The Essence of 80s and 90s Nostalgia in Stranger Things

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The show that launched a thousand Halloween costumes — Stranger Things. Pretty much every 20-something with a borrowed Netflix password is losing their mind over Stranger Things: Season 2. But why is everyone obsessed with a show that’s basically “The Goonies meet Fox Mulder?” Some may pin it on Nostalgia. However, I argue it has a lot more to do with toys. Whether its kids becoming the rulers of a nation by engaging in literal warfare or an animated baby in a suit doing espionage. TV and movies about powerful children tend to “age them up” in order to demonstrate their abilities rather than taking seriously the potential of childhood. Childhood is either something to be overcome or just comic juxtaposition against their adult roles. What makes Stranger Things unique is that kids win by being kids rather than by growing up or pretending to be adults. By paying attention to the ways Stranger Things inverts that convention and shows the inherent power of children, we can perhaps better understand why the series resonates so much for millennials. Being a kid (at heart) doesn’t mean you’re regressing, it means being a total badass.

Stranger Things takes place in a small town in rural Indiana during the early ’80s where a young girl, named “Eleven,” was kidnaped for a government-funded experiment that uses her psychic powers to spy on the Soviets while simultaneously summoning a demon hell beast from another dimension. The beast attacks a boy named Will and brings him back to its home dimension — a mirror dimension of our own except that it is cold, dark, and void of any real living thing except the beast itself. Will’s three best friends– Dustin, Lucas, and Mike — set out on a quest to find him. Eleven escapes the government facility and joins the rescues trio to help find Will.

’80s and 90’s kid nostalgia certainly helped give rise to the popularity of the show. But that nostalgis extends far beyond the reach of Netflix. We also see a certain longing for the past in the current millennial obsession with toys. The insane popularity of Funko Pop figurines, “Hoverboards,” and subscription boxes willed with everything from Star Wars pillows to Batman- ramen bowls, is evident of that obsession. Toys, as a symbol, express lightheartedness and innocence, but they are also an important means for rationals and emotional connections. Toddles learn about the world through their toys; children use toys to share (or fight) with friends and to act out possibilities of the future. Despite this, many popular depictions of toys trivialize their role, label them as immature, and their popularity has given rise to dozens of shitty think-pieces on how “Millenials need to grow up.” Stranger Things takes toys seriously. They are not only an essential part of the storyline; they are the foundation on which the rest of the story is built. The quintessential example of this is the way that the language of Dungeons and Dragons is used to make sense of events both for our plucky gang of four and the viewers themselves. 

We first meet the boys in Episode 1, they’re in Mike’s basement playing D&D; The “demogorgon” monster is first shown as a figurine in their campaign and so when they meet the interdimensional monster, later on, they talk about it in the terms of a monster they are familiar with. The same is true of the alternate dimension the monster hails from. As Eleven tries to explain what this place is, nobody understands until she takes the campaign board and flips it upside down to represent an alternate and parallel side to our own reality. Since those concepts are fundamental to making sense of the paranormal elements in the boys’ lives, they are also fundamental to the viewer. We really have no way to understand or express “the upside-down” or “the demogorgon” except through the language of D&D; that board and that figurine shape the mythology for the entire series.

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