dungeons & dragons & references

Stranger Things 4’s Most Notable Nods to ’80s Pop Culture

You skate me right round, baby, right round, like a record, baby … Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Stranger Things made its name on ’80s pop-culture references and homages to the ’80s movies, TV shows, and books that inspired it, and its fourth season proudly continues that tradition. While the show has over time evolved into something bigger than the sum of its ’80s references, knowing a bit more about the various cinematic, musical, and fashion nods in this 1986-set season makes the whole experience more enriching. You don’t have to recognize every last reference to enjoy the show, but a little context never hurt anyone’s appreciation of anything — and if it leads viewers to, say, discover the music of Kate Bush and want to hear more, all the better. With that in mind, here’s an episode-by-episode guide to the season’s key references, from “Running Up That Hill” to Lite-Brite.

“Chapter One: The Hellfire Club”

“California Dreamin’,” the Beach Boys
As Stranger Things 3 ended, Joyce, Will, Jonathan, and honorary Byers kid Eleven left the seemingly cursed town of Hawkins, Indiana, for parts unknown. Stranger Things 4 reveals parts unknown to be the fictional Lenora Hills, California, a place filled with mean kids, roller rinks, and perpetually stoned pizza-delivery boys. The soundtrack signals that locale none too subtly, with the Beach Boys’ 1986 cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ 1965 hit “California Dreamin’,” a new track included on the 1986 compilation Made in U.S.A. Its video will be extremely familiar to anyone who watched VH1 in the early days, when it started out as an older-skewing companion channel to MTV.

WarGames (1983)
Stranger Things 3’s first episode featured an homage to John Badham’s classic Cold War–and–computers thriller WarGames, specifically its terrifying opening scene, which depicts an incident that brings the world this close to nuclear war. Stranger Things 4 returns to the well with an homage to a different scene. Like Matthew Broderick before him, Dustin (with help from long-distance girlfriend Suzie) uses a computer to change his grades.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Robin and Steve are now employed by Family Video, which gives them access to a lot of cool movies but also some sensitive information. In the closet to everyone but Steve, Robin’s terrified to act on a crush on a fellow classmate, fearing rejection and exposure. But Steve’s more optimistic, noting that Robin’s crush returned Amy Heckerling’s teen classic Fast Times at Ridgemont High with the tape stopped at a moment that famously features, as Steve puts it, “boobies.”

Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” (1985)
Haunted by Billy’s death, Max is going through a hard time as Stranger Things 4 opens. She has trouble communicating with her friends, especially Lucas, but she has found a way to console herself via Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” the first single from her great 1985 album Hounds of Love. Though a much bigger hit in the U.K. than the U.S., the song helped solidify her fandom in the States among cool alternative kids like, well, Max, and its recent surge to the top of the iTunes chart suggests it could win her a whole new generation of fans. For the curious, Hounds of Love is a great starting point, but you really can’t go wrong with any of Bush’s albums. Since scoring her first No. 1 hit in the U.K. at the age of 19 with “Wuthering Heights,” Bush has determinedly done her own thing and expected listeners to follow. Sometimes that means waiting out long hiatuses. She remains active — and even performed her first concerts since the ’70s in 2014 — but hasn’t released an album of new material since 2011.

A senior at Hawkins High, where Mike and the others are mere freshmen, Eddie is the school’s resident Dungeon Master/drug dealer. He’s also a heavy-metal enthusiast, so it’s probably no coincidence that he has the same name as Iron Maiden’s mascot.

Dungeons & Dragons
TSR’s popular role-playing game has been an important part of Stranger Things since its premiere, but changing times have led to it playing a slightly different role this season. The mid-’80s were the height of what’s come to be known as the “satanic panic,” a trend of cultural paranoia that found the influence of devil worshippers in everything from dubious accounts of ritual to heavy-metal music to, you guessed it, Dungeons & Dragons. The Newsweek article Eddie mockingly reads to his fellow D&D enthusiasts seems to have been invented by the show, but the 60 Minutes report another character alludes to is quite real. Fear of D&D predates 1986 — you can see a young Tom Hanks starring in Mazes and Monsters, a 1982 TV movie about a disturbed young man who takes a D&D–like game too far — but it reached a fever pitch in the mid-’80s.

The Hellfire Club
The Eddie-led D&D group the Hellfire Club shares its name with several clubs for high-society libertines dating back to the 18th century, but its more direct inspiration can be traced to the X-Men’s comic-book adventures. Created by writer Chris Claremont and artist John Byrne, that Hellfire Club is a (usually) villainous group first introduced trying to seduce and control Jean Grey in 1980’s classic “Dark Phoenix Saga,” a story with some parallels to Eleven’s journey in this series.

“I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” the Cramps (1980)
“Fever,” the Cramps (1980)
Eddie’s introduction is sandwiched by a pair of menacing songs from the Cramps’ 1980 album Songs the Lord Taught Us. Is “I Was a Teenage Werewolf,” its name taken from a 1957 movie starring Michael Landon, some kind of clue? (Probably not, but it’s a cool song.)

“Play With Me,” Extreme (1989)
“Detroit Rock City,” Kiss (1976)
Stranger Things usually keeps its soundtrack selection era-appropriate, but not always — nitpickers will recall the released-years-later Bangles cover of “Hazy Shade of Winter” that showed up in the 1983-set first season. Now they can also complain about this 1989 cut from the first album by glam-metal favorites Extreme, later to produce the prom-night-favorite ballad “More Than Words.” But while Extreme’s Van Halen–inspired licks couldn’t have actually soundtracked a 1986 D&D session, Kiss’s 1976 “Detroit Rock City” certainly could (and undoubtedly often did).

Freddy Krueger
A cardboard cutout of Freddy Krueger, villain of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, greets customers at Family Video. This is both an era-appropriate bit of set dressing — home video helped turn Freddy into a horror superstar — and a tip of the hat. Vecna, Stranger Things 4’s big bad, resembles a cross between the Cenobites of the Hellraiser series and Krueger (with a touch of the aforementioned Iron Maiden mascot Eddie thrown in the mix as well). Vecna’s hallucinatory approach to claiming his prey is especially indebted to Krueger, but instead of invading his victims’ dreams, Vecna would appear to bring the dreams directly to them. Dustin will even make the connection himself in a future episode. (Look for Nightmare star Robert Englund to show up later in the season, too.)

Chapter Two: Vecna’s Curse

Ocean Pacific
Jonathan’s stoner buddy Argyle is at first excited by Mike’s attire, then disappointed to discover it’s but a knockoff of a brand he loves: Ocean Pacific. The surf-inspired brand had been around for years in 1986 and is still very much in business. But the mid-’80s were high tide for Ocean Pacific, a moment when its OP logo could be seen far from the beaches of either coast, permeating deep into heartland spots like, well, Hawkins, Indiana.

Photo: Tina Rowden/Netflix

Double VHS
Before the arrival of DVDs and streaming, home-video consumers had to make do with videotapes that could hold about two hours’ worth of entertainment before running out of room. For movies of a certain length, double-VHS packages provided a functional, if inelegant, solution, forcing viewers to get up and change the tape mid-movie and sometimes breaking up films at awkward moments. Still, if you wanted to watch Doctor Zhivago, it was either that or wait for a revival screening somewhere.

“You Spin Me Round (Like a Record),” Dead or Alive (1984)
“Rock Me Amadeus,” Falco (1985)
“Tarzan Boy,” Baltimora (1985)
El, Will, and Mike’s roller rink of choice seems to specialize in playing ’80s one-hit wonders. The first transatlantic success to come from Britain’s Stock Aitken Waterman songwriting and production house (soon to send Kylie Minogue, Bananarama, and Rick Astley up the charts), “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” introduced Americans to their top-40-friendly, club-inspired dance pop. After watching the film Amadeus, Austria’s Falco decided to pay tribute with a thumping song about Mozart. With “Tarzan Boy,” Baltimora answered the question of what would happen if an Italian disco producer and actor turned EMT from Northern Ireland teamed up to pay tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s jungle hero. None ever troubled the U.S. Top 40 charts again.

Cheech & Chong
After working together as a stand-up act, recording artists, and movie stars since the early 1970s, the duo of Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong split up in 1985. But they left behind a legacy of stoner-friendly movies like Up in Smoke waiting for each new generation of comedy/cannabis enthusiasts to discover. (Renting them too often, however, risks blowing your cover as a drug dealer, this episode implies.)

Chapter 3: The Monster and the Superhero

Police Academy 3: Back in Training (1986)
The gang’s too busy worrying about El to dwell much on pop culture in this episode. Mike and Will even reject a chance to catch a screening of the third Police Academy. That’s ostensibly because, in Will’s words, “the movie’s supposed to suck,” but it’s easy to imagine them lining up for it anyway in happier times. And, in fact, America did turn out for the film, which found Steve Guttenberg and other Police Academy vets, you guessed it, back in training for some convoluted reason or another. A big hit, it was directed by Jerry Paris, who’s best remembered as Rob and Laura’s next-door neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show and who died just over a week after Police Academy 3’s release. (Also, the movie does suck.)

Chapter 4: Dear Billy

“You have a Tom Cruise poster!”
Nancy’s had a Tom Cruise poster up in her room for a few seasons. While she seems a little embarrassed by it when Robin points it out, dismissing it as “old,” the poster actually puts her just a little ahead of the curve, culturally speaking. Risky Business made Cruise a star in 1983, but, in just a few months, Top Gun would make him a superstar in 1986. Nothing to be embarrassed about here, Nancy.

Speaking of being ahead of the curve, Will has not one but two R.E.M. posters in his room. The college-radio-favorite group wasn’t exactly underground in 1986, the year it released the great Lifes Rich Pageant, but its mainstream breakthrough wouldn’t take place until the following year with the 1987 single “The One I Love.”

“Pass the Dutchie,” Musical Youth (1982)
By contrast, Birmingham, England’s Musical Youth had already experienced its mainstream breakthrough (and peak) by 1984. The pint-size reggae quintet made up of two sets of brothers scored a worldwide smash with this modification of the Mighty Diamonds’ 1981 song “Pass the Kutchie.” “Kutchie” being slang for a cannabis pipe, the original proved controversial and was even banned by the Jamaican government. That didn’t get in the way of its popularity, but you know what was even more popular? A sanitized version sung by children (with a dash of U Brown’s “Gimme the Music”). With the change of “kutchie” to “Dutchie” (slang for a cooking pot) and all nods to pot changed to references to food, the track became a huge hit. But, as Argyle’s fondness suggests, while the altered lyrics might have fooled the general public, stoners got it. (You’ll hear a reprise in episode six.)

Pineapple pizza
Combine ham and pineapple and you have yourself a Hawaiian pizza, right? Only sort of. “Hawaiian” pizza can be traced to Greek-born Canadian pizza restauranteur  Sotirios “Sam” Panopoulos, who drew inspiration from Chinese dishes that mixed fruit and meat. He applied that mixture to pizza in 1962 and it spread from there, making its way into pizza chains across the world in the decades that followed (and dividing pizza enthusiasts ever since).

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Robin and Nancy’s visit to Victor Creel — with its extensive protocols, underground cells, and stone walls — owes a lot to Clarice’s first meeting with Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s classic Thomas Harris adaptation. And yes, that is original Nightmare on Elm Street star Robert Englund as Creel.

Chapter 5: The Nina Project

We get a good look at the back of Eddie’s jean jacket this episode, which reveals him (unsurprisingly) to be a fan of Dio. Formed by leather-voiced singer Ronnie James Dio after he split from Black Sabbath, the band came out of the gate hot with the 1983 classic Holy Diver and remained a favorite of discerning metalheads for years.

Chapter 6: The Dive

John Waters
Suzie’s family home is filled with activity and screaming kids, including a pint-size aspiring filmmaker making a movie while wearing a pencil-thin mustache reminiscent of the kind favored by cult-favorite filmmaker John Waters. It’s a funny, if unlikely, influence to find its way into a family of devout Mormons, especially since Waters wouldn’t make anything resembling a family-friendly movie until Hairspray in 1988.

Suzie’s computer of choice — and the others’ introduction to this strange thing called “the internet” — is the Amiga. Commodore’s successor to the Commodore 64, it first became widely available in early 1986, making Suzie and her family early adopters. Though initially successful, proving competitive with both Apple and IBM’s offerings of the era, it proved unsustainable, particularly after Commodore’s 1994 bankruptcy.

Chapter 7: The Massacre at Hawkins Lab

Once again, an action-filled episode doesn’t allow our heroes to spend a lot of time watching TV or listening to the radio. (Given that songs from Starship and Mr. Mister were topping the charts the week of this season’s action, that might be okay.) A Lite-Brite does play a major role, however, aiding communication with the Upside Down. Introduced by Hasbro in 1967, it’s been a playroom fixture ever since. In the ’80s, Hasbro started offering templates featuring popular characters like G.I. Joe and Strawberry Shortcake. It recently resumed that practice via a special edition devoted to, you guessed it, Stranger Things.

Stranger Things 4’s Most Notable Nods to ’80s Pop Culture