Warning: This post contains spoilers for Stranger Things 2.
It was the 1980s – you kinda had to be there. But thanks to a deep reservoir of references and Easter eggs in the second season of Stranger Things, it’s almost like you were.
Since its first season, Netflix’s spooky series has taken a healthy dose of John Carpenter-style horror (channeling the atmospheric, synth-scored vibes of films like The Thing, The Fog and Starman), added a hearty dollop of Spielbergian, suburban kid adventure (notably E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Poltergeist and The Goonies) and blended it all with the era’s key pop cultural touchstones in gaming, music and fashion. The resulting ’80s flavor never overwhelms the main course of story and character, but makes the meal even tastier.
In Season 2, the series’ creators, Matt and Ross Duffer, zeroed in on 1984 as the backdrop for their latest tale, a high watermark for films and genre entertainment in particular, given that it debuted enduringly popular movies like The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins (a source of loose inspiration for the Demodogs), Ghostbusters and The Terminator — both of which receive direct on-screen nods. “You’re lucky to get one of those movies a year nowadays,” says Ross Duffer. “It was just a phenomenal year for popular Hollywood film.”
“If you’re into that style of storytelling, which we are, it doesn’t really get much better than 1984,” agrees Matt Duffer. “It was fun, and our kids are into pop culture just like we were when we were that age. Like, we dressed up as Ghostbusters when we were kids, so they’re obviously going to really be into Ghostbusters.”
“It was weird sitting around in these jumpsuits,” admits star Finn Wolfhard, whose character Mike dresses up as Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman – as does Caleb McLaughlin’s Lucas. “We’re like, ‘Wow, we really do look like Ghostbusters. This is hilarious.’ That was great. We had so much fun doing that.”
The brothers – who happened to be born in that same seminal year – weren’t shy about sharing their references directly with their cast members, many of whom were born long after the ’80s had passed. But this year, there wasn’t as much homework required of their young stars. “In the first season we did have the kids watch stuff they hadn’t seen, like Stand by Me and stuff that we were inspired by,” says Ross. “But this season, I think they had all watched the big ones by time we got to Season 2.”
“We may have said to watch Gremlins and stuff, but for the most part, we left them alone,” adds Matt. “They know what they are doing at this point. They know the ’80s. They know that world. They know their characters.”
“We wanted them to focus on their acting work, and they did – we’ll take care of the winks and the nods and the references,” concurs executive producer and frequent episode director Shawn Levy, who’s made it his priority to do any heavy lifting necessary to fully realize the Duffers’ hoped-for ’80s iconography. “‘Oh, you want Ghostbusters costumes?’ It’s my job to get Ivan Reitman on the phone and make it happen. You want the Millennium Falcon in Season 1? I gotta get on the phone and make that happen. Whatever they need, that’s my job.” (In fact, Han Solo’s space cruiser makes a return appearance in Kenner toy form in the new season).
Such references abound in Season 2: the arcade is filled with nostalgic nods to classic video games, including Dragon’s Lair, Dig Dug, and Centipede (Even Max’s high-scorer handle, MadMax, refers to the post-apocalyptic hero played by Mel Gibson in the Mad Max movie franchise of the era); television screens display classics of various TV genres like Cheers, Punky Brewster, Family Feud, and All My Children, as well as the VHS version of Mr. Mom, starring a pre-Beetlejuice, pre-Batman Michael Keaton. The very act of renting videos, in fact, is its own brand of throwback now.
There are subtler allusions as well: E.T. is evoked in Eleven’s ghostly Halloween costume, similar to the sheet used to disguise Elliot’s alien pal as his little sister Gert. E.T.’s candy of choice, Reese’s Pieces, is deemed superior to Three Musketeers by everyone but Dustin; and later, Dustin uses a food trail (baloney instead of Reese’s Pieces) to lure Dart.
Flamethrower-armed lab workers prompt memories of similar sequences from The Thing; snowed-out TV screens are reminiscent of Poltergeist; Jonathan and Nancy’s back-and-forth flirtation between their separate rooms recalls Indiana Jones and Willie Scott in Temple of Doom, as does Hopper’s last-minute save of his lost hat. There also a sly aside that summons Adventures in Babysitting; Kali’s cohorts channel just about every street punk gang ever as a staple of ‘80s film, and the season’s Snow Ball conclusion is as John Hughesian as it gets.
More blasts from the past include products (the Walkman; the Atari 2600, Farrah Fawcett Hairspray, and Bob’s coveted JVC VHS camera – the same model as the one owned by Doc Brown in 1985’s Back to the Future), toys (a He-Man action figure, the Hi-Q Hexed), tchotchkes (Reagan/Bush campaign lawn signs) and even slang and movie quotes (“Totally tubular,” “Stay frosty”) which are straight out of the ’80s.
So are many of the Halloween costumes, beyond the Ghostbusters: Max’s trick-or-treating costume, Jason Voohees, is a not-so-veiled reference to one of Carpenter’s classics, Halloween; Steve and Nancy channel Tom Cruise and Rebecca DeMornay from Risky Business, and there are glimpses of other of-the-moment ensembles, including Madonna from her Like a Virgin music video, Jennifer Beals from Flashdance, Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Cobra Kai’s Johhny from The Karate Kid. “There was some talk about what Halloween costumes we would have in 1984,” says Natalia Dyer, who plays Nancy. “It’s just funny to realize like, ‘Oh, that’s what was pop culture then.’ That’s wild!”
Even entire characters were ’80s-derived. The decision to cast lovable, all-grown-up Goonie Sean Astin as Bob Newby is no coincidence (nor was his line about a pirate’s treasure). Ditto Paul Reiser, whose Dr. Owens summons a so-seemingly-trustworthy-he-must-not-be-trustworthy vibe, akin to his character Carter Burke in 1987’s Aliens.
“Certainly Aliens was a movie that we talked about a lot,” admits Levy. “It was a great sequel, and we aspired to be a great sequel. Early on, Paul Reiser was the Duffers’ idea for this character – in fact, the name in the outline was ‘Dr. Reiser!’ We would’ve been completely boned if we didn’t get Paul.”
“He’s a spiritual nephew,” Reiser jokes of his Stranger Things character’s connection to his Aliens role. “I’m sure that was part of it… ‘Well, let’s get the guy who was evil that time, and see what we can do with him this time.’”
Having lived through the ‘80s himself, Reiser was impressed by the Duffers’ dedication to the era: “These guys did their homework. They knew exactly what the ’80s were, and what they needed to do. The weird thing is it didn’t feel that ’80s when you’re doing it… There was nothing that reeked of ’80s. There’s all these very subtle things that give you the ’80s. They did that really well. They were very underplayed with how much they made of the period.”
Dacre Montgomery’s character, Billy, also has some serious ‘80s DNA. Not only does he arrive in Hawkins with a look that’s a hybrid of Rob Lowe in St. Elmo’s Fire, Scott Valentine on Family Ties, and every one of The Lost Boys, with a perfect bully ‘tude — there’s something even more demonic percolating underneath.
“Jack Nicholson in The Shining was a big reference point,” says Montgomery. “I think Jack’s acting style in that role in particular, it’s kind of unpredictable and I think that’s what makes his character so sinister: you don’t know what he’s going to do next and makes bold decisions, and so we try to adhere to that kind of nature.”
And of course, among the most potent tools in the Stranger Things arsenal is its use of era-appropriate music. Country stars Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s 1983 pop crossover hit “Islands In the Stream” gets a major showcase, and a slew of songs that were in heavy radio and MTV rotation back in the day made the soundtrack (along with some that weren’t, like Carl Weathers’ 1981 effort “You Ought to Be With Me”).
If you want to make your own playlist, other classics lined up on the show’s Season 2 discography were Devo’s “Whip It,” Oingo Boingo’s “Just Another Day,” The Romantics’ “Talking In Your Sleep,” Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Ray Parker Jr.’s Ghostbusters theme, Ted Nugent’s “Wango Tango,” Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil,” Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film,” The Clash’s “This Is Radio Clash,” Echo & the Bunnymen’s “Nocturnal Me,” Ratt’s “Round and Round,” Queen’s “Hammer to Fall,” Bon Jovi’s “Runaway,” Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield,” Olivia Newton-John’s “Twist of Fate,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” the crucial Snow Ball slow-dance song by The Police, “Every Breath You Take,” as well as a revival of Will’s totemic song from Season 1, The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
“I love a bunch of that sort of soft-core emo, like The Cure and all that stuff,” says Wolfhard, a musician himself. “There’s a bunch of stuff in the ’80s that’s incredible!”
Don’t you feel old?