The much-celebrated sci-fi hit of the summer, Netflix’s Stranger Things, isn’t so much a paean to '80s pop culture as it is a paean to people who love '80s pop culture. The references are often deliciously unsubtle, with the Duffer brothers going so far as to literally spell them out for us, whether via a character’s name or a poster on a bedroom wall.
Ultimately the major reference that isn't cited below isn’t any one specific detail, but the warmth that permeates the show that feels like both a tribute to John Carpenter, the king of genre movies at the time, and to the instantly recognizable sweetness that suffuses so much of Spielberg’s work.
In an age of smart but occasionally chilly television — think Mr Robot, Bojack Horseman — Stranger Things may be dark in subject matter, but the importance it places on morality and friendship is the most '80s aspect of all.
Here are 15 of the oldschool horror/sci-fi movies Stranger Things references, and in the spirit of the other big nostalgic throwback of this summer – assuming you’ve already glutted yourself in a single binge session – did you catch ‘em all?
Spoiler alert: for the sake of explaining the references fully, there are minor plot spoilers throughout the piece.
Altered States (1980)
Director: Ken Russell
Just as with Altered States’ isolation tank, Eleven uses a sensory deprivation chamber and just as in Altered States, Stranger Things operates under the premise that sensory deprivation stimulates her powers. The most goosebump-inducing part of this parallel is that Altered States isn’t as sci-fi as it might first seem.
The sci-fi/horror film was based on a play which was based on the real experiences of neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who used a salt-water isolation tank after taking hallucinogens to try to understand the nature of consciousness.
The Fog (1980)
Director: John Carpenter
In The Fog, as in Stranger Things, the radio is vital, with the DJ Stevie Wayne inadvertently broadcasting a message that leads to mass terror for the town. While the fog is supernatural, there’s the same man vs. nature vibes you also get in Stranger Things.
And if you still weren’t sure about this connection, then why would toymaker Dan Polydoris have made an action figure for both “some fog” and for just Will Byers’ bike (minus Will Byers)?
Director: David Cronenberg
Cronenberg’s horror movie about people gifted with telekinesis, or "scanners," being recruited by a private security firm as a potentially lethal weapon clearly provided some strong inspiration for the character of Elle. The many moments where Elle uses her powers against armed guards in the series act as visual reference points for much of Scanners as does the fact that Elle is being pursued by government agents, which recalls ConSec’s pursuit of Revok.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Director: Sam Raimi
We get an explicit shoutout to Sam Raimi’s gore masterpiece thanks to a poster in Jonathan’s room — when Lonni returns to use Will’s disappearance for his own financial gain in the fifth episode, he snaps at his son Jonathan to take the poster hanging in his bedroom down, calling it “inappropriate.” Just like Stranger Things, in which the woods are notably dangerous territory for the kids, the woods of The Evil Dead are full of ominous influences for the five college students.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Director: Steven Spielberg
Probably the show’s most obvious point of reference, the number of parallels between ST and ET are staggering. Otherworldly creature concealed in suburban family home by the kids? Check. Children zipping about on bikes? Yep. Makeover scene? Obviously. Overwhelmed single mom, perhaps explaining why a group of kids is able to conceal otherworldly creature without anyone noticing? Yes.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Things get a little meta with this reference, with a flashback showing Joyce surprising Will with tickets to see Poltergeist, which she’d formerly told him would be too scary for him to watch. So, if Will’s seen the film, his exile to a dimension which is linked to the walls of a house would feel eerily similar. But even more intriguingly, did you know that Steven Spielberg actually wrote and produced this movie? However, he was bound by a clause in his contract to prevent him from directing another movie while he made E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, hence why Tobe Hooper ended up directing.
This makes sense when you compare ET and Poltergeist, with Poltergeist effectively just reenacting many of the themes of ET, albeit in a much darker way. There’s the suburban home setting, the importance of the television, and the children who first notice supernatural things are afoot while the parents are oblivious.
The Thing (1982)
Director: John Carpenter
Both The Thing and Hellraiser were namechecked as references by the Stranger Things creators, the Duffer brothers, who said: “The movies that we grew up with, like Hellraiser, The Thing, and Alien, it’s hard to gauge this stuff because we're now adults and not kids, but nothing scares us as much as those things do. So we wanted to go back to that feeling. It was kind of like a childhood dream come true to get to build a monster.”
We’re not just tipped off to the parallels by the second word in the series’ title, but by Mike having a poster for the John Carpenter film on his wall. Just in case you’d missed that, the Duffers drive the point home by having the kids’ science teacher be at home, watching the movie one weekend when they call him for instructions on how to build a sensory deprivation chamber for Eleven.
Director: David Cronenberg
So, maybe the parallels between Stranger Things and this Cronenberg film aren’t immediately apparent. But they’re striking in two key ways. Firstly, and most obviously, when Will and his mother communicate across dimensions in episode two, the walls stretch in a way that’s painfully close to the way the television does in Videodrome. And secondly because of the way the series is soundtracked – with an '80s synth that’s clearly influenced by Videodrome.
Director: Mark L. Lester
Because obviously: who’s more like Eleven in the '80s film canon than the protagonist of Firestarter – Charlie, a girl who develops pyrokinesis and who gets abducted by a shadowy government agency, The Shop, who tries to control her powers?
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Director: Wes Craven
The obvious parallel here is found in the final episode of Stranger Things, when Nancy and Jonathan team up to try to finally vanquish the “demogorgon.” Their plan? Luring the monster back into a house filled with booby traps before setting it on fire, just as in Nightmare. The other nod to Elm Street can be found in the way the creature stretches the wall, which echoes the Elm Street remake (2010), in which the wall also seems to expand.
The Goonies (1985)
Director: Richard Donner
A bunch of adorkable kids banding together for a common goal? Sure, the outsiders of The Goonies were chasing treasure rather than a missing friend, but the general theme the friendship groups give off is eerily similar. Bonus points if you noticed, as the Guardian has, that Barb bore an uncanny resemblance to Stef from The Goonies. And obviously there’s yet another Steven Spielberg connection, with Spielberg serving as producer on the movie.
Director: Joe Dante
This adventure film marked both Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix’s movie debuts, with the pair starring as friends Ben Crandall and Wolfgang Muller, who along with their third friend, Darren Woods (Jason Presson) put together a working spaceship. While the boys’ dreams of space and aliens are pure fantasy compared to the darker and realer weirdness of Stranger Things, the fact that the movie appeals perfectly to both adults and kids marks it as occupying the same flexible territory as the Netflix series.
Stand By Me (1986)
Director: Rob Reiner
During auditions for the four main boys in Stranger Things, the Duffer brothers asked the would-be stars to cite lines from Stand By Me, and no wonder — just as with the '80s classic, Stranger Things puts child actors in its lead roles. And Stand By Me protagonist Gordie Lachance is as big a fan of the show as Stranger Things is of him.
The Wrap quotes him calling the series, "one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced in my life as an audience member.” Just as with Stranger Things, the boys are united in a quest, starting off the movie hunting for a stranger’s dead body. As you do.
Director: John McTiernan
There’s the fact that Chief Jim Hopper shares the same name with Captain Jim Hopper of Predator, who was the commander of the U.S. Army special forces Green Beret Unit, which alerts the viewer to keep an eye out for further parallels. But honestly, the most obvious parallels are between the aliens of Predator and the monster, which move in a similar way and both make the same creepy click-click-click as they approach.
Director: Clive Barker
Just like in Stranger Things, a character inadvertently opens the door to another dimension, and the Duffer Brothers have cited Hellraiser as an influence on their creation of the monster. While this isn’t totally obvious, since their creature is far closer to animal than man like Pinhead, the otherworldly evil vibes are definitely present in Stranger Things.
Perhaps the beauty of the Stranger Things tributes is how seamlessly they’ve woven these references into the fabric of the show. If, like this writer, you managed to miss a few of the above while watching first time round, this is testimony to the fact that these influences aren’t used in a gimmick-y, wink-like way, but are employed far more organically, so you don’t stop to question where something was from: the strangest thing about Stranger Things is how the first-time-around a lot of their tips of the hat to other movies and cinematic cliches feel.
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