Eleven ways Stranger Things made the 1980s cool

As the Netflix hit returns to our screens, Benji Wilson pays tribute to its retro charms

Outsider: Millie Bobby Brown leads the Stranger Things cast as the telekinetic Eleven Credit: Netflix

When Stranger Things launched on Netflix in 2016, it became the streaming service’s first must-see event. Suddenly, after the artful aloofness of its earlier hit House of Cards, here was a brilliantly made show that appealed to both teens and their parents.

On paper, it wasn’t obvious. This was a weird sci-fi horror-homage about a group of small-town American kids in 1983 trying to find their missing buddy, while obsessing over role-playing board games. Plus, the Eighties? The epitome of naff! Yet the series went on to inspire spin-off books, stage shows, games, theme park rides and bicycles – and a fevered fanbase. About to return for a fourth and final installment, it’s arguably the streaming service’s flagship title. And inarguable is the fact that, astonishing to many born in the era, it has recast the 1980s as the coolest decade around. Here’s how...

Stranger Things demonstrates that life was better in analogue

The series’s finest achievement has been to remind us that life before the internet and smartphones was more, not less, interesting. Walkie talkies, push bikes and board games are how the kids talk, move and play. And they seem to be getting along just fine (bar the terrifying monsters and the gory deaths). Stranger Things shows the 1980s as a time when people would actually, physically get together, unfettered by constant digital gloom. As children in real life spend more and more time in virtual hangouts or on Zoom, Stranger Things celebrates the simple joy of hanging out (outside) with your mates. 

It lavishes affection on 1980s cinema

Stranger Things is not just a nod to 1980s movies culture, it’s steeped in it – cut it and it bleeds Spielberg. From the Evil Dead poster in a character’s bedroom to the levitating Millennium Falcon and the whole notion of kids banding together and saving the day in the absence of parents (Stand By Me, The Goonies, ET), Stranger Things is a beautifully curated museum to 1980s movies. Icing on the cake? Stranger Things is shot to look like it is a 1980s film. Creators Matt and Ross Duffer added film grain scanned from 1980s film stock onto their digital footage. “Our goal,” cinematographer Tim Ives has said, “was to make this thing feel like something you’d lost and you hadn’t seen in such a long time.”  

David Harbour as Hopper and Winona Ryder as Joyce Credit: Netflix

It reminds us how to do horror properly 

The 1980s was the last decade that really knew how to do horror. Stranger Things, from its title onwards, says that the stuff of real nightmares is the thing you cannot see. It’s a trope that stems from Jaws, Alien, A Nightmare on Elm Street (Robert Englund, who played Freddie Krueger, will appear in the new series) and, particularly, the novels of Stephen King. The show’s famed title font, ITC Benguiat, was even used on umpteen King book covers.  

The geeks are in charge 

Stranger Things’ heroes are not just young, they’re nerds. In the 1980s, US teen drama was a dichotomy of sporty, braying jocks and spotty, insular geeks. It was fairly obvious which of the two were the losers. But since the 1980s, it’s the geeks who have inherited the Earth. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk – these were the guys in garages fiddling with electronics and playing Dungeons & Dragons. Stranger Things shows that they were the cool ones all along. 

We’re all wearing high-waisted denim

In the six years since Stranger Things started on Netflix, 1980s fashions have gone from “fancy dress” to youth wardrobe staple. Minimalism has been replaced on the high street with something you could call fun, and the current trend of high-waisted shorts, loud prints and acres of denim began in Hawkins, Indiana. ST’s influence extends beyond fashion too – D&D has undergone a renaissance and BMX manufacturer Mongoose has re-released its classic 1980s bike.  

It reminds us of the greatness of Winona 

Winona Ryder was the quintessential 1980s elfin beauty. Playing a goth teen in Beetlejuice made her famous, playing a vicious one in Heathers made her a superstar. Ryder had a bit of a rocky time in between, most notoriously when she was caught shoplifting. But now she plays a stressed-out mum in Stranger Things, huge dark eyes in a near constant state of panic, and we’re allowed to fall in love with her all over again, just like we did 30 years ago.   

The designers shun cliché

It’s easy to put 22” box TVs with rabbit-ears aerials everywhere; or give your characters Farrah Fawcett wigs and whack Gary Numan on the soundtrack, but Stranger Things’ production design and aesthetic is much more nuanced. The wardrobe in season one leans more to a late 1970s look – because children in small-town Indiana wouldn’t have been wearing the very latest threads. Likewise, everything from the wood-panelling to the landline phones to the pop culture references are all present but never over-egged. The secret, according to production designer Chris Trujillo? “Fastidious estate-sale pillaging. One dead-man’s junk drawer is another man’s period-perfect set dressing.” 

The soundtrack is the best on TV

According to Spotify, since the series launched listeners have spent more than 23 million hours streaming music related to the show. And why not? With an official soundtrack that includes everything from New Order to Television, it is by some way the best sounding show on television. While synths are very much the watchword, Stranger Things is also a reminder that 1980s radio rock was chock full of bangers. All together now: “I can’t fight this feeling anymooore…” 

Maya Hawke Robin, Joe Keery as Steve, and Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Credit: Netflix

The bad guys are Russians (again)

Things were much simpler when you knew who to be scared of, and in Cold War America and Britain, as well as just about every 1980s film, it was those snide, sneering Russians (think Rocky IV’s Soviet villain Ivan Drago). It’s the same in Stranger Things: series three revealed that it was the Russians – boo, hiss – who had been plotting in an underground lab in Hawkins. By a curious symmetry, Russia is once again not in the world’s good books, with its own resident demogorgon sitting in the Kremlin. 

It’s rehabilitated plenty of other much loved stars

Stranger Things has cast a lot of 1980s cast-offs. In addition to Ryder and Englund, we’ve had Paul Reiser (Aliens, Beverly Hills Cop) as a well-meaning scientist, Sean Astin (The Goonies) as the heroic RadioShack employee Bob Newby, and Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) as the mayor of Hawkins. Not only have these actors given viewers of a certain age a nostalgic buzz, but they’ve also proved that they were underestimated in the first place. 

Eleven

In Millie Bobby Brown, now 18, who has grown up on screen playing the child lead in the show, Stranger Things has unearthed a new star – and one with the elfin features and insouciant cool of Winona herself. Brown, who was 12 when the series began, also plays one of the most brilliant, timelessly iconic characters ever invented. The telekinetic Eleven is named after the mysterious tattoo on her arm, and is a classic outsider figure.


Stranger Things returns to Netflix on May 27