Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Cultural History of Stranger Things [Contributor: Melanie]

One thing is for sure: Netflix is proving it is ready to give network and cable television a serious run for its money. Stranger Things is everyone’s new golden child of the Netflix original series pool thanks to its well-conceived plot, touching characters, and heaps upon heaps of narrative, tone, and content homages to entertainment media of our past and sci-fi tropes. Instead of telling you how amazing the show is and convincing you that you really should watch it (because you should), I’ve prepared a cultural literacy cheat sheet for those of you jumping on this bandwagon. Below is a list of various entertainment goodies from which Stranger Things mined its addictive content (with a special bonus section at the bottom). Of course, this list contains spoilers for Stranger Things, be forewarned:


This show is the peak (ha) of all paranormal TV. Easily the most influential show of the last 30 years, it set a precedent for how you could tell a story on TV and what kind of stories you can tell. This show ran from 1990 to 1991 and featured one of the most cryptic and otherworldly mysteries ever presented on TV: a local girl turns up dead, her body wrapped in plastic, and the FBI agent called in to investigate finds the town is far more sinister and supernatural than he thought.

Though Stranger Things doesn’t exactly borrow from Twin Peaks’ pool of riddles, prophecies, and subliminal messaging, it’s impossible not to mention the effect this show still has (which is even more fascinating considering we don’t even watch our TV on TV anymore). If you’re looking to fill your Stranger Things gap, Twin Peaks is an excellent show to fill your desire for some weird paranormal stories. And it’s a general rule of thumb at this point that you should be versed in David Lynch’s crazy world.


This one everybody knows. If there’s one show that defined the '90s, it was this one. Drawing on its own inspirations from the works of Alfred Hitchcock and the classic series The Twilight Zone, this speculative fiction, sci-fi, horror series ran for nine years between 1993 and 2002. It followed the exploits of two FBI special agents who take on hush-hush cases involving paranormal events, often times dealing with extraterrestrial encounters. The X-Files is responsible for the creation of several other shows about weird happenings including Fringe, Dark Skies, and Gravity Falls.

What Stranger Things borrows here is a general tone: “the truth is out there,” it’s dangerous, and the government wants to hide it from you. There are a couple more little bits here and there: the skeptic and the believer, the tragic backstory of the tough love officer, and so on.


This entire show could have been one, long episode of The Outer Limits. This show goes all the way back to 1963, running until 1965, and experienced a revival from 1995 to 2000. In short: it’s The Twilight Zone for sci-fi. Instead of following strange hauntings or unexplained mysteries, Outer Limits dealt specifically with science fiction based mysteries that often featured twist endings. The show’s anthology format occasionally broke tradition and featured connected story lines and this one would have been right at home in any season of the show.


Early in the show. we get a glimpse of the strange, ashen world that the characters refer to as the Upside Down. Visually, and perhaps even functionally, this place instantly recalls the imagery of the parallel world Rose and Sharon find themselves trapped in in the film adaptation of Silent Hill. It’s a gray, misty, and lifeless version of our own and appears like a depressing echo.

A second allusion could likely be made with Insidious and its mythology of the Further, a similarly bleak world sitting right on top of our own.


By this I really mean anything and everything Steven Spielberg touched in the 1980s. This show is positively teeming with Spielberg’s contributions to '80s cinema, but none are more appropriate than this classic, executive produced by Spielberg (though E.T. was a close second). The reason I went with this is for the politics of childhood games and friend groups. One of the key elements of Stranger Things is the interactions between school kids, from friendships to rivalries to bullies. Spielberg didn’t invent this, but he set a real tone for it with his movies and The Goonies is the usual go-to when talking about a rag tag group of friends on an adventure.

The Goonies (and the things it inspired such as Stranger Things and Super 8) kind of act like an '80s upgrade of the Scooby gang: less put together, a little more moral ambiguity, with uncensored, obvious romantic tension. Stranger Things has that on lock.


This one was actually almost mentioned by name. At least its author, Stephen King, did come up for a hot second when Eleven’s strange powers were discussed, a clear reference to Carrie. This 1974 novel was King’s debut work and still one of his most famous contributions to horror fiction. It involves an antisocial young woman, the victim of at-home neglect, who finds herself at the mercy of her own telekinetic powers.

Sounds a lot like Eleven, right? The differences are plenty though. For one, Carrie’s powers were limited to telekinesis while Eleven’s are unexplained and seemingly Professor X level. Further, Eleven has the group of friends Carrie never had, so rather than ending the story in a reign of terror, Eleven sacrifices herself to protect Mike. But Eleven’s capabilities and just out of reach dark side are extremely King-y.

Ultimately, everything’s inspired by everything. We could go back farther and look at the Hitchcock and Lovecraft works that inspired even these above pieces of media, but we have to draw the line somewhere.


As this is in fact science fiction, science is mentioned but, like most things, the fiction is the stronger of those two forces. The show does make vague references to astral projection and telekinetic abilities, but one of the actual scientific tenets it does mention is Hugh Everett’s many-world interpretation of quantum mechanics. It sounds complicated, right? Well it is, but can be very rudimentarily summed up like this: say you’re deciding on whether or not to go to Applebee’s or that new Thai place for dinner tonight and you can’t quite make up your mind. Eventually you come to the decision to not love yourself and break your chain-restaurant addiction and go with Applebee’s. Story’s over, right? Wrong. Somewhere out there, there exists a universe where you went to the Thai restaurant. There also exists a universe where you did make the football team, did get into NYU, and weren’t pulled over for that speeding ticket. Any and all possible outcomes to a set of choices exist somewhere in the universe. This isn’t a universally accepted interpretation, but it does solve several perspective issues in quantum theory involved in the Schrodinger’s cat paradox.

Crazy, right?

The show doesn’t really explore that though. It uses the scientific possibility for a parallel world as a springboard to introduce us to the Centralia-esque world of the Upside Down. But, for the five seconds it was mentioned, it was pretty cool. Perhaps in future seasons we’ll get to see more focus on the quantum mechanics these parallel worlds as the last scene made it clear the Upside Down is not as closed off as one might think.

If you haven’t watched Stranger Things yet and aren’t bothered by me totally spoiling everything for you, go watch it. If you have watched it, then you probably already know everything I just told you. Or, maybe you watched it on a whim after seeing the hashtag and now you have a plethora of other things to fill your newly developing sci-fi/weird fiction addiction.


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