyce’s case it’s her son Will and in the case of the characters of Close Encounters it’s the aliens. Both parties rely on unconventional methods, since simply talking is out the question. In Close Encounters, scientists use a series of hand signals to communicate with the aliens face to face, but while they’re still in their ships the aliens use flashing lights and musical tones to communicate with the scientists. In one of the more visually dazzling scenes of the movie, scientists at Devil’s Tower use a series of colored light panels matched with musical tones, flashing them at the aliens while playing a haunting melody that the aliens play back to them. In Stranger Things, Joyce figures out that her son is able to communicate with her through flashing lights, so she sets up Christmas lights all over the house to figure out when he is present. This later becomes a sort of warning system for when the Demogorgon is present, and in a rather creepy scene Joyce sets up a sort of Ouija board on the wall, with each letter corroborating to a light below it and receives a chilling message from her son in the Upside Down. And speaking of parents communicating with their abducted children through some weird method…
Poltergeist is not technically a Spielberg film, as Spielberg didn’t officially receive credit for directing it, but even without reading the myriad literature on the matter one only has to watch the film to see his stamp on the film. It practically screams of his trademark style of filmmaking and storytelling. Much like E.T. it is a story about people who encounter something extraordinary. Unlike E.T., however, Poltergeist is anything but a fairy tale of a boy and his new friend. In Poltergeist, forces from beyond death assault a suburban family, ghosts kidnap their little girl, and the family is forced to bring in a psychic medium to get their child back. I think the strongest comparison with Stranger Things (aside from the missing child, that is) is the parent’s role of the story. Much like Joyce Byers, the Freelings are at a loss of what to do to get their little girl back. The police can’t help them. They know that she is not merely missing but rather she was taken elsewhere and they have no way of getting her back. Like in Stranger Things, at one point they are able to communicate with her through some weird unconventional method. In the case of Poltergeist they are able to talk to her through the TV. And like the climax of Stranger Things, Poltergeist resolves the problem of the missing girl when the mother throws herself into that other realm to rescue her. And just like the absolutely heart wrenching climax of Stranger Things, there is one terrifying moment when the audience dares to believe that holy shit the little kid might die anyway despite being rescued from wherever the fuck they were.
Okay so this is getting way too long and you’re probably getting tired of reading it. But I’m almost done rambling I swear. Two final things when it comes to Spielberg and his impact on Stranger Things. First: one of the best parts technically of Stranger Things was for much of the series a ‘less is more’ approach when it came to the Demogorgon. Much of the fear generated by the presence of the creature was done showing little if any of the creature, something Spielberg used to great effect in Jaws. And while Spielberg’s decision to not show much of the shark early on was based on the limitations of the model shark, in Stranger Things it seems a deliberate decision to heighten up tension bit by bit before finally revealing the creature and pushing the fear over the top in the same style of Spielberg. Secondly, you’re probably wondering what Jurassic Park might have in common with Stranger Things. It’s not monsters, or people getting eaten or taken or whatever. Rather, it is that people doing something they have no right to be doing scientifically push along the plot of both. Pride and overconfidence and absolute egotism lead characters in both works down a path to ruin. In Jurassic Park, John Hammond, against the better judgment of much of the rest of the cast and his insurance company, has gone ahead and done something undreamt of prior til then: he has recreated dinosaurs and put them in an amusement park. Now, let me be clear: that’s kind of cool. But it soon becomes horrible on numerous levels. Ethically it’s messed because it turns an animal into a product, something that can be patented and copyrighted. Practically, it’s insane because we have no idea how these animals would react. Ian Malcolm’s doom and gloom predictions quickly become reality when things falls apart and dinosaurs are tearing through the park and devouring shitting lawyers. All because of the arrogance of one man. In Stranger Things, we find out that Eleven is the result of MK Ultra, a government project seeking create some kind of psychic warrior who in turn gains access to another dimension and brings through some horrible creature that begins preying upon the citizens of Hawkins. Both situations could have been avoided if only those responsible had taken a step back and really thought about the consequences of their actions. Instead of pushing a child with powers they barely understood, the men in Stranger Things kept pushing Eleven further and further with a series of increasingly barbaric tests. And instead of saying, ‘hey maybe we don’t really need velociraptors and tyrannosaurs do we?’ John Hammond pushed the boundaries until people were getting killed. Both parties ha had a chance to pump the brakes but unfortunately, in the immortal words of a great, great man, they were too preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop and think if they should.
There is a very very thin line between paying tribute to something, and merely using qualities of that something to sell a newer something, or trying to pay tribute to something and coming off as a lesser something, a parody of a great something. This is especially true in the folds of horror fans. Genre fans in general, really. We look so fondly upon some prior golden age that anything even resembling a remake is reflexively scorned while anything that is an original idea touting it’s “old school” credentials is given a lot of leeway on how bad it can be because hey…at least it’s original. Its kind of bullshit. Nostalgia adds an unrealistic and undeserved shine to things. Personally, not much annoys me more than 90s nostalgia, or people who will post stupid shit like ‘our grandparents actually talked on dates, all our generation does is tinder and fuck.’ or any variation of ‘you know you were an 80s kid if…’ I hate it. Too often too much weight and too much faith is placed in the power of nostalgia, and to many that misplaced power translates to validity. But sometimes something comes along that absolutely shoulders the weight of nostalgia and owns it wholeheartedly. Stranger Things is that something. I’ve talked to people who weren’t even alive in the ‘80s who felt some instant and authentic connection with the decade through this show. But I also know people who weren’t children by a sight in the ‘80s and loved it because of how it made them feel. And I think this speaks to the power of the show, and how it channels the true greatness of Stephens King and Spielberg. It has the ability to make us yearn for a childhood that is beloved and great even if it’s not the vision the show is presenting. My girlfriend and I finished the series in just under twenty-four hours. We were both hooked within the first few minutes of the first episode. At one point, during a flashback when Will receives a mix tape from his older brother containing songs by, amongst others, the Smiths and Joy Division, she only half jokingly suggested that this show was tailor made for me. Indeed, I am positive she got annoyed at all of the times I pointed out the tributes and nods the show had to classic 80s culture. And I think that is a fitting description of the show in a nutshell: as a child of the 80s, someone who has lived their entire life in the period of when King and Spielberg were at their best, this show was made for me. Not specifically me, Justin Lore, and not just diehard horror fans/nerds/general weirdos born between 1975 and 1985 but anyone born at any time who really understands the greatness of the 80s when it came to filmmaking. Rather the “ironic” throwback movies that are so popular at the moment (think bullshit like Kung Fury) or the neo slasher films that take pride in being “old school” (I love Adam Greene but Hatchet? Blech.), Stranger Things is a completely unironic and unflinching tribute to that golden decade of the fantastic and macabre. It is a love letter that expertly seduces without coming off as sleazy. It sings praises without falling all over itself to prove just how much it loves the 80s; rather, it simply loves the 80s. There is no winking and nodding at the audience. There is no flexing of muscles to prove how knowledgeable the creators were on horror, no demonstrating how “in” they were. Instead it was a very simple and sweet story that took all the best of the Stephens, stuff that was tried and true and loved, and made it into something new and beautiful for everyone to fall in love with.