What Stranger Things Is Missing From the ’80s Horror Genre

L-R: Jonathan, Nancy, and Steve. Photo: Netflix

Saying Stranger Things wears its influences on its sleeve is like saying Barb had a lousy time at Steve’s party: It’s true alright, but it understates the case considerably. Entire articles have been written detailing the themes, concepts, creatures, fonts, sound effects, and imagery swiped more or less wholesale from other films — here’s Vulture’s, just for example. And any fan of genre entertainment, particularly (though by no means exclusively) from the '80s, can rattle off the creators whose original visions fueled the Duffer Brothers’ own without breaking a sweat. Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter are the most obvious touchstones, but you can also spot Judd Apatow, Shane Black, John Byrne, James Cameron, Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, Richard Donner, Fred Dekker, Jonathan Glazer, Gary Gygax, Tobe Hooper, John Hughes, Richard Kelly, John Landis, David Lynch, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Robert Zemeckis from a mile away. Any show assembled from building blocks that solid is going to be entertaining, at the very least; factor in universally fine performances from the show’s many child and young-adult actors, the strongest such cast assembled since Game of Thrones, and you’d be tempted to move Stranger Things out of the “hey, that was kinda fun” column straight into “this is a stone classic, gimme season two immediately” territory.

But unlike many of its countless forerunners, Stranger Things’ story of small-town terror communicates little beyond the contents of its creators’ Blu-ray collections. It’s so fixated on stirring nostalgia for the science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and adventure tales of yore that it has no time or energy left over for what made those horror tales compelling in the first place: wrestling with the fears and desires of the time period, and the different kinds of people — boys and girls, men and women, parents and children, kids and teens and adults — who found themselves struggling with them. Nearly everything difficult about the original works, everything weird, gross, uncomfortable, unexplained, and hidden beneath the surface (“occulted,” to use an evocative lit-studies term) has been stripped away in favor of a lowest-common-denominator pastiche that retains the surface elements but loses the power within.

The series’ biggest obstacle in this regard is structural. Many of the most memorable genre stories of the era Stranger Things is concerned with focus on the emotional journeys of one specific age group of characters. The Monster Squad and Stand By Me, for example, foreground tweenage characters akin to Stranger Things’ Eleven, Mike, Dustin, Lucas, and Will. A Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, as well as most other slashers, stick with teenagers like Nancy, Jonathan, Steve, and dearly departed Barb. And while Poltergeist or Aliens involve children in peril, their primary interest is in the parental, mostly maternal, anxieties and drives of the adults tasked with protecting or rescuing them, roles filled in this case by Joyce and Chief Hopper. Occasionally stories will split the difference: Stephen King’s IT, for example, chronicled the same group of characters as both '50s tweens and '80s adults, while The Goonies wrapped teens and younger kids together in one big hormonal bunch. But they make it work either by instituting a hard space-time separation (IT’s time jump) or deliberately linking the two groups via common coming-of-age concerns (The Goonies sealed the older and younger kids with an accidental kiss between cheerleader Andy and her boyfriend’s younger brother, Mikey).

In each case, the firm focus on a particular phase of human development enables the story to utilize its genre elements — the monster, the murderer, the criminal, the sinister government agency, whatever the case may be — to articulate the unique psychological hang-ups of the group in question. Kids deal with an adult world that cannot understand them when it’s not actively threatening them outright. Teens struggle with sex, the violence to which culture so often ties it, and the lies they’re beginning to realize they’ve been told by their parents. Adults fight their own mortality, manifested in their inability to safeguard the innocent children in their care. The most memorable moments from these stories — Dracula lifting a little girl up by the chin and shouting “You bitch!” at her in The Monster Squad; Johnny Depp getting sucked into his bed and disgorged in the form of a geyser of blood like some hellish wet dream in A Nightmare on Elm Street; Newt collapsing into Ripley’s protective arms and gasping “Mommy!” in Aliens — address these age-specific concerns.

But in order to pay homage to as many different childhood favorites as possible, Stranger Things unwisely splits its emotional focus between three age groups, each of which has its own lead characters who pull their thread of the story forward. Thus, its threatening genre elements — the shadow dimension known as the Upside Down, the plant-faced monster that inhabits it, and the murderous government agents and scientists who unlocked both via experimentation on Eleven — have to be all hidden fears and all shameful desires to all people. Is that creature a representation of predatory grown-ups? Is it a metaphor for the visceral experience of sex? Is it a threat to the safety of the suburban world the adults have struggled to construct? The story forces it to be all three of these things, which makes it pretty lousy at working as any one of them, let alone pulling off the hat trick.

It’s worth noting, also, that in each case Stranger Things distorts its source material in a more masculine direction. Eleven’s final psychic sacrifice to save her male friends reveals that this is their story, not hers; her function is to move them forward as people, not to assert personhood on her own despite being the character whose personhood was most rigorously denied. This shift is embodied in one of her final statements during the story’s climax: “No more.” In Poltergeist, where the phrase is uttered at a comparable point in the narrative, it’s young, traumatized CarolAnne’s heartbreaking declaration of exhaustion and terror when the evil entity that’s been plaguing her for months unexpectedly returns. Here, it’s badass, maaaan — a war cry from a Strong Female Character, who then blows herself up on behalf of some dudes. (The clear implication is that she'll return — Chief Hopper is leaving food out for her in the woods — but the sacrifice is what completes the story arc of the season.)

Nancy, meanwhile, shares her name, her floppy-haired boyfriend, her attempt to draw out an extra-dimensional entity into a booby-trapped home, and even the design of her pajamas with Nancy from A Nightmare on Elm Street. In the end, however, Steve and Jonathan, her two would-be boyfriends, leap in to help save the day. Nancy’s a far cry from the Final Girl survivor type that even the relatively benighted slasher genre featured as a matter of course. An argument could be made that her decision to have sex with Steve going “unpunished” by the monster is a step forward, but it ultimately reads like a pandering smoothing out of the genre’s rough edges. Who gets punished instead, after all? Barb, who reads as a virginal prude but who’s never given the opportunity to assert sexual agency either way. She simply naysays Nancy’s shot at having a lovely evening with a guy she likes. Like Eleven, she’s a sacrificial lamb to advance another character’s narrative, even before she gets killed.

Joyce, perhaps, comes closest to being allowed to remain the center of her own story. Though I’m not nearly as wild about Winona Ryder’s jittery performance as many viewers, her anguish over the loss of her son, Will, is undoubtedly the focus of her story line. But she, too, is undercut by how Stranger Things deploys various narrative contrivances. For one, the obvious faking of Will’s death by the government sucks the air right out of what should be her most emotional and unbearable moments, when she’s forced to confront the idea that he might in fact really be gone forever. For another, while she and Chief Hopper find and rescue Will from the Upside Down, we never see how the hell they get him back out; a mother or mother figure’s emergence from “the other side” with child in tow is a primal, primary image from these sorts of stories, whether we’re talking Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist.

That last film in particular bears special scrutiny, since its plot is the most similar to Joyce’s plight. Like Joyce, Poltergeist’s Diane has lost a child to abduction by an entity from another plane. Like her, she can communicate with that child through manipulation of electronics. Like her, she’s forced to journey to the other side herself to rescue her child. But the character of Diane seethes with generational, gendered, cultural, and sexual subtext that Joyce has been stripped of. Her missing child is a daughter, not a son. Though it’s never stated outright, the age of the character indicates that Diane herself was just a teenager when she became a parent; her own teenage daughter, a child of the age normally associated with poltergeist activity in paranormal literature, is sexually objectified by construction workers to Diane’s bemused delight, and shows up during the climax covered in hickeys (also never mentioned outright). The two primary experts called in to investigate and exorcize the house are older women to whom Diane unmistakably reacts as maternal figures. While her husband has largely eschewed any signs of youthful rebellion — he’s a high-powered real-estate agent who reads about Ronald Reagan for fun — Diane herself is shown laughing it up while smoking weed, hearkening back to her teenage years. The birth imagery of the rescue attempt — a bathtub, a rope used like an umbilical cord, a gooey coating of ectoplasm like the viscous fluids that cover a newborn — is impossible to miss. The Duffer Brothers afford Joyce nowhere near this rich a visual and psychological canvas.

In fact — and here’s where things get subjective, but when it comes to horror that’s a given — nothing in Stranger Things is ever any stranger than the things it’s based on. The monster from the Upside Down is disappointingly pedestrian in its design, simultaneously evoking the Thing, the Predator, the Alien xenomorph, Silent Hill, Pan’s Labyrinth, and internet urban-legend Slenderman while packing the original wallop of none of those things. Barb’s demise, Will’s cocooning and his later incubation of worm-like parasites — they’re nothing you haven’t seen before from Ridley Scott or David Cronenberg. Eleven’s experimental imprisonment and telekinetic lashing out evoke the test subjects of Akira, but never come close to that film’s explosive transformations of the human body, or even its nightmare imagery of gigantic children’s toys come to life. The Upside Down lacks the scale of even One-Eyed Willie’s pirate cove from Goonies, let alone, say, the gory BDSM underworld of Hellraiser or the surrealist slaughter of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Even E.T. has S.T. beat when it comes to menacing government goons in faceless hazmat suits.

The show’s most powerful and unique visual — the reflective black void where Eleven goes during her telepathic travels — isn’t unique at all: It’s straight-up lifted from Jonathan Glazer’s dazzling, brutal horror film Under the Skin. Released in 2013 and seen only by art-house audiences, its popularity is nowhere near the universally beloved genre staples of the Reagan era from which Stranger Things draws pretty much everything else; it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that they saw it, liked it, and knew that most viewers would see it as an innovation. At this point it should go without saying that Under the Skin’s emotional focus is on Scarlett Johansson’s nameless female lead and the toxic cocktail of predatory sexuality she alternately poisons people with and drowns in. To paraphrase writer Emily Yoshida, who nailed Stranger Things’ faults in a single tweet, nothing nearly that morally complex, gross, or female is at work here.

But that’s Stranger Things, in the end: It has the surface trappings of strong, scary work, but there’s nothing strong or scary down deep. It’s the genre-pastiche equivalent of a macaron. It’s engrossing to watch its Alien egg of story unfold over the course of its eight episodes, but in the end, there’s no facehugger inside it.